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News and Media

I AM KENYAN Stands for Political Freedom

Dec. 07, 2012

Liv Combe

Five years ago, in the violent aftermath of a disputed presidential election in Kenya, first-year Sophie Mvurya was almost killed by two men who mistook her as a member of an opposing tribe on account of her light skin.

“When you experience something firsthand,” says Mvurya, “it is very different from seeing something on television or reading about it.”

With only a few months left before Kenya’s next presidential election, the first under their recently ratified constitution, Mvurya refuses to let her country return to such a chaotic state. Which is why she is leading I AM KENYAN, a worldwide movement for peace.

“I can’t explain how it started,” says Mvurya, who grew up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. This past summer, while finishing up her schooling at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mvurya read an article online speculating on the very likely possibility of violence surrounding the upcoming March 4 Kenyan presidential elections.

“I got really scared,” says Mvurya. In a burst of inspiration, the next morning she went onto Facebook and called for people to take a photo of themselves with the words “I AM KENYAN” in the the image and set it as their profile picture as a show of peaceful patriotism.

“People love taking pictures of themselves,” Mvurya says. “So why not take a picture with a purpose?”

Within weeks, the idea had gone viral. By July, the movement organized in Nairobi, where a growing volunteer base of more than 100 took to the streets, promoting peace through art, music, and photography, educating people on the voting process. The group organized peace marches, held concerts, and plastered I AM KENYAN photographs throughout the city, and then across the country.

“I believe in the power of art,” says Mvurya, who uses photography and music to reach those who are illiterate. “It’s the best way to get the message out to the people — most of them can see, they can hear, they can sing and speak.”

I AM KENYAN, with Mvurya at the helm, has collected more than 10,000 photographs from all over the world (non-Kenyans are more than welcome to submit their images) and the Facebook page has more than 6,000 “likes.” And on any given day, the I AM KENYAN! website receives between 4 and 8 million visitors.

At its roots, the goal of the project is to get Kenyans to stop thinking along tribal and ethnic lines and start thinking as simply Kenyans; to prevent “the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that was adopted four years ago,” explains the website. This is not an easy task, with 52 different tribes in Kenya.

The problem of ethnic divide is especially relevant to politics. Presidential candidates, says Mvurya, often cater to specific tribes in their campaigns, manipulating less-educated masses along ethnic lines. In the 2007 violence over the disputed re-election of President Mwai Kibaki, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported more than 100 deaths, primarily in Nairobi and its environs, with a large part of the violence falling into tribal territory.

Having barely lived through the violence in 2007, Mvurya has since been working to make sure that she — and countless other Kenyans — won’t find themselves in such a situation again. Her efforts have even drawn attention from outside Africa.

In 2011, Mvurya began a project called Hope Inspire Transform (HIT). A music and sports education development program at her high school, HIT earned her the recognition of Three Dot Dash, a peace-promoting initiative and part of the We Are Family Foundation. Three Dot Dash named her one of its Global Teen Leaders and in March flew her to a weeklong summit in New York City. Mvurya was recognized for her work yet again in September, this time as the Chief Executive Officer and founder of the I AM KENYAN project, at the 2012 Nexus: Global Youth Summit on Innovative Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship.

But along with the accolades and recognition comes criticism. Mvurya recognizes that some people see her we’re-all-in-this-together, peace-touting organization as too simple a solution for an incredibly complex problem, deeply rooted in history and tribalism.

“When people say that, I just keep quiet,” says Mvurya. “You can’t solve a complex problem with a complex solution. It’s like untying a knot — you start with the very outside and work your way through it, pulling string by string.”

According to Mvurya, the youth have been the most supportive demographic — an important step in the direction of peace, since the bulk of eligible votes are in the hands of the 18-24 year olds. The support for I AM KENYAN is very high among the 25-35 age range, with numbers falling for those in their 40s, and rising again for the 50s-60s audience. Mvurya attributes the lower numbers of support to little to no connection to the Internet and Facebook, where much of I AM KENYAN’s reach lies.

Mvurya says that I AM KENYAN would not have been possible in the same way if it weren’t for Facebook. “This is not ‘clicktivism’: just taking a photo and that’s it. Technology is a savior. Social media is what spread the message.”

All things considered, the support from the youth is no surprise to Mvurya, who says that the oldest volunteer in the group is 21. “The youth are taking over Kenya,” says Mvurya, “and we don’t want to inherit the country as it is.”

In the final push to the March 4 election, Mvurya plans to spend her January winter term in Kenya with the I AM KENYAN team, visiting as many of the country’s 47 counties as they can to hold marches and take photos. This final activist push will end with a event in Nairobi to kick the country into election season.

Although she hopes to gather the funds to fly to Kenya to vote in person or find a way to vote absentee, the importance of a peaceful election is no longer strictly personal. Whether or not she gets home to cast her ballot, Mvurya has already proven the power of a single idea.

“This is not my project anymore,” says Mvurya. “It’s a project for the whole country.”

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