The Nairobi "Forum"
by Lisa Avedon
When I am asked to describe the Nairobi "Forum," so many images come to mind. It is easiest to think of it as a land of fair, full of colour, music, displays, and performances.
The "Forum" was located at the University in Nairobi which is a large quadrangle surrounded by classrooms and "buildings. Most of the workshops were held in these buildings and when they went beyond their time allotment, they were transferred to the lawn of the quadrangle alongside the posters and banners promoting a variety of political courses. A circular area was set aside as a resting place, marked off by stakes connected with strings from which were suspended little bags. There were signs in all of the official languages - English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Swahili, encouraging us to write our thoughts and feelings on slips of paper and drop them in the bags. Each time I passed it, I thought about looking into the bags, but never did. There was always someone asleep on the grass within the circle, despite the noise in the quadrangle.
Alongside the quadrangle there were tables which organizations used to display their material. People would walk along from table to table picking up what-ever was put down. I wondered how they would be able to take it all home.
The Peace Tent was in a corner just outside the quadrangle. It was always crowded and when a debate was on, it was impossible to get past the entrance. Sometimes debates begun in workshops, ended in the Peace Tent. Once, Dame Nita Barrow, President of the International Council for Adult Education, who chaired the Forum Committee, was able to get members of opposing political groups who were shouting at one another on the lawn, to move their argument into the Peace Tent, to where it changed from shouting to listening and talking, albeit loudly.
There were hundreds of workshops during the Forum on a broad range of topics. Many were so overcrowded that people sat on the floor and stood around the room and in the doorway. If all 10,000 women who were registered attended the workshops, there would have been total bedlam, but, as is true in most large conferences, the most interesting things happened outside of scheduled sessions. Early in the week, the clusters of women tended to be homogenous groups of Indian women, Japanese women, and so on. By Wednesday, the groups having lunch under one of the parasols at the far side of the quadrangle were far more international.
Women were eager to meet one another and acquaintanceships began in the long registration lines. I came to know many women whose names also begin with "A": at the bank, the exhibitions, everywhere that we gathered.
Early in the week, I strolled through an open area, across the street from the University, which had been fenced-in as a crafts market. A number of women's craft cooperatives had set up temporary shelters where they displayed their work. While purchasing some grass table mats, I asked the young woman who was writing out my receipt about her group. A Kenyan woman, who had been standing nearby joined our conversation and she took me on a tour of some of the displays. While we were walking, she told me that she had been sent to the "Forum" by the women in her village to find out what they could do to help themselves more effectively. They were aware that literacy was a problem for them, but until they had a source of water within their village, the women had no time available to them. She took me to the area next to the market. It had a sign over the entrances -"LIVE WORKSHOPS". On the right was a display of water pumps, and next to it an exhibit showing water projects in Kenyan villages. A map showed some projects in Busia, the area in western Kenya where she lived, but her village was not included. "Until we have water," she said, "there is very little we can do." The LIVE workshops showed how local access to clean water impacts on villages' development in regard to health, family planning, nutrition and, ultimately, economic development. Unless village women were relieved of the burden of carrying water from a distant source, something which may take four hours of each day, there was little time or energy for literacy.