Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Whose World Social Forum? Final Reflections from the 7th WSF in Nairobi, Kenya.

By Colin Rajah

So its been 4 days since the 7th edition of the World Social Forum (WSF) concluded in Nairobi. But some things still remain fresh on many of the minds of those in our US grassroots delegation, as well as on the minds of many of the local Nairobians, I’m sure.

Since even before the opening of this year’s WSF, there have been objections from locals (primarily slum residents) about the Ksh 500 (about US$7.50) registration and entry fee. While US$7.50 might not seem much to us, it is roughly equivalent to a week’s wages for the average slum dweller, or almost US$600 to the average person in the US – not the most affordable when you consider it doesn’t cover food or housing.

As such, slum residents (many of whom we had met and become fast friends with in Korogocho during our site visits) staged daily protests at the main front gates, prompting WSF organizers to re-route participants to other gates and send in security guards to disburse the protestors. This naturally, drew heavy criticisms from all the WSF participants – its something you’d expect at the WTO or World Economic Forum meetings, not at a forum that espouses anti-globalization and civil society!

By Monday (the 3rd day) evening, WSF organizers came to agreement with slum organizers to allow them free entry. Wangui Mbatia, a young slum organizer responded by saying, “We have been congregating on the roadside for 2 days explaining to the officials that we cannot afford the fees. They went to [the slums] and saw the worst part of our poverty. Now we want to come here for the Forum to see the best part of us.”

But it did not end there. Earlier on, many of us had noticed that almost all of the food suppliers (many paying sky-high fees) were assigned to a “food court” located far outside the gates without any clear signage and very few patrons. The only eatery inside the gates (and along the most prominent walkway at the WSF) called the Windsor Café, looked like a French bistro with waiters, white-attired chefs, a selection of international cuisine, and prices for entrees averaging around US$5. We later learned that the Windsor Café was an extension from a golf resort, owned by John Michuki, Kenya’s Internal Security Minister, infamously known as “Kimeendero” (the “Crusher”) for his role during British colonial times and his shutdown of one of Kenya’s national newspapers for its criticism of the government.

Once again, the slum dwellers and youth in particular, challenged this horrible irony by rushing and peacefully yet forcibly “reclaiming” Windsor Café on Wednesday! For those of us privileged enough to witness it, it was an incredibly inspiring sight – hundreds of youth from the slums surrounding the Café, advancing towards the grills, claiming the food, and quickly feeding their hungry selves while the chefs and wait-staff standing back perhaps in silent agreement.

These extraordinary events punctuated this year’s WSF like a sledge-hammer and I would be remiss if I did not report them. In fact, it points to the cross-roads the WSF faces. It has come under greater scrutiny that while it has been effective at providing a space for international debate, it lacked sharper political direction and tended to be insular. There is general consensus that the WSF needs broader participation from poorer countries and grassroots communities in general and will prove ultimately ineffective if it fails to do so quickly. Since no forum is planned in 2008 (an international week of actions has be set instead) and 2009 still unsure, there is little doubt that we are all keen to see a resolution soon.

Linda from the Korogocho slums summed it up well when we chatted and prepared to say good-bye on the final day, “You know, we fight, and we struggle, but sometimes its too tough. Just too tough. The government is against us, we are stigmatized by the media, the public thinks we’re criminals or just out to take advantage of the system. No one bothers about our rights, even the NGOs who are supposed to be helping us. We get so tired sometimes. But we know we have to keep fighting, keep struggling.” Hmmm, sounds just like the immigrant rights movement, huh?

(Special thanks to TerraViva for much of the information used in this article.)

No comments: