As we arrived this morning at the stadium where the World Social Forum is taking place, the traffic had come to a standstill. Which is pretty normal for Nairobi. But as we got out of the car to walk the final distance it became clear that this was no ordinary gridlock. A noisy group from the Nairobi slums had decided to step up their campaign to force the WSF organisers into opening the event to any poor Kenyans who wanted to participate. They were marching up the road, singing, dancing and chanting ‘Everything free! Everything free!’ They had been up all night planning, and had set off before dawn in order to get here by 9am.
When they reached the first set of gates they were allowed straight through. This prompted a quick, passionate yet surprisingly efficient decision-making session: should they leave it at that, because at least they could all get in today? ‘No, comrades!’ was the emphatic answer - what about all the others who had also been marching and who were being blocked from getting in at other gates? It’s a point of principle. Why host the World Social Forum in Nairobi if the poor can’t join in the discussions because they can’t afford the entrance fee, or transport to get there, or food and water once they’re inside?
So we marched onwards, into the stadium, up to the organisers’ office and, finding it empty, the boisterous and rapidly-growing crowd gatecrashed the daily press conference. Representatives of the Peoples’ Parliament’, a 4-year-old forum set up by Nairobi’s poor to discuss the problems they face and organise to change them, climbed on top of the tables and spoke about why they were there and what their demands were.
‘When you come to Kibera (which is the biggest slum in Africa) you see the worst of us. You see our poverty and our problems. We want to show you the best of us’ explained an eloquent young woman who refused to give her name when asked: ‘It doesn’t matter. My name is my community’ she replied.
The organisers of the Forum, unused to being protested at and much more comfortable on the other, more righteous side of the barricades, had already decided to capitulate. Jose Chacon, a member of the Organising Committee from El Salvador, told the protestors that they were ‘a beautiful expression of energy,’ and that they were ‘very welcome. No one is going to stop you going to any activities.’
So everyone is now allowed in free. Free water is apparently available. The organisers say they can’t control the price of food but they will allow street vendors in who will sell to Kenyan poor at appropriate prices. Jose Chacon also tried to impart some words of wisdom to the group: ‘Your demands should go beyond the WSF. Every day I see a lot of Kenyans walking, from very early, into the town centre where they work. There are many gates there, and those are the important gates to bring down. I hope the energy you have shown continues in Kenya, because there are still a lot of walls, a lot of gates to get through.’
The WSF has really come alive today. Marching Sudanese workers chanting ‘Go away Bush! Go away Blair!’, Kenyan lesbians dancing raucously to ‘I will survive’ (it’s illegal to be gay here), African acrobat boys, shimmying Cuban dancers, the women of Guinea reacting to the current flare-up of violence in their country with signs protesting ‘Non a la barbarie du gouvernement Guinee’.
In fact, there are so many marches that they keep meeting each other coming the other way, to great whoops of delight and hugs of solidarity. Kenyan street traders are gradually colonising the whole stadium, filling up empty stalls and free spaces with brightly-coloured stuff to flog. There’s so much noise that people who are actually attending meetings are struggling to hear what’s being said. Not helped by the fact the microphones seem to have disappeared.
The technical problems continue (I’ve no idea if the internet will stay up long enough for me to post this blog, I’ve been trying for days), and there are tales of crime, even a rumoured hold-up in the press centre resulting in lots of journos getting their stuff nicked.
But it was never going to be easy holding such a huge event in Nairobi. This place is certainly buzzing with a chaotic, infectious revolutionary spirit. Tomorrow the programme has been given over entirely to the participants to shape, so that what they see as the most important issues can be fully covered, and plans can be made for how to translate everything that is happening here into the real world. It’s a crazy experiment, but it might just work. If the elusive gods of internet access smile upon me tomorrow, I will let you know.