Mwangi Kirubi on Finding the Beauty in Everyday Life
10 years ago, Mwangi Kirubi made the bold decision to quit his day job and focus on making his passion for photography work for him. Along the way, he discovered the power of his craft and made it his mission to alter the negatively held global perceptions about Africa. Mwangi’s body of work has told stories that have helped shift mindsets, inform audiences and break new ground in the world of photography.
The 42 year old father of 2 has been commissioned by various NGOs to document a multitude of development projects across Kenya including the healthcare sector, education, nature conservation and agriculture. And to celebrate the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa’s (AGRA) 10th anniversary, Mwangi was one of the photographers selected by the Rockefeller Foundation and Arete Stories to document successes in agriculture in Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya; the images captured were showcased in a 3 week long photo exhibition at the Nairobi National museum.
As a member of African arts collectives One Touch, Mwangi traverses the continent, capturing images that showcase the beauty of Africa and the warmth of its people. The photographer known by many as Mwarv shares his journey and outlook on life with Damaris Agweyu.
Your website’s tagline reads: ‘clicking with a purpose’, can you break that down for me?
What gives me the greatest joy about my craft is its ability to change perceptions- because the camera never lies. And while a lot of the information we consume comes from the media that thrives on covering what is mostly negative stories, there is so much more that is happening out there that many people never get to see or hear about. There are people that are doing amazing things that need to be celebrated because there are young people who need to be encouraged by hearing their stories. What I seek to do is tell these stories. The other day I was going for a meeting at Mayfair Plaza and in the midst of the mad traffic, I noticed a beautiful sunset. Instead of focusing on the traffic and angry people, I took a photo of the sunset as a backdrop of the traffic and captioned it: have you ever been in something so bad that looked so beautiful? My point is, there is always beauty around us and my goal is to look for it and capture it. It’s especially important to document this stuff because being a very oral society, so many of our stories have been lost. If you take the example of the Egyptians, they were the first people to start writing with their hieroglyphics but they never passed their knowledge to the rest of the continent. But now, we have people who are putting our stories on platforms where anybody can have access. In the past, it was just a matter of, ‘I’ve told somebody’ which really limits how far a story can go.
And then the truth gets distorted along the way
Yes. Memory comes in so you can’t remember if it was left or right.
In November of 2015, I was in Mandera doing some work for an NGO; the network there was very patchy but I managed to get access to Twitter. What I saw was crazy. It looked like Nairobi was on fire! Because the president had decided to go to the airport in the morning to catch a flight and Mombasa Road had been shut down, everyone was up in arms. Meanwhile in Mandera, for the first time since independence, the locals were now enjoying tarmacked roads. So I was like, ‘In the national agenda of things, what is more important, the fact that a road had been shut down for a few minutes or the fact that there are 120,000 people or so who were seeing tarmac in their town for the very first time?’
It’s about gaining perspective on what is happening in terms of roads in the country. The Mandera story was a big deal but no one was talking about it- we find potholes outside our homes and become so vexed, go on twitter and start attacking the government. Yes, they do need to fix the roads but we also need to celebrate the progress that has touched people on a very personal level. In Mandera, it was more than just the tarmac, the fact that all those airborne diseases resulting from dust would be no more, the fact that people’s produce would get to the market faster, the fact that farmers could get better prices because their fresh produce which would get to the market faster… It’s about finding the things we need to celebrate about our country rather than constantly focusing on what is going wrong.
Why do you think we dwell so much on the negative?
I think we are just conditioned that way. It’s what we’ve grown up reading in the papers, watching on the news and being told. A man becomes what he consumes and if the newspapers have been doing this for the past 100 years, we believe it must be a formula that works so we repeat the same. And now social media, especially Twitter has become an arena for venting. When the Dusit hotel attack happened, amidst all the anger, I put out a tweet. I said, ‘now that the whole world is Googling about Nairobi, why don’t we take this opportunity to share something that we like about Nairobi’- waahh! I got bombarded with so much negativity that I had to take a break from twitter. I wasn’t trying to minimize what was happening; I was just trying to create some good in a bad situation. The tweet was all over social media and, for good measure, someone took a screen shot for WhatsApp. It spread to WhatsApp groups all over the country. There’s a lady who lives in my estate who told me she’d seen the screenshot on her Kimende group. Kimende is a town somewhere past Limuru! I’m telling you that thing got a life of its own. On the same night people reigned in on New York Times like it was responsible for the attack. Anyway, I apologized two days later when I finally got back to twitter. Until that moment, I hadn’t experienced the wrath of angry Kenyans.
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