Kibera, Kenya – Last Saturday in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, local artists organised a community-wide celebration of ethnic diversity.
Situated on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi, the neighbourhood which is home to an estimated 250,000 people, has been prone to election violence in the past.
And on the eve of the hotly anticipated August 9 polls in Kenya, its artists say they came together to encourage peace and respect between different communities in the area this time.
“Kibera is like a small version of Kenya, because we have almost all the tribes living here,” Francis Omondi, a visual artist for a Kenyan nonprofit called Art360 Kibera, which organised Saturday’s event, told Al Jazeera. “We are usually together until election time comes, and then people start to get divided according to their tribe, religion, and social class.”
The event was part of a series of peace initiatives happening across the city on the weekend before Tuesday’s elections – the seventh in the East African country since the return of multiparty politics in 1992.
In December 2007, then-President Mwai Kibaki was announced as the winner of the presidential election, ahead of Raila Odinga, who was widely believed to have won. More than 1,200 Kenyans were reported killed and over 300,000 people displaced, according to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Kibera was one of the hotspots in that violent episode.
Odinga, who went on to become prime minister in the coalition government after the crisis, also contested the 2013 and 2017 polls, which again witnessed violence but on a smaller scale.
He is once again a leading presidential candidate in Tuesday’s vote, this time squaring up against Deputy President William Ruto.
Messages of peace
On Sunday, at the Kenya International Conference Centre, a youth peace festival organised by the country’s National Youth Council (NYC) began with prayers against violence and ended with a concert.
Musicians like gospel superstar Size 8, rapper Kaligraph Jones, singers Wyre, Mercy Masika, Trio-Mio and Chimano of the famous boy band Sauti Sol, performed and urged the youth to keep the peace.
Also present was Stephen Jackson, the UN resident coordinator, Kenya, who spoke of “a need to have peace defenders and equally protect them this electioneering period and beyond”.
“We know what happened in previous elections in this country and we as young people cannot go back to where come from,” said Esha Mohammed, a director of the NYC and founder of Her Narrative, an advocacy group against gender-based violence.
“We cannot allow ourselves to be in that situation [again] … and we at NYC have decided to have this prayer day and the concert just to remind ourselves as young people, on the importance of peace promotion,” she said.
In an adjacent wing of the KICC, clergymen of various denominations gathered to pray for peace – and the success of Odinga, one of the two leading presidential candidates.
In Kibera, it was art that shone through.
Before the event, the community’s artists volunteered their time to make outfits and masks representing the traditional clothing of over 20 of Kenya’s major ethnic groups. Local models wore the outfits as they performed dance numbers, sang songs, and posed for photo shoots.
Actors also worked together to narrate a theatrical story about the unity of Kenya’s tribes. Altogether, nearly 100 children showed up to the event, most of them sporting face paint provided by Art360 Kibera.
“We paint the kids’ faces with messages of peace and the flag of Kenya,” Omondi told Al Jazeera. “We hope that when they go home to their parents, they spread the message and remind people to take the initiative of peace into their own hands.”
He and the other artists self-funded the event, using second-hand clothes and repurposing scrap objects to keep costs low. “We want to encourage people to use their creativity with what they use for materials,” he said.
Omondi is nervous about the days immediately after the election since his art studio is in a part of Kibera that is particularly vulnerable to violence. This celebration was a way to do something positive in a situation of uncertainty, he said.
“As artists, we felt it was our duty to use our voice to tell the people to shun tribal politics,” said Omondi. “This is a time when we are embracing the culture of one another and celebrating our diversity. The initiative we are starting in Kibera is something that we hope will be replicated all over the country.”
‘Soccer matters today’
Residents of Kibera also partnered with County Governance Watch, a Kenyan nonprofit that encourages civic participation, to organise a football tournament.
“Soccer matters today because it has brought together players who come from different worlds and different villages,” said Owino Kotieno, who helped create the tournament. “They belong to different camps. There are people who support Raila and there are people who support Ruto but they are all playing soccer together.”
Kotieno will also be serving as one of Kibera’s election observers on behalf of County Governance Watch, reporting to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which oversees the Kenyan election process.
But he is also looking to the future, given the violence of the past.
“We must have the experience, skills, and expertise to manage conflict just in case anything happens,” said Kotieno. “The community must be in a better position to transform that conflict into constructive conversation.”
Rapudo Hawi, programmes manager at County Governance Watch, is hopeful that these kinds of positive social events will make a difference.
“This is our way of looking at election preparedness, by engaging citizens in dialogue through soccer tournaments, sporting events, and many other forums,” he said.
Despite the positive atmosphere at the weekend, the election remains a nerve-racking time for many, especially those who remember the post-electoral violence in 2007.
“I was very young, but I witnessed everything in 2007,” said Paul Odhiambo, a Kibera resident and teacher who attended the cultural celebration on Saturday. “Kibera is prone to violence because of the challenges people go through here.”
In previous years, political leaders would encourage their supporters to protest against election results, which Odhiambo said caused tension. He hopes this time will be different.
“We all remember the past, and nobody wants to go back there,” said Odhiambo. “We are tired of the incitements by the politicians.”