Brilliant beads and brightly coloured garbs of the Masaii, and long white habits of nuns intermingle with simple jeans and t-shirts stating “Time for action.” The appearance of attendees at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya is as diverse as the nation’s ethnicities. This is the scene at Thursday’s closing ceremonies for the 2007 World Social Forum (WSF).

Since Porto Alegre in 2001, the WSF has existed as a space for activists, scholars and organizations to network and envision a world beyond neo-imperialism. Every other year the forum takes place polycentrically — simultaneously in several different cities — but this is the first unicentric forum held in Africa, the continent most visibly scarred by imperialism. Over 50,000 participants from locations as far as the Americas and Europe flocked to Nairobi from January 20 to 25 for workshops, discussion and action.

The issues of interest to Kenyans at the forum were broad ranging: Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the EU; land stolen from the Masaii and other marginalized people for tourist purposes; rising poverty in Nairobi’s slums; the AIDS crisis; access to clean water; ongoing debt from World Bank loans; women’s property rights; female genital cutting as a cultural practice; and violence against women. Of course, the event, held in Africa, not South America, involved many religious-based groups.

The forum provided a chance for Kenyans to not only network with organizations and individuals from all across the globe, but also to meet with groups from other parts of Kenya. Fifty six per cent of Kenyans live below the poverty line and don’t normally have means to leave their own communities. Large NGOs, however, sponsored community representatives to travel to the forum half an hour outside Nairobi in Kasarani’s Moi International Sports Centre.

Holding the WSF in Kenya also brought a huge boom to the tourist industry. Although the forum didn’t quite attract the projected 100,000, thousands of foreigners still flooded hotels, taxis and safari parks before, during and after the forum. The cash generated from tourism, however, mainly went into the pockets of the wealthy, says Caroline Wanjir, a WSF volunteer. “The slogan for the World Social Forum was people’s struggles, people’s alternatives. Most of the people who own these hotels, they’re rich people. If they have struggles they’re not at [our] level. So when the tourists come here, they only bring money to the rich, not the poor.”

On the other hand, Jacob Wasai Nanjakululu of African NGO ACORD (Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development), hopes the tourism will put Kenya on the map. “The WSF works to strengthen the position of Kenya in the international scene âe¦ We can see that Kenya does not deserve any travel advisories âe¦ Media houses have also come to Nairobi and pictures are being flashed around the world. We think this is a good investment in terms of marketing Kenya.”

Nanjakululu believes that, even if the poor can’t participate in the forum, it will serve them well. The media is bringing the issues discussed at the forum, including poverty, to ordinary Kenyans who they affect, he explains.

Indeed, exclusion of Kenya’s poor from the WSF became a major issue at this year’s forum. WSF participants, mainly locals, organized several demonstrations demanding the poor be let in free (including small-scale vendors), and free access to water at the forum. In the end their cries were heard and the WSF secretariat agreed to these requests.

Francis Ngira, a youth from the slums of Nairobi, helped organize the protests. “If you look at the venue of the World Social Forum this year, it’s just adjacent to a very big informal settlement where people go hungry for days. People drink water for dinner. We felt that [the] 50 [Kenyan] shillings a day [entrance fee] was very much money. Fifty shillings can buy three of us lunch in the informal settlement,” he says.

“[The organizing committee] knew the World Social Forum was coming to Kenya even before we knew. Our idea would’ve been to set aside a fund for poor people who cannot afford coming into the forum. Then leave the other people to pay, because the World Social Forum needs money to run itself,” suggests Ngira.

Joseph Alphonse Odongo, a resident of Kibera, Nairobi, the second largest slum in Africa, took part in the protests. He was glad his fellow comrades from the slums were finally granted passes into the stadium. “For the people who have got the chance to be inside Kasarani, they have learned something that can change the community and contribute to development of the society,” says Odongo. “We know that people have even been given the chance to sell their products here free of charge and that is good for some of the poor people,” he adds.

Wanjir comments on the outcome of the forum, “It’s on the intellectual level. As in, you converse with someone, you get ideas and you work with the ideas they have passed to you. You don’t expect anything tangible as in material that you can walk away with. But it’s something that you learn and now you go make it work where you live.”

Empty talk and inadequate action has long been a criticism of the World Social Forum. Last week, however, Kenyans united with foreign allies in forcing open the gate to the forum, then later feasting upon food sold at the price of about one week’s pay for many locals. If the events of this year’s forum are any prediction of things to come, people will be incited to action, even if it occurs exclusively in the slums.

Carmelle Wolfson

Carmelle Wolfson

Carmelle Wolfson is a journalist based in Toronto. Her work can be found here.