Sunday, February 28, 2010

Event Planning but not Tasha's Birthday celebration...Happy Birthday Tasha!

One of the things that seems to be characteristic of life in Jamaica is 'events'. There are many events to celebrate, acknowledge, commemorate, communicate and they are typically well attended. They happen in parks, churches, hotels and grand houses and the process of planning is uniquely Jamaican. I have now experienced three or four planning processes of such events with attendees numbering seventy five to one thousand and all seem to be planned in the same way, last minute, casually and chaotically. Invariably the event occurs without flaw (or without flaw that anyone is aware of!) Lights, press, MCs and performers all arrive as required despite what seemed like a very cavalier approach to co-ordination. Chairs are available, food is served and always there is a sense of bringing Jamaica to the forefront be it the Ministry sponsored concert for Restorative Justice, the Violence Prevention Alliance for Peace Day or the University to celebrate the recently passed Vice Chancellor Emeritus. The approach to planning has a tendency to promote anxiety for those of us used to a highly co-ordinated, progressive approach to planning starting well in advance and punctuated by regular conference calls and check lists, but it is another learning for me - with intention, energy and a conviction to make something happen, it almost always gets accomplished however unlikely that might appear to be the day before! Should this be the method I adopt in planning the DRF Retreat? Though my conviction is unwavering I think there is still too much of the planner in me to whole-heartedly embrace this approach!

I did not travel far this week but did have the opportunity to visit the Eastern Peace Centre that is at the intersection of three communities in east Kingston. It is a wonderful space, an old entertainment centre, with outside space and inside space that has tremendous potential. A local community activist and other volunteers have invested a great deal of time to try and create a safe and neutral space at the juncture that connects these three troubled communities but funds and more support is needed. The space currently provides room for a small primary school which was busy with children learning to read and playing together. In the rooms beside the primary school there were Grade sixers bent intently over test books, being coached for the GSAT (Grade Six Assessment Test) the national test that occurs in May and will determine which high school they will be able to attend, and thus the outcome of the rest of their academic careers. A stressful time for parents, teachers and eleven year olds, particularly in communites such as the ones between which the Eastern Peace Centre is situated, where the basics such as shoes and lunch money are hard to come by and gunshots are frequently heard.
Youth in these communites are in dire need of a space that can provide a safe and constructive environment that will be an alternative to the "corners" that are the recutruiting grounds of the gangs and dons. Perhaps this will be my next proposal writing effort....

February 28th...Tasha's 22nd Birthday!
One of the few things that tempers my enjoyment of this adventure is missing Haley and Tasha. Today is Tasha's 22nd Birthday, and I do wish I was able to celebrate with her in person.
Happy Birthday Tasha!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Circuitous Route to Little Ochi!

Early in the week I drove to Montego Bay with the Youth Programme Manager to meet with a number of school principals and guidance counsellors. We managed to connect with three schools and visit the Peace Centre. Although the schools were very different the principals and staff shared the common trait of being remarkably caring about the students for whom they have responsiblity. They are aware of the very difficult circumstances from which the students come, and do all in their power to assist, with the frustration that it is never enough. They are truly appreciative of the help offered to the students by the Youth Programme.

The week included a statutary holiday, Ash Wednesday, a welcome break mid-week for adults and half-term for the students. Interestingly many of the students continued to attend the suspension programme, a demonsatration of the engagement of the students in the programme, and their commitment to get back to school as quickly as possible.
To take advantage of the holiday four of us decided to travel out to Little Ochi on the south coast, a local gathering spot with a great fish restaurant, thatched huts for shade on a long curving, black-sand beach and rows of beautiful and colourful fishing dories. The journey from Kingston is about two and a half hours west....or 5 hours if one drives north by mistake, which was our circuitous route!! However, as is so often the case, the mistake provided its own fantastic experience. Having recognised our error the map offered us a road that appeared to cut directly west across country and then we could head south again. As we discovered, 'road' was a bit of an over statement! It was in fact a donkey-track through the mountains, with no surface and only just wide-enough for the trusty Yaris we were driving. The views were stunning, the donkeys, laden with cane and household items travelling the track, were kind enough to pull aside to let us by, and the owners, habitants and children in the area looked awed and puzzled at the sight of a car with four white women travelling the back roads of Jamaica. One hears often of "the country" and the differences in rural Jamaica and this was truly rural Jamaica. Villages were tiny huddles of traditional Jamaican houses, there was little evidence of any schools though lots of children walking the road, rivers winding through where women were gathered doing the washing and children and teenagers were gathered to swim and splash in the pools between the mountain streams tumbling over rocks. Cultivated terraced plots clinging to the mountian-sides were possibly those carved out by emancipated slaves two centuries ago. In these plots sugar cane, bananas, cassava, potato, beans and endless other vegetables are grown. It was a happy accident we got to see this part of the country and the only problematic consequence was a flat tyre as we returned to the paved road. As is typical of our lives here, within moments a couple of young men had stopped to help, the wheel was quickly changed, we were given directions to the town we were trying to reach and instructed to stop at the tyre repair shop further down the road as we should not travel far without a spare. We found the shop and the man who owned it repaired the tyre immediately, despite a stat holiday. We were safely back on the road in the right direction and dropped down to the sea and Little Ochi forty-five minutes later
A leisurely lunch, a quiet afternoon and a long walk along the beach at sunset were delightful and we returned to Kingston without incident on the six-lane Highway 2000 having seen far more of Jamaica than we had intended, but the better for having done so.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Water woes

The dominant topic of the week has been the escalating water crisis. With only about 3 hours of rain since the deluge at Christmas the reservoirs and water tanks that service the city are almost completely depleted. Water is 'locked off' on a regular schedule and the pressure, even when the water is on, is very low. Water is available in some areas from 4 am until 2pm daily (the schedule at my apartment), in other areas from 4 am to 10am and 4pm to 8pm alternate days and for some it is never on. Many of the Garrisons have stand pipes for water collection that are on at infrequent intervals and the lack of water increases the stress of an already too difficult existence. Schools are being closed, the university is debating what it should do and there is much grumbling but also anxiety. The trees are beginning to show the stress and many of the lower fronds of the palm trees are yellow, the mountains have great swaths of brown along their ridges and brush fires are frequent. The rainy season typically starts in May/June, which at this point seems a long way off. It is hard to imagine what will happen if water runs out completely but that scenario seems to be a distinct possibility.

Work-wise the week was busy. Monday's travels took the management team to the Westmoreland Affiliate in Savannah La Mar, the Hanover Affiliate in Lucea, the Western Regional Office in downtown Montego Bay and the Flankers Branch in a troubled township in Montego Bay. We drove through Mandeville, a lovely city set in gentle hills, then along the coast with farmland on our right and ocean on our left. From Sav we headed round the coast and through the mountains to lunch in Lucea with several very committed members of the Hanover Board. The hospitality was wonderful and the meeting productive, though not without some difficult discussions that seem typical of growing and de-centralised organisations, wherever they are. We delivered much-welcomed office equipment at a brief stop in Montego Bay and arrived at Flankers as dusk was drawing in. The community centre was full of activity, a gaggle of teenage girls (the dance group) practising on the outside stage, the local planning group just concluding a meeting, the computer lab full of students finishing off homework. It was a hub of activity in the middle of a community in which there are too many groups of young men hanging around with nothing constructive to do. We arrived back in Kingston after 11pm having driven through a dry Fern Gully and crossed the Flat Bridge with very little water running under it. We acknowledged that to cover the west of the island in one day is challenging!

The rest of the week I focussed my attention on writing a funding proposal for the Youth Programme. If it is successful it will fund the island wide expansion over the next two years. It is a large ask and an ambitious plan and I am not confident. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained so it was completed and submitted to New York before cut off time, and I am hoping there were enough noughts in the Jamaican dollar budget total!
Next week includes another trip for the Youth Programme Manager and me to Montego Bay to visit schools and spend time exclusively on the youth programme, and a holiday on Ash Wednesday!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Christmas Trees, Coconuts and Colgate Tubes

This week was declared Restorative Justice Week by the Jamaican Government. From meetings with students and parents, writing funding proposals, to a concert in the park on Saturday night the week has been reflective of the principles of 'RJ'.
The meetings with the students, who seemed to be potentially lost boys (they appeared to be further down the road in trouble than others) were focussed on one of the fundamental tenets of Restorative Justice - taking responsibility. The discussions took time as this principle is one not quickly embraced in Jamaican culture. More often than not there are strident declarations of why responsibility lies somewhere else.
The School Suspension Intervention Programme is based on Restorative Justice principles and uses circles extensively but despite the apparent commitment, funding from the government is not forthcoming. Hence the writing of another proposal in search of funding to continue and extend the programme across the island.
The final event of the week took place at Emancipation Park - an outdoor concert with music, theatre and dance and a delightfully amusing MC who provided the audience with information about RJ as he introduced the various performances. The huge posters that decorated the stage included a Canadian flag in recognition of the shared commitment to adopt Restorative Justice. It was a lovely event.

The weeks seem to be rushing by at breakneck speed and I am finding my involvement in the busy-ness of day to day activity is reducing my time for reflection. However I am safeguarding one precious time of the day, my walk home from work, most of which I do alone. It is about 6 kms from the office to my apartment past the largest, and I think oldest, army camp on the island, past the library that has provided me with wonderful Jamaican fiction to read, past the Edna Manley Arts Campus of the University of the West Indies at which there are always half a dozen young men lounging under a tree with guitars close at hand, past the banking towers owned by one of the most financially successful sons of Jamaica and a name familiar in Toronto, Michael Lee Chin. At about the halfway point I reach my first stop - the swimming pool at the Jamaica Pegasus. The pool, set in lovely gardens, is almost invariably empty. The hotel was kind enough to give the CUSO-VSO volunteers a complimentary pool pass for the year of which I am taking full advantage. I take a break in the walk and swim for a little while as the sun is setting. Then, relaxed and refreshed I finish the walk home. This is an absolutely glorious time of the day in the city. The heat and humidity of the day has dissipated and there is often a pleasant breeze. The walls and pavements hold the heat from the height of the sun and a warm glow emanates from them. The light changes from brilliant and uncompromising to soft and muted and the night flowering blossoms start issuing their heavenly scent. There is little as beautiful as sunset in a verdant tropical climate.
And now the dichotomy! Jamaica has tremendous natural beauty but this is diminished by an ever-present blight - litter. There is evidence of littering everywhere. Walking down the street yesterday provided me with the alliteration above. Christmas trees, coconuts, and Colgate tubes were but a few of the items scattered, or in abandoned piles, at the side of the street. Plastic bottles, fast food wrappers, papers, refuse: everywhere one looks there is evidence of litter. On country roads through the mountains people throw all kinds of items out of their car windows. Often it is piled but not picked up, sometimes it is bagged but left until the bags are shredded by feral dogs scavenging for food. The folliage and flora grow so quickly here that much of the rubbish is quickly hidden but more is dropped to replace it. Perhaps there are the makings of a community project here?!
Tomorrow my week will start with the DRF Management Tour of the service points - a 6 am start which will include 10 hours of driving, breakfast of saltfish and akee and stops at five different service points across the west. It will be good to be on the road again!