Art, Activism, and the Path of Change: The Journey of Mijide Kemoli
Mijide Kemoli, 28, living in Nairobi, Kenya, loved art and design since she was a kid.
Ten years ago, she started her activism in road safety through artistic expression. She turned her passion into a creative consultancy practice when founding Keeke Art.
This organization aids various institutions in educating their audiences on social issues in engaging ways.
Mijide’s unique upbringing and personal experiences profoundly shaped her into the accomplished artist and activist she is today.
She found solace and a sense of belonging through art during challenging times when she first faced the harsh reality of racism.
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing? What was it like growing up for you?
I spent my formative years out of my country. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and as a three-year-old, I moved to Europe with my family and spent five years there.
I mention this because it defines a lot about the person I have become today.
During my time away from home in the late ’90s and early 2000s, racism was rampant; unfortunately, it is still an issue we are dealing with today. I remember even then, as a child, I knew that something was amiss, but I was too young to put my finger on exactly what it was.
I was the only black child in my class for the first two years of my education. This was inevitably my first introduction to segregation and people treating you differently because of your skin color.
How did this experience shape your artistic expression?
Initially, even at that age, it was tough to be part of that community and try to fit in.
That’s when I discovered art and artistic expression. Soon enough, other kids started noticing.
“Oh, there’s something here. There’s something different that she’s doing that other students are not.” my teachers would say.
At this point, it became easier to relate with my teachers and the other kids and build friendships and bonds not dictated by my skin tone or where I come from. To this day, I am still drawing and designing; making it my profession is the best choice I could have ever made.
Now, fast forward to Kenya as a young woman; I do experience another type of discrimination, a gender-based one. In specific scenarios, people underestimate you because you are a woman and treat you, unlike someone who contributes something meaningful and substantial.
As I have grown in my craft, working in a space where I interact with many nonprofits from a design perspective and helping them communicate visually has given me more confidence and strength in myself as a creative changemaker.
It also gave me credibility regarding what I deliver as a professional, transcending my gender and race or, more precisely, transcending the discrimination against both.
On a positive note, now people look beyond me being a woman and focus more on what I bring to the table.
We see how your activism and art stem from a personal experience. How do you see art and activism intersecting together?
There is a strong connection between creative expression and activism and being able to sensitize people regarding different issues.
The great thing about creative approaches is that they range from graphic recording to comics to educational game design.
I found that no matter where somebody comes from, what language they speak, or what social class they belong to, people unite when it comes to visual communication, and what one can see with their eyes never limits them.
Visual communication draws in a lot more in terms of different audiences compared to other methods. For example, in Kenya, a significant portion of the population is illiterate so you can give them a book, but they cannot read it. It becomes even more complex when you add the diversity in native dialects, which can pose an additional barrier.
But visuals… connect people. Their message is easily felt and can be shared with someone else because they are memorable.
Please share with us two accomplishments you are most proud of.
Aside from Design, I am also keenly interested in the topic of urban spaces.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has been changing rapidly. Once peaceful suburban neighborhoods are being turned into middle-class areas congested with all these high-rise apartments of ridiculous heights, with developers attempting to stuff as many houses as possible into small plots. Not to mention there is no plan for the city that has been created to demonstrate how infrastructure shall grow in tandem with these buildings.
During a hackathon in 2022, my team and I developed an augmented reality-based solution to address the challenges of the people in these neighborhoods.
In this way, we made it easier for people to identify problem spots in their areas, flag them, and alert the relevant authorities.
A few short months later, we ended up having a real-life situation of a developer trying to encroach on a peaceful neighborhood in one of the once-upmarket areas in Nairobi to build massive apartments right next to the little marionette homes.
That was my first time speaking out in public against something I knew wasn’t correct or lawful.
Before then, I was very reserved in speaking out because I did not even know that I could feel so passionate about something, but after I did it, it hit me:
I can stand up without any fear.
My second accomplishment is being part of a property show that aired on National TV. It was my first time appearing on TV, and I was interviewed alongside some incredible people in the urban and built environment, which was a great learning experience for me.
Initially, I was reluctant and shaken to appear on a show that would be seen nationwide, let alone on YouTube, but I eventually plucked up the courage and spoke up.
I tackled not only a challenge in myself but also helped the community by educating them on how they can take steps in their neighborhoods to make a difference and call out rogue developers that are using illegal means to get their own way.
How did you overcome the hesitation you first felt?
I reminded myself of times when I was scared and how facing that fear made me stronger. This is a conscious action I had to take so that I do not let fear stop me from having an impact.
Also, having supportive people around me helped a lot, especially my family and friends. My mother would often tell me:
“You can do it, and you shouldn’t be afraid, even if you feel like you will be poking some buttons.”
I would also mediate and pray to find that inner calm and peace.
Something else that comforted me was celebrating with my team. Doing things alone is powerful, but there is an even deeper fulfillment and inspiration when you celebrate that win with others, particularly those who believe in the same cause or who genuinely have your back.
If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
It all works together to work out eventually.
Even when things feel like they are not working out, later, you realize that that one thing may not have materialized because something better was in store for you on the other side of that disappointment.
I have seen that happen in my life.
Be patient, do what you need to do, and trust that it will all work together to work out eventually.
Describe the impact that MCW Global had on you.
Being part of MCW Global is a uniquely different experience.
It was unlike anything else I had done. It opened my mind and eyes to think in-depth about the work that my team and I were doing in our work with kids in marginalized communities and how to serve better and understand them.
When you first visit a community and see the people there, you feel like you know what they need. However, you rarely deliberately put yourself in their shoes.
MCW Global Family gave me the life lesson to profoundly care to understand what one person deals with daily and their highs and lows.
My awareness and empathy have increased since I started collaborating with MCW Global.
What are some of your future projects?
I am traveling to Baltimore, United States, to participate in a road safety leadership course. While there, I will interact with Bloomberg Philanthropies, their funding body, and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It is an excellent opportunity to learn more about leadership in the road safety space under the Global Road Safety Partnership group.
I’m looking forward to interacting with people in that space, especially from a creative standpoint with my road safety-themed board game. Hopefully, it will allow me to take it to the next level.
Mijide holds a Master of Arts in Illustration from the University of Portsmouth, the U.K, and a Bachelor of Arts in Design from the University of Nairobi, Kenya.