Saturday, May 29, 2010

The butterflies are back!

It has been a difficult week, unsettled on all fronts and a stark reminder that this is not a gentle or benign environment. The factions that went to war on Monday appear to be re-assessing. There has been no definitive outcome despite much destruction, many deaths and signficant damage to many communities and the reputation of the country. Few of the illegal arms were found, the most senior members of the gangs have evaded capture and Mr "Dudus" Coke is still not in custody. The JDF sustains a powerful presence in several communities, the gangsters co-ordinated effort seems to be over for now and many smaller gangsters are taking advantage of the mayhem to act more viciously than usual within their fiefdoms.

Rains and floods have added to the difficulties, though perhaps also contributed to quelling the uprisings, and the silver lining to the rain clouds is that there is water in abundance again, everwhere is green and lush, trees, bushes and vines are full of blossom and the air is full of butterflies of all colours and sizes.

With the uncertainty still prevalent in many of the garrisons that abutt the major thoroughfares we had been advised not to travel too far and to continue to avoid certain routes. This inspired me to look more locally for a quiet haven where I might spend Sunday afternoon and I decided upon Hope Botanical Gardens. The gardens are a large cultivated area that has been variously tended and untended over the last 200 years. Nestled in the north east of the city, it is an easy 10 minute city bus ride on the 900 up Hope Road. The mountains surround three sides of this neighbourhood which also houses Jamaica College, a venerable old educational institute that has provided for many who might not have attained higher education without the support of this specialised institution, Univeristy of the West Indies and Northern Technical University. It is at the edge of the road up into the Blue Mountains.

As with so much here Hope Gardens shows the wear and tear of the different periods at which it has been untended. The high wrought iron gates are bent and broken between the tall gate posts. There are a series of decorative water gardens at the entrance to the Gardens in which the fountains no longer run but the ponds are clean and the plants well cared for and once past the water gardens the lawns, path and trees are spectacular. There are walking paths cut though dense gullies of exotic and enormous palms of all species, pergolas covered with bouganvillaea, a water lilly pond with lillies with leaves the size of tea trays and purple, white and yellow flowers the size of dinner plates.

Vast lawns beautifully tended, green and lush after all the rain, punctuated by large numbers of trees with sprawling roots and branches perfectly designed for providing shade under which blankets should be spread on which to picnic or read. Birds, including parrots, and butterflies move from tree to tree and blossom to blossom. It is a wonderful place of peace and tranquillity in a city that offers too little of either.
I had an afternoon that restored a sense of security and provided energy for work tomorrow with the students whose lives will have been much more directly affected by the troubles.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Country under seige

This week's events warrant an additional blog, and given I am unable to go to work and am settled at home in one of the areas that remain safe and not directly affected I have time to write.

The week's events have generated all kinds of feelings for me, fear, anger, sadness and an enormous frustration that the potential that is this incredible country is once again being challenged. It feels remarkable that I am here as the convergence of years of dysfunction erupts into war across the city and in all the poorest and most troubled areas across the country. Although the extradition order and attempted arrest of Mr Coke have been the catalyst for the current violence they are certainly not the cause. The causes are many and complex and go back into the history and politics of this unique island that feels as if it should be paradise.

In reading the news as the drama in Kingston has unfolded this week I have been struck by the simplistic and inaccurate characterisation of what has happened here. The Prime Minister suggesting this is "an anti-drug offensive" (BBC May 25th), many others only focussing on the reason for the "offensive" being the apprehension of Mr Coke. The reality is the events of this week are the result of decades of complex and unacceptable relationships between the "bad men" and the politicians. Their interdependence has been commonly acknowledged for many years but what has emergerd in recent years is what appears to be a shift in the power from those in politics to those in crime. However, neither demonstrates any genuine concern for the true victims - the impoverished and powerless - who are forced to depend on gangsters for food, money for school and protection at an horrendous personal price, as a result of the failure of any goverment to provide for the basic needs of the communities they are supposed to serve. Both the gangsters and the politicians are determined to maintain power at whatever cost to those caught within the boundaries of their turf. This minority of warring power holders seems to be holding the country hostage.

As the week progresses it feels as if perhaps this crisis will offer an opportunity to move away from the power relationships of the last forty years though it is not evident who can make that happen or how they will get into a position to do so. What is clear is those currently in positions of political power have lost any vestige of credibility they had. If the loyalty of the people is gained by ensuring they are fed and educated as the followers of Dudus are indicating perhaps the opportunity is to pay attention to that and put in place a means of ensuring a basic quality of life that affords some dignit. Instead of enormous amounts being spent on guns, soldiers and police perhaps a modicum could be diverted to education, job creation and social assistance.

Even the weather has been unsettled this week - the afternoons bring brooding clouds moving menacingly across the sky from mountain to ocean in layers and deepening colours of grey. Torrential rain storms, thunder and lightening, the first reaction to which is "is that mortars and explosions?" And magnificent sunsets of glorious colours.

Within this city in crisis I am safe and have the reassurance of many looking out for me but the events of the week increase the sense of need to contribute something that is of value. When I return to work next week I am sure the work with the students will have a different focus, as they return from their very difficult experiences of the week.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

City under stress but a long weekend to relax

It has been a stressful week in Kingston. The outcome of last week's political machinations was not the resignation of either the Prime Minister or the Government. With an apology and notice that the extradition order would be signed Mr Golding felt he had the authority to continue. The level of scepticism about the politicians seems to be escalating and the conversations reflect an observation that the reaction of the gangs, dons and communities feels different. The people and the dons do not appear to be entrenching within the political tribal boundaries but are collectively articulating a dissatisfaction with all politicians and the governance of the country. There is little faith, trust or respect for the insitutions of the country - government, police force, justice system, education system - all are viewed as broken and inept at best, corrupt and self-serving at worst.
On Tuesday we were asked not to go into work. The concern was that there would be massive civil unrest as a result of trying to arrest Mr Coke. This has not materialised, though the level of armed troops and police in and around the city is significantly increased, the community for which Mr Coke is the don (and Mr Golding the MP) has barracaded itself to keep the police and defence force out and prohibit the authorities from effecting the arrest warrant, and people are generally limiting their movement around the city. The threat does not feel extreme but the fear is palpable. There is a pervasive sense of uncertainty and most who move around the city keep in close touch with loved ones and friends to confirm all is well.
Both CUSO-VSO and friends are reassuringly checking in with me to ensure I am fine and know how to manage and life goes on remarkably normally despite the fear and uncertainty. It is easy to be cavalier as one gets on with things but the updates from the youth peace facilitators and the students remind me that others are living a reality that is much more difficult than mine and the situation is unpredictable.

However it is now the weekend, and a long weekend and as is typical of the paradox of this city it feels relaxed and benign from my apartment. The city is quieter as many people have "gone to country" to celebrate Labour Day with as little labour as possible. Saturday brought hours of torrential rain and thunderstorms. The rain came down in vertical sheets and provided a quite different impediment to getting around the city! This morning the sun is shining again, though the sky is far from cloudless I think we will venture off to the beach as planned, with a picnic packed in the cooler and a relaxing day ahead. We have rented a car and I will carefully peruse the before I leave to avoid another "circuitous route"!
The rain has had an immediate affect on the city, all is greener and fresher. As spring turns into summer, trees are laden with mangos, papayas, avocados, breadfruit and many other fruits. The temperature is noticeably hotter and the air significantly more humid. The croaking lizards are back, the birds are noisier and the butterflies are returning. The mountains have resumed the blue hue that gives them their name and are often swathed in clouds and mist. The sunsets are longer and more colourful and the flowering trees are as laden as the fruit trees. The intensity of the beauty is breathtaking. What a remarkable opportunity this year is offering me!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Will he resign?

In Jamaica politics always promotes opinionated discussion and this week more so. As I write this the current Prime Minister is weighing his future and that of his governing party. Mr Golding's integrity and credibility are being seriously questioned as more information comes to light about the action taken to avoid the extradition of Mr "Dudus" Coke.
At work and over lunch and dinner the conversation inevitably turns to "Will Mr Golding resign?" with opinions from all sides. No-one is sure, but what is a commonly held concern is that even if Mr Golding resigns the underlying issues with respect to integrity and ethics are so pervasive that the alternatives to Mr Golding are likely to have "skeletons in the closet", and actions taken will do little to change the apparent connections to crime and corruption. This has served to heighten the discussions and concerns about the level of corruption in both political parties, the impact on the country of a political system that seems intimately connected to organised crime, and the apparent inability to make changes that will ensure credible and ethical politicians to represent the people of the country.

Outside of politics, as the temperature rises so too does the level of violence. In a number of communities the gangs have been particularly active with drive-by shootings and reprisals directly affecting both staff and children with whom I am working. It is difficult to hear as people try to organise their lives around the difficulties in either their community or communities through which they have to pass. It feels as if things may be coming to a turning point at which changes will be demanded and strategies developed to take back some semblance of order.

For me the week has been largely spent with youth. At the Kingston Peace Centre I have completed many of the intake and out-take interviews with the students, hearing their stories, talking to their parents and guardians. Our conversations are focussed on helping both parents and students understand the things they have control over and can change to improve things for themselves. I am always struck by the thoughfulness of the students and their willingness to share their stories and talk about what might work to help things.
I was in May Pen on Wednesday attending a Youth Dialogue about governance and the electoral processes. The discussions were energetic and insightful. If these youth were given the opportunity to make changes to the system things would definitely change for the better! It is exciting to see how informed they are about the political process and their desire to become involved.

The weekend offered some wonderful time with friends and colleagues. The hospitality of a diaspora volunteer who is here for a short term placement provide an absolutely glorious afternoon at her brother's house in the hills overlooking the city. The view was spectacular, the surroundings stunningly beautiful, the meal sumptuous and the warmth and generosity of their welcome created a very special time. The house was full of remarkable examples of Jamaican art, a reminder of another forum in which Jamaica excels.
Next week will bring more Youth Dialogues and another push to find funding....

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mothers' Day!

It is Mother's Day and so my thoughts are turned to the role of Mothers in Jamaica. It is the most revered and respected role within the context of the culture, and perhaps as a consequence it is a role that is adopted far too young by far too many. In a society where there are so many that feel to have no value or influence the role of mother is perceived as a guarentee of love, respect and status. Whilst it does accomplish these in some way it also imposes a level of responsibility that many of the teenage mothers cannot fulfill, thus creating more generations of children with too little support, too little love and too little sense of worth. In addition motherhood illustrates another of those Jamaican dichotomies, it is considered the most important role but too many fathers do not respect the mothers of their children and many mothers are absent, leaving children in the care of grandmothers, aunts or other caretakers when they go abroad. However, for me it is a day of celebration as being a mother is the most rewarding and gratifyng role in the world and the day affords the opportunity to recognise the privilege! Op-Ed Columnist - Celebrate Mothers Day by Saving One -

The week has seen increasing awareness of the difficulty Jamaica is in economically and socially. The Gleaner continues to publish the daily murder count which has reached over 560. This practice is generating much discussion but the dominant opinion seems to be that it is helping to appropriately raise awareness of the terrible issue of violence experienced by the poorest communities in Jamaica. It is raising questions about why the politicians and police force cannot protect people from the gangs and increasing the expectation of accountability for governing effectively. A secondary outcome is the demand that there be more transparency in politics, and there be a clear exploration of the link between politicians and organised crime.

No travels this week, though Tasha and I had a lovely afternoon ambling through Port Royal and the old Fort Charles, ending with fish at Gloria's, a local fish restuarant at which the length of time between the fish leaving the sea and getting to the table is usually less than two hours!
We did not get to see the sunken city lost to the sea in the earthquake of 1692 but it is fascinating to learn a little of the history of what was known as the "wickedest city in the world" in the 17th century.

I was sad to see Tasha off on Wednesday morning. It was wonderful having her here and felt very much as if she was "home for the holidays".
So my six weeks of visitors and visiting is over and my undivided attention will return to what I can accomplish here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Just another week in potential paradise

In many ways it has been a routine week in the life of my work at DRF. I have been settling back in after the trip to Ontario and Tasha is taking her break between courses here "at home". She has joined me at work and has learned much about the lives the students live. As is typical she has been warmly included by the staff members at DRF who have taken the time to share with her stories and expereinces that increase her understanding of this puzzling country.

There has been a noticeable increase in the temperature over the last week or so. The sun is burning hot by the time I am approaching the office at 8am. Most days are cloudless, though often a hot , strong wind tempers the mid-day heat. The brief relief in the water situation that last week's rain brought has been lost with another week of no rain, and water shut-offs are increasing again. Talk is now turning to hurricane season and given there was no significant hurricane activity last year there is a sense that this year an hurricane or two should be anticipated. My colleagues have committed to coaching me in hurricane preparation strategies. I would be quite content not to add hurricane exposure to my experiences for the year but will ensure advice and strategies are well attended to, just in case!

The government is appearing less and less effective in its ability to manage any of the governing functions the country is in desparate need to have managed. Priorities seem to be unclear, fundamental issues of civil society are unattended to and the Prime Minister is on holiday! One is left wondering if the government is so overwhelmed with the enormity of the task of arresting the downward spiral that it is simply immobilised. One of the issues that has concerned most Jamaicans is the transfer of Air Jamaica to Caribbean Airways. Anyone who has flown with Air Jamaica
knows the sense of ownership and pride the airline generates amongst Jamaicans and its transfer and the end of the National Airline, a little peice of Jamaica in the sky and there is a real sense of loss at its transfer out of the country.
Across the country there seems to be a growing sense of concern about youth and the education system and increasing pressure from the communities to take action. In the coming week the teachers are committed to taking labour action as they are owed enormous amounts of back-pay from the government whose repsonse to date has been somewhat denigrating and far from constructive. The Minister of Education has issued a warning that should students attend school during the teachers' action the schools and Mininstry cannot be responsible for the saftey of the students and given current experience this is of grave concern.
And yet, I sit watching the sunrise over the Caribbean Sea, with a slight breeze rustling through the palm trees and the lazy pace of early Sunday morning activity starting to stir. The higglers are gathering along the roads with an abundance of fruits, vegetables and fish for sale, those that have jobs are moving toward them, three and four-generation family groups of churchgoers in Sunday finery are making their way to the many and various places of worship and it feels as if paradise should be within reach.