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Protests at the World Social Forum

By: 
Ewa Jasiewicz
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

It’s a brutally hot January day in Nairobi, where more than 60,000 people from 1,400 organizations and 110 countries are gathered for the 2007 World Social Forum. Under a bright white sun, a dozen or so child dancers from the plains of the Masai Mara are milling around outside a canvas-tented restaurant. The chefs inside are serving whole roast Tilapia, and firm hot pudding-bowl mounds of Ugali (boiled Maize) topped with shredded pork and beef. Diners are quietly tucking into their dishes at plastic chairs and tables.

More youngsters arrive outside—this bunch is a bit rougher, all boys, “slum-dwellers,” wearing worn-out, dusty clothes, and easy smiles. They’re also visibly hungry, their necks craning to take in the sizzling hotplates and polished, heaped salad cart.

More people show up, a ragtag of black, white, and brown. They sit down among the diners and some begin to speak to them. Did they know that the restaurant they were eating in was part owned by the Kenyan Minister for Internal Security, John “The Crusher” Michuki? Michuki, a one time District Officer serving in the British Colonial Administration in Nyeri during the massively repressed Mau Mau revolt had also ordered armed raids on The Standard newspaper and the Kenya Television News station in Nairobi in March 2006. Michuki is also responsible for security forces, which have been executing people in the settlements (“slums”) with impunity.

The diners meals have cost them around 500 schillings—$7, which is two whole days work in an Export Processing Zone or a week’s food for the average Kenyan, 60% (20 million) of whom live on less than a dollar a day.

Suddenly, the overpriced comfort zone erupts with singing, dancing, jumping and fist-pumping. Palestinian, South African, French, Belgian, Indian, and more are up on their feet; some are holding hands, some are banging drums, some are thumping plastic chairs. It’s a party, it’s a protest, it’s a celebration of the impending Take.

The singing turns to chanting, the children leading the demand, “We Want Food, We Want Food.” Negotiations ensue, backed by shouting and crowd-surging towards the steaming hotplates.

The management staunchly defends their overpriced wares. Negotiations reach a deadlock and a plastic chair gets thrown. Hands begin to grab. Those that can reach begin to help others, to plastic pups of fresh cold water, lumps of marble cake are snatched; kids cram towards the steaming hotplates, only hot glass between them and a full stomach; we are hundreds, the management cannot hold the line.

The restaurant is going to have to give it up to a surging, swarming, relentless quest for food. Protesters replace the waiters behind the hot plates and start serving food, and a swell of triumph rolls through the crowd. It’s a free-for-all; it’s ecstatic. Cheers and yelps and claps and more fists pump the air. Floppy cardboard plates with greasy pilau and shredded beef are yanked away by young lads who can’t believe their luck. Cold slices of ham, bread rolls, spoonfuls of chili sauce, grilled vegetables, roast potatoes, chopped salad, quartered butter chickens, every last scrap of food is dished up and given out, portion after portion disappearing into the hungry crowd.

This was the Nairobi World Social Forum—a celebration of global struggles over land, water, food security; resistance to war, occupation, imperialism, free market fundamentalism, governments and their “Graft” (Corruption). Unfortunately, the World Social Forum this year was also the most commodified and exclusive so far, sponsored by Celtel, Kenya Airways, and Brazilian oil company Petrobras.

Organizations wishing to host activities, to bring their issue to market and to put forward their agenda had to pay 30,000 schillings for the privilege—a price so unaffordable it reduced most poor Kenyans to spectators and subjects in the debates on their very own lives. Despite the daily morning protests forcing the gates open for the poor to get in free, many couldn’t even afford the bus fare to even reach the gates of the Forum.

People’s Parliament

The antidote to this economic lockout was to organize a parallel, free forum outside of but still part of the WSF. This is what Bunge La Mwananchi (The Peoples’ Parliament) created. Bunge is a 15-year-old voluntary, non-hierarchical Kenyan peoples’ movement. It organized the first African Social Forum in Nairobi in 2005 and has catalyzed a series of inspiring peoples’ campaigns and protests, including the food liberation action and the daily gate-crashings. Bunge set up an alternative 4-day event in the inner city Jevanjee Gardens. This was a grassroots, paid-from-the-organizers-own-pockets, free event in a park, with gatherings taking place under cloth canopies equipped with nothing but plastic chairs and a PA system. Two women’s groups from the Kamunkuji slums provided a meal and tea—50 schillings for a plate of rice and 10 for a cup of tea.

In the end, 4000 people—the vast majority of them poor Kenyans—took part. Internationals included Ponte Per, Novox, Alternatives International, Iraq Occupation Focus, Jubilee South, Kenya Land Alliance, Block G8, and the El Molo Rights and Development Forum. Participants discussed land policy and ownership, squatterism and landlessness, privatization, globalization, international trade and treaties, food security, employment, rights of minorities and indigenous populations, and socialism.

Exhausted workers and the unemployed slept in the grass at Jevangee; their arms shielding their eyes or providing a skin-pillow for their heads. They slept under trees, beside hedgerows, some oblivious to the forum; for this is a place to rest, to lay down ones head, to recoup.

The Peoples’ Parliament has been meeting regularly in Jevangee for over 10 years. Their corner of the park is a small tree-shaded corridor flanked by two opposing benches. A tree stump bridges the two—it is the stool of the “debate-master.” Intent men (few women attend) in smart shirts carrying folders and pens regularly come to think together, to listen to each other, discuss their problems together and try and find a solution together. They are inspired by their Mau Mau forefathers and Malcolm X.

In Kenya, 80% of the country’s wealth is owned by 10% of the population, while 80% of the arable land is owned by 5% of the population. Since 2003, the cost of food, fuel and transport has increased by more than 100%. Maize Flour—or Unga—a staple for Kenya’s poor, shot up from 27 schillings to 60 schillings in 2003. Following the Unga price hike, Bunge mounted an “Unga For 30 Schillings” campaign to agitate for a reduction in food prices.

According to Wangui Mbatia, one of the leading women activists in the leaderless Peoples Parliament, “the authorities nearly had a fit. The police refused to let us have license for demonstrations or processions, arguing that the campaign would spark a revolution! But the people were generally very happy with the idea of reduced food prices, and last year's budget reflected most of our recommendations.”

Bunge have run a series of campaigns on bread-and-butter (or unga-and-water) issues over the past 15 years of their existence. These include The Nile Water campaign against the Nile treaty authored by the colonial British Government that restricts Kenya’s access to the waters of Lake Victoria and the rivers around it; the Magadi Soda Campaign against a British conglomerate, which mines malakite (from which silicates are extracted) and supplies over 40% of the world's silicon; and the Constitution Campaign—an education and protest campaign for a Kenyan constitution that respects human rights, which saw three of their fellow protestors killed in prison following mass demonstrations.

People’s settlements

Many of Bunge’s organizers and members come from the peoples’ settlements (slums), which are home to over a million of Nairobi’s inhabitants. Settlements such as Kibera (the biggest settlement in Africa) are shanty settlements with open sewers, an HIV infection rate of 20% and the ever-present threat of eviction by bulldozer, courtesy of the Kenyan Government.

World Social Forum organizers arranged for participants to visit the slums of Nairobi, either by guided tour or on planned marches. To Wangui, who helps organize women in the settlements to fight for better living conditions, it was an affront: “One does not need to see the nakedness of our children to know that children have no clothes. I think the idea was insulting; one learns absolutely nothing about poverty after passing through a slum in a multitude.”

“People living in the slums have untold wealth,” Wangui continues. “They have each other. In fact, that other world that the WSF speaks of exists in the slums. Neighbors mind each other's children without any semblance of structured childcare, they provide credit to each other, they borrow foodstuffs from each other when they lack, they greet each other every morning ... they are socialists! Everyone minds the other when someone is sick, he's taken to the hospital by the neighbors, food is cooked and children minded. But one cannot see those positive things in one morning's procession through the slum. The result of such procession is a group of ‘activists’ dutifully horrified by the ‘extreme poverty’ they see, and to local NGOs, hope that the visiting donors will be even more agreeable to increasing the bottom-line in their proposals ... It leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.”

But the resilience, innovation, and anarchy of the Peoples Parliament left a sweet taste in the mouths of those who spent time with them. They sustained a sense and spirit of what social forums really can be and should be—D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) open events where people meet as equals and cooperate to change their material and social conditions, from the grassroots up, without selling out, and without giving up.

Ewa Jasiewicz was a delegate to the World Social Forum for the UK based Iraq Occupation Focus (www.iraqoccupationfocus.org.uk) and works for PLATFORM as a researcher/campaigner (www.platformlondon.org).