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Boniface Mwangi: My life has been one long fight for justice

Sunday November 20 2016

Boniface Mwangi poses with his book whose the motivation was to make Kenyans understand him. Unbounded, an autobiography which is 60 per cent photos and 40 per cent text, was launched Saturday evening at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY

Boniface Mwangi poses with his book whose the motivation was to make Kenyans understand him. Unbounded, an autobiography which is 60 per cent photos and 40 per cent text, was launched Saturday evening at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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That activist Boniface Mwangi is one of the candidates sitting this year’s Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination can either be shocking or inspiring, depending on how one interprets the reason behind it.

At 33, Mr Mwangi has been sitting his papers as a private candidate at the Visionary Tuition Centre in Nairobi’s South B.

The photojournalist-cum-activist, known for leading daring protests and whose September 30 tweet sparked a vicious court battle when Deputy President William Ruto sued him, had kept his candidature a secret.

“Eighteen years after I left high school, I’m doing my KCSE,” he said. “And it’s very tough because I thought I was going to have time to study but I haven’t. But I’m still going to do it.”

When he was expelled from Kabete Approved School in October 1998 while in Form One, various factors made him pause his secondary school education until this year when he registered for the exam.

He admitted that he is facing the examiner while ill-prepared.

“One of the embarrassing things is that I may not pass as well as I expected to pass. But I’m going to do my best,” he said.

“I thought I was going to take a break from October to study. Then I got involved in this Ruto case ... My lawyer, Gitobu Imanyara, tasked me with doing background media research on this case.”

After tweeting about the death of businessman Jacob Juma and questioning the integrity of Mr Ruto, the DP asked Mr Mwangi to apologise, which he refused to do.

Mr Ruto later filed a defamation case against him, seeking orders to compel Mr Mwangi to pull down the post. Mr Mwangi would later file a counter-claim, seeking to expose Mr Ruto’s alleged lack of integrity. When he spoke to Lifestyle on Wednesday evening, he was preparing to take two tests the following day: Christian Religious Education Paper 1 in the morning and Business Studies Paper 1 in the afternoon.

But, again, he was preparing for a radio interview later that evening, then another meeting with his Pawa 254 team.

All this hassle was because of one thing — his first book, Unbounded.

The book is a 350-page compilation of his personal stories and the pictures that have defined his life.

On Wednesday, the book was eating into his revision time — demanding that he pays for this expense or another, that he calls various people, among other commitments.

The photojournalist-cum-activist, Boniface Mwangi, is best known for leading daring protests. PHOTO | FILE

The photojournalist-cum-activist, Boniface Mwangi, is best known for leading daring protests. PHOTO | FILE

Unbounded, an autobiography which is 60 per cent photos and 40 per cent text, was launched Saturday evening at Alliance Francaise, Nairobi.

When you read through to the 40th page of the book — where Mr Mwangi narrates about his expulsion from the Kabete Approved School — you conclude that he was bound to be kicked out of the education system, given his defiance against any wrongs.

Mr Mwangi presents himself as a boy so radical that both his grandmother and mother gave up on him at some point in his life.

He also explains how the death of his mother Wakiuru wa Mahinge in 2000 at the age of 48 made him quit his wayward ways, plunge into business, become an award-winning photographer, then later embrace activism.

His story starts in 1982 when his mother meets Nimrod Kamanja, a District Officer at Kitobo near the Kenya-Tanzania border. By this time, she had four other children, with different men under different circumstances.

Out of the union, Wakiuru gave birth to Mr Mwangi on July 10, 1983 at Taita Taveta District Hospital. Mr Mwangi was her fifth born and two girls would follow.

EVENTFUL YEARS

“My father remembers my mother as a good singer. They used to drink together and she would bring the bar to a standstill when she rose to sing. Their relationship was short-lived but they stayed in touch,” writes Mr Mwangi. His mother introduced him to his father when he was 14.

In 1986, Mr Mwangi’s mother moved to Ngara, Nairobi, where she joined the Akorino denomination. At age five, he was baptised Haroun.

“The church leaders told my mum that the name Boniface was not Biblical enough,” he writes.

Shortly afterwards, he was sent to Mukuruweini, Nyeri County, to live with his grandmother. With the problems he had adjusting to rural life, he recalls that this is the time he became wayward.

“I had been a dutiful, church-going boy but I became a disobedient one in the face of what, to a five-year-old, felt unjust,” says Mr Mwangi.

Out of frustration, the young man lost interest in attending classes at Maganjo Primary School and made several attempts to return to Nairobi but all were thwarted.

“My grandmother eventually ran out of ways to discipline me and, in exasperation, tied me up with ropes and dragged me to the police station where I was threatened with a beating if I did not go back to school,” he states.

“I was scared of the police and, just like that, my relationship with cops started; founded on fear and defiance in equal measure.”

After three eventful years in Nyeri, he returned to Ngara to live with his mother, where he was enrolled at Pangani Primary School.

In 1991, his mother shifted from Akorino to “the cultic” Gospel of God Church.

Later, Mr Mwangi’s mother was evicted from the junction of Nairobi’s Ronald Ngala and Tom Mboya streets where she had been selling books, which meant a tougher life for the family.

“We spent three weeks in the early days of 1993 in the corridor of our Plot 10 house, a halfway house to homelessness,” he writes.

Mr Mwangi’s other siblings were sent to the countryside, leaving him the only child living with his mother. They found a house along Juja Road and he continued schooling at Pangani until 1995.

“In January 1995, I ran away from school. I was escaping punishment for breaking a window. Later, I ran away from home. I was tired of the demands of my mum’s cultic church and the poverty that was part of our daily life,” he writes.

After the escape, he went to Mombasa by bus but was later returned to Nairobi after being arrested by police for fighting. Back in Nairobi, he was arrested by police at a bus station where he had taken up a job as a bus sweeper. The officers found him sleeping outside the bus station, locked him up at the Kamukunji Police Station, then later presented him before a children’s court.

He was remanded at the Kabete Juvenile Remand Home “which was hell” and his mother did the unthinkable when interviewed by a probation officer.

“She was tired and had had enough, she told the officer. I had become too cunning and she wanted me to be committed,” he writes.

That is how Mr Mwangi found himself in the approved school, which is a correctional system for errant children that he says teemed with bullies.

“In April 1995, I was sentenced to seven years in approved school,” he writes.

FIRST PICTURES

He started his sentence at Getathuru Approved School, where he describes life there as hell on earth.

“I tried to run away from Getathuru once. I was caught and taken back by a group of men,” he writes.

He was later sent to the Othaya Approved School, which he says had good conditions until a new school head came who ruled with an iron fist.

In 1997 Mr Mwangi, who was then a Standard Eight pupil, led a strike at Othaya.

The head promised to meet their demands but later reneged. Being the ringleader, Mr Mwangi was targeted and was beaten often. Another strike would follow, then later on he and five others escaped. He returned a month later to sit his KCPE examination.

“For my defiance and focus on our rights, I earned myself a hero status in the school,” he writes.

He was later admitted to Kabete Approved School for his secondary education, only to be expelled in October 1998 after he sent a petition to the then Home Affairs minister, Mr Shariff Nassir, to look into the deplorable condition of the school.

His petition, which included the first ever photos he secretly took with a film camera his mother bought him, was used against him. He would later have the situation in the school highlighted in a local daily.

“The ministry never responded (to the newspaper story). That was the end of my high school education. I officially joined the University of Life, hard knocks campus,” he states.

He then resorted to hawking books alongside his mother who lived hand-to-mouth even as she battled liver cancer without going to hospital because her denomination discouraged it.

When she died, he began a journey of reinvention.

Activist Boniface Mwangi hawking books alongside his mother in 1999. PHOTO | COURTESY

Activist Boniface Mwangi hawking books alongside his mother in 1999. PHOTO | COURTESY

“I was 17 years old but that day I was forced to become an adult. I had a penchant for picking fights especially when I believed I was right … my mother’s death changed all that. I had to stay away from trouble,” Mr Mwangi narrates.

Forced to pay rent for his late mother’s room and to cater for his upkeep, Mr Mwangi then tried a hand in various activities among them running a video shop, working at Tuskys Supermarket and selling books.

In 2002 he joined the Kingdom Academy Bible School, where he met Esther Morakinyo, a lecturer, who told him about legendary photographer Mohammed Amin and sparked his interest in journalism.

In 2005, Mr Mwangi joined The Standard as a freelance photographer.

It was, however, not long before he got his first sack after sending an e-mail in a fit of fury.

He was reinstated after apologising, then stayed on to take photos so passionately that he later won the Mohammed Amin photographic award in the CNN Africa Journalist of the Year awards.

The most dramatic images he shot were about the violence that followed the 2007 General Election.

In the book, he also describes how he met his wife Njeri at a function at the Mavuno Church. With her, they have three children: Simphiwe (9), Naila (6) and Jabali (5).

He then recounts how, haunted by the scenes he saw when covering the election violence, he quit a permanent and pensionable job in December 2008 to join activism and later started Pawa 254, an institution that has organised numerous protests, art exhibitions and commemorative events.

He ends the book with a weighed line: “I live to make a difference”.

ASPIRING POLITICIAN

During the interview with Lifestyle, Mr Mwangi said the motivation to do the book was to make Kenyans understand him.

“People don’t know that I was expelled from school at the age of 14; that I’ve been fighting this fight my entire life; that my grandparents were in Mau Mau. My grandfather spent six years in jail,” he says.

“So, let me tell my story so that even if something happens to me, even if I die tomorrow, the story has been told.”

The KCSE examination he is currently taking means different things to different people.

To his children, it is a chance for dad to make them proud.

“My kids will laugh at me and they might even compel me to re-sit it if l don’t meet their expectations. They even bought me a success card,” he says.

To Mr Mwangi, the exam is an effort to plug a gap in his life.

“I’m not embarrassed that I’m doing my KCSE exam 18 years later; because now I can afford to sit as a private candidate … and one of my classmates is a 60-year-old man who has said he wants to do it,” he says.

To a political-minded observer, however, Mr Mwangi’s candidature is proof that he means business in his plan to vie for a political office as a KCSE certificate is one of the requirements for clearance.

He told Lifestyle that he is eyeing a position in the 2017 General Election, though his wife cannot let him yet.

“I need to convince my wife. She thinks that I will get killed. There are a lot of threats on my life,” he says.

His wife Njeri, the co-founder and general manager of Pawa 254 that employs more than 20 people, plays a key role in his life.

Despite her fears, the activist said he has a burning ambition to join politics, and he believes Kenya needs clean leaders for a change.

 

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“Am I clean? Yes. Am I thinking of vying? Yes. Will I vie? My wife has to decide; because I have a very young family,” he said.

A KCSE certificate notwithstanding, Mr Mwangi says he has been able to get college education.

“I have been blessed enough to build a successful career without having sat for KCSE exams. I studied journalism and later on joined New York University to study human rights and documentary photography,” he said.

On several occasions, he is forced to interrupt the interview to take calls to arrange a detail or two relating to the book.

Being a self-published work, he said the project had drained him financially, forcing him to sell his motorbike and other valuables.  

“Right now, one of my car logbooks is with a shylock because I’m trying to get money to clear my books,” he said, noting that  in the first run he has made 5,000 copies.

“And it’s sad that I have to pay 16 per cent VAT even before I sell a single copy.”

Asked what value he expects the book to add to Kenyans, he said it is all about reflecting on the past.

“I want to give it to public libraries and public universities. It will enrich the narrative about post-election violence, because I was a witness to that and some other events that have shaped this country,” he said.