NAIROBI, KENYA – Simon Ngwata was walking home from playing football with his friends at a playground outside the Mathare slums of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, one evening in December 2007 when he saw a group of about 30 rowdy youth carrying clubs and machetes.
Although the 12-year-old boy knew there had been a general election three days before, he wasn’t aware of the dispute over the results of the presidential contest. The win of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki drew accusations from supporters of his main challenger, Raila Odinga, that Kibaki had rigged the vote to remain in power.
Ngwata hid in a narrow allay and watched the group of armed youth disappear deep into the slum chanting: “No Raila! No peace!”
That night, the slum where Ngwata lives went up in flames as Odinga supporters descended on members of the Kikuyu community, where Kibaki hails from. They drove them out of their homes and set their shacks on fire. Ngwata says that he, his mother and his three brothers had to flee to the nearby Moi Air Base grounds.
“Before then, I had not given the issue of my tribe much thought,” says Ngwata, who is now 16.
He says he considered himself more Kenyan than Kikuyu.
“I was born and raised in Mathare and can hardly speak the Kikuyu language,” he says. “I never considered myself different from my neighbors since we all speak Kiswahili.”
Many parts of the country were also hit by what would come to be infamously known as post-election violence. Ethnic tensions following the vote led to the deaths of at least 1,300 people, the injuries of scores more and the displacement of more than 350,000 citizens, according to the Kenya Red Cross Society. It wasn’t until a month later that peace returned and Ngwata’s family and others who had camped at Moi Air Base could safely return to the slum.
But the memory has stuck with Ngwata and, as the country plans for elections set for March 2013, has inspired him to join a youth campaign to promote peace. He was among the locals who attended a photo exhibition organized by the campaign last month near the slum where he lives.
A group of teenagers has embarked on a campaign to prevent a recurrence of the post-election violence. Started last year by 18-year-old Sophie Umazi, the group began with a Facebook campaign called “I am Kenyan” to encourage patriotism and promote peace. The campaign’s Facebook page has more than 3,500 “likes.”
“We want people to see themselves as Kenyans, not members of ethnic communities,” says Umazi, who recently returned to Kenya after a two-year program at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.
The campaign uses photography as its main platform to spread the message of peace. It has now expanded beyond Facebook, and the young people have taken to the streets. They are encouraging people to take photos with a placard asserting, “I am Kenyan,” which they then publish on the campaign website.
The group recently organized a street photo exhibition at Baba Dogo grounds