Day 2 of the Forum and the wazungu (white people) are all starting to turn various shades of pink from sunburns and heat exposure. The drums and singing are a constant thrum in the background as thousands move from workshop to workshop or just wander around sluggishly browsing the various stalls.
The temperature is rising in other ways too. More people have become disenchanted with the creep of corporatism at the WSF. As the noon sun further en-pinked the wandering wazungu, a critical mass of Kenyan activists marched through the restricted area where the WSF organizers are holed up and confronted some representatives with their concerns.
Some 200 activists – too many for the two security guards to hold back – chanted slogans including: ‘This is not the World Economic Forum! This is the World Social Forum!’, and: ‘Who is the manager? He is the damager!’ Professor Edward Oyugi, one of the members of the WSF Organizing Committee, soon found himself facing a barrage of questions, demands and accusations.
After some gridlock in the hallway was resolved, the protestors, Oyugi and other WSF representatives moved outside to one of the football stadium stands and a respectful though at times heated exchange ensued.
Protestors were incensed at the ‘mercantilist and profiteering’ prices of the food vendors. Prices are said to be from 5 to 10 times more than the average in Nairobi. Water vendors sell small 500ml bottles of water with similar price hikes. People were also outraged by the entrance fee for Kenyans, arguing that many local residents, particularly from the nearby areas directly around Kasarani could not afford to attend, and certainly couldn’t afford to buy any of the food. A demand was made to waive the entrance fee for people who can’t afford it. Professor Oyugi responded: ‘If we told every poor person in Nairobi that they could come for free to Kasarani, we’d have no room left,’ and then cited 'security risks' which some took to imply that poor people were likely to resort to crime. Activists countered that there was ample room in the massive stadium complex and the surrounding grounds and that it would be in keeping with the spirit of the WSF and its emphasis on openness and equality.
‘We are here to build a world without capitalism,' said Nathaniel, a student at Nairobi University. 'How can we claim to be doing that here when everywhere you see people profiting and others being excluded because they don’t have the shillings.’ Concerns were also expressed about the corporate sponsorship deals and questions over the use of monies raised through them. Cynthia, a Kenyan human rights activist, told me that they were outraged by the appointment of one of the committee members' wives as accountant, prompting concerns of corruption and nepotism. There was concern also about the treatment of volunteers some of whom said that they weren’t being given food and were forced to sleep on the grass or in tents near the stadium, while others were said to be better paid and housed in hostels.
Oyugi made some assurances about allowing other food vendors to sell food within the stadium at cheaper rates, and also made some mention about evaluating the policy for Kenyan participant fees and investigating the treatment of volunteers. However many activists were concerned that this was just a delaying tactic and that only a few days remained of the WSF, after which these issues would be harder to raise.
It remains to be seen how matters will be resolved, but there is little doubt that the WSF Organizing Committee has a few important questions to answer. Paradoxically, this spontaneous protest today was just the sort of thing that can happen here.
One thing is for sure. The Kenyan activists taking action today, have injected a vitality in the WSF that has up until now been somewhat lacking. Later in the afternoon, they were dancing and cheering on the pavement. Nearby Dalit groups took up the call and let rip. Further up the South African delegates joined the chorus. The feeling was one not necessarily of victory but; perhaps even more importantly – of empowerment.
It is in fact what we are all presumably here for – the struggle for equality and justice and the demonstration that ‘another world is possible’. Unfortunately, it seems that the WSF itself will be the very laboratory in which we will need to examine these maxims we claim to hold so dear. If people come to the WSF with the notion that somehow through all the chaos, logistical hurdles and sheer number of people and organizations, we must come to concrete solutions based on a clear agenda agreed upon collectively, then they might find themselves severely disappointed. If on the other hand, people see this not as a quasi-United Nations, but a truly open forum where just about anything can happen and things spark off one another, then they are in the right place. At the end of WSF, people will not have saved the world, but they may be in a better position to. La lucha continua.
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