Archive for the ‘World Social Forum’ Category

Leaving Dakar

Monday, February 14th, 2011


I am back in the United States in time to celebrate this “day of love,” thanks only to the shuttle driver, who insisted I get to Dakar’s international airport at least two hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. Getting back out of Senegal was much, much more involved than getting into the country. It easily required over two hours. First, there was the long line to disembark that started with the standard security scan. It was a joke. Most people did not even put their carry-on luggage through the scanner and no one disrobed. Then, just as I’d settled into seats at the gate – no small feat, considering the chairs were connected at the sides and lined up in rows that left practically no room between your knees and the next seat in front – I  was called to line up for two more “searches” – one of my carry on bags, followed by another body search before boarding the shuttle for the plane.  My plane left about 30 minutes late, and I dozed off as it became nearly impossible to see the Atlantic Ocean below us any longer.

Playing Hookie

Friday, February 11th, 2011

DSCN0252Steven and I, among others, opted out of attending the closing ceremonies at the Forum. Wearied by the week’s disorganization and the level of energy necessary to get along Dakar, even as Western “tourists,” we went to the  Île de Gorée. With a population just over 1,000 on 45 acres, Gorée is the smallest and least populated of the Dakar’s 19 communes d’arrondissement. In addition to being a get-away for locals and ambient tourist destination, the island houses a restored location where Africans who had been captured for shipment to the Americas as slaves were held. It easily promised to be the perfect place to spend our last full day in Senegal.

DSCN0245We’d been told the ferry was a short walk down the beach from the hotel, so we walked right out the back door of the hotel, past the pool we never used, through a door in the wall onto the beach. The walk to the ferry took us right past the Dakar Port Authority, which appeared to be a mini version of the Long Beach Harbor/Port of Los Angeles. We just walked blithely onto the dock, before being turned away by a security officer. We continued to the ferry, which was actually scheduled to depart precisely when the online schedule indicated that it would!

On the ferry, we met a woman, who told us about her shop near the church and I made a mental note to find it.

DSCN0286Gorée is tiny and we easily walked all of the sprawling village there, taking in the markets, the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), with its haunting "door of no return," a cultural museum, and a handful of unidentified historic monuments, including a massive double-barreled gun or cannon that we guessed dated to the World Wars, when Senegalese men fought in the French colonial army.

In addition, we found the woman we met on the ferry in her shop. Her English was better than my French so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn as much as I could about West African fabric and clothing. She confirmed that the best fabrics are imported, although there are some good, more loosely woven fabrics made nearby as well as in Gambia. She also showed me three different skirt styles and demonstrated how they are worn, and explained how to make and wear variations on the traditional boubou, a wide sleeved, pull-over caftan, suited for women. I ended up buying five pieces of clothing, selected as much for samples – of types of fabrics and garments – as for gifts.

Unfortunately, I was short of cash. No problem, she explained. Her husband would pick us up at the port and take us to the hotel, where I could exchange some money; he’d be driving a “tall,” new Citroen. Sure enough, he was there. Unfortunately, none of us thought quick enough to pre-negotiate a fare. Maybe all that sun and relatively fresh air on the island – seriously, we saw a blue sky for the first time since arriving! – not to mention my shopping spree, had softened us. In any case, after I paid for the clothing, he demanded a significant over-payment for our ride. Considering the university was 2,000 CFA and the port was no more than half that far, we offered 1,000 CFA. He demanded 5,000 CFA. We settled on 2,000 CFA, but when he saw that left us with a 1,000 CFA note, he wanted that too! One of the hotel staff finally had to step in and resolve the “misunderstanding.”DSCN0257

Just When We’d Figured it Out…

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

It seemed as if we figured out the Forum just in time for it close.

DSCN0177Wednesday was a particularly good day. Steven and I began with another Secours Catolique-Caritas France session, tried a full lunch – rice and shish ka bob – at the “food court” a string of tents offering complete, traditional meals at a fraction of restaurant prices, that were operated by a mix of local families and university organizations. Then we joined in a meeting with Peace Women, a program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) that was crashed by student protesters. After the excitement ended there, we listed to a talk by Naomi Klein on the African land grab at the Climate Change tent.

We were not the only ones struck by the absence of Africans in attendance at Ms. Klein’s talk. One of the other speakers on the panel, a representative of an indigenous land tenure food sovereignty organization based in Mali, explained that many Africans do not understand how affected they are likely to be by climate change. Nor do they associated problems, including economic pressure to sell their land to foreigners and relocate in cities, with climate change.

Now for a word on bathrooms. Although all of us – Steven and I as well as the other dozen or so Americans in our transnational social movements research community – drank a lot of water, I don’t recall anyone having to use the bathroom with abnormal frequency. At some point between, the student protest and the Naomi Klein talk, we had just long enough to both realize that we had to “go” and find a bathroom. Steven and I had been fortunate to stumble upon a UCAD graduate student in English and American studies who showed us the way.

Of course, I’d been aware that public bathrooms in Senegal, as in many developing nations, amount to “holes in the ground.” Still, I’d been spoiled by the spiffy new toilets at the hotel. Add to that, with the exception of bar soap and lack of hand towels, the women’s restroom in a relatively new building at looked exactly like those on my home campus. The difference was that each stall featured something that looked like a shower with a handle placed high up on the wall to open the drain, and a pitcher of water to rinse one’s excrement down it. My facility with wilderness bathrooms and prior experience with a “hole in the ground” or two aside, I frankly could not fathom negotiating a scarf, long shirt, shoulder bag, and skinny jeans to a successful pee. I held it until I was safely back in the hotel.

DSCN0203Thrilled by our success at mastering the Forum, by Thursday, I was nonetheless frustrated that I had yet to walk on the beach. (Granted I’d been warned sternly and often by the campus travel nurse NOT to let my bare feet touch the ground or go anywhere near the water.) Steven and I opted to walk part of the way to the Forum. Our imperfect navigation took us far from the main streets along cliffs over-looking the ocean where some swanky hotels and the embassies are located…right across the street from where goats grazed outside shacks at the cliff’s edge. We hailed a cab along the main stretch of beach that parallels and upscale residential area between the city and the university.

DSCN0215I noticed that even up close (as opposed to through a speeding cab’s window), there were no women on beach. Men jogged and worked out, but the few women I saw anywhere in the vicinity were at a smallish fish market adjacent to where the fishing boats lay on the sand at the end of the day.

This was the day of convergences. Groups met most of the day and attempted to reach some kind of foundation for moving forward. The crowd following events organized by Secours Catholique-Caritas France, for example, were looking for something that the African and Latin Americans could agree on as a basis for solidarity. Those following events emanating from the women’s tent similarly sought a foundation for cooperation and collaboration in achieving greater human rights. I’m not sure what was accomplished. By the end of the first tour, the Forum was literally coming apart. Some tents were dismantled and packed up; others were falling down and blowing away. Pick up trucks and moving vans had arrived and were being loaded with the many vendors’ wares.

DSCN0295I realize I haven’t commented much on the evenings’ affairs. Communal downtime, before I retired to my room for all-night research on cultural history and current affairs in Senegal and greater West Africa, was spent networking and strategizing about the next day’s transportation to and from and activities at the Forum. Thursday afternoon/evening was typical. I enjoyed my daily petit bouteille de van blanc while I worked and the foodies in the group selected a place to dine, made reservations, and asked the concierge for directions. Those of us staying at the Hotel Novotel shared two cabs for a short ride to the Hotel Saint-Louis, where we met up with members of our extended group on the patio. I had yassa au poulet (rice with chicken), which I must say is currently my favorite Senegalese meal.

Almost Dangerous?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011


One of my dinner companions tonight at the restaurant in the St. Louis Hotel in Dakar, Senegal was Marc Becker, Professor of History at Truman State University and one of America’s most dangerous professors, according to David Horowitz. Assuming you can stop laughing over that oxymoron, you may want to know that Marc’s inclusion is premised on his opposition to the Wars in Iraq. I’m afraid that if that’s dangerous, then I’d say he’s in very good company – both on and off campus. Does that make me “almost dangerous,” by association, if not deed?

Another Couple of Days at the (World Social) Forum

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

By the end of the evening Monday, I was unable to form complete sentences in English, let alone French. I slept in until 2PM on Tuesday.

DSCN0190_2Thankfully, that was Africa Day at the forum, which is more cultural fair than seminar. Although I’d previewed the online program to get an idea of which events Steven, a UC Riverside graduate student who attended with me, and I might like to attend, I didn’t expect the actual program to conform, and was excited to find people carrying around a printed version. A volunteer directed us to the library but there were no more to be had. We made a valiant attempt to find some of the events and sessions I’d noted, but NONE were actually taking place where they were supposed to be. In one case, we found a lecture or exam in progress. More often, we found ourselves searching through rows of poorly numbered tents with no luck.

Later we would learn that the usual scheduling snafus associated with the piecemeal and fluctuating schedules common at previous Forums were complicated in Dakar by a strike earlier in the school year that forced classes to meet during the Forum. Organizers responded by erecting tents to house the many self-organized speeches, discussion sessions, meetings, and other events, yet many of them remained difficult to locate if they weren’t finally canceled.

DSCN0151After a quick lunch of fataya, a kind of meat pie that sells for about a quarter (to be honest, Steven played guinea pig, while I stuck to my granola bar and fruit leather), we headed for the big red women’s tent.  Inside, it was packed. Most of the women in attendance appeared to be African, and wore traditional dress: long, often quite close fitting skirts with short boubous and matching head scarves. The discussion was conducted in Walof, French, and English – depending on the speaker –with sequential translation via tuning to the appropriate station on transistor radios available at the door.  We’d learn that this combination of fixed location, well-organized presentations, and translation services were keys to successfully navigating the Forum.

I ended up staying up very late. Not yet convinced that there would never be any clear correspondence between the online schedule for the Forum and what actually occurred there, I spent more time than I should have identifying at least two sessions that I’d like to attend during each tour, or time period, as well as multiple, nearby back-up options for these sessions.

Don’t laugh, but I also searched the Internet for instructions on how to tie a head scarf. After two days spent walking in the heat through sand storms with every patch of uncovered skin coated in sunscreen and bug spray, I needed functional style tips. In the interest of complying with local expectations for modesty, I’d brought a stack of scarves with me, but had no practical experience in how to use them effectively to keep the sand out of my eyes and deal with what was shaping up to be a week of bad hair days. By the time I crashed into bed, I’d developed a modest level of expertise in the art of tying and wearing a head scarf.

On Wednesday, duly caffeinated with schedule in hand, I was ready for the first day of working sessions. Steven and I scored a dilapidated cab that had just dropped off a fare, and quickly settled on 2,000 CFA for the trip to the university. On the off chance that: a) there would be an updated, printed programme du jour, and b) it would bear some resemblance to what was going on in the tents, we started at the library. No luck on either account.

DSCN0155After a handful of false starts on the basis of my hand-written schedule, we tried another tack. We headed for the Secours Catholique – Caritas France (a faith based humanitarian association) booth to find out where their tent was. Navigating by the ribbon they’d used to mark their location, we found the tent and walked into a discussion on human rights in each of a select number of countries in Latin America.

The first speaker was from Mexico and provided sequential translation into French; he spoke so fast in Spanish that I found his French easy to understand by comparison! As was characteristic of the better-organized and more accommodating events, there was a brief period of reorganization between speakers so that translators could be repositioned appropriately. Steven and I moved to sit beside the English translator, even though the remaining speakers all spoke much more slowly, and were fairly easy to understand.

Following on this great success, we spent the remainder of the day beginning with organizers’ booths – smaller tents providing literature and other information about the groups and their activities at the Forum – where we’d note scheduled updates and get directions to the appropriate venues. Failing that, we watched for updates and looked for maps on a centrally located bulletin board.

Although I “worked” more, the day was less exhausting. I even had time to check out fabric prices. Wholly enamored by the gorgeous traditional outfits the local women were wearing and well aware that I wouldn’t have time to find a tailor to make one for me, I’d just about decided to purchase fabric that I could make into clothing once I returned home. I was shocked, though, by the prices. The price quoted for pre-cut pieces of no more than a couple of yards ran around 10,000 – 20,000 CFA (up to $40!)

DSCN0224Consequently, I spent another late night up researching the sources and costs of “resist dyed” fabric, which constitutes much of the brightly colored prints associated with traditional clothing in stylish West Africa. Applying wax or paste to cotton fabric is one of the chief means of creating a print by  “resisting” or preventing dye from permeating an entire piece of cloth. Manipulating cloth by tying (as in tie dye) or stitching it also works. Although resist-dying originated among the Soninke and Walof in Senegal, nearly all of this kind of fabric available in the market there is imported from Holland and Indonesia. And it’s more expensive in Senegal than nearly everywhere else in West Africa to boot! In fact, I found wax prints manufactured in Holland available through an American wholesaler for as low as $5.49/yard. Only the most expensive prints available online matched the prices I encountered on the street in Dakar.

It’s a Small World, After All, Despite the Odd Faux Pas

Monday, February 7th, 2011

DSCN0089Less than 48 hours in Senegal and I’ve already committed my first faux pas. Apparently, I mistook a stool/seat for a “foot” stool/ottoman in the hotel bar. I was sitting back in my chair with my feet up after a very long day on the Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (UCAD) campus attending the World Social Forum, checking my email and sipping my glass of wine, when the bartender very quietly asked, “Mettez vos pieds sur le sol s’il vous plaît” (put your feet on the floor please).

This breach of social norms is particularly significant because the Senegalese are so very well known for their social tolerance, willingness help, and high regard for relationships. I hated to think that I’d unwittingly been impolite to these amazingly accommodating people. They are so unwilling to respond, “Je ne sais pas” (I don’t know), to a question, that it is not unusual to get incorrect information – from directions to store/restaurant hours to the ingredients in food.

Senegal is a smal nation (76,000 square miles) located on the Westernmost tip of Africa; its capital, Dakar, was once the administrative center of French West Africa. Thanks to Senegal’s colonial legacy as a predominantly agricultural nation and victim of Structural Adjustment Policies, Dakar is currently poorly maintained outside of a small, upscale residential area near UCAD. Dakar was selected to host the World Social Forum, an international meeting of social movements and activists for many causes, including environment, social justice, human rights, indigenous peoples, immigrants, etc. specifically to draw attention to Africa.

DSCN0216Although Africa is, quite literally, a world a way, it’s not that much different here than in Southern California. In addition to the weather and the view of the coast, there are the budget issues, including the underfunding of public education and the inability of new graduates to find jobs – any jobs, let alone those that would be lucrative enough to help pay off student loans or otherwise. Some of these students demanded the floor during a session sponsored by the Peace Women, a contemporary incarnation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) associated with popularizing and implementing United Nations Resolution 1325, which requires that women be included in post conflict agreements. The women sang and chanted them out.

DSCN0164Later, a UCAD student explained the protesters’ position. And he should know. A Ph.D. student in English, he is currently teaching English in a local secondary school, he says that he is “very lucky.”

Small world, indeed.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

I Arrived in Dakar, Sengal just before dawn (could see we were approaching dawn on back-of-seat map of our trip), and just as my third in-flight movie was ending.

My first impressions of Dakar? The stench. It invaded like a ghost in a low budget sci-fi movie so that I not only smelled it, but also felt it clinging to me the same way the drizzle does in England. Despite my lack of sleep and enduring the first moments of what I now understand is a level of chaos characteristic of West Africa, I spent an inordinate amount of energy picking apart the constituent parts of this new “scent.” The closest I could come is a dry, gritty combination of sweat, sewage, and exhaust.

Note that in stark contrast to the veritable seminar on disembarkation provided on-board international flights into the United States, there were absolutely no instructions provided for entry into Senegal. Rather, the airport foyer featured a long thin shelf along the wall like you’d find in an American motor vehicle office littered with disembarkation forms that my fellow passengers and I presumed should be completed before proceeding to the glass-encased immigration officer.

DSCN0089Duly welcomed to Senegal, I climbed into the complimentary shuttle to the Hotel Novotel, located in Dakar’s central business district (equidistant from the upscale Supermarché Casino and the street market), with a view of the Île de Gorée (if you spring for a premium room), and only a five-minute walk to the Place de l’Indépendence (if the street names actually match the ones on your handy tourist map). The hotel itself is overtly modern, both in the sense of standard Western accommodations and design, complete with an abundance of geometric shapes, stainless steel and glass, and stark colors – orange walls, black and white furnishings. I took this all in rapidly and headed upstairs. With only a couple of hours remaining before mustering for the march that traditionally opens the World Social Forum (WSF), I needed to rest.

399px-Minaret_mosquee_dakarThe march was scheduled to begin sometime between 1 and 3 PM near the Grande Mosquée, a short walk from the hotel by way of the Place de l’Indépendence. Accompanied by fellow WSF veterans also lodging at the Hotel Novotel, I engaged on what turned out to be an exhausting five-mile trek through the less scenic parts of Dakar to the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD), where the Forum was held. Our march to the march proved to be our first experience with Senegalese hospitality. Everyone clearly wanted to help, but their directions were rarely direct, or and sometimes wrong! We navigated through one of Dakar’s larger street markets and across the Place de l’Indépendence toward the sounds of a call to prayer emanating from the Grande Mosquée. Finally, we approached what appeared to be participants gathering for the march.

DSCN0119We fell in behind a group of predominantly men in white traditional dress playing music and drums before beginning to move more quickly than the organized groups of marchers by stepping on and off the sidewalks along the march’s route. Estimates for participants in the march and other Forum events would ultimately range from 30,000 to 50,000 or, at most, a third of the last WSF in Belem, Brazil. The modest turnout in Dakar was notably dominated by women! Maybe as many as three-quarters of those marching were women from Senegal and other parts of West and North Africa. They included representatives for “peace in Casamance,” “women’s rights,” and “indigenous land rights” (la terre est notre vie). En route, we saw Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, who would speak at the rally culminating the march.

DSCN0127On campus, I was struck by the condition of the buildings up close. From a distance, they appeared typical of the 1960’s and 1970’s university (and prison) construction, but seem to have existed with little to no maintenance since then. Student housing, in particular, is particularly bad. Laundry hung outside of window frames (where there was glass, it was more often cracked or broken than not), paint was peeling, doors hung loose on their hinges, and there was trash everywhere.

We negotiated a 5,000 (CFA, African Francs) fare (about $10.50, down from the $14.50 initially demanded!) back to the hotel, only to learn that the standard fare for tourists is only 2,000 CFA.

Style Watch: Belem, Brazil

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Third time’s a charm. While dining at the Docas (Estacao das Docas, former site of the Para Docks Company) in Belem, Brazil, we saw the third woman since our arrival wearing a short jumpsuit, one of THE hot looks for Spring ‘09: Notably, in this city – perhaps country – where the look is decidedly “fitted,” if not simply tight, the woman was a stand-out. She was wearing a loose-fitting, short jumpsuit in army green with the legs rolled up to about a 4″ inseam, and high, strappy sandals.

Admittedly a skeptic of the style, I have to say that it IS growing on me. It could simply be that this loose and lightweight style that completely covers the back, shoulders, upper arms and thighs, and tummy is appealing to me now because I’ve been living in tank tops and halters…and sporting a sunburn as a result. (Fair skinned and freckled, I burn and fade slowly back to “white.”)

Still every woman we’ve seen wearing the short jumpsuit has looked terrific. I suppose the longer, wider-legged versions also advertised in the West may provide more balance for busty and/or hippy women, but the short look is very cute. The women we’ve seen wearing the new look have all been average height and weight with fairly curvy, though not voluptuous figures. Note that the woman at the Docas sported the most neutral variation we’ve encountered. The others were very bright – one in orange and the other in yellow – and both were worn shorter, almost a “hot short” look. Yet all three were cut with a collared, safari shirt look on top; finally, they appeared to include self belts, though all three local “models” had added their own belts.



An American/North American World Social Forum?

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

For the uninitiated, or many of those simply living in the global North (No. Americans, Europeans, Australians, Japanese, etc.), the World Social Forum is a meeting of the global Left, organized in response to the World Economic Forum: This year, it’s in Belem, Brazil – gatway to the Amazon rainforest:

Keep in mind that today was DRY – not particularly humid AND it didn’t rain; yet, the room where scholars and activists (labor, Christian/religious, women’s, global justice, environmental, etc.) discussed the prospects for a North American (or maybe “American”) social forum was FULL. Carried out in three languages (English, French, and Spanish), it was clear that activists in all three North American nations regard the social forums that have occurred since 2001 to be successes, and regard the prospect of coordinating and collaborating at the continental level to be necessary. Oddly enough for an American (remember, even the Left in the U.S. is on the global Right), the group regarded the U.S. as the most ”progressive” of the North American nations.

Having just come from a session on scholar-activism, which included discussion of how to engage No. American and European students in social activism – if not in the course of creating activists, then in the interest of simply opening their minds – I have to say it’s a good idea. There is no classroom or high school/college subject or experience that can compare with forum attendance for exposing students to alternative, even radical, viewpoints and suggesting to them that they are part of a global culture. A “local” forum held in North America would provide an otherwise unavailable opportunity for Canadian, Mexican, and U.S. youth to participate in global dialogue. As participants indicated, such experiences may become increasingly important as we progress through the current financial crisis, which is forcing North America’s young people to face the prospect that they may need to find more in life than a “good job” and all it traditionally entails.


How NOT to Stay Dry in Northern Brazil

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Today, we thought we’d “beat” the rain. When the daily storm hit, we were safely indoors – discussing the role of academics as activists in the global social justice movement. Even better, the room was more or less air-conditioned. Dry AND cool at 3PM in the Amazon – what could be better.

I wish there was some way to “quit” while ahead in these situations. But no. Hours later, when we left the (World Social) Forum for out hotel, it had started to sprinkle. Not a problem, we thought, because it had ALREADY rained for the day, and in light of our vast experience here (four days!), we were sure it would do no more than sprinkle until we made it “home.” We even got out (of our taxi) before we reached the hotel, opting to walk the rest of the way so that we could check out the hours of operation for the Emilio Goeldi Museum:

Bad idea. The sprinkles turned into “rain” before we were within two blocks of the hotel, and was so heavy just a few minutes later that it was difficult to see where we were walking. Yes, once again, we were drenched when we walked through the hotel doors. (And I’m sure the door man was snickering.)

You’ll be glad to know that we DID NOT walk to the party we attended earlier this evening. With TWO pairs of shoes – each – still drying, my companions and I thought we’d take good care of our remaining shoes, keep them dry for tomorrow. Wish us luck – we’re expecting rain AM, PM, and “evening.”