Kenya artist paints peace messages in Nairobi slum

NAIROBI (Reuters) - It’s a long, thick stroke. The white paint is still wet.

Policemen sit near graffiti "keep peace stop violence" in Nairobi's Kibera slum February 6, 2008. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra (

Solomon Muhandi dips his brush again into a small cup, his hands dotted with irregular white spots.

Finishing, Muhandi takes a step back: “Peace Wanted Alive” the sign reads, like hundreds of others the 31-year old has painted all over Kenya’s largest slum.

Messages like “Keep Peace” and “Kenya Needs Peace” decorate speed bumps and corrugated iron walls in the Kibera slum, scene of some of the most intense violence as police clashed with opposition protesters and rival tribes fought last month.

Like many Kenyans across east Africa’s largest economy, Muhandi says he is sick of violence that has killed 1,000 people since President Mwai Kibaki’s disputed December 27 re-election.

Hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes.

But a number of Kenyans have taken it upon themselves to daub graffiti on buildings and decorate parks with peace messages.

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Muhandi said he started painting missives on shacks and shops after ethnic gangs looted and burned shops and churches.

“Signs speak louder than our voices,” Muhandi said.

Gutted buildings and burned-out churches dot the main road to Kibera, remnants of violence that engulfed the slum in the post-election bloodletting.

“If the situation was like what I saw then, there will be nothing left. I wanted to control the situation by writing,” the artist said.

What started as a dispute over the vote has since opened up divisions over land, wealth and power that date from British colonial rule and have been stoked by Kenyan politicians.

Most of the deaths have come from cycles of ethnic killings and protesters shot dead by the security forces.

The opposition says the government rigged the election -- a charge Kibaki’s administration dismisses.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who is mediating between the foes, has called for a truth and reconciliation committee to look into the killings.

Surrounded by canvas paintings in his small studio, Muhandi says Kenya must first have peace before it tackles its deep social wounds and inequalities.

“When people come up to me and ask my why I paint ‘peace’ if there is no justice, I tell them those two things have to go together,” he said.

(For special coverage from Reuters on Kenya's crisis see: here)

Editing by Bryson Hull and Richard Balmforth