I tend to steer clear of dangerous situations. However, on June 11th 2013 I got in touch with my inner warrior. I was pissed. For weeks, the media had been filled with reports of Kenyan MPs pushing for insane salary increments and allowances. Worse of all, they had proposed a motion to have the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (which had come up with a “modest” pay package) disbanded. This had led activist Boniface “Bonnie” Mwangi to orchestrate a wildly imaginative and provocative protest in May. ‘Occupy Parliament’ (OP) featured, among other things, a large sow and 31 piglets with the names of the most vocal MPs written across their backs in red paint to illustrate the legislators greed.
I remember walking past Parliament hours after the protest had been halted. Teargas still clung to the air but catching sight of a friend who’d participated in OP, I had to stop and get his insight on the day’s events. We were standing on the outer pavement along Parliament Road close to the roundabout and I will never forget the sight of my friend openly flipping the bird at Uhuru’s passing motorcade right in the middle of our conversation. The acronym ‘FUMP’ (F**k You MP) written across the front of his t-shirt, he defiantly raised his right hand in an angry salute to the Head of State.
I was both stunned and impressed. Here was a man unafraid to express his feelings about the status quo. As with every major event, jokes and debates soon followed on Twitter about the ‘Occupy Parliament’ protest. I didn’t comment much but secretly felt that while the pigs were visually striking, they should have made a plan to haul them out after making their point. Nonetheless, I approved of the protest. If people are fed up about a situation, they should rise up and speak against it.
That’s why I vowed to participate in the ‘Occupy Parliament Reloaded’ (OPR) protest in June. It was time to speak up and do something, anything, to show that it wasn’t right that MPs got ludicrous salaries while most Kenyans lived in poverty. But it wasn’t just on this matter that I felt strongly moved to do something. For years I’ve been nodding my head in agreement with the statements made by environmentalists, teachers, doctors, civil society groups, Okoiti Omtatah and every other aggrieved party who had taken to the streets/other in protest. However, it wasn’t until Bonnie came along that I found a way to access the world of “activism in action”.
He is young, shares his sentiments through channels I can easily access (in this case, Twitter) and most of all, he looks and talks like me. By this I mean, he’s a middle-class Kenyan citizen. He could be my friend, brother or colleague. We probably attend the same type of events, know the same people or share a similar upbringing. His views on life aren’t so far off from mine. Plus the graffiti ‘Mavulture’ campaign was pretty dope.
In any case, I had already decided to take action. On the material day, I dressed in a t-shirt, jeans and light shoes before proceeding to Freedom Corner, the meeting spot. I was excited but extremely terrified. The tales from OP were of teargas, beatings and arrests but I was ready (to run, hence the shoes, hehe) for whatever the day would bring. I spotted a host of familiar faces as the organizers handed out bandanas, copies of the Kenyan Constitution and placards. I decided to stick close to a male friend who was also participating in his first protest so that we could both watch each other’s backs.
The organizers revved up the gathered protesters with songs and chants then after a word of prayer and singing the National Anthem, we were off. The time was 12:34 p.m. In the crowd around me I saw students, civil society leaders, children as well as Caucasian men and women all marching forth towards Parliament. Obstructing traffic on one side of Uhuru Highway, we made our way with riot police in tow to the side entrance of the targeted building. There were moments of confusion when the crowd broke into groups of ten or less. It looked like some stragglers were almost getting into a fight with the police. However, by one o’clock I was sitting with two other friends on the tarmac road outside Parliament taunting the watching police and Parliament workers with songs and chants.
At one point an MP’s Mercedes Benz was prevented from entering the building as protesters swarmed the car, angrily shouting at the occupants. Curious bystanders gathered around and some even joined in as the organizers led us in familiar tunes. Local and International media scoured the crowd for the most interesting shots for their cutaways as others recorded standups from within the crowd.
The protest’s mascot was a sinister-looking, rotund cardboard pig with insults and accusations scribbled all over its pink body. Its head bobbed up and down to the music of protest. The ploy this time was to “give the MPs a raise” however this was to be done through specially printed KES 1,000 notes. They had a smiling cartoon pig at the front and a photograph of a row of pigs at the back. These bills were intermittently thrown into the air like confetti.
OPR was crazy. Crazier than I had ever anticipated but still it felt great, righteous even, to be sitting on that road, picketing with my fellow countrymen. After about an hour, Bonnie announced that the entire group would make a trip to the roundabout then march back to the gates in order to hand over a petition. That’s when the madness began.
A van ferrying dozens of bottled pig blood had made its way close to the OPR crowd. Some protesters grabbed the bottles and began to throw them towards policemen and the Parliament grounds. Later they would dump more blood on the road. This was when I backed out. I understood the passion and anger coursing through the protesters veins but at that point, OPR had turned rowdy. It had lost its order and direction.
Here’s the thing, I understand the need for secrecy to prevent police from thwarting plans but when pig blood suddenly appears out of nowhere, it turned the protest into a gimmick. At no point did I hear of a basic game plan and strategy that would involve lobbing smelly stuff at people. In fact, I recall a code of conduct being circulated online prior to OPR. It was again read at Freedom Corner before we left. It urged people to be act orderly.
In my opinion, that stunt completely cheapened the whole thing. I felt a bit like a stooge, invited to swell up the numbers but not made privy to what was really going to go down at the protest. But I’ve said it before Boniface Mwangi’s style of activism is full-on. No bullshit. I respect that especially now that I’ve seen him in action. However, that’s not the type of activist I envision myself as. Sure, I’ll march and chant but I don’t foresee myself engaging in rowdy acts that would provoke violent responses from the police. But hey, Kenyan police are known to throw teargas at the least provocation. Strangely enough, they didn’t attack OPR protesters this time around.
So will I participate in another protest? Hell yeah. Led by Boniface or not, the activist in me is alive and well.
And yes, I carried the placard home. It stands right next to my Kenyan flag.