Kenya's Graffiti Train Seeks To Promote A Peaceful Election

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 19, 2013 12:33 pm

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.' "

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Kenyans will also soon go to the polls to choose their next president. The last time that happened, in 2007, the balloting ignited deadly ethnic tensions. Weeks of violence left more than 1,100 dead across the country. The ethnic tension was particularly toxic in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa in the heart of Nairobi. It is a tinderbox of rival ethnicities and unemployed young men.

Hoping to avoid a repeat of that violence, a Brooklyn artist and educator named Joel Bergner launched a project that uses graffiti art to encourage unity between rival tribes and political groups. It's called Kibera Walls for Peace. And Bergner worked with authorities at the Rift Valley Railway to invite graffiti artists to spread messages of peace on the local commuter train.

NPR's Gregory Warner stopped by the making of the peace train and spoke to the artist. He sent this audio postcard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is where the train would start. I mean this is what I was told this is where the train starts.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm painting uh a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. And then the Kenyan flag in psychedelic patterns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, I'm painting an Obama face.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Obama, like Barack Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, Barack Obama, the president of the U.S. But I'm going to incorporate a little bit of different colors onto him, so that he comes out really different and funky.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Personally, it's every graffiti artist's dream to paint on a train, as in to have the piece moving all over. Ever since I started spray painting, I've always wanted to paint on a train. But it was impossible because the last time I was here we sneaked in. We walked around, but the guards were walking all over. But now it's like here - here's the train you wanted to paint. So go ahead and paint.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The train was a major target of the last post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, especially the part that goes through Kibera. Actually, people came out when they were rioting and tore up the entire track. So the train authority has a lot of interest in keeping peace for this election.

WARNER: So they've brought on graffiti artists, that it's almost like a big sign saying stop, don't hurt us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Exactly, and then of course it has the bigger message of don't hurt each other. You know, bringing peace to society.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Well, we have a lot of scars in our past, you know, especially like this last election. And there's a lot of hidden grudge, you can't really see it, and we just have to paint the stains over - put it in their faces so they can realize that, you know, it's not always about tribe. It's not always about killing. It's not always about shedding blood.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This train is used by many Kenyans in the morning and in the evenings, when they're leaving for their usual daily hustle. So from the front to the back, as you read it as it goes, it's like a sentence that is written.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: What's written on the whole train? OK, from there to there to there. OK. (Unintelligible) That means leave tribalism, leave discrimination, let's live in peace. Yeah, that's what it means.


MONTAGNE: We heard from graffiti artists WiseTwo, Swift9, Uhuru B, Porsh, and American artist, educator Joel Bergner. NPR's Gregory Warner produced that story. And there's a photo slideshow at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.