Boniface Mwangi, Kenyan activist and political hopeful, visits Colby

In 2007, Boniface Mwangi was a young photojournalist on the front lines of election violence after the presidential elections in Kenya. His photos were circulated worldwide, covering the front pages of the New York Times and The Washington Post. His experience documenting the violence during those two months exposed him to the systemic corruption and incompetent politicians that fill Kenya’s government.

Mwangi decided to transition from photography to activism, beginning with protesting President Kibaki in 2009 at a state celebration. This shift from journalist to activist is something he addresses in his TED Talk, “The Day I Stood up Alone”, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. He started to collaborate with other prominent Kenyans, and founded Pawa 254, a collaborative workspace and collective for artists, performers and activists.

Mwangi is active on social media platforms as well; he has 893,000 Twitter followers, and 292,000 likes on Facebook. Mwangi decided to attempt reform from within the system by forming and running the Ukweli Party and running for a Parliament seat in the 2017 elections in the Starehe constituency. 11 other people ran for office from the Ukweli Party. Although none won, he is confident about their chances in the 2022. Mwangi is also a Senior Fellow at TED, and travels around the world for his leadership in activism.

Mwangi made the trek up to Colby on Oct. 28 to give a talk about his experience as an activist. While on campus, he enjoyed meals with students and spoke in two of Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay’s classes; Introduction to African Politics and Politics of African Development. Eric Carlson ’18, a student in Seay’s Introduction to African Politics class, told the Echo “Having Boniface speak to our class about the issues Kenya is facing today was a great experience because we were able to ask him questions that couldn’t be answered in a textbook.”

Mwangi’s visit coincided with the announcement of Kenya’s presidential election.

Professor Seay told the Echo “Boniface Mwangi is one of the most widely-known and admired young leaders on the African continent today. His challenges to the norms of Kenyan politics, from fighting against corruption and in favor of more transparency to taking a stand against sexual assault, have made him a hero to most young Kenyans. I expect that as the country’s young population comes of age, we’ll see him rise to the highest levels of political leadership.”

Mwangi discussed the role of the United States in development and the often problematic role that NGOs play, telling the Politics of African Development course that “America cannot be the moral police of the world. They lost that position a long time ago.” He also discussed how America is viewed throughout the rest of the world following Trump’s election, saying “Trump’s election was a whitelash.”

Mwangi’s style of activism is deliberately visually arresting; he has used bloody pigs, coffins, and has dressed in a mini skirt to protest the actions of the corrupt Kenyan government. He believes that photos are a powerful medium, saying  “something about photography, which is one of the most powerful tools, even in the age of Photoshop, is that you don’t need to be educated to understand pictures, you don’t need to have context to understand pictures, once you see images, they speak to you.” 

During his talk to students and faculty in the Diamond building, he shared his life journey and his path to his current career. Mwangi described his interest in both activism and photojournalism emerging as a high school student. When he noticed that the boarding school he was attending was engaging in problematic behaviors so he ran away from home and reported it to the local authorities, but was told he needed proof in order for something to change. His mother made significant financial sacrifices to get him a camera, which he then used to take photographic evidence to turn back over to the ministry. Instead of taking action with the proof, who decided to expel Mwangi from the school. This was the end of Mwangi’s formal schooling, but also the inspiration for both of his careers. He said that it was difficult for him to move on like the rest of Kenya after seeing the post election violence, and he was pushed into activism because of this.

Mwangi’s talk ended on a relatable note for Colby students; he challenged them to see what they can do in their local community to enact change, and advised that in order to do so, they have to love and accept themselves. Mwangi recomended to the African Development course students ,“Let’s not overthink world problems. They’re too hard to solve.” Change begins at the grassroots level, in one’s own community.

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