NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 27 – Perched on a rickety ladder, 10-year-old Harriet daubs a message on a wall in the sprawling Kibera slum of Nairobi ahead of elections next week, the first since post-poll violence five years ago.
“Good security”, the painted message appeals, one of a series scrawled on the crowded shanty town, all part of a campaign to encourage peace.
“You shouldn’t burn houses”, “We shouldn’t be tribalistic”, and “People should be united”, say other messages.
Five years ago Kenya erupted into its worst violence since independence following the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, from the Kikuyu ethnic group.
For the Luo people, led by Kibaki’s main rival Raila Odinga who was pipped to the post in the 2007 polls, the victory was stolen.
Across Kenya, over 1,100 people were killed and some 600,000 were driven from their homes in bloody ethnic conflict that shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of regional stability.
Kibera was the scene of some of the worst violence.
Evans Kamau, 28, a graffiti artist who oversees Harriet and her friends, remembers the violence vividly.
“I went out and saw houses burning, people shouting ‘Kikuyu must go’”, he said.
Wounded in the head with a machete, he fled the slum, but has since returned and is now working to encourage peace in the upcoming March 4 elections.
“We decided to use children because during the last election kids were the most affected,” Kamua said. “They can pass the message to their parents, to elders.”
Children have painted allegorical images supported by New York artist Joel Bergner and Kenyan colleagues — including Kamau — with politicians portrayed as greedy animals pushing the people towards an abyss.
In a similar style, the graffiti team even painted the crowded train that crosses twice daily through Kibera on the railway line that links Nairobi to the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast.
— ‘Peace Wanted Alive’–
In Kibera, the walls of tin-shack homes are also daubed with the slogan “Peace Wanted Alive”, a campaign launched by graffiti artists Solo7, one of multiple peace initiatives being run ahead of Monday’s polls.
Across Kenya, concerts, marches and prayers have been held, with more planned right up to polling day.
Last Sunday, six presidential candidates took to a stage together to hold hands and pledge an oath of peace together at a peace and prayer rally held in a central Nairobi park watched by thousands of Kenyans.
Those at the rally included the two top presidential candidates, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. The latter faces trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in the 2007-8 violence.
For Mzalendo Kibunjia, president of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, these initiatives “are bearing fruit”.
“Kenyans don’t know what peaceful elections look like”, he said, noting that violence has broken out around almost every election Kenya has held.
“This is 50 years since independence, we want a fresh beginning for the next 50 years…I’m telling Kenyans: give yourself a gift,” he added.
Kibunjia says that he still expects isolated incidents of violence in some areas, with Kenyans not only voting for the presidency, but also for members of parliament, governors, senators and local councillors.
He also recognises that Kenya has not yet rid itself of “ghosts from the past” — especially as the political class is not always interested in tackling issues such as land redistribution, tribalism, or wounds of most recent violence.
“We have not addressed our dark past,” he added. “We know we haven’t reconciled our country.”
But strengthened institutions, tracking systems to monitor hate speech, politicians acting more “responsibly” and the still-fresh memories of violence last time have all helped reduce the risk of conflict, he added.
“All the peace initiatives are very good,” said Constansia Mumma-Martinon, political science lecturer at Nairobi university.
At the same time, she questioned how far Kenyans would be willing to keep the peace, and to what extent they are ready to accept defeat.
Even if elections are calm this time, she warns, until Kenyan tackles its old demons, it will remain an “unstable peace”.