Socialist Worker

Africa's anger: WSF 2007 report

Last week's World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, finished with a march through the capital's slums. Charlie Kimber and Gavin Capps met some of the residents

Issue No. 2036

Schoolchildren cheered the demonstration that closed the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Schoolchildren cheered the demonstration that closed the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya (Pic: Socialist Worker)


The people of Kariobangi are dignified, decent and desperate for peace and stability. But they live in some of the worst conditions on Earth. Kariobangi is in the north eastern part of Nairobi, a city where around 60 percent of the population – two million people – live in slums.

Kariobangi's 70,000 residents mostly live in shacks or hastily constructed blocks. Grossly overcrowded, these homes often do not have proper sanitation or electricity or water. Clouds of dust blow though the streets, coating the houses and people.

Only about one in ten adults have permanent jobs. The rest survive by occasional work, petty trading or various forms of illegal activities, from brewing alcohol to drug dealing or theft.

In many places there are piles of refuse. In such a poor area you would not expect anything of value to be thrown away, but even so teams of the most desperate pick through the waste heaps in the hope of finding some scraps.

'Every day is a struggle to survive, and we do not get much for our hard work,' says Enos Mwangi. 'Our shack has two rooms for myself, my wife and our four children.

'This is an improvement on our previous home which we shared with another family. My father came to Nairobi in 1973 from a rural area and settled in this place. He was a farmer who had decided that the land was finished and that Nairobi would be better.

'He hoped for a better life for his children. I too have the same vision, but it is hard for my children to get education. The two girls only went to primary school, and so far only one boy is at secondary school.

'My greatest sorrow was to see one of my sons waste away in front of my eyes and then die. We could not afford a doctor and hoped he would survive with medicine we got free. But it was not enough.'

Enos's story is typical. Nearly 20 percent of children in Kariobangi die before they are five, and 80 percent do not go to secondary school. Primary school fees were abolished in 2003, but charges remain for older children. And many families also need their children to be making money as soon as possible.

One recent survey in the area estimated that around 2,000 children aged between eight and 14 had nobody to look after them and had to live on their wits. Some turn to prostitution, others to crime.

'I could not go to school when I was 12 because of the fees,' says 18 year old Pauline Moraa. 'Then my mother and father both died as a result of HIV/Aids.

'My grandmother looked after me until I was 13, and then she died and there was nobody. For a while I lived by looking in dustbins and eating waste fat from a place that sold food. I slept in the open. Then I was persuaded to be a prostitute. It was a bitter, horrible life and I have left it. Now I am in a project run by the church making textiles.

'I know I am lucky because most of my friends either have bad diseases or they are dead, and that is not what I want. My dream is to have a proper job and a home. I want a chance to be a person who makes choices for themselves.'

There is anger at the government of Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki, elected with such high hopes in 2002.

'I do not think they care about us. We are poor people who are simply forgotten,' says Pauline.

Ramshackle

Her words are echoed in Ngei 1, a settlement on the edge of Kibera, Africa's biggest slum. Here people live in ramshackle buildings, in rooms that measure three metres by three metres. The families must eat, sleep, cook and wash in this single space.

The rooms are bought and let by private landlords who are able to impose high rents and limit new house building – often by violent methods.

There are no official rubbish collections so refuse piles up in great tips, some as high as a single decker bus. The street becomes a communal tip with mountains of raw sewage, food remains, dead animals and all the other debris of life heaped up. Children play among this filth, with great hazard to their health.

The lack of electricity in some blocks means people use paraffin lamps, which frequently lead to fires. And sometimes the poorly built accommodation just collapses.

People do try to organise and improve this environment. A development youth group has started a rubbish collection system using wheelbarrows and their bare hands to shift garbage.

The odds facing them are impossibly high, but it is one example of how the spirit of resistance has not been extinguished in Kenya.

Teachers and lecturers have repeatedly struck over pay, conditions, overcrowding and low quality education. Tea pickers are preparing for action over the introduction of new machinery that threatens tens of thousands of jobs.

And even unorganised workers are hitting back. One example came at the World Social Forum when poor, hungry and angry Kenyan school students and young people stormed a restaurant, owned by internal security minister John Michuki, on the site and looted food.

The young people occupied the barbecue wing of the tent restaurant and began helping themselves to the fried chicken, beef stew and spaghetti.

The poverty of Kariobangi, Kibera and Ngei 1 – and of many other places globally – is an obscenity in a world where so much is spent on armaments and the luxuries of the rich.

Neither sops from the global powers nor warm words from Gordon Brown will abolish such suffering. It will require massive struggles from below – and ultimately it will require a fight for socialism.


'Endless Poverty for Africans'

African countries face new threats from neoliberalism in the guise of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs).

These deals are designed to open up the markets of African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to unfettered European Union (EU) competition.

This will enable multinationals to destroy small scale producers and then impose their own prices. Even the European Commission predicts that EPAs could lead to the collapse of the manufacturing sector in West Africa.

Most of Africa will be locked into a pattern of simply supplying raw materials. The EU is also pressing to force through damaging new agreements on investment, competition policy and privatisation.

These plans, blocked by the failure of the World Trade Organisation talks to reach agreement, are rising from the dead through EPAs.

A narrow elite in Africa may benefit because their firms might gain access to Western markets. But the majority will be worse off.

No wonder then that many activists say that EPA stands for 'Endless Poverty for Africans'.


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