It was like the end of summer camp, women embracing and crying, exchanging addresses and bits of jewelry, exhausted and aware that something momentous was coming to an end.
"One thing's for sure," said a filmmaker from Los Angeles. "It's going to be weird to get back to being around men."
The first and, most agreed, the better half of the conferences to end the United Nations Decade on Women, wound down late tonight. Many of the 13,700 delegates to the unofficial forum gathered at the Great Court of the University of Nairobi to sing and stomp and congratulate each other for having survived and prospered at the greatest and possibly most chaotic gathering of women that the world has seen.
Many American women left convinced they had seen the birth of a truly international women's movement.
By nightfall the university lawn was littered with paper scraps from hundreds of political posters, workshop schedules and urgent messages, mementos of 10 days that did not shake the world but, its organizers believe, may yet give it a good shove.
There'd been a lot of rhetoric and rhubarb along the way. The Palestinian women attacked the Israelis, the Nicaraguans made mincemeat of the United States and the Soviet delegates insisted, in flawless English, that they had come as free agents, independent of their own government, even if they were tight-lipped on human rights in Afghanistan.
And then there were the Iranian women, dressed in black shrouds with holy cards of the Ayatollah safety-pinned under their chins.
But as the hot-air front lifted and began moving to the other end of town (where the official United Nations Women's Conference will be underway for the next week) there were signs that all the yakking hadn't been in vain.
The Palestinian, Israeli and American Jewish women who nearly came to blows at the last such gathering in Copenhagen in 1980 did better this time. They still fought in public, but there were cordial talks behind closed doors.
That the forum had taken place on Kenyan soil, and come off almost without a hitch, was a triumph for African women and men. Kenyan women, said the leader of their delegation, would never be the same.
The anticipated frictions between women from developed and less-developed countries never materialized. "African women have seen a lot of things that will make them be aware of our needs," said Julia Gitobu of Kenya. "When we go back home, we will have more ideas to speak up for ourselves. We have realized that we are not so different from you. That we are all the same."
Not entirely. The African women had a difficult time with some of the more robust discussions of lesbian rights. At one lesbian press conference a group of African women stood in disbelief, then raised their hands shyly and asked, in very embarrassed voices, rather technical questions about the whole business.
"I think that is one thing that we do not share," Kirumba Rotere, mother of six, said firmly.
The Kenyans also had a hard time with the British and Oklahomans who were lobbying for legalization of prostitution. "Why don't you just make it illegal for the man, punish the man," demanded Khadija Mapetla of Lesotho.
The forum's daily newsletter printed a story alleging that in its zeal to clean up Nairobi for foreign guests, the Kenyan government had rounded up city prostitutes and deposited them in military barracks outside town for the duration of the conference.
"We've heard some terrible stories," said Wilmette Brown of the London Wages for Housework Group. "We don't want the forum to be used as an excuse to penalize any women here."
In keeping with the forum's resolute chaos, tonight's close featured no formal farewell speeches. However, a trio of South African men got the crowd to its feet with a song about freedom.
"It is all up to you," said Letitia Shahani, secretary general of the official U.N. conference that this week will complete work on a blueprint to advance the cause of the world's women.
The 159 nations that agree to that plan of action are not legally bound by it. Private groups like those who attended the forum will have to provide the political muscle in their own countries.
"You will need the enthusiasm, the love for truth and integrity that you have shown here, and the sense of sisterhood," Shahani said.
Her remarks were one of the few contacts that the unofficial forum has had with the official, and male-dominated, show at the Kenyatta Conference Center.
In recognition of that delineation, many of the unofficial American delegates signed a petition to be presented to the American delegation headed by Maureen Reagan, calling for U.S. attention to "the effects of racism and militarization on women's equality."
There were tentative plans in early afternoon for a march from the university to the Kenyatta center, but they were abandoned when someone remembered that the Kenyan government has been unenthusiastic about public gatherings since the attempted coup in 1982. And no one seemed to know why the flower beds and shrubbery borders were infested with barbed wire.
If there were no official pronouncements at the end of the forum, there were plenty of unofficial pronouncements, most of them positive.
True, some of the hard-core feminists thought the whole affair had been a little too mainstream. Other women said they felt guilty about the estimated $10 million that the delegates had spent on their visit.
But most women said the gathering had succeeded beyond their expectations.
"In Copenhagen, we got caught in the politics of the United Nations," said American feminist Sissy Farenthold, impresario of the peace tent. "We got beyond that this time. What you're seeing now is the birth of a real international women's movement."
Jeane Kirkpatrick would not like this place. There has been as much shrieking and caterwauling within its blue and white canvas walls as anywhere else during the past 10 days.
She would not like the way the Americans, independent to the last, stand up and deliver ringing denunciations and sweet folk songs decrying U.S. involvement in Central America, while the Soviet delegates rise to portray themselves as international peaceniks.
"Dearest sisters, dearest friends," Soviet delegate Zoya Zarubina, a gray-haired professor of social sciences at the University of Moscow, told an audience at the peace tent this week. "I think this is a unique opportunity, a learning opportunity for all of us. From here we will all go with very full hearts," she said to the Chileans, the Germans, the Dutch, the Vietnamese women gathered.
"No Star Wars," she concluded sweetly. "Start by kissing and loving and sharing."
Early today a Palestinian woman stood up to give her speech. She was very small, dressed entirely in black. She was sorry, she said, she knew this was a peace tent but she had to be honest. She called upon the world to disregard the "Zionist propaganda which brainwashes all Jews." There had to be a Palestinian state. "We are against all forms of racism, including Zionism and apartheid." Many in the tent applauded.
Then Lena Einhorn stood up. "I am a Jew from Sweden. The problem in the Middle East conflict," she said pleadingly, "it is a conflict between rights. What it boils down to, we have to balance the needs of both these people. Both need a nation of their own."
Outside the tent, Einhorn was resigned. "It's been very tough. It turns more and more from attempts at understanding to rhetoric. It gets to your guts. Mostly we yell at each other. I spoke to a Palestinian woman on the lawn. I said to her, 'Both peoples need breathing space, both need a homeland.' She said, 'We have a right.' I said, 'You can't talk about rights. Both have needs.' She said, 'I don't dialogue with a Fascist.' It's like every attempt to talk about peace is a threat."
The last thing that happened at the peace tent was this: Women pledged to work for peace in their own countries, to lie in the road to block the deployment of nuclear weapons, to hold peace rallies and to work to find food for the world's hungry. Then they stood up, clasped hands and sang "We Shall Overcome." Some of the women wiped their eyes.