Meanwhile at Nairobi’s World Social Forum
I was at the very first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, back in 2001. My wife and I were travelling in Brazil and Argentina, fuelled by cheap passes from a relative at Air Canada, so we had to make a stop to check out the WSF. It was amazingly new and sexy (perhaps that was just the Brazilian home field advantage), and in hindsight it occurred close to the highwater mark of resistance against globalization, a few months before the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, and well before 9/11 and the ensuing “war on terror”. The slogan “another world is possible” was born, a charge of defiance against the elites of the global economy, who were meeting in Davos at the World Economic Forum.
Yet, there was also an undercurrent of a different kind of elitism at the WSF. True, there was a powerful local contingent of Latin Americans there, but I could not believe how many folks I met who had spent thousands of dollars to be there. I had to wonder what could have been had all those visitors from North America and Europe simply given away those funds. As this was the first such event, that sentiment seemed drowned out by the potential unleashed by the information-sharing and networking of 10,000 people at the event.
From this report below, it looks like the WSF has degenerated into its own brand of elitist intellectual masturbation. I picture many of the same participants from global NGOs continuing to chatter about the state of the world over coffee and pastries. Thanks to a mini-revolution staged by locals, however, the event was saved from itself.
Things were looking a bit grim at the World Social Forum to begin with – but then they started serving ‘anti-capitalist curry’.
The first time I approached the Kasarani stadium complex on the outskirts of Nairobi, I just thought it couldn’t be the right place. It being my first World Social Forum, I didn’t know what to expect, but somehow the sight of lorry-loads of red-bereted soldiers toting Kalashnikovs and trailing leads tied to menacing alsatians didn’t quite fit the picture I had. They weren’t even handing out flower garlands …It became clear to me quite quickly that this event was not as “open” as the WSF organisers pretended it to be. The fact that it was held at a razorwire-ringed white elephant of a stadium named after Kenya’s former despot, Daniel Arap Moi, seemed hardly apropos at that. But we’re here to “make life better”, I tell myself. Oh wait – did I think that myself, or is that the mobile phone company and official sponsor of the WSF, Celtel, had its corporate motto ubiquitously displayed all around the complex?
Hang on a minute; I need to sit down – this is all a bit much. Seven years of World Social Forums has brought us to this? Anti-war yet surrounded by soldiers? Anti-corporate yet brought to you by Celtel and Kenya Airways? Anti-capitalist yet food and water too expensive for most Kenyans and southerners to afford? WSF or WTF? In this context, the forum’s theme this year of “people’s struggles, people’s alternatives” seemed to ring hollowly off the crumbling walls of the Moi International Sports Complex.
But wait. This is the World Social Forum, damn it! We are not going to accept this. We can reclaim these spaces and unlock the chains that close us off from the nearby slums and squatter towns and demonstrate that another world is possible.
It took a day or two to build up the required momentum, but thanks particularly to the inspiring agitation of Kenyan social movements and activists, the forum had been saved. Another social forum was possible. Spontaneous protests broke through security cordons and reached the WSF organisers’ space where demands were made and WSF representatives were held to account. The protests did not let up until demands were met. Gates were flung open, exorbitant fees for Kenyans first reduced, and then finally scrapped altogether. The monopoly of catering companies was broken as sellers from nearby areas came touting their wares. Street kids feasted on the finest food from the internal security minister’s now occupied catering company. One Pakistani group sold “chapatis against Bush” and “anti-capitalist curry” at affordable rates. The first few days of underwhelming, half-hearted workshops seemed a distant blur.
In the last few days, the forum was invigorated with a new vitality. “This is the World Social Forum, not the World Economic Forum,” was the chant. We made the most of the time we had left. It is just unfortunate that it had to be this way. After seven years of being the de facto AGM of the global justice movement, perhaps the World Social Forum organisers need to do some soul-searching and reconnect with its founding ideals. Moi’s stadium (who ironically banned the teaching of Marxism under his 20-year reign) is where activists put the “social” back in to the World Social Forum. Let’s keep it that way.