NAIROBI, Kenya - A U.S. artist handed out thousands of yellow balloons to Nairobi's blue-collar commuters Monday, igniting broad smiles among Kenyans weighed down by two recent grenade blasts and warnings of an impending terror attack.
Bunches of yellow balloons floated above walking workers and hung out of minibus taxis. The giveaway took place near a bus stop where one person was killed in late October in a grenade attack blamed on a man who said he is a member of al-Shabab, Somalia's most powerful militant group.
Al-Shabab has threatened to carry out a large terrorist attack in Nairobi after Kenyan military forces moved into southern Somalia last month to hunt militants.
Yazmany Arboleda, an American contemporary and multimedia artist who organized the balloon giveaway, said the Nairobi project was the third in series of seven giveaways around the world known as “Monday Morning.” He said the Nairobi giveaway took on more significance in the light of the terror threats.
“I think that negative energy of fear, this horrible energy of fear needs to be countered with something beautiful and colorful and something that speaks to heart of the people and beauty and I think that is what art is about,” Arboleda said.
Arboleda previously staged large-scale giveaways of bright orange balloons in Bangalore, India and bright green balloons in Yamaguchi, Japan. He enlisted dozens of Kenyan artists to help hand out the balloons Monday.
Bus driver Ecklund Mwandoe said he tied a balloon to his rearview mirror as a statement to those who have attacked Kenyans with grenades. The 40-year-old said there is no need for fighting.
Nutritionist Miriam Muthoni, 30, marveled at her unexpected gift of a bright bunch of balloons.
“I feel it has given me the energy to work. It may be a blessing,” she said.
Samuel Mwangi, a 23-year-old who collects money on a small minibus, said he was happy to get a balloon after starting his day at 4 a.m. and having no one ask how his morning was.
Arboleda said the idea behind “Monday Morning” is to explore the relationship between living and working.
“We punctuate our lives with balloons during happy times - for anniversaries, birthdays. So it is taking a balloon and inserting it in this weak moment ... to change the way somebody thinks about Monday mornings,” he said.
Kenya sent hundred of troops into Somalia in mid-October to pursue al-Shabab, whom it blames for a string of kidnappings in Kenya. Al-Shabab's warnings of a retaliatory strike are being taken seriously in Nairobi. The U.S. Embassy has warned Americans to stay away from potential targets like shopping malls.
Al-Shabab suicide bombers blew themselves up among Ugandans watching the 2010 World Cup final in Kampala, killing 76 people. The militants said the strikes were in retaliation for the deployment of Ugandan troops to Somalia.
Nairobi was rattled last month when two grenade blasts went off on the same day.
“I believe strongly that countering grenades with balloons could send an important message to the Nairobi community and the world at large,” Arboleda said. “The message is to put down a grenade, and pick up a balloon. As a community we choose to stand up for peace and our right to work, live, and prosper in spite of terrorism.”