The conferences marking the close of the United Nations Decade for Women got off to a less-than-smooth and premature start this week, with thousands of women arriving here and finding problems with their accommodations.
Late Tuesday afternoon three women, speaking for a hastily formed but firmly united group of 99, held a press conference in the ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. Under the harsh light of ornate chandeliers, Toni Killings, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Committee for Racial Justice, read a resolution hammered out the night before and adopted by 99 of 100 women from various countries refusing to give up their prepaid rooms at the hotel on July 12 as demanded by the Kenyan government. Joined by Betty Shapiro, past president of B'nai B'rith International, andJessie Hackes of Planned Parenthood, the three answered reporters' questions, saying that while they doubted there would be any police action, they would deal with that problem when they came to it.
Technically, Forum '85, the 1985 non-governmental world meeting for women, starts today. However, some of the women who have come to Nairobi from all over the world were in no mood to wait for forum conveners, government or international officials to tell them what to do. They have started without them, taking matters in their own hands. From the consternation that their action seems to be causing, it is safe to say no one was prepared for matters to take this turn.
The forum is an unofficial gathering that is open to anyone who registered properly and is primarily intended as an exchange of information and ideas. It ends July 19, but on Monday the official conference of government-appointed delegations to review and appraise the achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women begins.
The two conferences overlap, and in that lies a major problem. Although the conference has been five years in the planning, although the Kenyan government itself has set and reset the dates for the forum three times this year, and although it has been estimated for months that 10,000 people could be expected to come, the government seems unprepared to accommodate the crowd that is materializing.
As a solution, conference organizers have commandeered hotel rooms and ordered occupants to surrender their rooms to official governmental delegations. Alternate housing is being arranged for the participants of the forum for non-governmental organizations, most of it at university dormitories, some of which are far from town.
In the face of this, 100 forum participants, of the 140 staying at the Intercontinental, had met. Their resolution, the result of a proposal made by a South Korean, Dr. Tai Young Li, states that while they will not give up their rooms, "we welcome the conference delegates and invite them to share our rooms when they arrive." Li went so far as to offer to share her room with members of the North Korean delegation.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, most of them women, are being affected by this situation. They are arriving--having applied for rooms through proper U.N. and Kenyan procedures established for the conferences--with confirmations of rooms and receipts for their deposits in hand, only to find themselves with no hotel room at all, or with one they must vacate when the official delegations start arriving.
The place where this is all being worked out is the 24th floor of the Kenyatta Conference Center, a towering, cylindrical building in the heart of the city where the official conference will be held. There in a room of scattered tables and chairs and files piled on the floor, Monday afternoon's low-keyed, immobilized scene was typical of what has been happening. Dazed, jet-lagged women clutching worthless, official-looking papers sat, stood or tried to form little queues, all vainly trying to catch the attention of a government worker. The bureaucrats, in turn, were polite, patiently reassuring one moment, wandering off or evasive the next, not sure themselves what was to be done with all these people.
Three Danish women lamely smiled and explained what they were doing: "We've been sitting here for several hours and every so often we fill out a piece of paper." They seemed prepared to do it for quite some time.
Nearby, two Los Angeles women, Virginia Carter, senior vice president at Embassy television, and Judith Osmer, both representing the Population Institute, told their situation with bemused detachment.
After applications, deposits and four telexes to Nairobi had brought no response, they had arrived during the weekend not knowing anything about their accommodations. They were sent to Kenyatta University. It is far enough away that it took some women who are housed there three hours to reach town Tuesday because of transportation problems and traffic congestion.
Carter and Osmer had not stayed at the university long enough to find that out. The state of privacy and bathroom facilities that were available there made them decide it was "not possible," Carter said. They threw themselves on the mercy of the Norfolk Hotel and got a room there, provided they agreed to leave on the 12th.
They did not know what would happen after that, except that they would not be going to the university.
Going on Safari
"We'll probably wind up going on safari," Carter said, only half-joking.
What was going on at the center was a continuation of the confusion that had met some women before they even reached Nairobi. Rumors, and confirmation of rumors reached them first. On Sunday night's British Airways Flight 55 from London to Nairobi, a delegation of 100 American women, 70 of them from California, all members of the informally organized "Continuing the Peace Dialogue," were preparing for the worst.
Pat Schroeder of Santa Cruz and Linda Dios of Monterey, both with the Dialogue, said they had made reservations for 100 in January, and had them changed three times. From the new Stanley Hotel they were bumped to the Pan Afrique. From there they were scattered to a number of hotels. Then, in London the night before, a telex had caught up with them. They would be staying at a university.
For all of the frustration and inconvenience, there is little anger. The closest people have come to really sounding off is along the lines of an exasperated comment Mildred Leet of New York made. She is here with her husband, Glen, with whom she runs a small development agency called Trickle Up. They are about to be evicted from the Intercontinental.
"I just have to say this," she said on her way out of the Kenyatta Center. "Would this ever have occurred at any other conference than a women's conference? We are simply expendable and that's that. And that's why we have to have a meeting like this."
That sentiment was echoed somewhat at the press conference where a Filipino woman wondered out loud about "a calculated undermining of the solidarity of the women. It's as if we have been divided into an upper-class elite, who are the delegates, and the rest of us, who are from the NGOs (non-governmental organizations)."
For the most part however that is not typical of the mood here. People, including the women at the Intercontinental, are aware of the efforts the Kenyans are taking to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable.
The lovely tree-lined streets of the city are festooned with welcoming banners and taxi drivers, people on the street, government workers and service people are not faking their warm smiles, cheerful greetings and friendly questions. The conference is no insignificant thing for the Kenyans, in spite of the fact this is an international conference city. Nothing quite this large has ever happened before.
Their visitors are not immune to this good will and hospitality.
The efforts to make people comfortable are tangible too. The fact is there are not enough hotel beds for everyone. And while that seems to have caught them up short, they are busily at work righting the situation now.
At the University of Nairobi dormitories, for example, the rooms have been freshly painted, bathrooms hosed down, toilets unplugged, toilet paper supplied, security staff deployed--most of this since the weekend. The students only recently vacated the dorms, and the rooms were by no means ready for the women when they arrived.
'Deserve High Praise'
On Tuesday afternoon, one peaceful-looking cluster of women sat on the lawn chatting, two white women from Australia and three black women from Namibia, the first time out of their country which is ruled by South Africa and subject to the same pass laws for blacks, they said. The women pronounced the dorms "about 100%" improved from the day before.
"The people here have been trying so hard to take care of us," Merle Highet, an Australian, said. "They really have. They're being so nice. They deserve high praise."
Even at the Intercontinental the overriding mood was positive, if determined.
"In a way I feel very happy about it all," one woman said from the audience. "Last night's meeting was full of creative solutions. It was really, 'up with women.' "