Last Christmas, al Shabaab militants stopped a bus in the northeastern Kenyan town of Mandera and demanded that all Christian passengers be handed over. The Muslims on the bus refused; some quickly passed their headscarves to the non-Muslim passengers to disguise them. The Islamist militants eventually let the bus go.
It’s this kind of interfaith solidarity that Colombian artist Yazmany Arboleda and Nabila Alibhai, founder of a Nairobi-based civic group inCOMMONS, hope to engender in a civic art project where local communities paint mosques and churches across the country a bright yellow. The project, Colour in Faith, was completed earlier this month, with a total of five churches and four mosques or Muslim religious buildings bathed in what they call “optimistic yellow.”
“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. “The idea was to explore religion and find commonalities with the hope to create a space for reflection.”
Kenya, which is predominately Christian, is also home to longstanding Muslim communities, especially along the coast and the northeast of the country. (About 80% of the country’s 44 million people are Christian, compared to 11% who are Muslim.) Open conflict between the two religious groups is rare, but as Kenya suffers attacks by al Shabaab, in retaliation for Kenya’s participation in African Union forces fighting the group, the risk of deepening divides has grown.
“We chose to start in Kenya because the country is at a point where things could get much worse. We have unique history of religious pluralism, a reality that is changing very quickly as the country withstands acts of terror over the last ten years,”Alibhai said.
It wasn’t easy getting the project off the ground. Local Muslim religious leaders resisted changing their mosques from the traditional white and green. Meanwhile, some pastors said they would only participate once ”appreciation,” or “sitting fees” (payments that NGOs often give residents for participating in their workshops), were paid. Eventually, a year after conceiving of Colour in Faith. Arboleda and Alibhai managed to get a group of churches and mosques to commit to participating.
Ahead of national elections next year, this kind of pluralism is especially needed. Political observers worry about clashes between supporters of competing political parties, which are largely divided along ethnic lines. Violence between Kenya’s two dominant tribes, the Luo and the Kikuyu, following a disputed presidential election in 2007 resulted in the deaths of at least 1,200 people and the displacement of 300,000.
“We are using co-created art to bring hope, imagine new realities, facilitate communication and dialogue, and provide connection and catharsis,” Alibhai said.