Thursday, 25 January 2007

Stories From The World Social Forum

OK. It’s Thursday afternoon, and we’ve found an internet café (Cyber Surf!) with a fast connection. This means two things:

1) I can go back and intersperse all my previous blog postings with pictures, as I’d originally planned, hopefully making them a bit more interesting and fun to read;
2) There’s time to tell a few stories that I didn’t have time for earlier. Read on...if you dare! Or if you can be bothered.

Me, with People and Planet branding. It was a great organisation to be representing coz it gave me a reason to go to all the sessions with enthusiastic student activists, and also some of the Big Scary Issues (oil and gas extraxtion, HIV/AIDS, climate change) that P&P is working on.

Stupid White Man

Within the grounds of the WSF, I was just one more random nationality amongst hundreds. Out and about in Nairobi, however, I was very much Oh Look A White Guy, especially as most of the white residents rarely seem to walk anywhere. It made me realise just how unused I am to being a minority. It’s one thing to be stared at on the street if, say, you happen to be dressed as a wizard or an ostrich or something, but rather different to feel that you’re standing out just by being your normal self (assuming that you’re not actually a wizard or an ostrich, obviously). Of course, rather than being abused for being different, I instead get offered the finest, finest local deals by every hawker and taxi driver in the city, so I’m not complaining really.

Of course, this pales in comparison to the way all my natural awkwardness came to the fore the first few times I started chatting to people from less comfortable backgrounds than mine – which, here, is practically everyone. General conversation was fine, but as soon as things strayed into politics – which, again, is pretty much inevitable here – and it became clear just how soft and cosy my life was compared to theirs, and just how complicit my home country and my lifestyle was in so many of the things these people were struggling against, I started feeling guilty and stupid and stumbling over my words. Then, of course, I felt even worse because THAT meant I’d started seeing the person I’m talking to as an “activist” or, worse, a “victim” rather than a human being, at which point I generally collapsed into a bubbling heap of hopeless English embarrassment in front of their bemused faces.

Which of course is ridiculous. Here at the WSF, we are all working together to find ways to battle these problems as best we can, no matter where we’re from or why we’re involved. Luckily, I rapidly overcame this and was soon able to have entire conversations with people without going “Gosh, everything’s so CHEAP here, isn’t it! Oh, I mean, of course it is, compared to the UK, because oh yes, we were the ones who totally screwed over your economy and landed you with a load of dictators and corrupt leaders in the first place, and I probably sounded like I was gloating or something didn’t I, argh sorry oh hang on I think my friend’s calling me” and then running off to hide in a portaloo.

(The portaloos were amazing, by the way. They had people cleaning them constantly, and attendants to manage the queues, making them easily the nicest, freshest temporary toilets I’ve ever used. The WSF totally whups Glastonbury on this crucial point.)

This picture represents the exact, incredible amount of style and grace that I didn't display on many occasions during the World Social Forum

Anyway, the point is that even English awkwardness can be overcome if we all celebrate our common humanity by bonding over jokes about the boring speakers and giggling and eating overpriced food together. Or, perhaps, by not eating it…

Windsor Change

I didn’t see this, but I wish I had.

It seems that one of the two highly priced food stalls inside the stadium perimeter – provided by The Windsor Hotel – was owned by the Kenyan Minister for Internal Security. This delightful fellow’s checquered past apparently includes various brutal incidents against Kenyan campaigners in different posts under previous administrations, and today he oversees a police force best known for their “shoot first, then shoot a bit more immediately afterwards” policy (thirteen “suspects” were gunned down in a local shopping centre just a few days previously).

With the same calm but determined self-organisation that got the gates open to all, a group of activists led by the People’s Parliament stormed the stall, routed the staff, and, in their own words, “nationalised the Windsor Hotel”. Apparently the street children had a good lunch that day.

Note to future WSF organisers: putting dodgy, wealthy companies in charge of the catering instead of small local operators is up there with corporate sponsorship and lack of signposting in the Brilliant Ideas Not To Do Again category.

Brazil Nut

On Tuesday, I went to a workshop called “Participatory Democracy in Brazil”, looking forward to a lively debate and critique of this form of decision-making, and presumably of the gap between theory and reality when it came to Brazil. Imagine my surprise (go on, just imagine) when it turned out that this session on Brazilian government policy was being run by…the Brazilian government (plus a few of their supporters). So rather than a discussion of the pros and cons of participatory democracy, where it had succeeded and where it had failed, we got two hours of “Brazilian democracy is great, kids!” with a little bit of “Viva Lula!”. Even watching the incredible skills of the Portuguese-to-English translator in action couldn’t quell my nagging feeling that all was Not Quite Right.

I wish I knew more about Brazil. I sort of knew that the supposedly left-wing government had sold out in some way and done some dodgy stuff, but I couldn’t remember what or why. Nonetheless, I was determined to challenge them somehow, so decided to ask them how locally-based participatory democracy could possibly tackle global issues (actually, this is something that really interests me anyway). So I raised my hand, got boldly to my feet, strode towards the front, fell over my sandal, and landed face first in front of the Brazilian Minister for Human Rights.

Left to right: Official translator, important Brazilian community leader from the City of God, Brazilian Minister for Human Rights. Not shown: me, flat on my face in front of the table.

Perhaps it’s just as well that I didn’t ask them anything too difficult and hard-hitting. My case may have been slightly undermined.

OK, that’s enough for now, but I still need to tell you about the whole Climate Change debacle, my battle with my personal demons that somehow led to my doing a speech in front of the whole Social Assembly, and, of course, How We Met Reverend Billy. I also need to give you my general overview and analysis of the whole WSF process, what I learned, and what was achieved (bet you can’t wait for that). So more to follow soon.

Not too soon, though. We’re going to the Maasai Mara tomorrow.

There’s going to be elephants.


Elephants and lions.

I’m a bit excited.

Best wishes to you all,


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