Everyone in Kenya knows members of parliament make a lot of money. They used to get a base salary of 800,000 shillings a month — or $124,000 a year. That’s more than lawmakers in Britain. A recent change in Kenyan law trimmed their pay to $78,000.
In a country where nearly half of all citizens survive on less than $2 a day, that seems more than sufficient. But Kenya’s parliamentarians insist they can’t live on that. Last week, they proposed that their salaries be padded with a $61,000 grant to purchase a new car, a $6,000 “motor vehicle allowance” to fuel it, and payments of between $60 to $240 for each legislative committee meeting they attend.
Outrages like this are common in Kenya, where people have come to expect such absurdities from their elected officials. That’s the reason why “siasa,’’ which means politics in Kiswahili, has become a dirty word.
But this time, a group of activists did something about it. They carried pigs to the gates of parliament, to underscore the lawmakers’ greed. They poured blood on the pigs, to symbolize politicians bleeding the taxpayers dry. Not surprisingly, they got arrested.
The pig protest sparked a national debate. But the attention-grabbing tactics also worked against the cause.
Most Kenyans oppose the salary increase, but few want to be associated with bloody pigs. Much of the discussion after the protest focused on the treatment of the animals, whether their appearance was offensive to Muslims, and what became of the beasts after they had been rounded up by police (no one seems to know).
“I tell people, ‘It’s not about the pigs actually; It’s about the issues we are trying to address,’ ” said Boniface Mwangi, the 29-year-old behind the protest.
Boniface is an internationally celebrated photographer. I met him years ago, when I hired him to take pictures for a story. Since then, we have become friends. Perhaps because he photographed the violent aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election — capturing images of disembodied hands on chopping blocks, the charred remains of people caught in the wrong voting district — Boniface grew passionate about the abuse of power.
He insists he is still a photographer. But in recent months, he has been consumed by protests. He has burned coffins in front of parliament, heckled a politician at a rally, and organized mid-night graffiti murals depicting politicians as vultures. He was arrested three times in three weeks. No small thing in a country that prizes obedience.
I worry about him, his safety. I also wonder whether, in conservative Kenya, his brand of activism will attract enough mainstream support to truly change things. After all, it was not street theater that brought civil rights to America, but the quiet determination of untold thousands who faced down police in the streets.
So I’m torn. Were the pigs a good idea or not?
Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution, an East Boston-based nonprofit that teaches nonviolent strategies to activists around the world, says symbolic protests are often selected when activists are unable to bring out huge crowds.
The pig protest puts Boniface on par with radicals in Serbia who taped the image of Slobodan Milosevic to a metal drum and invited passersby to beat on it; protesters in Syria who dyed fountains red and released ping pong balls with anti-regime messages on them; feminists in the Ukraine who routinely disrobe.
Some of these actions helped topple dictators. Others barely made the news.
Boniface wants to build a movement. But he also advocates a kind of personal radicalism that seems — at least to him — to be an end in itself.
“I don’t fight for the people,” he says. “I fight for me and my kids. Even if I’m alone, I’m going to do it. I take a stand. That’s the whole idea.”
It makes me wonder: Are radicals a key ingredient of any healthy society, whether they manage to convince the rest of us to join them or not? How many of us heard the Code Pink lady yelling at the president about drones? Even Obama had to listen. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether the person speaking up is in a movement, or alone. Maybe all that matters is that there is a voice out there speaking, reminding us that there is another way to look at the world.
Clarification: This column has been updated to note how much members of Kenya’s parliament earn. They make 800,000 shillings a month — or $124,000 a year.