Mike Wafula, Commoners Coat, mixed media on canvas, 51" x 39
While in pursuit of artist Mike Wafula, we were led to the dusty streets of Kayole’s concrete jungle in search of the Kijiji Art Center. Kayole has been characterized as one of the most unsafe places in Nairobi because of the hoards of young unemployed people who live there. The majority of Nairobi’s 5 million people live here. We could hardly breath when we got to Kayole because of the air pollution from cars. Kayole’s smog is so thick you can almost touch it.
We were simply in shock and did not understand how there could be so many young restless people in one single area. They were all casually dressed, with the young men energetically chewing khat (a popular caffeine laden plant) and the women sipping on their Coke, chatting away about everything from Beyonce’s new music video to the complexity of the Syrian conflict across the Red Sea. They were all jobless and waiting in bated breath for any opportunity to make money. Both Dane (our managing director) and I immediately felt eye balls follow our every single move when we got out of our old Toyota RAV vehicle. The founder of Kijiji Arts Center, Michael Wafula, emerged from a building adjacent to us and greeted us joyfully, sending the signal to everyone that we were part of the Kayole family.
Mike Wafula is one of the most respected artists in Kayole and is known for helping build young men and women into brilliant artists. Wafula’s current work center around the modern suit that is omnipresent in urban Africa. The suit differentiates certain groups of people like politicians, missionaries, commoners & business men. Wafula satirizes these groups by creating portraits of suits that eclipse the individual. They take on a life of their own outside of their wearers. Ideas, according to Wafula, have the power to change the world. He speaks from the evidence of his 15 year practice in Kayole, Nairobi.
My friend here at Berkeley, James Roditi, is a fellow African but from Zimbabwe. He recently posted a Financial Times article on my Facebook titled: “Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s Last Frontier Can Prosper and Matter.” The article delves into an analysis of a book written by Kingsley Moghalu - deputy governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank. Moghalu blames neither the West nor China, neither colonialism nor capitalism for Africa’s shortfalls. He advocates for some daring visionary thinking for Africa. Something akin to the Washington or Beijing consensus - an “African Consensus.” The Washington consensus, a view embraced by the western world after the fall of the Berlin wall in the early 1990s, proscribed unfettered market capitalism. The Beijing consensus, developed fully at the end of the 20th century by China, is the school of thought that advocates authoritarian or state-led capitalism.
So who is currently putting together the African Consensus? My guess is that the vision for Africa is already in the works and is being crafted by the African youth (aged 35 years and below) who currently comprise 70% of the continent’s population. These youths have access to technology, internet and social media through their phones - making them powerful agents.
Ideas, Moghalu contends, matter and are the main force that shape reality. One has to dream before they can create and shape the environment. African institutions cannot deliver for the African citizenry because they are conflicted between short-term and long-term vision. When a politician or public servant decides to use public resources for personal gain - that is short-term thinking. Our continent is ailing from poor governance which is hampering our ability to execute pertinent decisions needed to plan for our massive youthful population that is set to hit 1.6 billion by 2020.
The suit pictured above is the “commoner coat” which captures the wild appearance of the young and creative Kayole hustler. Out of all the suits in this series, it is the only one that Wafula casts in a positive light. According to Wafula, the commoner coat is the symbol of the jobless state of Africa but it also shows the perserverent side of the youth - the “hustle till death” attitude. These young men and women have unanimously arrived at the African Consensus. The consensus comes in the form of collaboration and the building of household enterprises and small businesses. At the moment, there are no blue collar jobs or white collar jobs. Self-employment is perhaps the best alternative, and as Wafula has demonstrated with his Kijiji Arts Center enterprise, the winner is the one who can spread the creativity chips to everyone. The answers to global warming, climate change, population pressure, renewable energy and sustainable cities might be waiting for us right now in Kayole’s concrete slum. We can already see it captured on canvas by Wafula and his students.
Artist Michael Wafula