I arrived in Tunis at 3.30PM on 21st March 2015 aboard a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. The flight had taken three hours, much shorter than the six and a half hour flight from Nairobi to Istanbul. Together with me on this flight were several fellow East Africans. We were in Tunisia to attend the World Social Forum.
These other East Africans were all from the NGO world and although I had never met them before, we had networked quite well during the long journey from Nairobi to Istanbul, then to Tunis. This showed the power of the World Social Forum in connecting people.
Upon arrival in Tunis, we waited at the airport for about one hour for our visa, changed our money and left for our respective hotels. I left for my hotel together with Jackie from Tanzania. Along the way, she told me about a pre-World Social Forum meeting that she would be attending. The meeting would be discussing a debt-free world. I was also intrigued to learn that she worked with an agricultural organization in Morogoro, Tanzania. As I am a farmer myself and interested in the role of agriculture in nurturing sustainability, we had a very fruitful discussion about this.
Thus it was that by the time I checked into my hotel in the centre of Tunis, my networking was already in high gear.
This was my first time in Tunisia but my second time in North Africa as I had previously visited Egypt. I naturally found myself comparing the two countries and found one of the key differences to be in attire. The ladies in Tunisia were quite liberal in their dressing and I could count those who were wearing the hijab, the face veil that was much more common in Egypt and even in the coastal part of my own country Kenya.
The following day, I began to meet fellow delegates from RITIMO, the French network that had facilitated my participation in the Forum. Over breakfast, I had a lively discussion with Laura from Brazil. We later met the RITIMO staff and for the rest of week, they became like family. Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed their company as I found them to be easy going, or in lugha ya mtaa (Swahili for street language), they keep it real. Vivi from RITIMO became my adopted sister and kept me fully informed through tireless interpretations.
The following day, I got a chance to meet almost one thousand RITIMO delegates where I gave a short passionate speech on the need for Africa to forge a common African language that should be taught across the continent. I suggested Swahili or Yoruba as they are the most widely spoken languages on the continent. I would prefer Swahili because it is spoken in more African countries than Yoruba. In July 2004, I celebrated when Joaquim Chissano the then Mozambique President and Chairman of the African Union (AU) gave his farewell address in Swahili in order to remind the continent of the need to promote African languages and identity.
This African language potential was driven home two days later when I shared a taxi with Nicole and Eric from the Democratic Republic of Congo (the land of the great Patrice Lumumba). They speak French and I speak English, so we couldn’t use these two languages. But like me, they speak Swahili so we had a great time using Swahili to communicate. Unfortunately, also with us in the taxi was Makaila, my friend my fellow RITIMO delegate from Chad. He only speaks Arabic and French so he couldn’t participate in the joyous conversation.
Makaila is an eminent blogger who is now living in France after he became persona non grata in his country because he writes it as he sees it, without massaging the egos of authorities. Despite the language barrier between us, we became very close due to our mutual passion for Mama Africa. He became my brother from another mother and we shared a lot of our dreams and frustrations.
It was also great to finally meet Moussa Coulibally from Mali. I had corresponded with him on the Indymedia mailing list for many years. He too proved to be a passionate son of Africa who just wants to make a difference in his country and continent. I also met with Bintou another Indymedia member from Mali. I had first seen her during the RITIMO evening party and was quite impressed by her speech on the rights of domestic workers in Mali.
Bintou, Moussa and I together with Sphinx from Cameroon, Gretchen from Canada and Norm held an Indymedia Africa meeting one rainy evening. It was a very fruitful meeting and poor Sphinx had the difficult task of switching between English and French so that we could all be on the same page. After this meeting, I joined Gretchen and Sphinx for a drink at a different location. This was a very interesting time because I learnt from them a lot about Indymedia’s early days. It was really nice knowing more about those heady days in Seattle.
Despite its shortcomings in nurturing participation of grassroots movements, the World Social Forum remains an invaluable platform for regional and global networking. For me, this networking was particularly strong at informal levels since some formal sessions were a bit too official and rigid for me.