Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, World Social Forum

WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Kenyans Rekindle Old Flame

Mary Itumbi

NAIROBI, Feb 3 2011 (IPS) - “One of the things we will be taking to Dakar,” says Onyango Oloo, “is [knowledge of] how not to organise a World Social Forum.”

Members of the World March of Women at the 2007 WSF in Kenya. Credit:  Claudia Diez de Medina/IPS/TerraViva

Members of the World March of Women at the 2007 WSF in Kenya. Credit: Claudia Diez de Medina/IPS/TerraViva

Oloo was the national coordinator of the World Social Forum when it was held in Nairobi in January 2007, and observed firsthand the acrimonious controversy that surrounded the first WSF to be held in Africa.

“At the same time we would like to remember that the World Social Forum was the largest gathering to be held on Kenyan soil in terms of social movements. It ignited a lot of interest, even [from] some movements such as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex movement. They made their first launch, they had the biggest tent in [the Forum venue at] Kasarani… lots of interesting things happened.”

More than 200 people attended a pre-World Social Forum event organised by civil society in Nairobi on Jan. 29, drawn from various organizations that deal with human rights abuses, indigenous people rights, climate change and others. The event was held at the Ufungamano Hall, on the grounds of the University of Nairobi.

It was aimed at reviving interest from Kenyans in the World Social Forum. The 2007 edition drew criticism for both the highly visible presence of large international agencies and NGOS and high registration fees that kept many poor Kenyans out. Kenyan volunteers working at the event also complained of mistreatment. 

Reflecting, Oloo says that what is needed at the World Social Forum is the strong presence of social movements rather than NGOs.

“Social movements are generally progressive but not most of the time. For instance, [in Kenya] we have the movement of Mungiki that has millions of members. They do some good things but at times they are involved in dubious, almost criminal, activities. So a social movement in and of itself is not necessarily always progressive, but the ones I am talking about are the progressive movements for social change. Movements of the informal sector, of workers, of youth, of women – those are the kind of movements I am talking about.”

Njoki Njehu is from the Daughters of Mumbi Resource Centre, the hub of a  network of mostly women’s autonomous groups working on issues of food sovereignty, gender rights, civic and democratic participation.

She has been attending the World Social Forum since its inception in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001. Njehu agrees that momentum was lost after the 2007 Social Forum, but she says the members of her group had their thinking transformed by their participation in the Nairobi WSF.

“They were in a way encouraged to understand that struggle is a way of life. They may not always think of it as struggle, as one is fighting to try and get a bursary for your child, that it is not necessarily about your child but it is about access to education by every child. If you are fighting because somebody is selling illicit brew or bhang [marijuana] in your community or your not getting the services you need because you have a problem, then it’s not just about you, but about the services and the situation in your community.”

Betty Makena Mutugi has been the chairperson of the women’s committee of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) women for the last four years. She has been instrumental in pushing for participation in leadership positions by both young and older women in the union, as well as fighting for the rights of women in the workplace. Dakar will be Mutugi’s first World Social Forum.

“When I was called to come to this forum, it was good for me to prepare myself to see what the other groups were doing,” she said. Mutugi will be the only Kenyan representative from COTU but will find many other unionists from across Africa – and beyond – who will join forces to strengthen their common struggles.

“We have a big problem of privatisation and the government is taking advantage of that, saying that there is a problem or crisis. And when they are privatising these companies they are telling us we have to reduce the numbers of workers, to go home, and then when the owners come and buy the company, they bring their own people.”

Mithika Mwenda is the Coordinator of the Pan-african Climate Justice Alliance, and one of the organisers of the pre-World Social Forum.

“As you know, it is quite difficult for all of us to participate [in person]. So we asked ourselves how we can ensure that as many people as possible participate in this process, not necessarily being in Dakar but through the spirit of being in Dakar. Secondly, we believe that the World Social Forum is a huge opportunity to correct the injustices which has been committed against people for a long time.”

He says that the Jan. 29 meeting has captured the spirit of social movements by seeking to harmonise Kenyans across ethnic and class barriers.

“We started asking ourselves, yes we are going, but are we really linking with our colleagues at the national level? What are we taking there?” he said. “The spirit of the World Social Forum is people’s participation. It is to try to see how indigenous people at the very grassroots, how forest communities and poor people, people disabled, youth and all those can participate in the politics in our country and even at continental level.”

As Kenyans head for the World Social Forum in Dakar, they expect to share their experiences, and return home with new strategies and stories of hope that we can borrow from to achieve their goals of a better and more just society , as the World Social forum slogan says, “Another world is possible.”

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