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Friederike Habermann © 2003

 

 
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Her face was scoured with disappointment. The huts in this Porto Alegran favela looked acceptable, as far as she could see from the highway. Was there no real poverty here? After all she had come for the third World Social Forum all the way down to the Third World.

During the fourth World Social Forum concerned travellers won’t be disappointed. Slums look the way slums ought. And the best is, you don´t even need to watch out for them: there´s not a street without a shack. Even here in Mumbai, which remains the most Western city of India. ´Shack´, ´shed´ - is there a word that sounds tiny enough for these few square meters per family? Six square meters downstairs and sometimes another four upstairs – these constructions made out of plate, wood and waste can only keep upright by being too tightly packed to fall. Kids are playing in front of them as if there were no cars jostling one another off the road. Men are dozing in the sun; women are doing the washing – and are having a wash themselves – as if they would be sitting at the river in their home village.

How long have they lived like this? Have they, have their kids, experienced another world than this? In the Narmada-Valley? Until the dams flooded their villages. In the jungle of Kerala? Until environmental regulations on one side and the opening up for tourism on the other, let the survival of the indigenous Adivasis become more and more difficult. Or did they belong to that fisher´s place on the west coast, recently buried beneath a Mobil petroleum gas plant? Are these the widows of debt-straddled cotton-farmers, so scalped that suicide became their only option? And when will the famished arrived from Coca-Cola plant, whose unslakeable thirst has already sapped two meters of ground water?

In other streets the huts are more spacious and solid. Garages and shops of all kinds show a parallel world got in place. Parallel to the cars and the buildings. Parallel and apart from the world of us as participants of the World Social Forum, from our world dear reader.

Until now, I used to proclaim proudly that culture shocked me only on my return from a six-month stay in India: in the commuter train from Hanover. The carriage was packed; in front of me somebody reading in an English-German Dictionary. Only when the “Where you from?” stuck in my throat I realised that no one yet had spoken in the whole railway carriage. What contrast to the curiosity and cheerfulness that turns any Indian train into a salon.

So I ought to be used to Indian streets. Often I imagined what it would be like to stay in one of these huts. And still: I have a cultural shock now. Maybe it hit meon the first night, when we arrived at the airport, and a gutter snipe, not older than eight, got my explanation– in an exquisitely regretful voice, anyway that would have been all he could understand – that I only had big bills with me, as if he had naturally to understand I couldn´t give him any of those. But when a little bit later the hotel bus driver was waiting to be tipped, I felt sufficient pressure to find a solution for this problem.

As a backpacker, I´ve always wondered: why do people give handsome tips, but nothing to the beggars? Now I can look for the answer by myself. Maybe that’s where my cultural shock comes from? Wasn’t it me who had been philosophising in an article about just this situation: not to give any money to a kid believing the parents shouldn’t send it begging: “Would the kid be able to speak to me as an equal, it would tell me: ´1. I’m an AIDS-orphan and my parents therefore dead, 2. You know better than me about the terms of trade between our countries, and 3. You are a stupid sod!´”.

So that’s what makes it more difficult this time: Last time I was shocked – I carefully worded it this way I remember – to acclimatise to the poverty so easily. Now I’m weaning. But who or what made this happen? To have met the people in the Narmada-Valley? To have been told by women of the forests of Kerala about their struggle? Or did I need the confrontation with Barbara from Argentina, who used to live as a yuppie three years before, earning more money than me, than you, who was left bankrupt by the financial crises. What this meant I couldn´t grasp without going through this by myself, Barbara told me. And cried. After months of nothingness the eked-out 50 Euros state unemployment support appeared like a blessing to her. Did it need my resemblance with Barbara to wean myself from other’s poverty?

To act as Mother Theresa – or some less controversial altruist - might be a nice daydream. But when I catch myself with this, I remember the quote by an aboriginal woman above the manifesto of Peoples´ Global Action, the network for grassroot movements: ´If you come only to help us, you can go back home. But if you consider my struggle as part of your struggle, then maybe we can work together´. Similarly, the Zapatistas in the Mexican jungle insist, that we have to start living collectively among ourselves, otherwise we will not be helpful for their struggle, which is our struggle.

Development aid – or development cooperation what it’s called now – is not what they are asking for. Development aid, that’s the dam that floods the Narmada-Valley. Development aid is raised, when we as delegates for the World Social Forum book a hotel with a price twice as high – without the possibility given to the foundations to save this money in order to reinvest it into other projects. It’s easy to be tempted this way to be generous to oneself and stay in the more expensive one. And our hotel with the smell of mildew-imbued-mothball in the air can’t hide the fact that more than a billion people have to live for more than two months on the amount that one night in here costs.

Development aid is the blue 20-D-Mark-notes with which my older brother and sister made sure I wouldn´t quit the Monopoly-game, although I already was indebted and had no chance any more. To create another world means to play a different game. With no winners.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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