A diary from World Social Forum – 2011

World Social Forum 2011, so intricate, yet perfect

The reality of Africa

This year, the World Social Forum (WSF) raised several new questions but there are many older questions that we still need to find answers to. Since we met in Senegal, it was quite natural that the focus of discussion was the African question, which proved to be a fruitful learning ground for civil society groups. Situated in the eastern part of the continent, Senegal is considered a resource-rich region of Africa, yet its first major highway was constructed just four years ago. It is said the Senegalese president spent the largest chunk of the country's budget on building the road, yet it peters out into a dust trail after a mere 40 kilometers!

WSF 2011, organized in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, attracted more than 50,000 people pursuing the vision of creating a better world. But I have been observing a worrisome trend in this forum over the 10 years that I have attended its deliberations - you get a sense of the growing dominance of NGOs over people's movements at every step. Many of these organizations were, in fact, present this year to advertise and publicize themselves. The ruling political party of China put up a stall. Also participating were USAid and a host of other International funding agencies that push a liberal neo-colonial and capitalist approach to development agenda along with the financial resources they disburse. There should be no illusions about the kind of linkages these groups seek to establish with the WSF vision of building a new world order.

My African interlude began with one of those unpleasant encounters that bring to mind my own country - the Dakar ambience is so like India! The moment I alighted from the Iberia Airlines flight I proceeded to the immigration department to complete the formalities for entering the country. After stamping my passport the immigration officer said something to me in French, which I couldn't understand. He then called me aside to the door and, gesturing with his fingers, whispered, "Money, money."

That was my first experience of Senegal. I pretended as if I hadn't understood. But the thought germinating in my mind was that whatever people said about African countries being corrupt was true. I must admit I was a bit scared as well.

I learned later that not just in Senegal but other African countries as well people in government service (teachers, revenue officials, nurses, etc.) often didn't get their salaries for six months at a stretch, while 2-3 months' salary of many petty officials would even 'disappear'. That creates the ideal environment for corruption to flourish. The only visible symbol of governmental administration is the police, clad in military uniform, armed with weapons, menacing. At first I could not tell whether they were guerrilla fighters or city police. That's the look the colonial powers groomed in their police to stamp their power across the globe, especially after the first and second world wars, I thought to myself.

It is, indeed, a matter of regret that African countries, once the victims of Spanish and French colonialism - just like India was subjugated by the British – and now free nations manifest their freedom only superficially while continuing to remain under the control of European powers.

Senegal is a country where the majority is Muslim and the native language is Wolof, yet 80% of the people speak French and it is compulsory for students to learn the language. Even the signboards of shops and commercial establishments are in French. It's like in India where the middle class sacrifices itself on the altar of English, the only difference being that we Indians have ourselves opted for language colonialism whereas the Senegalese had no choice.

Naturally, there are economic and diplomatic dimensions to the subjugation of African nations by European entities. Their natural resources have been systematically looted. Modern Europe, whose beauty is so widely lauded, was built with the resources sent from African countries, from wood and stone to art and cultural materials. Even sand! And the situation today is that Senegal is trapped in a web of poverty where it has little choice but to remain the bonded slave of Europe.

Every third Senegalese is a painter, their paintings beautifully depicting the symbiotic links between nature, resources and the people. They illustrate the relationship between man and woman and the link between gender and social change.

Impressive artistry, but have you ever heard of Senegal being a centre of great art? You probably haven't, because the country's art comes to the world via Europe, where its identity is lost in transit. These priceless works of art, which the Senegalese artist completes in 7-8 days, fetches him a remuneration of just Rs. 1,000-2,000 (15-30 Euros), which is the cost of a frugal meal in Paris.

The Senegalese are also master craftsmen in wood. Only African artistry can achieve such intricate carvings on statues made from the teak, ebony and Sheesham. Yet I found they earned a meager Rs. 700-800 for 10 days of artistic labour during the days of the WSF when they sold their wares to the congregation of visitors.

I talked a bit to one such individual who told me this was perhaps the first time he had seen so many people from countries other than European. He was keen to sell his wares to Asians even at lower prices. Sitting on the roadside selling his paintings and woodwork he greeted me with a query, "Namaste. India?" As I nodded in assent, he came closer to me and said, "Take something, anything." He could speak just a couple of sentences in English. "You Indian, you are my friend, you are my brother, I give you good price." He then touched a finger to my wrist saying, "Same colour. We are brothers."

An African-Asian bond was established. I could not understand how we had become so far apart in the first place. But I could sense why Mahatma Gandhi chose Africa to launch his journey into public life. It wasn't just a matter of history and politics but of human civilization, of creating and diffusing familial ties.

Around 50% of the participants in the Dakar WSF were European and 45% African. The Europeans, coca cola can in one hand, almost always used one word in their conversations – capitalist. At night many of them partied in bars, discussing and analyzing the daily goings on at WSF. But there was not a single session in the entire proceedings where colonialism (history, present and future) figured in the discussions. No one had the courage to open up those pages of history that described how African nations had come to such a pass and who was responsible for their plight.

Some of them did suffer a sense of guilt which they sought to mollify by paying whatever the taxi drivers demanded without bargaining, as if by doing so they were returning something of what their forefathers had taken away from here.

Some days earlier, French President Sarkozy had visited Senegal to discuss possible ways of helping the country free itself from its pitiable plight, even suggesting that there may be some benefit in remaining a colony of France. It is in the context of such ideas and views prevalent among the dominant nations that organizing WSF is so important and relevant to those of us with an alternative worldview.

African society in a neo-colonial framework

Africa is now becoming a colony of newly developed countries like India and China. Walter Fernandez, a well-known social scientist from the continent and an expert on the subject of displacement caused by development, reports that the rich capitalist class and their governments are currently in the process of usurping 40 million hectares from the Saharan nations. Most of these countries are under the control of dictators and lack any vestige of democratic functioning. At the same time, their people are denied even the basic facilities for living.

Representatives from Sudan and Congo who had come to attend the WSF organized in the African nation of Senegal from February 6 to 11, 2011 related how it took people two years to walk across the Sahara, the world's largest desert, when they decided to migrate from their homeland in search of a better life. They had to then sail across the Atlantic Ocean in tiny boats to reach European shores. Many died on the way. Many others were caught while slipping across the borders into European countries. The inhuman face of international diplomacy can be seen in the way they were transported and dumped back into the desert from where they had sought to escape. European countries like France, Italy and Spain are now paying around Rs. 10,000 million every year to African and Middle East countries to ensure that they make the necessary arrangements to prevent people from crossing European borders. The developed countries see the influx of migrants as having a deleterious impact on their resources while damaging their image in the eyes of the world, Over a million people from Kenya, Namibia, Congo, Algeria and other African countries are forced to migrate every year to escape their pitiable living conditions but they are not permitted to enter these European countries.

The face of colonial development and progress stands exposed. The colonizing powers first create scarcity conditions and then enslave the people of the country they target. They know that it is necessary to control culture, education, resources and language in order to enslave a society or a country. This process is still under way in the African continent today. But the ways in which colonization is taking place are changing.

A country like India, which was once itself enslaved and a victim of servitude, has over the past two decades adopted neo-liberal policies for its economic development. It is cutting down on governmental support/subsidies for agriculture and social welfare while at the same time increasing allocations for developing an industrial-capitalist framework. The bottom-line is how to increase the growth rate.

Wealth has, indeed, increased but imbalances in its distribution have increased even more starkly and rapidly. Today in India, a single industrial house, the Ambani family, controls 5% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Around 70% of India's resources have been captured by 7% of its people. It is these Indian industrial houses that are now targeting Africa to expand their colonial empires. This class has begun exploiting the industrial expansion policies of African nations to take control of the continent's natural resources.

China is already sending its citizens to cash in on the employment opportunities that are being generated there. In this way, countries that were once categorized as 'developing' are now adopting colonial practices, the greatest irony being that we are now beginning to enslave those societies that have always been closest to us.

There is one other commonality that is clearly evident – African society is also the victim of capitalist policies.

In spite of being rich in resources, you will get a clear idea of the distressing state of the country's economy if you venture into the older quarters of the capital city of Dakar, where you will come across vendors on footpaths and in small shops selling second-hand clothes for children, men and women. The distressing fact is that the second-hand goods are coming into the market from Europe, which means that even the fashion trade is controlled by that continent. When we tried to snap photographs of the vendors they pleaded with us not to do so. They didn't want anyone to see their condition, which is becoming permanent, the norm.

The state of health facilities in the city will bring tears to your eyes. The people have no access or right to government or public health services. The maternal mortality rate is a distressing 1,000 per 100,000 births because there are no health facilities for women. Even private health facilities are skeletal, their reach being limited only to the capital. I'll quote just one example to illustrate the pitiable health situation in the country. Rami, one of our companions from the Palestine, came down with the flu and had a throat infection. It took us two hours to locate a doctor to attend to him and he charged 26,000 CFA Francs (the Senegalese currency) as consultation fees, which equals around Rs. 2,600. The antibiotics and Pracetamol we bought for his treatment cost another 49,000 CFA Francs (around Rs. 4,900)! Can anyone really dare to fall sick in a country where the average monthly income is less than Rs. 2,000?

I roamed the city, bargaining like a tourist. But in the nine days I was in the country I did not come across a single individual who raised his/her voice while talking. They always listened respectfully to what I had to say, with no sign of guile or crookedness. I have noticed that even the immigration official lowered his gaze while asking me for a bribe and smiled when he didn't receive one. Can one imagine a more civilized people?

Yet they were subjugated, colonized and enslaved. We found evidence of the violent, inhuman and frightening face of apartheid in a 5sq km island situated in the Atlantic Ocean some 15 km from Dakar. Known as Slave Island, this is the area closest to the rich, developed nations of the world.

In earlier times Africans were captured from different regions and brought here as slaves. It was from this island that they were dispatched into slavery in groups to different parts of Europe and America. One can still see those 80 to 150 sq ft rooms in which 15 to 30 people were imprisoned. They were allowed out only once in the day to relieve themselves. The insanitary conditions caused epidemics that killed thousands of Africans. Young girls were subjected to virginity tests and virgins were kept in separate rooms to be sent later to different places for sexual exploitation. If they became pregnant they were abandoned in forsaken places. Since this was the sole pathway to freedom, many girls sought to get pregnant as quickly as possible.

Official statistics covering over 300 years around the 14th and 15th centuries reveal that as many as 15 million people lost their lives during this period of the slave trade. Those who attempted to escape either drowned in the ocean or were attacked by sharks. Only the healthy ones weighing over 60 kg were sent across the ocean into slavery. The underweight were fed a special diet to increase their weight to qualify for slavery.

The people living on the island today relate the story of how the pope himself came here once from the Vatican to apologise for the depressing role played by the church in the practice of slavery. They told him yes, they could forgive him for this bitter truth of history but they could never forget it. Indeed, mankind has committed grievous sins in its history that cannot be forgotten.

The question we need to ask ourselves today is why European and American countries are still unwilling to fully reject an ideology steeped in apartheid and colonialism. 

*Sachin Kumar Jain

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