Sunday, 21 January 2007

Saturday January 20th, 11.15pm, Westgate Villas

Just some of the joys of being an ex-British colony:
  • The currency is called the “Kenyan Shilling”, or “bob” for short.

  • Everyone drinks tea instead of coffee, even though coffee’s one of Kenya’s main cash crops (of course, it isn’t roasted, processed or packaged in this country because those bits of the process actually make money).

  • All of the newspapers, adverts, TV etc. is in English, even though Kiswahili is a much cooler-sounding language (even a simple “hello” is “jambo”, which is such a great word that I think I’ll keep using it back in the UK).

  • The English premiership is everywhere. It’s far, far easier to find out the results of an Arsenal-Chelsea match than to find out about anything that’s happening on the WSF programme.

  • A British visitor with even just a guide-book level knowledge of Kenyan history will be completely overwhelmed by just how friendly everyone is, considering just how much we totally screwed their country up and abused their citizens just a few decades ago. Of course, a cynic might suggest that being obviously white and therefore (relatively) wealthy might have something to do with inspiring some of that friendliness, but I prefer to believe that everyone is just really nice. Dammit.

This picture would totally support my earlier point if only Beckham still played in the Premiership

Today was a frantic whirl of registration, welcoming speeches, and overpriced bottles of water. While none of the speeches themselves contained anything of any great import (“Down with neo-liberalism! Viva Africa!”), there were some very interesting and slightly worrying things going on around the fringes. Jess and I met a guy called Charles from the local slums who wanted to go to the Forum but, having an income of less than $1 a day, couldn’t afford the $6 entry charge. In fact, a local movement called the “People’s Parliament” seems to have sprung up, offering a week of free workshops and meetings in direct competition to the WSF, for those without the money to attend the official gathering. Jess is planning to attend and write about it in her New Internationalist blog – in fact, she’s thinking of using her press credentials to at some point catch up with and challenge the WSF organisers directly on this very point. Should be very interesting, so keep an eye on her blog too.

Could you manage to look this hard whilst wearing this costume? I don't think so.

I’m not yet sure what to think of the WSF process as a whole. Registration took place at the Kenyatta National Conference Centre, and was kind of like registration for any major event – forms, queues, being sent back and forth between places – except that in most registration queues I don’t find myself standing between a group of youth activists from a Finnish left-wing coalition, and an Indian church campaigner. It was all a bit chaotic but then, with 150,000 people expected at the Forum, how could it realistically be any other way? The only major problem has been the lack of programmes – they ran out before we (and a lot of other slightly frustrated people) could get hold of one. Luckily, those well-known defenders of social justice Group 4 were providing security at the Conference Centre and soon calmed everyone down (actually, everyone was very well-behaved apart from a few raised voices).

Registration at the Kenyatta Conference Centre. Not shown: programmes. Because there weren't any.

After registration was the opening ceremony in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park. This involved lots of passionate speeches from the organising committee which, to be frank, were high on unifying slogans and low on actual content. Still, the atmosphere was fantastic, the park filled with an incredible cross-section of people, and the speeches soon gave way to music, dancing, and processions of cycle taxis (obviously). When they played “La Bamba”, Jess and I couldn’t help recalling that we’d once seen the guy who wrote that song, in a bar in Paris. At least, the barman said that he was the guy who wrote La Bamba, and as he was providing us with cheap mojitos we decided to believe him.

The opening ceremony in Uhuru Park definitely had a festival feel, except that instead of, say, a shout out to the Brighton massiv there were things like "Let me hear all the farmers in the audience right now! Now all the landless peasants! I can't hear you, migrant workers!"

Anyway. Lovely and unifying as the ceremony was, we couldn’t help feeling it was a bit of a lost opportunity to put things into clearer context – perhaps to frame what some of the great challenges facing us are (e.g. climate change, trade rules, HIV/AIDS), and point out how the Forum is meant to discuss alternatives to the current economic system and find positive ways forward. No-one said anything about any of the events coming up in the Forum, it was just lots of cheering everyone on and talking about solidarity. Which is fine, and important, but we came away with the impression that the Forum is principally a gathering-place for different activists and movements to link up and share ideas around their specific, individual issues and campaigns, rather than a place to bring all of these different issues together, discuss where they interrelate, and decide what sort of joint campaigning is needed to help to resolve them all. Still, maybe it’ll all make more sense when we get hold of a programme (although having looked at other people’s programmes, the whole thing mainly looks utterly overwhelming).

"Uhuru" means "Freedom". However, even in Uhuru Park, freedom must have its limits.

That night, we ended up in a bar that was rather too upmarket for my tastes, and notable in two ways. One, it sold mojitos that were more expensive than in a certain bar in Paris, and two, they played “Africa” by Toto. In Africa. I never imagined that would ever actually happen.

Danny xXx

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