Out of Africa

Out of Africa

The World Social Forum marched into Nairobi full of conflict, action and ideas.


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.”

It’s not that Kenyans, and Africans more generally, hadn’t already expressed their opposition to resource plundering, forced displacements and policies that favor profits over people–Simotwo’s local group, for example, is a member of the Kenya Land Alliance, an umbrella of more than eighty-five organizations founded in 1999 to press for progressive land reform. Indeed, as the KLA’s materials narrate, land grabs enriching the prosperous and politically well connected date back to the colonial period, when the best agricultural territory was reserved for white settlers; since independence, corrupt leaders have often doled out land as patronage payoffs. The effects of corporate globalization–often so shocking to those Western activists newly encountering such issues as water privatization, seed patenting, resource and capital extraction, the starvation of farming communities made hungry by a forced shift to single-crop, export-only agriculture–are a sadly familiar story in Africa: same old plot, even some of the same old characters, if now with the ever more powerful weapons of free-trade agreements and World Bank pressures. To confront these forces in Nairobi–amid its energetic downtown urbanity, enormous NGO stratum, festering slums, gaping income disparities and world-record robbery rate–was to stand on the pulse of the racing heart of neoliberalism.

Numerous speakers remarked on the power of holding the WSF in the place where humankind was born. The African continent is also the source of the global North’s abiding prosperity–accrued on the basis of Africa’s natural resources and on the laboring backs of its captured people. “Who owes whom?” asked a poster announcing a session featuring economists and activists from Malawi, the Philippines, Ecuador, Brazil and India on ecological debt–the idea that industrialized Northern countries ought to compensate those in the Southern Hemisphere for ravaging their environments as the North has mined, clear-cut, dammed and drilled its way to wealth. And now, with the advent of the Pentagon’s “Africa Command,” the continent is the newest front in the “war on terror.”

Simotwo and other African pastoralists joined a two-day conference inside the WSF on “food security and agricultural reform” organized by La Via Campesina, an international movement of peasant organizations and agricultural workers, which launched an African campaign at the forum. More than 250 people packed into one of the scores of makeshift meeting rooms marked off by tarpaulin walls in the bleachers of the Moi International Sports Centre, where the forum spread itself out through the gated grounds. Maize growers, goat herders, beekeepers, cotton pickers and flower workers from far-flung places crowded under banners promising “another countryside is possible.” This–as in dozens of meetings scattered throughout the forum on such topics as “Implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in Non-conflict Zone Countries,” “Right to Health,” “Art and Activism,” “China in Africa,” “WikiLeaks.org: Open Government Through Mass Document Leaking”–was articulating a challenge in another sense of the word: It was creating the joints to connect autonomous local efforts to one another, enabling them to move in a coordinated way.

Every issue under discussion took its moment in the blazing sun, with banners, songs and often dances declaring the presence of different movements: the stomping sandals of “women moving together” for “women’s empowerment in Zambia” over here; the steady drum of Dalit marchers there; Ethiopians promenading in intricate, unison steps against militarization; Ugandans with disabilities chanting about human difference.

Critics of the WSF–outsiders writing in the local press and participants blogging from inside–made fun of these manifestations, sniping that it’s pointless to picket an audience of comrades in a closed space. But they missed the point: More an act of self-interpellation than protest, the processions were the means by which disparate concerns announced themselves as part of a world movement. “We are organizations from all over Kenya and Africa meeting each other for the first time,” said Lilian Njehu, of the Kenyan women’s group Daughters of Mumbi. “And we are strengthened because the rest of the world is coming here to say no to the same things we are saying no to.”

The WSF, in other words, was the coming-out party for the collective force of African social movements–and quite literally for the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya. GALCK hosted a tent called the Q-Spot, where hundreds of LGBTI people gathered daily for incisive panels–such as a high-powered discussion of antihomosexual laws around Africa and strategies for defeating them–and for informal group talks, involving straights and gays alike, leaning into discussion circles to hear about safe, hot sex.

The Q-Spot buzzed with the same sort of revolutionary energy as the Via Campesina meeting: cohorts finding each other and making fast friends and common cause–whether over corn cultivation or condom distribution. But the queer activists faced an instantaneous backlash, with rebukes in the Kenyan press, and even opposition among their ostensible allies. At the WSF’s closing rally, a Ugandan lesbian took the stage to denounce criminalization of homosexuality, debunk the notion that it is “un-African” and assert some queer pride; people in the crowd shouted obscenities at her.

Pointed protests did explode within the Sports Centre, directed at local WSF organizers and bringing to light both local corruption and the inescapable contradictions of trying to create any kind of alternative island in a sea of global capitalism. Hundreds of Kenyans from Nairobi slums objecting to the $7 registration price (for people from the North it was $110), in a country where most people earn less than $2 a day, crashed the gates on the first two days of the forum, winning a reduction to about 75 cents, and then a total scrapping of the fee. Later they stormed a food concession inside the stadium, which had been given a central locale for peddling its $8 plates of chicken while small, independent food stalls were relegated to the fields on the other side of the complex’s fence. Worse, the five-star enterprise was owned by Kenya’s Minister of Internal Security. Seeking to shut the restaurant down while highlighting the plight of Nairobi’s poor, protesters seized the day’s spaghetti and stew and shared it among the crowd.

The leader of the protests, a fiery young woman named Wangui Mbatia, set up in a downtown Nairobi park a parallel forum for those initially priced out of the Moi Stadium: the People’s Parliament. There, for two days, Kenyans–mostly men, mostly speaking in Kiswahili–debated government corruption, the housing crisis and global capital. “Don’t burn down my house and then offer me a blanket!” cried one participant, summing up the way rich countries deplete and impoverish Africa and then bring in relief industries.

For Cândido Grzybowski, a Brazilian sociologist and a co-founder of the WSF, who continues to serve on its International Coordinating Committee, the demands on the WSF by poor people represented not so much a critique of the forum as an advance. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the WSF was born (and supported by a local left-wing government), he said, “people from the favelas were not there. This is not a new issue. Our trouble in the forum is elitism.” He cited research by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (which he directs) showing that some 10 percent of participants in Porto Alegre, and 42 percent at the 2004 WSF in Mumbai, held a master’s degree or doctorate–and the incomes that go with them. That less privileged people were banging on the gates in Nairobi was, by his reckoning, a leap forward.

Unlike in Latin America, social movements in Africa often find support–or even impetus–from NGOs and churches, which thus had a far larger, and contentious, presence in Nairobi than at any WSF so far. NGOs set up the biggest, most well-appointed tents at the sports complex and bused in many of the grassroots African participants. Some evangelical groups, on hand to take part in discussions about ecological and human rights causes, openly proselytized.

These awkward juxtapositions provided grist for those WSF veterans arguing for a more centralizing and coordinating role for the WSF as it approaches its eighth year. The genius of the forum–its very purpose–has been its horizontal organization: Whoever subscribes to its charter of principles–opposition to “neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism,” acceptance of the forum as “a plural, diversified, non-confessional, non-governmental and non-party context” and so on–is welcome to host a session. No planners, no shapers, no inviters (just some managers who group the offerings under thematic rubrics and assign them slots in the schedule). The forum as such does not issue statements or initiate actions–though in the Assembly of Social Movements, which follows its last sessions, groups assert their plans and ask for solidarity. (The February 2003 worldwide mobilization against the war in Iraq grew out of such a meeting.)

Much of the forum’s meaning lies in this new culture of organizing–frustrating as it can be in action. Corporate consultants who are paid fortunes to help companies be more efficient would take one look at the WSF and lash it with their current buzzword, “silos”: the tendency of different segments of an entity to carry on separate discussions without integrating their efforts or sharing their breakthroughs. A “peace assembly” at the WSF, for example, flung around trusty, fusty rhetoric about US imperialism and the “logic of the expansion of the capitalist system,” which feeds the “war on terror”; but there were no Africans in the room, and there was no reaction to the US bombing of Somalia that had just taken place–and that Somalis at the forum had protested the day before. Wars in Congo and other parts of Africa–discussed in small sessions–didn’t even blip onto the radar screen of the “peace assembly.”

The forum need not try to become a Fifth International in order to assert a priority or two and try to synthesize a few ideas, suggested Trevor Ngwane, an antiprivatization activist from Johannesburg. What if, he wondered, the WSF named, say, debt cancellation as one year’s theme, gave it some plenary space in the program and called for a day of international action?

It’s the participants themselves, Grzybowski counters, who can make that happen–and in some ways, they are now being challenged to do so. Next year the WSF will take a breather as many participants are finding the annual drain on resources and energy for their home-based activism too much to bear; it will resume in 2009, at a place yet to be chosen. Meanwhile, for next January–coinciding, as the WSF always does, with the World Economic Forum–the WSF calls for a day of international action, which, true to form, will take shape through the thrilling, thorny process of global coordination and local initiative.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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