World Social Forum, Shantytowns and a New Camera
Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
165Trip End Ongoing
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Seeing as this was a backpackers' hostel in Nairobi, let's face it, there was a good chance that what was happening out back either involved illicit substances or illicit sex. As it turned out, it was neither.
Nairobi is a city of over 3 000 000 people. The Kenyan GDP per capita is about $1100 U.S. a year. That works out to an average of about $3 a day. While, of course, many are making much more than this, many are also making less. Taking this type of poverty in account, and the relative ease and low cost of small arms in this part of Africa, it is no wonder Nairobi has been dubbed "Nairobbery". Despite the crushing poverty, and the justified reputation for crime, most Nairobi residents are good people, trying to make their way through life in more difficult circumstances than most in the West will ever understand. Land is at a premium, with little to no living assistance from the government. People make due as best as they can, sometimes forming little communities perched illegally on unused ground within the city. These squatter communities, despite being charged rent by unscrupulous landlords, were not paying taxes to city council and were not officially "on the grid."
Sometimes the city decides that a message needs to be sent. This was what was going on out back.
Just before midnight the police and bulldozers rolled in. From behind the 10 foot corrugated fence of the backpackers, crying, screaming, and angry yells could be heard. The roar of the bulldozers, rattling of corrugated walls as the improvised homes came down, and smashing of household goods added to the soundtrack of misery. Climbing up onto some discarded car doors, I managed to snap a few photos of people throwing things out of the side windows of one of the houses in an attempt to salvage something before the bulldozers crushed everything. It was very dark, and not wanting to call attention to myself, I did not use any flash, so the photos are mostly indecipherable. One woman managed to get to the top floor of the hotel next to us and filmed the chaos below.
This type of event, unfortunately, is not an isolated occurrence in Nairobi, nor do I suppose, in any part of the world where the gulf between rich and poor is so large and uneven. It was the timing of it that had many scratching their heads and led to a particularly angry response. The World Social Forum was in town, and a number of the estimated more than 50,000 participants were staying in this hostel.
The World Social Forum happens every year. It was initially set up to provide a voice for those people and groups who reject, or at least very strongly challenge, the precepts of neo-liberal globalization espoused by such groups as the G8 Economic Forum, the IMF, and the World Bank. The forum attempts to publicly give a voice to the voiceless, the forgotten faces of the people, who more often than not are the ones who grew your coffee beans, sewed your shirt, and harvested the rubber for your SUV tires, but made pennies in the doing so. It tries to provide a forum where those who challenge the status quo to discuss ideas and strategies to help the less fortunate and place social justice issues back on the world agenda. And as a event that places everyone from evangelicals to anarchists in the same space, it is also chaotic, controversial, and a mess.
This is not to dismiss it as inconsequential. The nature of any event like this is bound to be controversial. There seems an inherent weakness to the liberal, more left wing argument when faced with the more conservative pundits and groups in the world. Conservatives, by the nature of their more closed and defined beliefs are given a more secure stance to argue from. In their moral absolutism, they can rage and rant at the relativistic and vague tenets of the Left. They can clearly define exactly what and who it is they are fighting for, because most times it is very specific and clear - it is themselves and others like them (whether racially, nationally, or economically).
The Left has a harder time. It is trying to watch out for everyone. It is based in more Humanistic precepts; that nations and social classes are not and should not be the determining factor for world wide standards of living and human dignity. They are the "other" category on every government form and have the unfortunate responsibility of allowing everyone to have a voice - from Basque separatists, to homosexual rights group, to conservative Christian groups hoping to raise the standard of living in the south of Sudan while planting a few churches at the same time. Conservatives have the luxury of simply watching out for themselves and their own. Liberals do not have the same luxury. If they are truly "liberal" then they become the catch basin for everyone else. And as I said before, that makes for a mess. A glorious mess, an admirable mess, a necessary mess, but nonetheless, a mess.
Wandering through the opening festivities for the Forum, an open air concert in one of the parks in downtown Nairobi, this diversity was apparent. On the stage Brazilian musicians danced and sang while little old Caucasian ladies, dreadlocked Israeli girls, flag bedecked Zimbabwean boys, and a riotously mixed crowd of others tried to shimmy, jump, sway, and dance to the music. Occasionally a person would wade through the crowd holding up a sign saying "Who decided to punish Kenya's poor with a 500 shilling registration fee? Are there capitalists in the World Social Forum??????" This was one more indication of the difficulties involved in trying to carry all of the world's eggs, cracked or not, in one basket. The forum was expensive, $120 U.S. for the week. It was less for Kenyan nationals ($7 U.S.), but still expensive to those with nothing. One could argue that the cost of renting the park facilities, the concert, the banners, all of this could be used for feeding hungry people or building an orphanage, a fact many conservatives would gleefully pounce on as proof of the hypocrisy of the left (ignoring their own, of course). But let's face it, many, perhaps most, of these people had come a long way and spent a lot of money to attend this conference. There is sometimes an "ashes and sack cloth" mentality when it comes to the left. This is because this is the group of people who are supposed to actually give a damn about the damned. Some feel that they should always be wailing and gnashing their teeth in good old fashion Old Testament style grief and anger. This does happen. Thankfully, there are also those who realize that the world has at least as much to celebrate as mourn. Give them their bone. Let the world's "losers", in the eyes of global conservative think tanks, come together and celebrate. To look at each other with curiosity, confusion, even anxiety, and then say "Fuck it, let's dance!" They'll receive no grief from me.
My reasons for being in Nairobi were a bit less noble than the forum. My Ugandan visa had run out and I needed to leave the country. I also hoped to buy a new camera to supplement my little digital one. And thanks to Mike (thanks Mike!) I have a relatively brand new Nikon D80 and feel very excited. I realize I am a long way from being a professional photographer (but thank you Michelle, Borja, Jennifer, and Steve for the encouragement, inspiration, ideas and drool worthy equipment to lust after), but I feel like I at least am giving myself a better chance to produce decent photos with better equipment.
While in Nairobi, I also had the chance to see a photo exhibit of the best photos from Africa over the last year. The majority of these came from professional photographers or photojournalists. They were amazing, heart breaking, inspiring, and perhaps, disappointing. Disappointing only in the sense that they showed what we have come to expect from Africa - hardship, poverty, disease, conflict, and the occasional individual triumph of the human spirit over adversity. All of this is true, but as anyone who travels here for a while, or works with communities and groups in need in Africa will tell you, this is only part of the story. This continent is, according to all current knowledge of our own past, the birth place of the human race. It is also the birthplace of our resilience to adversity, our determination to survive, and our desire to thrive. It was here, so many thousands of years ago, that humanity said "Hmm, I bet if I use this rock and stick to hit animals instead of my puny fingernails, things will work better." It was here that someone said (well, grunted) "Maybe standing up is a good idea." Africa is where we learned to be human. Africa can still teach us how to be human. Despite the famines, despite the wars, despite the horrors, this is a continent of light, of hope, of love, and of the belief in possibilities. In next year's "Best of Africa" photo exhibit, you probably won't see a photo of the motorcycle taxi drivers on their corners hustling for the next fare; you won't see the mother and child, hand in hand, heading to church for a morning of singing and hope; the guy walking to the office in his European seconds dress shirt and tie won't make a front page; the women pressing up to the side of the bus selling roasted corn and chapattis won't make Time magazine; the ordinary everyday people living, loving and laughing won't make CNN's top of the hour new stories. But they should.
Africa is not the "heart of darkness", it is the heart of the world.
Wow, ok. Sorry about the ranting. As a teacher, I usually try to keep my politics more subdued. But, I suppose, I'm not in a classroom anymore. I'm a student again.