It begins with a with a few flags coming together at street corners, attracting curious glances from passers-by, and courteous waves from passing cars. As we get closer to the venue of the march, the numbers grow, and the rhythmic beats of music start to give the flags a spring in their waves, an extra bounce in the walk of those holding the flags. And then there are many of us, waiting under the shade of trees, smoking, greeting old friends, talking to strangers met by the sidewalk.
On the railings by the pavement, a row of people have opened their laptops and are diligently typing away, oblivious to the rising levels of noise around them. One young boy reads a book, refusing to look up at the shifting throng of people from almost every corner of the world surrounding him in its glittering orbit. Women pass by in magnificent rustles of fabric-saris, sarongs, dresses, and gravity defying turbans of every variety. There is copious application of sunblock, and enthusiastic kissing-on-both-cheeks greetings, and then suddenly the march is on the move, slow and pulsing, dancing and waving, magnificent and seemingly never ending.
Smart businessmen appear at every few steps, hawking coconut pieces, T-shirts and prayer mats. A few not so smart ones try to palm off bootlegged perfumes to immaculately dressed ladies. Now the flags are manifold and rainbow coloured, patch-worked, held high, tied to backs or stretched between friends like handclasps. The music is everywhere, varying in rhythm at every few steps with each group. Drums and whistles, handclaps and wooden cymbals, voices raised in hoarse slogans, all of these are the soundtrack to the Forum declaring itself open.
Now the march has reached a crossroad, and enters the living city, down a road lined with kids watching and jumping along, women with babies on their hips who take a minute from fetching water to watch the world pass by, young people on rooftops swaying to the beat of the bands, others just watching in amazement at this long, incredible parade that has taken over their city. A man wearing the robes of a monk wanders up and down the parade a few times, drawing curious glances even in a crowd inured to surprises.
The mystery is finally revealed when a group walks into view, carrying a banner that says ‘Franciscan Family for Justice and Peace’, being filmed by a young boy with dreadlocks and wearing a Rastafarian hat. There are men in headdresses of feathers, and face paint, and women wearing dazzling scarves, and clowns juggling and pretending to let their props fall, and men on stilts striding past the crowd really fast.
Now the sun has beaten down on us for over an hour, and the road seems to be long, and our feet hurt and we sit for a while, and watch the march overtake us, let it wash over us , wave after wave of banners and demands, agendas and hope, a tsunami of colour and beating, tapping feet. Fatigued, some of the crowd seems to have lost its initial pep, and there is a drag in their stride, a tendency to seek out the shaded path to walk on. The only thing that cheers them up is the presence of policemen on the side of the road. A group of girls quickly pose next to them and get their pictures taken, giggling, while the cops watch, poker faced but bewildered.
Finally the road turns into the university, and the thought that we are almost there is a tonic to our tired bodies, and the music picks up again, and there are serenades for the students hanging out from their balconies in the hostels, who cheer right back, and wont stop until we move on, reluctantly. And then we are there, in the wide spaces of the university, with plenty of shade for women to collapse under, groaning, taking off their high heeled shoes and massaging their feet vigorously. Sandwiches appear, and coffee, there are photographs under flags with friends-old and newly met. We talk to a few people, who say how happy they are to have been there, that all of Africa was at this march. Young Senegalese activists talk of how this could help create awareness about each other’s issues. Children make a circle, and sing, and a van circles the grounds playing reggae music, with boys bopping their heads in time to the beat. We move towards the stage, where there is music from Brazil, and Evo Morales has just spoken to a crowd that remained largely oblivious to his presence.
On the edge of the venue, there are people holding hands and dancing in the park, making circles with their bare feet on the grass. We leave the venue, and walk out across the road, to the ocean side, where young boys are working out in a beach-gym. I stand looking at the ocean, lit up by the setting sun. A man appears next to me, a passer-by, maybe on his way to run some errands, and stops, and asks, “Are you here for the Forum?” in French. I nod yes, and he smiles. “Welcome to Senegal”, he says, and walks off, lost almost immediately
in the dispersing crowd.