Photojournalist Discusses Activism in Kenya and Evoking Change
Issue   |   Tue, 10/31/2017 - 21:13

Award-winning photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi gave a talk titled “How I Found My Voice” on Wednesday, Oct. 25, in Stirn Auditorium about his experience photographing the 2007 Kenyan election, being an activist and running for a seat in Kenyan Parliament this past year. The event, which was free and open to the public, was sponsored by the Lamont Fund, the dean of the faculty and the college’s political science department.

Mwangi leads a number of initiatives aimed at enabling youth to bring about social and political change in Kenya. Though his photojournalism has garnered international recognition, his work has primarily involved activism in recent years. A week before he was scheduled to speak at Amherst, he was shot by a police officer in Kenya while protesting police brutality. He sustained injuries, but they were not life-threatening and he was able to give his lecture here.

Mwangi began his speech by talking about the death of his mother when he was 17 years old. As a result, he was left with nothing and struggled to make a life for himself, he said. Her death also coincided with the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, who served as president of Kenya at the time.

“I grew up in a culture of fear and a lot of cowardice,” Mwangi said.

To make a living for himself, he sold books. Eventually, he went to school for photography and secured jobs at major newspapers.

The 2007 Kenyan election brought the country to “the brink of a civil war,” Mwangi said, “but for a photographer it was exciting times.” His work was printed in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Telegraph.

Witnessing the upheaval following the election, however, took a heavy toll on Mwangi and he became dispassionate about photographing Kenyan politics. In 2008, he traveled to the U.S. to cover Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He said he was amazed by the mass of young people advocating for change. After his trip, he returned to Kenya and quit his job as a photographer.

“‘I’m going to find a way to overthrow the government’ — that was my thinking,” said Mwangi.

Mwangi then discussed participating in one of his first large-scale demonstrations, where he was beaten and arrested. Though he felt defeated at first, he recalled his purpose in his actions, he said.

“I realized I was trying to bring about change,” Mwangi said. From that point on, he traveled the country displaying his photos of the violence he had witnessed in hopes of rallying people behind his cause.

Mwangi also talked about how being an Amherst student is an immense privilege that should evoke change.

“My call to you is that you need to be involved,” Mwangi told the audience. “Being young is the best time to be idealistic.”

He ended his talk by playing a video he had produced, in which he discussed the legacy one leaves when they die and challenged the audience to leave a meaningful legacy.

Following the talk was a Q&A session, during which Mwangi answered questions from the audience on working towards change in faulty institutions, leveraging his power as an activist and staying hopeful after witnessing political turmoil. He also talked about his struggles and successes in running for Parliament and advocated for government institutions as a place to create change.

Abbey Asare-Bediako ’18, who attended the event, said she had never heard an African guest speaker at the college previously, and “that in itself was really exciting.”

She also saw Mwangi’s talk as a way to bring different perspectives to activism.

“I also think that it’s really cool that we have … someone who’s in the moment fighting,” she said. “To see his development into, like, ‘Okay, I’m moving sort of out of the front lines of activism and into office’ — I think that’s really interesting, because you never really see that story being told.”