Ice creams, regime change and the search for the registration desk at Dakar

By Taran Khan

Dakar Feb 5th 2011

While a bar of chocolate ice cream steadily drips into a puddle from his hand, Abdul Fata, a Bachelors student of English at the Cheikh Anta Diop University campus gives an animated account of what the WSF means for him. “The world is coming to our doorstep, and as students, we need to find out what they talk about and how we can fit into things,” says the aspiring translator, whose career choice is a consequence of his love for travel. “This is the largest university in all of west Africa. I think it will also be good for the Forum to know what an African campus like, what we do in our classes, our dorms, how we spend our spare time-it is also a good opportunity for them,” he adds expansively, swallowing the last of his now milky ice cream before running off to class.

Hopes of many such conversations are in the air as Dakar prepares to welcome delegates to the 2011 WSF. And even as the tents go up, banners flap and cameras whirr across the campus of the university, there is no doubt that much of the talk will be about Egypt, and Tunisia. Unfolding against the incredible backdrop of these events, this promises to be the Forum of youth, and youthful energy.

“Over the next few days, we are expecting people coming from Egypt (to the Forum) who will talk about how the mobiliization was done through networks, blogs, etc. There are also people arriving from all over Tunisia-women, trade unionists, activists, kids who shot videos of events on the streets,” says Hamouda Soubhi, of the Morocco Alternatives Forum. “Many of them are young; it is a movement of a new generation, new hope.”

For Soubhi, the link between the events playing out in the two countries and the space of the Forum is elusively shaped but definite. “The Forum for us in Africa is a new way of expression. People who we met and worked with earlier, when we meet and talk with them at the Forum, it creates a new movement.”

With this kind of serendipitous timing that can’t be planned, the combination of world events meeting campus buzz and the legendary madness of the Forum promises to be a potent one, despite the presence of the usual day-before-the-event hitches. Even as the campus hummed with preparations, groups of delegates wandered the various venues looking for an elusive registration counter, and the university complex saw the beginnings of snaking lines with people chatting and smoking without actually moving much.

Despite these, and other issues, International Council member Vinod Raina is optimistic about the overall experience of the Dakar Forum being a positive one.  “We had a problem at our session at the Science and Democracy World Forum today, when the sound system basically collapsed. But the way people came together to fix it and give translations made it eventually an excellent session, probably better than if we hadn’t had a problem with the sound. Even adversities can create good events if they are handled with this kind of approach, and I am hopeful we will see a good Forum.” As Raina points out,  what most people take back from the Forums is not grouses of missed signs or inadequate space, but the kind of political mobilization and experience it achieves– something that the Dakar process seems to have emphasized.“There will be all kinds of groups joining in the events, including opposing opinions, which always makes for good debate,” says Raina.

For Yves  Eric Elouga, manning his stall of books and literature under a shady tree in front of the Science and Democracy World Forum, the event is an excellent opportunity for students on the campus to create connections from the local to the global, or at least within Africa.  “For many students here, Egypt seems very distant from their lives. This is an opportunity to open minds.”

Elouga is a marketing officer with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, but given the nature of the publications, he says, he has no choice “but to read, and to think.” A former student of the university, he is disappointed by the turnout of students at the day’s events. “You’d think they would at least be curious at what’s going on around them, but apart from our volunteers very few actually turned up.” But more optimistically, he adds, “Maybe after the march, they will see the carnival atmosphere and join in. If they had been given a week’s vacation (through the Forum’s duration) they would’ve all run off home,” he adds impishly.

How Dakar’s WSF will pan out will only be clear at the end of a week. But it is already evident that the 2011  meetings will be remembered not for numbers or for logistical achievements or shortcomings, but for intersecting by an incredible coincidence with a moment of change in Africa. And while the world still adjusts to this change, the Forum process has already embraced it.  “We have a number of events lined up to discuss the events of the last few weeks,” says Soubhi, before revealing the news that is sure to send a thrill down the Forum’s collective spine, “and it has been decided that the next African Social Forum will be held in Tunisia.”

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