Saturday, November 28, 2009

Busy at work and lots of travel

This week has been a busy week at work, including working all day Saturday. There is so much to address within the organisation as well as the ongoing funding and resource issues that are pervasive in a country whose productivity and GNP are reducing at a staggering rate. However despite the pressures the work with the Youth Programme is very gratifying. My days can include meeting with Mininstries, writing proposals, managing a roomful of rambunctions teenagers as the day begins and the Youth Peace Facilitators have not arrived. I am beginning to understand a little more when people speak patois, but when the youth are involved in animated conversations I still miss most of it (and I am quite sure there are occassions they intend me to miss most of it!)

The week included being driven by Mr Mason in his trusty blue van, to 4 other locations. The Spanish Town Peace and Justice Centre, Flankers Peace and Justice Centre, Montego Bay Peace and Justce Centre and Trelawny. Each different but each important in their communities.

Spanish Town is about half an hour from Kingston (when the traffic is moving) The Youth Programme was pilotted at Spanish Town and is a strong programme at this centre. Flankers is a community on the edge of Montego Bay that has struggled with violence and poverty.

The Flankers Centre is a testament to what can be achieved by community will and lots of donations and volunteers.
The centre is vital and full of programmes and people from home work clubs to seniors support groups. With a stairway called "the stairway of hope" that leads to a yet non-existent second floor!

Montego Bay is the second largest city in Jamaica, but unlike Kingston, is a tourist destination. In contrast to Rose Hall, Half Moon, Sandals and Breezes, the inner city displays poverty and violence not dissimilar to Kingston and experiences high levels of violence within its own communties, though this is kept far from the tourists and the resorts provide both employment and community support. Trelawny, about half an hour from Montego Bay is a much quieter, small town. The services in these 2 locations are largely to reduce the backlog in the courts through mediatd settlements rather than long and expensive court battles in Regional Magistrates Courts that may sit only once a week.

More glimpses of Jamaica's history this week. Spanish Town is one of the oldest cities in the 'colonies' , and has old limestone buildings, and Spanish inflluenced architecture. The Mona Campus of the Unversity of the West Indies is a sprawling campus nestled right up against the Blue Mountains and here I was given another glimpse of the history as there is a ruined aquaduct that traverses the campus, broken in parts but with long stretched of many arches still standing. And on Saturday I took a coaster bus (minibus)to Morant Bay where there are beautiful beaches and a long history. This was the location of a major uprising in the 18th century protesting the treatment of the poor in the courts. Apparently the discontent with the court continues to the present as the historic court house was recently burned down.

Dinner on Saturday night was with a wonderful Chinese-Jamaican family in Morant Bay. The introduction to this family was through connecting with another Canadian who lived here in the 70s and is back doing work on violence in schools. This large, warm and welcoming extended family invited me in as if I was part of the family. As is not unusual here there is a strong Canadian connection with all but the patriarch of the family being Canadian citizens as well, and all having lived in Canada for extended periods of their lives. It was a deligthful evening and a delicious dinner. Each evening of conversations with Jamiacans provides me with more insight into this complicated society. And each encounter underscores the openess with which people include you in their homes and families.

Sunday will be devoted to domestic chores and relaxing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A weekend in Paradise then back to Paradise tarnished

The trip out of the city to Port Antonio was wonderful. The mountain road zig-zagged through tiny villages, passed hand-made foot bridges leading to houses precariously perched on the mountainside, football (soccer) and cricket matches being played on the few pieces of flat ground, bamboo, coconut, mango, and flowers and vines growing in layers upon each other, steep green-clad folds and creases of rock forming a barrier to the other side of the island. Thirty kilometres takes an hour and a half and then the road descends to the shore and follows the coast through gentle little towns with markets and colour and music, the turquoise Caribbean glistening in the sunshine.

Saturday was spent enjoying a very comfortable villa, a beautiful, picturesque beach, great barbeque, good company. Sunday sunrise saw me walking across the cliffs, watching the sun come up, and the humming birds, woodpeckers, egrets and other birds taking advantage of the cool morning, followed by an early morning swim.

Lunch was a trip to the 'best jerk in Jamaica' at Boston Bay and a picnic at the Blue Lagoon of movie fame.

Then back to the bustle of the city before the mountain road was rendered more treacherous by darkness! Having seen the beauty of the country and the coast and how richly they can provide for the needs of the people, the squalor and the poverty in parts of Kingston seem even less excusable.

On Thursday the International Day to Prevent Child Abuse was celebrated by a candlelight vigil in Emancipation Park. This year 110 children under 17 have died as a result of violence and abuse in Jamaica. To put the magnitude of this into proportion the population of Jamaica is the same as that of Toronto. There is a great deal to be done here to protect children. However, the event was full of joyful children, performing and participating and running around in the balmy evening. The pink and yellow plaques have the names of the children who have been killed, 700 others are missing.

This weeks observation from travels round the city is the creative and elaborate hair sculpture that adorns the heads of many of the school girls and women. Given I am on the bus by 7:15am, I am in awe of the time the girls must have got up to achieve the adornment! I manage a wash and go approach before heading for the bus, so the concept of skilled and creative hair styling before a 7am bus ride generates great respect.

This weekend will be spent working at DRF on Saturday and catching up at home on Sunday, even in Paradise laundry must be done!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Settling into a routine

How quickly we adapt, so much is now feeling familiar. At work I am settled into the Youth Programme division at the Peace Centre. The office is a busy place as five of us share it. The lack of adequate facilities means that the students from the Kingston schools using the programme start their days at the Peace Centre, and, when in need of a desk and chair, also share our office so they can complete their programmes. There are two other Peace and Justice Centres in Kingston but they are situated in areas that are subject to such problems that they frequently cannot be used. One, providing service to 5 high schools, cannot be used as the schools are in different "territories" and it is dangerous for students from one territory to cross the "boundary" into another. The other centre is in Trench Town and the school principals have determined it is more effective if the students serving suspensions get the opportunity to do so outside Trench Town.
So our office provides a refuge for up to 35 students a day, and despite close quarters the skill of the Youth Peace Facilitators seems to keep contagion to a minimum. For me it is a wonderful opportunity to begin to get to know the children (yes, even youth are called children!) and the Youth Peace Facilitators. There banter in Patois is becoming more understandable, though it is impossible to imagine I will ever be comfortable speaking it!

The students are delightful and getting to hear from them directly the struggles they deal with provides more depth of understanding of the tremendous difficulties this developing country has. The language of the centres - Peace and Justice - is deliberate and reflects a society in which there is ongoing war between factions in places of abject poverty and little hope. To contribute to fulfilling VSO's mission of empowering the disadvantaged is going to be challenging and complex.
Last weekend family friends invited me to dinner and once again I experienced the tremendous generosity of people here, and the kindness in interrupting their lives to make one feel comfortable and welcome. It was wonderful to meet people who have lived here all their lives gain another perspective.

Having been pre-occupied with all that is new it was a surprise when, in travelling to work, I noticed cedar ropes and Christmas lights being hung on the light standards at one of the shopping centres! How can it be time to think about Christmas when it is 29 degrees. It won't be a white Christmas this year, though I have a feeling there may be lots of carolling.

No trips out of the city this week, but a little more walking in the city and some peaceful hours (and delicious ice cream) in the gardens at Devon House. I end each day walking up to a local pool, taking a swim as the sun sets and then catching the bus home. Tomorrow will be my first big excursion out of Kingston, a trip to the North Coast, lagoons, waterfalls and beaches. Photos will follow....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Week 1 at Dispute Resolution Foundation

I have completed the first full week at DRF and confirmed that it is a very busy place. There are 3 major services - mediation, youth programmes and training, all focussed on conflict resolution and reducing violence. The primary focus for the youth programme this week was the presentation of a Baseline assessment on conflict, crime and violence in schools. The assessment had been completed by a consultant in partnership with UNICEF. DRF had to present it to the schools and partners who had been involved. The youth team was frantically organising all week and I pitched in and helped put together the presentations and the focus group session. About 170 attended and were actively involved in discussion, identifying the major causes and potential solutions. All went well and the day illustrated another element of life in Jamaica that has come to my attention - singing!

People sing, on the buses, walking around, and at every event, people sing, and there seems to be an unlimited number of beautiful voices doing the singing. Another dichotomy - singing is a source of joy and pride yet one of the causes for violence, cited by the focus groups and in the baseline assessment, is conflict between rival music factions (currently Gaza and Gully). Given that music is so influential perhaps it has the potential to be a solution instead of a cause?

Somewhat connected to singing is the other dominant feature of Jamaican life that has impressed itself on me this week - religion. On Sunday I ventured out of the city on a local bus, me in my Sunday casuals headed for the beach, my fellow bus riders in pristine Sunday best, with coiffed hair under Sunday hats and bibles in hand. Singing on the bus on Sunday was definitely of a religious nature! People getting on and off at the myriad churches, greeting friends and family obviously enjoying the routine of a typical Sunday. There are enormous numbers of churches here (I have even heard it noted that Jamaica has more churches per capita than anywhere else in the world) some very old and stolid, others a collection of chairs under a canvas canopy, all apparently well attended by all ages.

My day at the beach provided for sun, sand, swimming and some delicious just-caught fried fish and festival - a type of bread. The fish is caught and brought to shore at the beach and cooked over open wood fires in wooden huts on the beach.

It was a good day.

So the week has once again been one of learning: the bus system(I can now get myself to work and back on the bus, though there really doesn't seem to be any such thing as a bus schedule); the climate in which youth experience school; my place of work, and of course more about the country that I will call home for the year.