The official theme for this year’s World Social Forum, held in Nairobi, Kenya, from January 20 to 25, was “People’s Struggles, People’s Alternatives: Another World Is Possible.” But a sign carried by a Kenyan HIV/AIDS peer counselor at the opening rally in Uhuru Park on a hot and dusty Saturday afternoon offered a terser slogan that could have served as well for this edition of the annual alter-globalization confab: “You get rich, we die.” Though directed specifically to pharmaceutical companies that price antiretroviral drugs far beyond the means of most of the world’s 39.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS, Albert Musuagilu’s placard spoke just as pointedly for causes pressed by some of the most visible participants in this year’s WSF: debt cancellation, food security, land rights and public, potable water.
Like any aspect of the sprawling, chaotic people’s alternative to the World Economic Forum in Davos, this WSF–the seventh–has a meaning as particular as any of the myriad paths one might have traced through the six days of some 1,200 panels, workshops, rallies, marches, debates, performances, lectures, spontaneous kaffeeklatsches and late-night parties. Its significance can be found in the big initiatives that groups from all over the world agree to take on together–a new pan-African network against water privatization, for example, or the unveiling of a Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists. Or it can lie, less visibly but no less powerfully, in serendipitous personal encounters–a member of the US Hip Hop Theater Festival falling into the opening day march next to the young director of a theater project in Nairobi’s infamous Kibera slum and forging an ongoing alliance with him; a Somali woman who always yearned to set up women’s radio programming in her homeland by chance sitting down for an espresso next to Air America journalist Laura Flanders, who hooked her up with the Prometheus Radio Project, which teaches people all over the world to build low-power radio stations. Bringing together people who act locally for the purpose of strategizing globally, this WSF electrified legions of its 60,000 participants (more than 80 percent of them African). At the same time, some WSF veterans, craving a unified agenda and frustrated by logistical snags and ideological inconsistencies, questioned whether this formless, headless experiment in self-organized antiglobalization activities had run its course.
Located in Africa for the first time, this WSF stayed close to the ground in many of its program offerings. There’s nothing abstract about the effects of neoliberal economics in a country once rich in natural resources but ranked 152 out of 177 on the UN’s Human Development Index (and of the twenty-five that fare worse, all but one–Haiti–is in Africa).
Farmers, forest dwellers and hunter-gatherers from rural areas of Kenya, for instance, came to the forum with sagas of livelihoods ruined by multinational companies in the name of development. Residents of lush farmland an hour’s drive from downtown Nairobi described how the flower industry–Kenya’s second-largest export business–is draining Lake Naivasha to irrigate plants, thoroughly upsetting the ecological balance and thus a generations-old fishing trade that long sustained the community. Martin Simotwo, a soft-spoken 36-year-old Ogiek from the Mount Elgon area, took a seven-hour bus trip to bring the forum news of his people’s efforts to preserve the forests on which their way of life depends–even as logging and cotton industrialists bulldoze trees away, with the assistance of armed gangs and the blessings of the Kenyan government.
“Corporate wrongs are being played out starkly here in Africa,” said the South African poet Dennis Brutus. “And they are being challenged strongly here. The WSF helps us articulate that challenge.”