Meeting Gandhi, Madam Sheila and Mubarak in Dakar (World Social Forum Diary)

By Manish Chand, IANS
Friday, February 11, 2011

DAKAR - Mahatma Gandhi’s shadow looms large over the 11th edition of the World Social Forum (WSF), the annual meeting of anti-globalisation activists, in this balmy coastal capital of Senegal as a counter to the conclave of the rich and the powerful at Davos.

As one enters colourful stalls of NGOs peddling a hundred causes at WSF, which began Feb 6 and ends Friday, one is greeted by the larger-than-life banner of Mahatma Gandhi in the heart of the Cheikh Anta Diop university, named after the celebrated Senegalese intellectual and historian.

The banner has been put up by Ekta Parishad, an influential Indian coalition of around 11,000 community members fighting for the landless and marginalised and which is participating in the show.

Sharad Joshi, an activist with a Rajasthan-based NGO, says Gandhi’s message of satyagraha has a special message at a time of global financial crisis.

Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade is a self-confessed admirer of Gandhi. One can safely say Mahatma Gandhi is easily the most popular Indian at the forum.


Madam Sheila!

If you tell delegates - and there are thousands from over 120 countries - that you are from India they talk about Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and, of course, film stars. Of late, one more name has been doing the rounds.

“Madam Sheila, you know her?” chuckled a student from Kenya. One was puzzled. Which Sheila was he talking about? Realisation dawned when he started humming “Sheila ki jawani”, the popular Bollyood song — a slightly odd note amid all the anti-globalisation rage coursing through the forum.


Mubarak Ho!

The popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader who has ruled over North Africa’s most powerful economy for three decades, has galvanised anti-establishment activists here.

The scent of jasmine revolution has spread and the fire on the Arab street has ignited the hearts of budding revolutionaries, specially from Arab countries who turned out in large numbers.

There are at least 200 Moroccans and many more Egyptians participating in the event besides hordes from countries like Jordan and Tunisia. Whichever way the ongoing struggle pans out in Egypt, activists from Arab countries have a near universal chant - ‘Mubarak must go’.

“We are waiting for democracy to come our country now,” added Amarouch, a Moroccan student who dreams of becoming a lawyer and a minister.

“In South America, but especially in the streets of Tunis and Cairo and many other African cities, hopes for a new world are being revived,” said the maverick Lula da Silva, the former Brazilian president and a working class icon, capturing the longing for change in the countries ruled by autocrats.


Africa, Africa!

As the curtains come down on the week-long gathering of the critics of global capital Friday, it’s clear that Africa, its persisting misery along with its re-emergence, dominated the mindscape of participants.

Land grabbing in the continent was denounced with much fervour as a form of neo-colonialism. At least two dozen workshops focused on land buying spree and pervasive poverty and underdevelopment in African countries.

“Do not touch my land, it’s my life” said a poster by Oxfam and NGO Enda, which denounced landgrabbing by “foreign groups, Europeans, Asians” as well as “wealthy Africans”.

According to a report by the World Bank, between August 2008 and October 2009, 42 million hectares had been acquired in countries.

The WSF has returned to an African country after a gap of four years. Kenya hosted the forum in 2007.


Radical chic

Revolutions and protests come in all colours and stripes. And there is a couture, as the French-speaking Senegalese say, for revolutionaries. Unlike the posh Davos where CEOs and tycoons move around in prissy formals, rebels at Dakar’s forum floated around in frayed jeans, colourful casuals and organic cotton trousers and skirts.

Even the charismatic Lula spoke to the cheering crowd in an informal white shirt. Tall Senegalese women, known for their elegant taste in clothes, sported colourful headgears. The university, the venue of the counter-Davos carnivalesque gathering of the oppressed, was a veritable profusion of colours.

Clearly, revolution has no one colour, and rage can be dressed in more than fiery orange.

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