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Poverty bites WSF on the backside

As we arrived at the stadium where the 2007 World Social Forum was taking place – a vast concrete Chinese-built vanity project of former Kenyan dictator Daniel Arap Moi – the traffic ground to a halt. While this is pretty normal for Nairobi, it soon became clear that it was no ordinary gridlock. A noisy group of Nairobi slumdwellers had decided to step up their campaign to force the Forum organizers into opening the event to any poor Kenyans who wanted to participate. They marched up the road, singing, dancing and chanting: ‘Everything free! Everything free!’

When they reached the first set of gates they were allowed straight through. This prompted a quick, passionate and 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 at other gates? It’s a point of principle. Why host the WSF 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 where the boisterous and rapidly growing crowd gatecrashed the daily press conference. Representatives climbed on top of the media tables to let all present know why they were there.

‘When you come to Kibera [the biggest slum in Africa] you see the worst of us. You see our poverty and our misery. We want to come here and show you the best of us,’ explained an eloquent, forceful young woman named Wangui Mbatia. ‘This is supposed to be a conversation between those who have and those who have not. We cannot change the world if we are having a one-sided conversation. To ask us to pay seven dollars in order to discuss our poverty is criminal!’

The organizers of the Forum, accused by Mbatia of being ‘well-to-do NGO executives who wouldn’t know poverty if it bit them on the backside’ were clearly unused to being the targets of protest. They had already decided to capitulate. Jose Chacon, a member of the WSF Organizing Committee from El Salvador, told protestors they were ‘a beautiful expression of energy’, and ‘very welcome. No-one is going to stop you going to any activities.’

So, from day three of the Forum, everyone was allowed in free and the poorer citizens of Nairobi were far more in evidence. Some even audaciously ‘nationalized’ a prohibitively expensive food stall owned by the clearly unpopular Minister for Internal Security. All the food was cleaned out, given away mainly to hungry street children. Then the activists, ever helpful, packed up the stall. It didn’t come back the next day.

It’s a shame these activists had to focus so much of their energy simply on getting a fair deal from the WSF organizers. Let’s hope the revolutionary spirit that was so much in evidence has a lasting impact on the flagrant injustices that continue to pervade Kenya; indeed, scar the entire continent.

New Internationalist issue 399 magazine cover This article is from the April 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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