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If you have a life story like that of Boniface Mwangi, please tell it

Saturday December 15 2018

Activist Boniface Mwangi with author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o in the United States. PHOTO| COURTESY

Activist Boniface Mwangi with author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o in the United States. PHOTO| COURTESY 

TOM ODHIAMBO
By TOM ODHIAMBO
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Boniface Mwangi, to use a Kenyan media cliché, is a man liked and hated in equal measure. His friends swear that he is the new revolutionary in town.

They believe that he can take on anyone in this wretched country and will soon inspire an uprising that will send home the old guard who simply refuse to go tell stories to their grandchildren, and welcome a new generation of progressive young Kenyans to lift this country to greater heights of development.

His detractors think that he is simply a noisy character, hungry for publicity and hungry in the stomach.

They claim that he is simply in activism for foreign donors’ money. But who isn’t into some project or another in this country for some money from abroad, one would ask?

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

Whatever the cynics say, there is one incontestable fact. And that is that for some time now, Boniface Mwangi has stood for an alternative energy to the usual politics of the ruling elite.

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He has been publicly noisy but with a reason. Boniface has not shied away from taking on the mighty among Kenyan politicians.

He hasn’t been scared to challenge even the President or his deputy. He has confronted them online and offline.

But whenever he has sought to speak truth to power — a much abused cliché — he has sought so not just on behalf of himself and his immediate family. Public support for his protests show that he is on mwananchi’s side.

There is no doubting that it has been on behalf of a larger good.

Of course such bravery in a time when self-preservation means that the old leftists or the old soldiers of opposition have been bought, caved in or simply given up the spirit to fight injustice and oppression, always raises the question: is he foolish or is he ‘protected’ by someone? Indeed it is foolish to take on a regime that is known for strong arm tactics.

His grandmother, Wangechi, may have advised him, as he writes in his memoir Unbounded (2016), that brave soldiers die on the battlefield for their convictions whilst cowards go home to their mothers, activism, especially the kind that seeks to hold the state accountable has a very high cost in a country like Kenya.

MORE PRODUCTIVE QUESTION

However, probably a more productive question should be: what motivates Boni? What makes him defiant, questioning, ever-present on the streets, demanding on social media but still smiling at the end of the day? The obvious answer is that there is some spirit that animates him. The energy that he evinces has a history behind it, one that he tells in Unbounded. It goes back to the colonial times, flowing from his grandparents through his defiant mother into him. The roots of his courage are traceable to his grandparents who endured the repression and dispossession of the colonial regime and survived it.

But probably it is his mother, Emmah Wakiuru, who bequeathed him the steadfast spirit, the restless soul and the agile body that defines much of his three and a half decades of life. Wakiuru got her first child in 1969 when she was still in school.

Boniface notes in his memoir that despite passing her exams, the pregnancy must have crushed her soul.

Consequently she abandoned the child with her parents and migrated to Nairobi to seek another life after the child’s father deserted her.

She would end up hawking in Nairobi, doing business between Kenya and Tanzania and had other children, Boniface being born on July 10, 1983 at Taita Taveta District Hospital.

RESTLESS

Thus, Boniface began life in the expansive and serene countryside of sisal growing land of the Taita. But it would not last long as his mother moved back to Nairobi and settled in Ngara.

The restlessness of the city would infect Boniface as he would become a malingerer, as many children of such age tend to be, especially when there is no firm parental hand at home.

Considering that his mother hardly had a job, was caught up in the conservatism of the Akurinu cult she followed, and couldn’t stand the patriarchal expectations of the men in her life who wanted a ‘good wife’, there was little chance that Boniface would have been the good boy parents and society desire all the time.

The changes in his life were simply overwhelming.

Yet it is at school that Boniface faced the most serious challenge of his childhood.

As he writes, “There are no rosy memories of my first primary school. I was beaten like a drum. I was regularly caned by my teachers at school and then my grandmother.” But he acknowledges that he was a “hard nut to crack, defiant, persistent.”

He would be sent back to Nairobi from his grandmother’s place in Nyeri where he had been schooling.

The migration from Nyeri to Nairobi continued Boniface’s itinerant life. He would later be back in Nyeri, at Othaya Approved School, where he would later instigate a strike and escape from school. He would be one of the five lucky escapees to be allowed back to sit their KCPE exam in 1997, which he passed.

He was then admitted to Kabete Approved School from where he was expelled for protesting about the problems in the school.

That was pretty much the end of Boniface’s search for knowledge in the formal school system in Kenya.

JUST A DOCUMENT

Years later, he would sit the KCSE, but by then he had scaled such heights in his chosen profession of photography that the paper certificate was merely a document to be used for other purposes than proof that he had read books and was knowledgeable.

As Kenyans celebrate ‘Uhuru’, what kinds of freedoms are they celebrating? What freedom has Boniface been looking or fighting for since childhood? For someone who was born bounded by a colonial system that had robbed his grandparents of their freedoms and dignity, did he have a realistic chance of unbinding himself?

Considering that he had been condemned to an unstable childhood by an unequitable society and criminalised by the school system — one of the surest ways to a job and make social progress — how was Boniface ever going to become free?

In Unbounded, Boniface takes the reader through his journey of self-liberation. That journey can be described as an unwavering determination to defy the odds — for someone who spent part of his childhood gambling, he clearly knows something about placing one’s bets.

From selling religious books on the streets with his mother to working at Tusker Mattress (Tuskys today) back to selling books on street pavements, Boniface would eventually end up as a photographer, by accident.

He would later on work for The Standard newspaper. It seems that in capturing moments in the life or humanity, and recording history through the lens of a camera Boniface found the freedom he had been searching for all along.

For it is his camera work that propelled him into the public limelight when he won the CNN Photojournalist of the year Award in 2008 and 2010.

There are many other awards that Boniface had received, not just for shooting pictures but for his activism as well as his contribution to the arts and culture.

PAWA254, an institution he founded, is today a defining space for public conversations on subjects of national, regional and even continental interest, be they on politics, economics, arts, culture, justice, rights etc.

Yet with all such achievement at such a young age, Boniface remains humble and ever smiling and committed to the ideals of justice, freedom, equality, equity and humanness.

The story of Unbounded is one worth sharing at this time of the year when resolutions of the passing year and revisited and new ones made and resolve to steadfastly look for means to unbind ourselves from the shackles that have condemned this country to underdevelopment.

  

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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