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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Activists Determined to Take On Globalisation’s Challenges

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jan 26 2007 (IPS) - The mammoth World Social Forum (WSF) wound to a close in the Kenyan capital after five days of dialogue, art, poetry, dance, drama and protests led by participants from around the globe who believe “another world is possible” – the slogan of the global civil society movement.

Some 50,000 delegates braved the sweltering heat to discuss “illegitimate” debt, HIV/AIDS, shelter, joblessness, and unfair trade with the rich nations, among other concerns. Unusual for Nairobi, described as the “Green City in the Sun”, temperatures stayed at over 25 degrees centigrade.

Wiping beads of sweat from their faces, many participated in a 15.5-km marathon for “basic rights” that snaked through the city’s teeming slums on Thursday, the closing day. There are 199 slums in Nairobi, most densely populated and severely lacking in basic services.

Starting at Korogocho, a slum in eastern Nairobi, the marathon’s finish-line was in Uhuru Park, and was marked with a massive rally. It was at this same park that the Forum had opened on Jan. 20.

“The fact that the first full WSF has taken place here in Kenya, on Africa’s soil is a big celebration. For me, it is a dream that I always had since I began engaging with the WSF. It is an acknowledgement that the world is in solidarity with Africa,” said Wahu Kaara, a member of the Africa Social Forum council. The council is part of the WSF international organising committee.

Speaker after speaker addressed the sea of people who had gathered. Some chose to make parting speeches, others took stock of the discussions over the previous few days.

“The issues that emerged were very important – water, human rights, the question of illegitimate debt, housing, and many more. I am sure we have planted the seeds of hope,” Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate said.

“But the challenge remains what we shall do when we go back home. Remember the story of the little humming bird,” she told IPS.

Maathai was referring to a story she repeatedly narrated at the Forum of how a tiny but determined humming bird successfully put out a huge forest fire. While much bigger animals in the forest watched from afar, the bird made several trips to the river, bringing water in its little beak, to douse the raging fire.

“We should not feel overwhelmed by the huge problems facing us. However small you are, you can make a difference to create a better world for all people, for Africa,” she kept repeating through the five days.

The Nairobi WSF was the first hosted solely by an African country. Initially convened in 2001 in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre by local civic organisations, the annual forum travelled to Mumbai, India, in 2004 – and was held in several venues in 2006: Malian capital of Bamako; Caracas, Venezuela; and the Pakistani financial hub of Karachi.

The WSF was founded in opposition to the World Economic Forum, held at the same time in the Swiss resort town of Davos. While the economic forum brings together business and political leaders from around the globe, the WSF draws mainly civil society representatives who reject globalisation in its current form.

“Governments are excluded from participating, but they are included in organising the WSF. They know what the forum is about, they can learn and do what they think should be done to build a better world,” Chico Whitaker, a member of the WSF International Council, said in an interview with IPS.

Participants have also much to learn from each other. Brazilian activist Ramos Filho shared how he has been making a difference in addressing HIV/AIDS in his country.

A professor of law from Itajai district in Santa Catarina, he has since 1998 distributed more than 100,000 condoms in the country. The condoms are inscribed with poems about HIV/AIDS, as a way of raising awareness about the disease that continues to be challenge to developing countries.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 64 percent of the world’s HIV population. But burdened by debt repayment, governments in most poor countries are not able to provide for even basic health services. In Kenya, debt servicing costs 22 percent of the total budget. There is not enough money to improve living standards for Nairobi’s poor living in slums.

Korogocho, which means “confusion” in the language of the Kikuyu, is Nairobi’s fourth largest slum. Spread over 1.5 square km, its mud-walled shacks are covered with an assortment of rusting iron sheets, polythene and cartons. There is no sewage system or safe drinking water facility.

The settlement becomes virtually impassable during the rainy season, when sewage also spills into shacks, posing a serious health threat. Mountains of garbage and scarce water provision add to the health hazards.

The marathon sought to remind governments that issues in slums needs to be given serious attention.

For some delegates at the Forum from the developed world, it was also a first opportunity to get close to rural poverty in the developing world.

“It is a good experience to see how slums in Africa look like. But I am saddened that the conditions are so inhuman. A better world must be possible for slum dwellers. Governments must put in efforts to create this world for their citizens,” said marathoner Alvaro Angeleri, a runner from Italy.

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