People back home call me a heckler, a troublemaker, an irritant, a rebel, an activist, the voice of the people. But that wasn't always me.
Growing up, I had a nickname. They used to call me Softy, meaning the soft, harmless boy. Like every other human being, I avoided trouble. In my childhood, they taught me silence. Don't argue, do as you're told. In Sunday school, they taught me don't confront, don't argue, even if you're right, turn the other cheek.
This was reinforced by the political climate of the time. (Laughter) Kenya is a country where you are guilty until proven rich. (Laughter) Kenya's poor are five times more likely to be shot dead by the police who are meant to protect them than by criminals. This was reinforced by the political climate of the day. We had a president, Moi, who was a dictator. He ruled the country with an iron fist, and anyone who dared question his authority was arrested, tortured, jailed or even killed. That meant that people were taught to be smart cowards, stay out of trouble. Being a coward was not an insult. Being a coward was a compliment. We used to be told that a coward goes home to his mother. What that meant: that if you stayed out of trouble you're going to stay alive.
I used to question this advice, and eight years ago we had an election in Kenya, and the results were violently disputed. What followed that election was terrible violence, rape, and the killing of over 1,000 people. My work was to document the violence. As a photographer, I took thousands of images, and after two months, the two politicians came together, had a cup of tea, signed a peace agreement, and the country moved on.
I was a very disturbed man because I saw the violence firsthand. I saw the killings. I saw the displacement. I met women who had been raped, and it disturbed me, but the country never spoke about it. We pretended. We all became smart cowards. We decided to stay out of trouble and not talk about it.
Ten months later, I quit my job. I said I could not stand it anymore. After quitting my job, I decided to organize my friends to speak about the violence in the country, to speak about the state of the nation, and June 1, 2009 was the day that we were meant to go to the stadium and try and get the president's attention. It's a national holiday, it's broadcast across the country, and I showed up at the stadium. My friends did not show up. I found myself alone, and I didn't know what to do. I was scared, but I knew very well that that particular day, I had to make a decision. Was I able to live as a coward, like everyone else, or was I going to make a stand? And when the president stood up to speak, I found myself on my feet shouting at the president, telling him to remember the post-election violence victims, to stop the corruption. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the police pounced on me like hungry lions. They held my mouth and dragged me out of the stadium, where they thoroughly beat me up and locked me up in jail. I spent that night in a cold cement floor in the jail, and that got me thinking. What was making me feel this way? My friends and family thought I was crazy because of what I did, and the images that I took were disturbing my life. The images that I took were just a number to many Kenyans. Most Kenyans did not see the violence. It was a story to them.
And so I decided to actually start a street exhibition to show the images of the violence across the country and get people talking about it. We traveled the country and showed the images, and this was a journey that has started me to the activist path, where I decided to become silent no more, to talk about those things. We traveled, and our general site from our street exhibit became for political graffiti about the situation in the country, talking about corruption, bad leadership. We have even done symbolic burials. We have delivered live pigs to Kenya's parliament as a symbol of our politicians' greed. It has been done in Uganda and other countries, and what is most powerful is that the images have been picked by the media and amplified across the country, across the continent.
Where I used to stand up alone seven years ago, now I belong to a community of many people who stand up with me. I am no longer alone when I stand up to speak about these things. I belong to a group of young people who are passionate about the country, who want to bring about change, and they're no longer afraid, and they're no longer smart cowards. So that was my story. That day in the stadium, I stood up as a smart coward. By that one action, I said goodbye to the 24 years living as a coward.
There are two most powerful days in your life: the day you're born, and the day you discover why. That day standing up in that stadium shouting at the President, I discovered why I was truly born, that I would no longer be silent in the face of injustice. Do you know why you were born? Thank you. (Applause)
Tom Rielly: It's an amazing story. I just want to ask you a couple quick questions. So PAWA254: you've created a studio, a place where young people can go and harness the power of digital media to do some of this action. What's happening now with PAWA?
Boniface Mwangi: So we have this community of filmmakers, graffiti artists, musicians, and when there's an issue in the country, we come together, we brainstorm, and take up on that issue. So our most powerful tool is art, because we live in a very busy world where people are so busy in their life, and they don't have time to read. So we package our activism and we package our message in art. So from the music, the graffiti, the art, that's what we do. Can I say one more thing?
TR: Yeah, of course. (Applause)
BM: In spite of being arrested, beaten up, threatened, the moment I discovered my voice, that I could actually stand up for what I really believed in, I'm no longer afraid. I used to be called softy, but I'm no longer softy, because I discovered who I really am, as in, that's what I want to do, and there's such beauty in doing that. There's nothing as powerful as that, knowing that I'm meant to do this, because you don't get scared, you just continue living your life.