Saturday, 31 January 2009

Creative chaos or just chaos?!

Our group's closing celebration

What a day!

I had spent half of the previous afternoon poring over the World Social Forum programme. It's the size of the Saturday Guardian, font so small it hurts the eyes, FULL of workshops, films, cultural activities etc, most of them in Portuguese. More than 2000 events to choose from. I circled everything I was interested in, agonised over which to go to, and finally made my choices.

So. Our bus left West Belem at 7:30am to arrive in time for the 8:30 sessions. We did a conscientious impression of a Turkish bath for ninety minutes, and got out thankfully, into BLAZING sunshine, at the first campus. Set off walking. Walked, limped, crawled across the largest scrubland campus I've ever seen, arriving more than an hour late for the start. Found the room. Ah. They've decided to run it in Portuguese after all. Never mind, there's a film on about the Amazon, let's go to the cinema.

So. Got to the cinema. Blissfully air-conditioned. Hang on, that's not the Amazon, it's Marilyn Monroe in not many clothes!
We stayed for 15 minutes for a film which should have been called "Cars, Cakes, Breasts and Hitler" but was purporting to some kind of social analysis, inasmuch as I could tell from the Portuguese commentary. Next!

This next session was the one I was really looking forward to. Women (I am one)'s Empowerment (wot I did my dissertation on) in Amerindian communities (such as the one we're about to move to) in Amazonia. Hurrah! I arrived to find 3 English-speaking presenters and no audience. Then a few Scandinavians arrived. But they told us they'd decided to run the session in Portuguese for a group of 20- who weren't there. We waited 15 minutes. We waited half an hour. We left in despair.
Last stop of the day- our own group's presentation. The South Asian People's Initiative is utterly brilliant. They are a group of about 5000 (including 250 Jesuits), from many organisations, faiths and regions, but all working to raise the voice of indigenous people- forest tribals, dalits, adivasis from the cities and other displaced people. They spoke in Tamil, Hindi or English. We heard about displacement and multinational activity, joblessness and migration, protests and government lobbying. Many of the group are beautiful or striking, so it's a visual as well as an aural feast.

Halfway through, there were two presentations by Brazilian Amerindians. Both sides were struck by how common their struggles were. We finished the presentation by discussing what international support could be given to these two indigenous groups to work more together over the coming years. It's very likely to be successful- both the US and the European Jesuit NGOs are keen to fund exchanges, and the Amazonian leaders want to go to India to see the critical education and advocacy work.

We sang, several times. We danced circle dances. The Amerindians painted Dalit faces with Urukong, a local pod thingy, bright red ink which is now adorning my beige clothing.

At the end, Rani spoke. She is a women's leader in her (adivasi) area, and she lobbies the government. To us, that would mean sitting in outer offices waiting for plump politicians in thin blue shirts to give us our turn. To her, it means sitting in the dust on the street outside various offices, in the full heat of the day, chanting, expecting police brutality, and then coming back the next day, with women from the villages, women from the towns, and sitting, marching, chanting, sitting again.
Rani Sivan

Rani told us her experience in about one minute flat. "We lived and worked on a coffee plantation. One day the plantation owner came to tell us it had been sold for eco-tourism. We asked for a week to find somewhere else to live and work. They refused. As we were preparing to leave, they came and burned down our houses. Now we cannot find work. We have no land. My ancestors lived in the forest for generations. That is who we are. Now we have no forest."

That was all. She smiled, rattled through this, very matter-of-fact, smiled again and sat down. I wept then, and I am welling up now recalling it. Somehow it's different. Rani is my friend: we have sat together at meals, done group discussions, hugged and laughed. To hear this after the week we have all spent together, makes me realise that I don't know how to care about such histories. The histories of strangers do not get through the last layer of the bubble I live in. I thought I empathised more than I did.

The World Social Forum is a mess. There are too many people, sessions are cancelled or moved, no-one can find anything, Belem is full to bursting so even if something does run on time there is no-one there to hear it... and yet. Perhaps issues are not what it is for. The members of our group from the global South are having a wonderful time. It strengthens them to hear other histories, other struggles, to feel that they are in it together. I say "they", because we are not so important in the process.

I was thinking about solidarity on the march. Now I'm thinking about it again. Perhaps it is feeling the impact of oppressions that cannot hurt you- caring deeply about oppressions that have an impact only on people poorer than you. Michael Taylor says solidarity isn't about empathising with those on the other side, but about moving over to that side in a thoroughgoing way. Our passports are our get-out-of-jail-free card, our ticket to potential luxury. Our education is too.

I'm ranting again! Sorry. I shall leave it there. At the end, B and I, Jim the US Jesuit (great rendition of "I could have danced all night", but that's another story) and three of the SAPI guys went to the refreshment tent and hung out for an hour, eating ice lollies and chatting. I seem to have had a World Social Forum of mayhem, Marilyn Monroe, marching, muttering and missed sessions, but to sit with new friends and a full heart, sweating gently, talking of Indian states' particular foibles, Afghan daily life and Chinese airline horror stories, eating acai ice cream and shrieking with laughter, is an experience not to be missed. A benison, one of the Indians said- damn right! xxx

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