Bringing down the walls

by Taran Khan

One of the innovations of WSF 2011 is the Dakar Expanded format, which saw events being linked to different parts of the world through Skype and the internet. On the campus itself, things were a little different, with the battle for space reaching a new high. As different groups often found themselves allotted the same room, the Forum moved from ‘open space’ to ‘where’s that space’ to ‘grab that space’. (There are rumours of rooms with enough space for discussions, air conditioning and simultaneous translations. We haven’t seen them yet.)

Being innovators and warriors, however, it wasn’t long before the Forum-walas found ways to leap over the obstacles and connect to their ‘audience’. The first and perhaps most spontaneous instance of these connections came from a group that did the rounds holding a banner of Egypt and Tunisia, before coming to a stand in front of the Palestine tent. There were songs of solidarity (the one that goes ‘So So So-SOLIDARITY’), rousing cheers and group hugs before the group moved on across the campus, beating their drums and celebrating the moment.

In another corner of the grounds, we found a group of students from the south of France had dealt with the chaos and lack of space at the Forum in a different way. The group, called Passe Passe le Megaphone, decided to take the Forum to the students of the University by the simple expedient of hanging out in a verandah with a large white cloth and plenty of coloured markers, and asking passers by to write their thought on a certain question for the day.

According to one of the group members, they had got incredible responses from students, since the activity was short enough to be done in the gap between classes, and was –well, out in the open space. “We found that students didn’t know what was going on, which seemed crazy, so we felt this was the best way to get them to engage with the Forum,” said Louise Place of the group. And in one of the evening sessions on political uprisings and social movements (not to be found in the schedule), Vinod Raina raised the question of connecting to absent movements, by talking of the movements that are making a mark in the local arenas of their engagement, but are missing from the space of the Forum.

“These are movements that are bypassing the traditional form of mediation from a middle class leadership, and have an organic leadership and ways of functioning,” he pointed out. These include peoples movements like Posco and Niyamgiri in India, which have forced changes in the ministry of environment, but are not represented in the Forum. While the Forum has direct links with the events that have unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia, Raina said, “what we need is a new way of collaborating with these other movements, and trying to be part of the direction they may take.”

Meanwhile, even as the World Social Forum faced a crisis of space, the World Social Bazaar expanded over the days, moving effortlessly from sidewalks to the middle of groups to (by the end of the day) the middle of tents where discussions were punctuated by greetings and a raised eyebrow from hawkers. Indeed, by the afternoon, the distinctions between Forum and Bazaar had become mere niceties, as hawkers tried to sell delegates badges and bags, and many even wore participant badges themselves while selling beads and earrings.

A random selection of the goods available for the pleasure of delegates were: Wooden aeroplanes, leather shoes, boxes and wallets, carved wooden monkeys, herds of elephants, crouching cheetahs, hippos with oversized heads, leather belts, many masks, miniature buses, scooters and motorcycles, figures of Tintin and fat men wearing sola topis, wall hangings, paintings in assorted sizes and my personal favourite- small framed drawings showing different occupations, including a dentist pulling out a tooth. Starting price for most items is 10$, but as the delegates walking away with oddly shaped packages under their arms will tell you, another (bargain) price is possible.

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