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(DV) Flaherty: World Social Forum Diary







World Social Forum Diary 
by Jordan Flaherty
January 24, 2007

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This week, tens of thousands of people, representing nearly every nation and people, are gathered to strategize, debate and struggle for solutions to worldwide problems of injustice and inequality.  For the first time, the World Social Forum has come to Nairobi, Kenya. The global conference is situated in a massive sports complex neighboring the slum of Korogocho, where tens of thousands of Kenyans live in abject poverty, a vivid demonstration of the themes discussed at the Forum, and a contrast to the wealth of many of the conference participants from the so-called "developed world." 

As with many Nairobi slums, Korogocho began when squatters built shacks on empty government land.  Most of these original squatters later rented these small structures out to families who pay up to $10 per month in rent to live in a space with no running water, stolen electricity, and the constant threat of government eviction. Nairobi has at least 200 slums, where almost half its population lives, according to local activists. 
At a visit today to a small school on the edge of the slum, teachers told me of the conditions they work under. We talked in one of ten cramped classrooms, less than 10x10 feet, with almost nothing in the way of desks or other basic supplies. These ten rooms, and fifteen teachers, serve 450 children.  A hubcap hanging from the wall acts as a schoolbell.  Several of the basic stone rooms have no ceiling.  Many of the students are orphans, whose parents have died from AIDS. Sewage runs in a river just past the school. 
The teachers described concerns around security, as drug-addicted armed youth roam through the neighborhood.  "We have to shift our hours according to the threat," Paul, one of the teachers, told me. The police do not enter the camp, which may be for the best, as Kenyan police inspire more fear than the gangs. "If you see the police coming, you turn the other way as quickly as you can," Cynthia, a young volunteer with Youth Initiatives, Kenya (YIKE), told me. "If they catch you, they will ask for a bribe, and if you can't pay them, they will lock you up.  If you are arrested, you have no rights." This month, sixty civilians have been killed by the police. Thirteen last Saturday, and seven just yesterday.  There is no oversight into police killings. 
Humphrey Otieno, with the Nairobi People's Settlements Network, another grassroots group active in the slums, also complains of police harassment, "In talking about rights issues, especially with this administration, you can be caught, detained -- four of our group are in prison, charged with no proof."  These activists have been held for six months so far, according to Otieno. 
Nairobi, like many cities, is a place of contrasts, where those who can afford it live in gated communities, shop at gated stores, and eat at gated restaurants, never seeing the approximately 1.5 million slum dwellers living nearby.  Paul, the schoolteacher, told me, "Some people in Nairobi, if you mention to them Korogocho, they will say, 'Korogocho, is that in Kenya?'" This year's Forum, like much of Nairobi, is behind gates and walls, and guarded by heavily armed Kenyan police, a source of much tension at the conference. 
Initiated in Brazil in 2001, the World Social Forum is envisioned as an annual gathering of grassroots movements from around the world.  Organizers describe it as "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas -- and inter-linking for effective action." Begun as a counterpoint to events such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the rich and powerful gather to make decisions that affect the poor, the World Social Forum is envisioned as a forum to present perspectives excluded from such elite gatherings. 
The Forum is a hectic and at times overwhelming gathering, with perhaps a hundred panels, cultural events, discussions, meetings, or demonstrations happening at any one time.  Walking through the conference grounds at the sprawling Moi Sports Center, a vast complex of tents and buildings on the outskirts of Nairobi, it seems at moments as if the entire world is represented.  Africa, which has been underrepresented at past forums, is definitely visible in large numbers this year.  The five day conference begins each morning at 8:30am, and some events continue until late in the evening. 
Among the hundreds of topics presented you can find discussions among African youth about democracy and movement building, several presentations on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast sponsored by the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, workshops on nonviolent strategy and tactics, panels of veterans from third world liberation struggles, teach-ins on the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, and much more, including a workshop called Open Government Through Mass Document Leaking. Throughout the conference, participants march and demonstrate on a range of issues, including a march today against war in Somalia, and yesterdays march of disabled Ugandan activists chanting, "you laugh because you think we are different, we laugh because we are the same." 
This year's events began with a public concert on Saturday in downtown Nairobi's Uhuru Park.  One of the first speakers was legendary Palestinian resistance figure Leila Khaled, who called for international sanctions against the Israeli state, the closure of Guantanamo prison, and for an international struggle against oppression and colonialism.  "When imperialists describe the people's resistance, they call it terrorism, when they are the real terrorists," she said later.  This is Khaled's third Forum, she told me, adding, "These Forums are very important.  It's a time when people can meet from different parts of the world, we can network with other movements, and build solidarity." 
Outspoken criticism of US policy and imperialism continued throughout the weekend, as Kenyan Forum organizer Oduor Ongwen declared "One American life should be no more valuable than one Iraqi life.  One life of a corporate chief should be equal to the life of one slum dweller in Kibera." Referring to the Ethiopian military presence in neighboring Somalia, Professor Edward Oyugi, another Social Forum organizer, declared, "The war next door is an American war by proxy," 
Among the demonstrations at the Forum have been daily protests against the Forum itself, especially focused on the high costs of attending the Forum, placing attendance out of reach of most Kenyans.  Conference organizers replied that the Forum already has a sliding scale, where registrants from "Global North" countries such as the US and Europe pay $110 while Kenyans pay about seven dollars. Organizers also claim that of the 46,000 people registered for the Forum in the first two days, 7,000 were free scholarships given to Kenyan grassroots organizations. 
Despite these assurances, protestors remained dissatisfied, and a contingent of slum dwellers, joined by conference participants, marched through the gates and into the Forum. At the Forum, everything is up for debate, including the rules of the forum. As a Ugandan activist said at a Saturday panel called Memories of Resistance, "The question posed here, is do we, the people, want to be architects of our world, or just interior decorators?"  It is this hope, the hope that a better, more just and democratic world can be constructed through these encounters, that lies beneath this gathering. 
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He can be reached at neworleans@leftturn.org
For more information on Kenyan organizations mentioned in this article: 
Youth Initiatives -- Kenya: www.yike.org 
Nairobi People's Settlements Network:  

Other Articles by Jordan Flaherty

* War and Reaction in Ethiopia
* Catastrophic Failure: Foundations, Nonprofits, and the Continuing Crisis in New Orleans
* Continuing Crisis in New Orleans' Schools
* Organizing Lessons From One Year After The Devastation of New Orleans
* The Katrina Anniversary
* The People United: Worker’s Rights Organizing in New Orleans
* Elections Fever
* Guantanamo on the Mississippi
* Nothing Stops Mardi Gras
* Imprisoned in New Orleans with Tamika Middleton
* Privatizing New Orleans
* Loss and Displacement at the Calliope with Jennifer Vitry