Kenya has a longstanding history of religious pluralism and tolerance, a reality that is changing as the country endures acts of terror at the hands of Al-Shabaab. While the group dominates headlines for the country, Kenya’s tolerant nature is being undermined by stories of division, terrorism, and insecurity that could lead to a further divided society.
Interfaith solidarity has always been a part of Kenya. When Al-Shabaab militants stopped a bus last Christmas and demanded for the Christian passengers to step off, it was the Muslim passengers who refused and as a result the bus was eventually let go. It is this very same interfaith solidarity that the project Colour-in-Faith hopes to engender by painting mosques and churches across the country in a bright yellow.
Artist Yazmay Arboleda is painting houses of worship in Nairobi, Kenya an “optimistic yellow” as a symbol of peace and solidarity among all religions. “The idea is that these buildings are landmarks that celebrate pluralism and unity,” Arboleda told Quartz. Volunteers, often a mix of Christian and Muslim residents, paint the buildings with donated paint.
According to the CIA factbook, 83% of Kenyans are Christian with 11% Muslim in addition to smaller Hindu and Buddhist communities. And while conflict between religious groups is rare, the risk of deepening divides among communities has grown due to the attacks by Al-Shabaab – making this initiative particularly important. This is especially true with the upcoming national elections where political observers fear clashes between the supporters of competing political parties as seen in the disputed 2007 presidential election that left 1,200 dead and 300,000 displaced.
“In Kenya, religion is a way to control society,” says Arboleda, who is not religious but considers himself spiritual. “To ask questions and have a dialogue is incredibly powerful for these communities.”
The project Color-in-Faith was developed in partnership with in-Commons, an organization dedicated to making the world a better place via making “good people common and common places good.” As a collaborative effort volunteers of different religious communities paint the buildings creating a community of belonging and solidarity.
“We are using co-created art to bring hope, imagine new realities, facilitate communication and dialogue, and provide connection and catharsis.” Alibhai said.
The impact of Colour-in-Faith is not limited to the communities involved in the art project but has also reached audiences via social media. The @Colourinfaith twitter account has opened interfaith dialogue and critical thought with the hashtag #yellowke. Thought provoking questions are asked such as: What is faith without religion? Can art shift culture? Where does your faith live? Kenyan youth have been given a platform to discuss relevant topics in their communities and raise awareness of ongoing issues.
Among the buildings that artist Arboleda will begin painting are two that were directly affected by the radicalization struggle in recent years: the Majengo Salvation Army Church, which has been attacked twice, and a mosque, Masjid Musa, once suspected of radicalized Muslims. This can potentially mark a significant change in the country’s ongoing religious narrative.
Public art such as Colour-in-Faith benefits communities immensely. It fosters a sense of belonging and community while bringing to light prevailing issues. This initiative has reclaims the religious narrative in Kenya as being tolerant and accommodating. Together the involved communities generated a dialogue and change by coming together to do something unexpected.
This article is written by Natalie Gallagher