Africa, Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights, World Social Forum

Q&A: Revolutions Are Not Widgets

Andrea Lunt interviews Kenyan activist ONYANGO OLOO

NEW YORK, Feb 8 2011 (IPS) - Behind the headlines of mass social forums and violent protests, fighting oppression and changing the world requires sustained grassroots action, according to Kenyan social justice activist Onyango Oloo.

Onyango Oloo Credit: Courtesy of Onyango Oloo

Onyango Oloo Credit: Courtesy of Onyango Oloo

With this year’s Feb. 6-11 World Social Forum in full swing, IPS spoke to Oloo, a writer, former political prisoner and national coordinator of the 2007 WSF, about climate change, the ongoing protests in North Africa and social movements in his home country of Kenya. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: What are the big issues being discussed at the 2011 WSF? A: This year’s event in Dakar is organised around what the WSF is referring to as “axes”. There are 12 of them, which range from issues of dignity, diversity, justice, gender oppression, recognition of sexual minorities, protection of the environment, climate justice and struggles against multinationals and global capitalism, peace and conflict transformation, to give a very truncated version.

I am particularly passionate about social movements and processes that lead to progressive national liberation triumphs all over the world, but especially in Africa.

Q: What is your take on the protests occurring across North Africa? Why are they happening now and do you believe they could spread to other regions of the continent? A: I am quite enthused and inspired by what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia. Revolutionary upsurges, contrary to mainstream media hype, are very different from a kettle of tea boiling over all over a sudden.

What is happening today in North Africa is the culmination of struggles, victories and reverses that have happened over many decades and are a product of many social contradictions – not the least of which is the disconnect between the machinations of neo-liberal imperialism and the popular aspirations for democracy, social justice, peace and a better society.

Revolutions by their very nature are not manufactured commodities from some factory conveyer belt that can be exported “willy nilly” to other countries. Nevertheless, the power of example should act as a catalyst for other national liberation struggles around Africa and the Middle East.

Q: How is climate change affecting populations in Kenya? How can social activism address issues being driven by climate change? A: Profoundly. Livelihoods are affected. Water towers are threatened. In Kenya, the fact that greedy speculators who have grabbed some of the rainforests and other natural reserves also happen to be powerful politicians means that the ripple effects of climate change will sooner, rather than later, spill over to the arena of class conflict and social unrest.

To me, climate change justice is part of the wider social justice and political transformation agenda. Human beings are part of the environment and therefore whatever they do, or is done to them, contributes one way or another to the degree to which global humankind finds lasting, sustainable solutions to the challenges foisted on mother earth by climate change.

We are lucky that one of the key organisations spearheading our Kenyan presence in Dakar is the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, the Nairobi-based secretariat of the continental climate change network.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most important social movements happening in Kenya at the moment? A: This is a question that is difficult, if not impossible to answer. In the first place, one cannot put social movements in any kind of hierarchy of “importance” in Kenya. In the second place, and to be quite candid, social movements in Kenya are still by and large, very weak with many of them in their nascent stages.

Some of them have been captured by Western-funded NGOs so their agendas are mere adjuncts of the funding priorities of North American and European donor agencies. Nevertheless, I would single out Bunge la Mwananchi as having made significant forays in disturbing the complacency of the neo- colonial status quo.

Q: What are some successful or alternative models of development in your country, or in Africa as a whole, that could be transferred to other areas of the globe? A: There is a lot of indigenous knowledge that is often “pooh poohed” by the mainstream Western media. I am talking about the reservoir of knowledge and praxis in the area of herbal and traditional medicine. Over the last few years even the medical mainstream is acknowledging that alternative/traditional health practices have offered palliatives and healthier approaches in dealing with ailments and conditions like diabetes, heart disease, prostrate cancer, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Rwanda has shown the way in dealing with peace and conflict transformation through their gacaca courts set up in the aftermath of the terrible genocide of the mid-1990s.

African farmers, like their Asian counterparts, have superior methods of preserving the ecosystem and conserving seed knowledge in contrast to the Monsantos of the world.

In my opinion, fellow Kenyan compatriots from the Maa speaking peoples have demonstrated a resilience in holding onto to their culture without becoming historical relics consigned to museums.

African women, like the women of the Umoja Peace Village near Nanyuki in central Kenya, have come up with models of feminist empowerment rooted firmly within their reality as rural, pastoral ethnic minority communities – a shocker to those who believe that feminism in Africa is a preserve of urban based, university educated petit-bourgeois women.

Q: What’s the best way for social activists to have their voices heard and to ensure ideas discussed at forums such as the WSF are translated into real policy changes at the national and international levels? The best way to have their voices heard is not to wait for annual and periodical events like the World Social Forum. We talk best through conscious, united, concerted and sustained political action at the local, national and continental level.

What I am saying in other words that activists should not pine for the fleeting sound bites on CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera or even dare I say, IPS, but rather listen to their own sisters and brothers speaking to them at home, in the local community and in their own countries as they analyse and organise around their specific oppressions and challenges.

That way, when they do make it to places like Dakar and Porto Alegre, what their comrades and companeros from around the world will be hearing will be powerful echoes from their own struggles back at home.

Incidentally, I did not make it to Dakar this year because I did not have any money to get on the plane to Senegal. Many activists around Africa faced this challenge. It is a rueful reminder of the class dictated constraints to participating in such events like the World Social Forum – even when they take place on the same continent you call home.

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