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January 18, 2007

Traveling to Africa with WSF-goers, international aide workers and various tourists

The people I met in the airport and on the plane (I talked to people all 9 hours to Nairobi) started to give me a sense of the international scene in Africa.

Here are some of the types of folks I met…

1. International “do gooders”

-- Jim, a social studies teacher and construction worker from Rochester, NY who has a pet project building a school in a village in western Kenya: he was a super sweet guy, a natural teacher, with many stories about everything from getting arrested in the anti-FTAA protest in Quebec to connecting a school for the deaf in Kenya with a school for the deaf in Rochester. He took a lot of pride and joy in his work with this village and the school building project (where he brings in $$ and then is just grunt labor, with the locals making decisions about using the money, designing the school etc.). He has basically become their hero. Part of me wanted to judge this “white man saviour in village Africa” thing, but hearing so many of his stories, and seeing his pictures made me think that he really is educating people in both countries – very important, of course. And you know, if he can funnel thousands of dollars from the US to a village in Kenya, so be it. The reasons for the deep inequalities of life are so complex, that this bit of robinhooding (even though the ‘rich’ Americans are giving money freely) doesn’t seem so bad. If you wonder what my critical outlook is, it’s just about my wanting to look for deep structural change that creates such inequalities to begin with. But his projects are part band-aid (building a new school) and part education, which will stick with the American and Kenyan kids for their lifetimes.

For example, one of his projects has been to get Kodak (in Rochester) to donate a bunch of disposable and digital cameras to kids in three places: a Rochester suburb, a Cuban neighborhood in Miami, and “his” village in Kenya. He asked the kids to take pictures and write down what’s important to them, and then he brought the photos and stories to each place. You can imagine the similarities and differences that the kids got to see.

--Other “international do-gooders”:

* A group of seven women from Canada who somehow connected with women in a village in Southern Sudan, were visiting for the first time. They had 12 huge bags of medical supplies, toys, etc. They were all about this women-centered journey.

* A woman doing a 9-week medical visit to Tanzania as part of her residency in the U.S.

2. Tourists: Plenty of these… Fanny, my seat-mate from Sweden, was meeting up with the “Pink Caravan,” a few big, pink busses who do overland tours from Kenya to Cape Town. And of course, lots of people were going to Kenya for safaris… travelers are all about safaris.

3. World Social Forum goers!! Yes, the plane was filled with us! And of course, the questions are: Where are you from? What org are you with? I shared a different story every time… it’s sort of hard to explain what I’m doing: I do have my feet in certain organizations (City Repair and TLC Farm) and come from a particular focus (localization, etc.) but I am also here to try on the cross=pollinating, networking thing… so it’s just not that straightforward. I’m sure I’ll refine my story as I go—and figure out how to translate Portlandness to an international crowd.

--A few folks I met on the plane:

* Victoria from Miami, working on homelessness issues and building an Ujoma Village in Miami. I told her about Dignity Village in Portland.
* A woman from Sweden interested in medical issues
* Andres, from Democracy Now! in San Fransisco, there to report back to Amy Goodman and others. Nice.
* Dashan, who works with people of African descent in NY city. This was his first time to Africa, too.

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