Dispatches From Another Possible World
Take your pick of world social ills: militarization, deforestation, corporatization of agriculture, racism, HIV-AIDS, government corruption, chemical saturation, global warming, third-world debt, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the American-Iraq war, GMO’s, privatization of water, etc. You’ll find it being analyzed and addressed by one or more of the thousands of groups and individuals at the World Social Forum in Nairobi.
This is the 7th annual World Social Forum and the first time it has been held in Africa. The WSF is a social space for organizations and individuals form all over the world who conceive of and are acting towards a more just, a more peaceful and a more sustainable world
and against what they see as a world dominated by the rich and powerful and unjust economic policies that harm the most disadvantaged, mainly characterized by the World Bank, the IMF, WTO, militaries, corrupt governments, and the excessive corporate power driving many of these policies. Most here see the WSF as a network of people striving for grassroots change and democracy. I attended the Midwest Forum in June 2006 in Wisconsin which led me to consider going to the WSF in the first place. Europe, Canada, the United States and Latin America hold there own regional forums.
My experience here over the past week has been mixed. I have been alternately impressed and disappointed, overwhelmed, and inspired. Overwhelmed because of all the horrible, unnecessary, unjust things occurring everywhere in the world. It seems the same stories of displacement, oppression, health problems, war, etc. are ubiquitous. But I am also inspired because there are over 50,000 amazing people here trying to learn more and do something about it and you know that that is just a small fraction of the people around the world who also conceive of another possible world.
But many contradictions abound. For example, how is it that the WSF that prides itself on its independence from governments and business ends up with sponsorship by CELTEL a leading communications corporation here in East Africa? How is it that the leading food vendor is a hotel chain owned by a leading government minister? And that this vendor is selling food at high prices, out of reach of many of the poor the WSF claims to address and who also need to eat. How is it that the cheaper vendors were situated outside the main gate with no clear marking that they even existed? How is it that a forum that defends the poor sets fees out of reach of many of those same poor? How is it that a forum that hosts many groups working on environmental issues and sustainable alternatives doesn’t provide local, organic food to help the area farmers and the land or even have trash-bins, let alone recycling? Finally, how is it that a forum dedicated to organizing for a better world was so poorly organized itself. To list a few subpar aspects: the venue at Moi Sports Complex outside of Nairobi was less than ideal, there was little public information, registration was a mess, there was scant media exposure, and several of sessions that I and others attended simply were not taking place and most others started late or were changed without any message as to where it had been moved. Those that were attended were often very difficult to hear because of competing sessions or noise from outside or failed sound systems.
One could knit pick about a lot of things, but all said and done it was an amazing eye-opening and edifying experience. Apart from taking in a lot of information and learning about peoples’ stories from around the world, I was deeply inspired. First, it is rare to see so many diverse people come together in one place working for a more just world. People came from all corners of the globe: Asia, Africa, South America, North America, Europe. You look around the room during a session on nonviolent conflict resolution or food sovereignty and you see African Catholic nuns, white European progressives, Middle Eastern Muslims, small scale farmers from Ethiopia and Thailand, Latin American NGO reps, and Hindus. Race, gender, religion, sexual orientation fall by the way side to tackle the tough issues. Moments like that give you hope in humanity. And after my dose of some of humanity’s darkest sides at Auschwitz and Guatemala I needed that boost.
I attended sessions on food sovereignty, a session on the proposed Mexican-American border fence and the Israel Wall, a session on women farmers from all around the world, water privatization, free trade agreements between the EU and Africa, grassroots democracy initiatives, microcredit programs, and many other issues. The best moments were experiencing several of my heroes: Two of them are Vandana Shiva and Wangari Matthai. These women are extraordinary and we should be learning about them in schools the world over. As far as I am concerned they are the some of the most powerful voices of the present and future. Vandana Shiva is an Indian scientist and grassroots activist working for sustainable agriculture in India and now the world over. Sharp, articulate, passionate, powerful…the sort of women we should be learning about in school.
I also attended a session with 3 women Nobel Laureates. They are three of perhaps twelve recipients in the entire history of the Nobel Prize that have been women. A few of them joined together to form the Nobel Women’s Initiative. They have been working on justice and peace issues their entire lives but with the recognition that the Nobel Prize affords them felt compelled to work together to raise even more awareness.
Shirin Ebadi was one of the first female judges in Iran. Now she is lawyer and professor. She shared how when she won the Nobel Prize, there wasn’t even a news story in her home country of Iran. The next day there was a small blurb. She is a thorn in the side of the regime and religious conservatives because she is a lawyer who fights for democracy and defends the civil rights of women, children, and political dissidents. In particular she and Jody Williams are deeply concerned about their two countries going to war (The U.S. attacking Iran).
Jody Williams was perhaps the most eloquent and passionate. She is most famous for her work in establishing the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Wangari Maathai was the third. As I mentioned, she has been a hero of mine for a couple of years but I haven’t had the chance to learn a lot about her and her movement until I came here. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, established to help village women and stop deforestation and land grabbing by developers and corrupt Kenyan politicians. Over the last 30 years she has helped in the planting of tens of millions of trees all over Kenya and inspired campaigns all around the world. I read her amazing memoir called Unbowed (highly recommend it) when I arrived so I was excited when I found out she was going to be at the Forum. She was the first woman to receive a doctoral degree in all of East Africa. Now she is a member of parliament and minister for the environment.
It was fitting that my last session was facilitated by a man from my home state. He heads of the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative based in Des Moines, Iowa. Small world. The AAI is a network of NGO’s working towards sustainability and against the centralization of the entire chain of food–from see–to spoon in the hands of large corporations. Not only was it one the best and most informative sessions I attended, it even started on time!
I am so glad I attended the Forum. The energy and ideas were contagious and inspiring. Don’t ever lament that there are no Martin Luther King Jrs. or Gandhis in the world–there are plenty and many of them were at the forum working for another possible world.
~ by Ryan Van Lenning on June 2, 2009.