'What is the WSF? Something that will bring me medicine?'

In just two months’ time the World Social Forum (WSF) will get under way in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, marking the first instance in which Africa is acting as sole host of the event.

With the East African country also home to Kibera—sometimes referred to as Africa’s largest slum—it could be argued that there is no more appropriate venue for the 2007 WSF. Where better to hold it than near one of the communities most affected by the social ills the forum aims to combat?

Still, some in Kibera, which lies south-west of Nairobi, view preparations for next year’s WSF with ambivalence.

During a recent meeting with members of the forum’s secretariat in Nairobi, about 100 residents of the settlement accused NGOs of associating with Kibera simply to gain credibility and raise funds. These groupings had not made any meaningful improvement to the lives of persons living in the settlement, they said.

Some claim that even established NGOs are doing more harm than good on occasion, effectively preventing community members from having a voice in gatherings such as the WSF.

“Communities are the ones affected by poverty, HIV/Aids, unemployment, among others. But we rarely hear voices of these people. Instead, it is established NGOs speaking for communities,” said Salim Mohammed, the programmes coordinator for Carolina for Kibera, a youth organisation headquartered in the United States.

“Communities are not [so] naive that they cannot talk about their problems. They know where they are hurting, and how they want their plight addressed. Can NGOs stop using problems of poor people to enrich themselves? Can we see communities being given a chance to express themselves at meetings such as the WSF?”

Led by youth activist Cosmas Musyoka, the residents at the recent secretariat gathering even lobbied for an event to be held in Kibera alongside the 2007 WSF—the Kibera Social Forum—to enable them to publicise problems confronting the community more effectively.

Land ownership

A key concern relates to land ownership in informal settlements, a matter that has fuelled tension between slum dwellers, landlords and authorities.

The government argues that settlements on public land were constructed illegally, and should be vacated. However, residents of these communities—some of whom know no other home—feel they deserve ownership of the land, and have resisted eviction attempts.

Slum dwellings built on private land have proved equally contentious, with violence erupting between the owners of these dwellings and those who own the land.

“No one in the slums is assured of the land he lives on. For this reason it is difficult to have people care for the environment,” said Mohammed. “How can people care if they do not have a space to care? If the question of land ownership is addressed, then all else will follow smoothly.”

For Helen Moraa, HIV/Aids constitutes an equally pressing issue. “WSF needs to come here and see for itself the suffering of HIV-positive people. We are expected to eat well so that we can prolong our lives and care for our children. But it is hard because there is no money to buy food. Even finding just a meal a day is a big problem,” said the widowed mother of four, herself HIV-positive.

“We do not get support from the government. If the WSF can help, then maybe we would see a difference,” added Moraa, who belongs to the Power Women Group in Kibera. This self-help association brings together 25 women who have contracted Aids, and who make beaded necklaces that sell for up to about $14 each when business is good. But this is rarely the case, according to Moraa.

Grace Akinyi, another member of the group—and also mother to four children—was still unaware of what the WSF was when Inter Press Service spoke to her.

“What is WSF? Is it something that will bring me medicine?” she asked. “My husband is also sick; so is my first born, aged 18, together with her two children. None of us is working. The landlord does not want to know that we are sick; he expects his rent at the end of every month.”

“We cannot afford to pay school fees for the rest of our children; they are out in the streets,” Akinyi added. “Besides, we cannot even afford a simple meal, and yet we are sick people and on medication. The ARV [antiretroviral] medication sometimes is not enough because it is not available in all centres.”

Official figures put Kenya’s adult HIV prevalence rate at 6%. More than 200 000 people in the country are estimated to be in need of life-prolonging ARVs at present—of which about 110 000 are receiving them.

Less talk, more action

Sixteen-year-old Kadara Yusuf, another resident of Kibera, is also somewhat in the dark about the 2007 forum. “I do not know anything about the WSF ... International meetings have been taking place where people have just been talking, but doing very little,” she said.

“So much has been said about Kibera, but the living conditions of the people in Kibera have remained the same for years. This shows that the world is not concerned about poor people. Can the WSF be a meeting whereby there will be less talk and much action?”

About 700 000 people are generally reported to be living in Kibera, a vast expanse of mud-walled shacks and open sewers where Kenya’s infamous “flying toilets” make regular crash landings. These “toilets” are plastic bags into which people who have no sanitation facilities defecate, then hurl away.

Onyango Oloo, coordinator of the Kenya Social Forum—the national chapter of the WSF—says this body is working together with Kibera residents to have their concerns brought to the table at the 2007 WSF.

Founded as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering in the Swiss resort town of Davos that attracts the business and political elite, the WSF was first held in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre in 2001. It brings together a host of groups and individuals, mainly from civil society, that oppose globalisation in its present form.

The WSF continued to be held in Brazil until 2004, when it was hosted by the Indian coastal city of Mumbai—returning to Porto Alegre the following year.

This year the forum took place in several cities: Mali’s capital, Bamako; Caracas, Venezuela; and the Pakistani financial hub, Karachi.

About 150 000 people from across the world are expected to attend the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, according to the organising committee.—IPS

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