Sunday, July 25, 2010

Summer Camp, curfew and conformity

This week has definitely felt like summer. It is hot and humid, the youth programme has started its summer camp and there are fewer people at the office, on the roads and on the buses.

My days have been divided between the office and the "camp". The Kingston programme camp is a day camp being run for a number of the students referred from schools. It is operating out of the Eastern Peace and Justice Centre which is located at the junction of two major roads in the east of the city, Mountainview and Windward. It is a vibrant neighbourhood, though surrounded by neighbourhoods that have seen their share of trouble in the past and recently. Unfortunately Monday saw these neighbourhoods under curfew which created some difficulty in getting around though the main streets to the south and west were accessible. In addition the curfew brought a strong visible presence of heavily armed military and police in full fatigue and bullet proof gear. I am still not used to moving around neighbourhoods restricted by the curfew but there are many who appreciate that this may be a positive indication of the country's commitment to continuing to round up the gang leaders and members. The curfew was lifted on Thursday, which may have been a result of the conclusion of the State of Emergency by the government. The conclusion had not been anticipated and the editorial in the Gleaner suggested it was the result of poltical miscalculation by both parties when a motion was introduced into Parliament early this week. The sceptic in me wonders if this is true or whether the opposition was trying to defend its political strongholds in the east of the city from the scrutiny of curfew. I think I am at risk of becoming a conspiracy theorist! Mistrust is certainly pervasive here and and it is difficult to view political motivation as benign given the political history of the last forty years.
The camp is going well, though not as well attended as had been hoped the twenty or so students attending are enjoying it thoroughly. It is a combination of recreation, activities, presentations and continuing work on decision-making and conflict resolution skills. The location allows for lots of activities and is big enough to accommodate pick-up football games, and impromptu performances. I have previously described the Eastern Peace and Justice Centre and now I have had a chance to see it in use it proves itself to be a great space. There is one downside - it means a number of student have an extra fare to pay to get there which accounts to some degree for the limited numbers. It had been hoped we would get some funding to support transportation but no funding has materialised. As one enters through the ten foot high gates (which are left open) there is an immediate sense of a safe haven and place in which one can relax. Colourful murals around the walls speak to peace and partnerships and although it would benefit from repair and maintenance it provides a free and open space for the students to congregate.

One of the conversations this week centred around the propensity in Jamaican society to conform. When talking about travelling on the buses with another Canadian, she told me that when she asked why she should not travel on the bus the person with whom she was talking stopped and looked at her quizzically and simply said "People like you don't travel on the bus!" "Like you" meaning white/light/middle class. This comment made me stop and think about how much people can and can't do as governed by social norm in Jamaica, how remarkably constricting it is and yet how people rigorously conform. From women in white-collar jobs being required to dress in dark suits with long sleeves, high heels and tights in temperatures that almost invariably exceed 30 degrees (it seems acceptable for men but not women to forego the jacket) to being required to have a car so as to avoid public transportation, from deference to authority acquired by colour or position to adhering to greetings determined by a protocol from an era past. Conformity however is not restricted to the middle class, it is as dominant at all levels including the "uniforms" that dancehall followers are expected to wear and the behaviour gang members have to adopt. Although I am aware that all societies are subject to conformity requirements those in Jamaica seem less constructive to general well-being than they might be and steeped in a history that might be better shrugged off. It is also quite contrary to the fiercely individualistic attitude that seems culturally dominant, once again I am reminded that Jamaica is place of dichotomies!

The rainy season is living up to its reputation. There is rain almost every day and frequently at the time at which I am preparing to leave the office. The rain falls in sheets that drench one in seconds so I typically wait it out until it has stopped, which is rarely as long as an hour, then wend my way between the rivers and ponds that are the immediate remnants of the downpour. These have generally disappeared after my brief end-of-day swim when I am on the last leg of the walk home. The moving clouds and moisture in the air provide perfect conditions for spectalular sunsets, with evening songbirds and treefrogs celebrating noisily as the sun re-emerges for the last daylight hour and dusk. The days are getting shorter and although the changes are subtle I am beginning to appreciate the differences in the seasons in this wonderful tropical climate.

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