Kenya's Graffiti Train Seeks To Promote A Peaceful Election

  • Kenyan graffiti artists received permission from the Rift Valley Railway to spray-paint a 10-car commuter train with messages of peace. Here, true to his name, Swift9 finishes his piece before anyone else: a portrait of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.
    Hide caption
    Kenyan graffiti artists received permission from the Rift Valley Railway to spray-paint a 10-car commuter train with messages of peace. Here, true to his name, Swift9 finishes his piece before anyone else: a portrait of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • 27-year-old Uhuru B has been a graffiti artist for 12 years. "What we're doing here now is part of a civic education, and also a way to advertise peace," he says.
    Hide caption
    27-year-old Uhuru B has been a graffiti artist for 12 years. "What we're doing here now is part of a civic education, and also a way to advertise peace," he says.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • WiseTwo, 26, steps back to look before adding finishing touches. "Where this train is going," he says, "a lot of people won't know who Martin Luther King is."
    Hide caption
    WiseTwo, 26, steps back to look before adding finishing touches. "Where this train is going," he says, "a lot of people won't know who Martin Luther King is."
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • Kids from the Kibera slum have spent the week spray-painting murals and performing poetry as part of Kibera Walls for Peace, a not-for-profit project to promote inter-ethnic unity.
    Hide caption
    Kids from the Kibera slum have spent the week spray-painting murals and performing poetry as part of Kibera Walls for Peace, a not-for-profit project to promote inter-ethnic unity.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • "Tuwache Ubaguzi" is part of a longer phrase written across the 10-car train, quoting the first line of a poem composed by a 13-year-old girl from Kibera. The full text translates to "Down with tribalism, down with discrimination, let's live in peace."
    Hide caption
    "Tuwache Ubaguzi" is part of a longer phrase written across the 10-car train, quoting the first line of a poem composed by a 13-year-old girl from Kibera. The full text translates to "Down with tribalism, down with discrimination, let's live in peace."
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • Stephen Onyango Owino paints the train with the help of kids from "Kibera Hamlets," a group that works with orphans and underprivileged kids in the Kibera slum.
    Hide caption
    Stephen Onyango Owino paints the train with the help of kids from "Kibera Hamlets," a group that works with orphans and underprivileged kids in the Kibera slum.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • The artists work into the night to finish painting the peace train before it leaves for Kibera the next morning at 6 a.m.
    Hide caption
    The artists work into the night to finish painting the peace train before it leaves for Kibera the next morning at 6 a.m.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • Morning commuters at Kibera train station board a train that became colorful overnight.
    Hide caption
    Morning commuters at Kibera train station board a train that became colorful overnight.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • U.S. President Barack Obama as rendered by the artist Bankslave, who was born and still lives in the Kibera slum. During the previous election violence, looters spared his house when they recognized him as "the guy who paints murals" around Kibera.
    Hide caption
    U.S. President Barack Obama as rendered by the artist Bankslave, who was born and still lives in the Kibera slum. During the previous election violence, looters spared his house when they recognized him as "the guy who paints murals" around Kibera.
    Mark Brecke for NPR
  • "This is something that's never been done in Africa," says artist Swift9. "People will have to pay attention. And they'll have to think about it, when they go to vote."
    Hide caption
    "This is something that's never been done in Africa," says artist Swift9. "People will have to pay attention. And they'll have to think about it, when they go to vote."
    Mark Brecke for NPR

1 of 10

View slideshow i

Kenya's peace train is ready to roll.

Kenyan graffiti artists received permission from the Rift Valley Railway to spray-paint a 10-car commuter train with peace messages and icons. It may be the first train in Africa with officially authorized graffiti.

The train will travel through the massive Nairobi slum of Kibera, one of the largest in Africa, where young gangs torched, looted and killed in the spasms of violence that followed the 2007 Kenyan presidential election.

"What we're doing with the train here now, it's part of a civic education and a way to advertise peace," says Uhuru B, a 27-year-old graffiti artist.

Many in Kenya take for granted that some level of violence will follow the March 4 presidential election. The question is: How bad will it get?

Will it be comparable to the deadly but isolated skirmishes in the rural areas and poor districts that Kenya saw in 1992 and 1997? Or will there again be countrywide outbreaks similar to those in 2007-08, which left more than 1,000 people dead and thousands more homeless?

As Swift9, a 28-year-old graffiti artist, recalls: "It was chaos. Looting, fighting, the smell of smoke and sounds of screaming day and night. Mothers screaming — their kids are missing. People screaming, their houses going up in flames. And there's nothing you can do. ... If you go outside you might get shot or beaten up by a rival gang."

So why spray-paint a train?

"Because the people have never seen anything like this," he says. "They'll definitely have to look at it. And they'll have to think about it during the voting time."

With The Railway's Blessing

Swift9 laughs about the night two years ago when he nearly got arrested for breaking into the rail yard and trying to tag a train car.

"Personally, I think it's every graffiti artist's dream to paint on a train," he says. "I've wanted to do this all of my life. But the last time I was here, it was impossible. We sneaked around but the guards were all over. We had to pretend we were taking photos for a school project."

So how did the railway authority and graffiti artists — enemies as eternal as the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote — decide to join forces?

Their collaboration came out of another one, between Kibera Walls for Peace and Kibera Hamlets, two organizations that promote arts in Kibera.

Kibera Walls for Peace is the brainchild of Joel Bergner, an American artist and educator from Brooklyn who engaged kids from Kibera Hamlets to paint peace murals around Kibera. They approached the railway about letting them use one of the commuter trains as a canvas.

It surely didn't hurt that authorities at Rift Valley Railway recall what happened after the previous election, when mobs of youth literally tore up the train tracks and sold them for scrap metal.

Another graffiti artist, Bankslave, 27, was born in Kibera and still lives there. He sees dozens of official billboards around the city promoting peace but says they don't have the power to speak to Kibera youth like street art can.

In the last election, his own house in Kibera was spared when looters recognized him as the guy who paints murals around the slums.

Bankslave says this peace train will be riding long past the March 4 elections.

"We're trying to make the train look beautiful so everyone likes it. It's not only about peace messages. I'm doing art as my career," he says. "In Kenya, not many people think about art as something you can earn [money] from. So I'm just telling people, 'If you have the talent, go ahead and do it. Do art.' "

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: