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UBAX ABDI brings it alive!

Volume 13, Issue 2  | 
Published 28/11/2016


In partnership with Society for International Development and The Street Diaries

In the third week of July, after many delays and much anticipation, Street Diaries, the Kenyan graffiti collective descended upon Eastleigh to paint the walls for everybody to see. Months of planning and discussions with graffiti artists Kerosh and Bantu, were finally being realized. The objectives: to bring colour and beauty, to challenge and inspire and most importantly, in the spirit of SAMOSA 7, 2016, to change perceptions of an overly misrepresented community.

Ubax Abdi

Eastleigh is known primarily as a commercial hub. Its small square footage hosts over fifty malls. On most days, First Avenue is gridlocked with cars, matatus, wheelbarrow pushers, hawkers, and pedestrians all jostling for space.  New buildings go up every week, but there’s little room for public space and certainly none for green space. One of the intended outcomes of this project was to reclaim public space back to the inhabitants of Eastleigh, especially women and young people.

We started in California Estate. When SAMOSA decided it was going to bring graffiti to Eastleigh, the first place that came to mind was California. It is the only area in Eastleigh that has public housing and has a rich history of music and sport to draw from. In fact, California Estate, established in 1967, was the first public housing built by the newly independent government in Kenya. Tom Mboya, the first MP for the area, with American funding initiated the ambitious project.  Prior to that the colonial government built bare bones housing for single African workers in segregated areas of Eastlands like Jericho. It is widely believed that California Estate got its moniker because of the American money that made it possible, though I’ve never been able to verify this.

The Berlin Self Help Group manages the Desert ground in California, more commonly referred to in Sheng as ‘Deza’. The ground has the most strategic walls for graffiti, one side already flanked by a mural promoting inclusiveness sponsored by USAID. It serves as the heart of California Estate, with the apartment blocks and courtyards built neatly around it. People gather along the shops at its edge, hold impromptu meetings in the mostly car-free street, groups of young men smoke bhang seated on the terraces (built by Berlin), children play football on the pitch. It’s lively all day.

Kelvin, known to everyone as Kelly, had worked with SAMOSA a couple of weeks before at the very beginning of the festival for the free film screening at Deza grounds. Kelly is extremely passionate about California and empowering young people through Berlin and works tirelessly to make the group self-stainable. As the chairman of Berlin, Kelly acts as a spokesperson and go-to for visitors and for those who want to use the ground.

At a new building built as a community centre, Kerosh painted a picture of a pregnant mother and child, with the child carrying the groceries, written below is the Kiswahili proverb, Heshima sio utumwa, meaning respect is not slavery. The message is clear and powerful. On a nearby wall in the same compound, the graffiti artist Swift, an original member of the Spray Uzi crew, painted a family, holding an umbrella for protection, which he called ‘family first’.

Swift handled the lofty task of painting Victor Wanyama, the Kenyan football star (and as yet the only Kenyan playing in the English Premier League). His likeness was overwhelmingly chosen over many other names when asked what people wanted, the locals see him as one of their own. There are stories of Victor and his brother Mariga playing on the pitch as kids, both attended Kamukunji Secondary School.

Graffiti artists slama and vandal, who have their own custom art company where they apply their artwork on anything from t-shirts to children’s bedroom walls, dealt with a mural of some of the greats of Kenyan music, depicting Nonini, Jua Cali and the late E-Sir who lived in the building the mural was painted on, before moving to South C. Salim, an Eastleigh High School student and a talented budding artist from California helped slama and vandal over the course of the week finish the psychedelic piece. At the request of Eastland Resource Centre, another local youth group, slama and vandal painted their car wash, with a jungle/outer space theme, near the iconic Mpambe Dishes restaurant. As the artists and community continued to engage with each other, more personal requests followed, including people who had previously refused to have their wall painted, now asking why weren’t we painting theirs!

Throughout the whole experience, locals didn’t hesitate to give their input and feedback on what they’d like to see immortalized while expressing the issues that they felt were important to their community. Violent extremism came up quite a bit, as well as calls for peace and unity especially with the spectre of the upcoming election year looming large.

Planning for the graffiti, we were worried about City Council harassing us. We weren’t without our setbacks but it was generally hassle-free thanks to having everyone on board. Swift, who spent hours painting two storeys up, on shaky handmade scaffolding was repeatedly told he didn’t have permission to paint. He soldiered on, and his piece depicting Victor Wanyama overlooking the Deza ground serves as a permanent source of motivation for those playing in the pitch.

Detail7, whose real name is Alan Mwangi, tackled the wall behind the grounds. He wants to bring positive change to young people through his artwork, especially those from not well off areas like Eastleigh. Rare for the collective, Detail7 doesn’t do any political stuff, and is purely concerned with aesthetics. Talking about his work, he says ‘I love making a dull place like this, trying to make it look nice’. He hopes young people passing by can get inspired to do their own pieces. He ended up doing a sprawling ‘One Love’ in his signature style. It is the piece most commented on and beloved by the community. It has become a  popular spot to hang out in, at least two music videos have since been shot with the mural as its backdrop, including Jua Cali’s latest song, ‘SafSana’.

A couple of days in and, Street Diaries were ready to move to a new locale, to St Teresa’s Primary Boys, situated in Eastleigh Section 1 at the beginning and quieter end of 1st Avenue. This was an entirely different affair, as the artists’ canvas was a school, a primary one at that. Themes such as the importance of reading, knowledge and information were explored in writing and picture narratives. The school children would come out between classes and watch the artists painting. Witnessing this, the manager of the big apartment building opposite the school approached the artists and asked if they’d like to paint his side of the wall. They jumped at the chance. The new Principal of the school, who comes from an arts background, was happy that the artists were brightening up and bringing attention to a school that is in dire need of refurbishment.

When it was clear that we were running out of surfaces to paint, we scouted the area for more walls. One of the major problems with Eastleigh, a densely packed hodgepodge of glassy apartment blocks, is there is very little open wall space (that and the fact that most buildings are privately owned).  While looking for walls in Shauri Moyo, walking back we came across a long stretch of uninterrupted wall along a busy road and decided to have a look inside and try our luck. We learnt that the inconspicuous land is owned by the Ministry of Housing and Works, and the compound is for the workers’ housing. Surprisingly the genial elderly chairman agreed to let us paint immediately. We started the next day.

Part of the wall along Meru Road is opposite Pumwani Youth Group’s carwash. The group asked the graffiti artists to paint their carwash and allowed us to keep the paints in their store. Working on Meru road was interesting because it is very busy and you had instant reactions from cars passing by honking, or slowing down to have a closer look. Pedestrians coming from school and work would stop and watch and interact with the artists. The graffiti artists were in turn inspired by their environment and wanted to celebrate it. Swift painted a portrait of a wheelbarrow pusher. Several of the pushers stopped to see their likeness; one shouting out ‘that’s me!’, Bantu depicted a goalkeeper, after talking to a member of Pumwani Youth Group who’s a goalkeeper in Pumwani United. He thought goalkeepers were underappreciated. Over the last two days, Essen, another original member of the Spray Uzi crew, who has been doing graffiti in Kenya for over a decade, came by and did a piece depicting an old school with the Swahili word ‘soma’. Children watched with Zen-like concentration as he sprayed the outlines of each letter.

The filmmaker Paulina who was in Eastleigh to document Street Diaries for a film, says she fell in love with the graffiti in Kenya. Comparing Kenyan graffiti to her native Poland’s ‘pure art’ graffiti, she finds ‘it’s much more social and political, more involved with communities and uses more vibrant colours, much more energy and optimism’. Indeed, the street artists working in Eastleigh uplifted areas with beautiful artworks but also managed to engage with the communities by including and making them feel a part of the process.

Street Diaries spent two weeks in Eastleigh painting the walls of apartment blocks, community centres, schools, car washes and perimeter walls. It was an unforgettable experience for all those involved that genuinely brought communities together, changing the perspectives of the artists themselves. What its lasting impact will be remains to be seen, but what I do know is that it started something. I hope it’s the beginning of real change.

What is Street Diaries?

Street Diaries is a collective of around twenty-two street artists working in and around Nairobi and Mombasa. Taking their name from the February 2016 graffiti show at the Nairobi Railway Museum, Street Diaries acts as an umbrella organization for a number of different graffiti crews. The Railway Museum Show was the first ever event to be organized and curated by street artists in Kenya and the space currently serves as a base for some of the participating artists. Street Diaries’ origins date as far back as 2004 to the Spray Uzi crew, considered the kings of Kenyan graffiti. A 2005 hip hop event called WAPI at the British Council, later moving to Sarakasi, solidified the network, bringing together underground musicians and artists such as graffiti artists for the first time. Street Diaries owes its current success to a culture of collaboration and mentorship. Among the twenty-two artists nearly half have been mentored including Chela, a female writer, who also teaches a class on graffiti for girls at PAWA254. Although their numbers are still small, trailblazers like Chela and Blaine29 have encouraged more girls to take up graffiti. And street art, although relatively new to Kenya, has made an impact as a tool for social engagement and change as well as community cohesion. The collective is able to work on community projects such as the one in Eastleigh, by taking on commissions by commercial clients and exhibiting their work in galleries.

Pictures in this section credit Craig Halliday

Samosa Festival 2016 would like to thank Basco Paints. Without their generous donation of paints this project would not have been possible.