Sunday, September 26, 2010

Kingston from a different vantage point

This week has been one in which I have stayed close to home. No travels outside Kingston though being in Kingston has been quite different as I have the privilege of using a car at the moment. I realise my experience here would have been very different if I had always had access to a car, and it would have been a much more limited experience, though the occasional use of one is quite delightful! Cars are unquestionably a symbol of status here and when driving there are some clear assumptions about who I am. When I walk I generate considerable curiosity as white women in their fifties simply do not walk around Kingston and it causes some confusion, this appears to engage people as there is lots of conversation as I travel through the city. However driving a large SUV I fit expectations much more easily and it is interesting how this changes the interactions with people who are no longer curious about who I am as I fit their expectations. This makes me much more isolated from life on the street. Unquestionably life takes less effort with the use of a car but it is instructional to experience the difference and appreciate the opportunities I have had given a closer connection to the life style of the majority with less access to material luxuries.

The youth programme has been very busy. More schools are using the programme which demonstrates the importance of the programme but increases the frustration at the potential lack of funding come December. We are struggling with a location for the programme as it has outgrown the facility at the Peace Centre but there are no funds for securing an alternative. It is humbling to realise that $300 per month cannot be found to ensure the students have an adequate space to learn in.
There is considerable concern about funding from the Ministry of Education for even the basics as the government embarks upon an austerity budget. The level of debt is higher and the GNP is lower. The troubles have had an impact on tourism, many of the countries assets have been sold off. The economic difficulties seem overwhelming with a disproportionate amount of government funding being allocated to defence and policing. It will be interesting to see if the Public Service Transformation Process and Community Renewal Plan, two major government initiatives, can be implemented and can make a difference.

As usual the week offered a variety of activities for me one of which included being the CUSO-VSO representative at a reception for a Canadian Delegation of representatives from the National Judicial Institute and the Federation of Justice (though this has a much longer official name!) The eight person delegation was here for a week to explore the possibility of a partnership with the Judiciary in Jamaica to provide training and development and transformation of the administrative processes. It was apparent that the Canadian delegation was impressed with the capacity in Jamaica and looking forward to taking the next steps. The Chief Justice of Jamaica was extremely gracious to both the delegation and CUSO-VSO for its support in bringing the delegation to Jamaica. It was a very enjoyable evening.

My evenings and weekend have been spent at the house in the company of dogs, parrot and fish and it is lovely. I continue to enjoy the garden which has benefited from regular rain this week and enjoy the greetings I get from the dogs as I get home. The absence of hurricanes makes the task of house sitting a relaxed endeavour, though I am well prepped in use of generator, pump and support should a hurricane develop! Next week brings a week of participation in training sponsored by UNICEF which will mean I will not get much time at the youth programme. It will be a different kind of week...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Too soon to leave

The week has provided a broad range of activities which has underscored for me how fortunate it is that circumstance gave me the opportunity to extend my service here. As the last of the volunteers with whom I arrived prepares to leave, it is clear to me that now would not feel like the right time for me to be leaving. Over the week I have been invited to contribute to a number of system-wide activities and been asked to provide my perspective to expand the dimensions of understanding to some of the complex issues that need to be addressed to change the trajectory of Jamaica. All of this in addition to the pleasure of spending time with students who, as school settles in, are again being suspended and referred to the programme. There is a strong community in Jamaica that works consistently and diligently toward finding solutions to Jamaica's complex difficulties. This is a community of many, whose commitment and intelligence is remarkable and I seem to have been invited to join, an invitation which I am excited to accept given I have time to participate.

Early in the week I participated in a Violence Prevention Alliance Committee which is providing leadership in pulling together and trying to rationalise the many disparate peace and justice initiatives in many of the 783 communities in Jamaica. Through this, discussion is generated about the role and responsibilities of local government, community-based organisations and national government and although these discussions address complex issues there is a real recognition that action must be taken soon and that co-ordination of everything is likely too ambitious. DRF is seen as a key organisation as it is has the capacity (though not yet fully realised!) to operate island-wide and has a value set and vision that is deeply entrenched in achieving peace and justice in Jamaica. Though the issues are complex and long-standing it feels as if a critical mass is building and change may be achievable and supporting some strategic initiatives in various communities may well have a positive impact.

Next on my agenda was a meeting at the Ministry of Education to assess a Behaviour Management Toolkit to be available and useful to all classroom teachers. The toolkit includes many of the strategies and activities developed through the Positive Behaviour Intervention Support system but requires further development. It will be a challenge to roll out the toolkit and from this meeting I was invited to join another group whose responsibility it is to develop a comprehensive implementation plan for all the Ministry of Ed programmes. This is a task I think I will enjoy participating in!
As the week drew to a close I focused on organising the planning work for the 5th Caribbean Conference on Conflict Resolution. The conference will be held in Jamaica in April 2011 and there is much to do between now and then. This will likely be the final event of my sojourn at DRF and I hope will be a good culmination of what I have been involved in.
These activities were punctuated by work with the students, programme development with the Youth Peace Facilitators and work on organisation structure for DRF. I feel extremely fortunate that I get so many opportunities!

The political environment continues to be unpredictable with internal issue for the ruling JLP, the Prime Minister's credibility being seriously challenged again and the Opposition seemingly unable to provide a viable alternative to a Government that only has a majority of one. Curfews continue as it becomes clear that "re-socialising" those communities in which the gangsters have power is a more difficult task that that of immediately disrupting them. Scandals in which sitting politicians are embroiled continue to surface and the possibility of the Government falling before the end of its term looks more likely again. However, despite the dissatisfaction with the current Government the prospect of an early election does not seem to excite anyone.

For the next two weeks I will be house/dog/parrot/fish- sitting for friends which means a very comfortable two weeks in a lovely house with a beautiful garden. It is from the garden that I am writing my blog. The sound of the birds and the running stream breaks the silence of the morning as the sun rises over the trees. The garden is a tranquil haven of lush vegetation, with orchids growing from the trunks of tall palms, banana trees in flower, blossoms of pink, purple, white and yellow interrupting the many shades of green.
In the decor and design both the house and the garden reflect the beauty of Jamaica and a respect for what the people and environment of Jamaica have to offer. It is a lovely place to be and a pleasure to house-sit, particularly as "the girls", two delightful little dogs, are very good company!
The past eleven months have been rich with developing friendships and respectful working relationships, and learning. The next seven months will provide me with an opportunity me to contribute in a way that had I been leaving in two weeks I would not have achieved. I hope I make the most of it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

First week of the new school year

Monday morning was warm and sunny and the streets were full of children in crisp new school uniforms, well groomed hair and expressions that reflected both excitement and anxiety. It was the first day of the new school year and the buses, the roads and the taxis were full of students. Tiny children in gingham and ribbons grasping mummy's hand as they walk boldly into the school, teenagers in khaki and fresh white shirts meeting friends at the transport centre and university students at the shuttle bus shrieking hellos to friends not seen through the summer. Everyone, teachers and students hurrying to get to their first classes in their various schools. The ritual of the first day of school seems to have an unversality about it that reminds one that we share more across countries and cultures than we acknowledge.

The bustle and energy seemed infectious and at DRF there was a great deal of activity. The mediators were busier than through the summer weeks, with groups of clients and lawyers competing for too few meeting rooms. The Youth Peace Facilitators were in and out, completing orientations and presentations and settling their own children into new schools. We had visits from students from last year and the summer programme checking in for letters giving them permission to go back to school or just to let us know how things had started at school. I was busily involved in trying to pull together two different proposals (one with more potential than the other, but its always worth trying!) The summer break is definitely over!

To slow the pace at the end of the week I joined 3 colleagues and we headed to a little guest house at a lovely beach on the north coast. Winnifred Beach is just east of Port Antonio, which is fast becoming one of my favourite areas of the island. The beach is a curving cove with a long reef that breaks the waves as they enter the cove. It is not a beach frequented by tourists but a favourite spot for local residents. On the beach, set back, great food is available sold from modest huts and a couple of bar/restaurants, as well, a great range of crafts from the artisans who are wonderfully engaging and not the least aggressive.
Sunday morning started out hot and sunny so we walked down to the beach, a quick morning dip in breakers that were more impressive than on Saturday and then settled down to read. In short order black clouds started amassing from the east and within half an hour there were tremendous winds and driving rain. We sheltered in one of the restaurants with a number of the artisans and vendors and enjoyed discussion about the best places in Jamaica. Among the discussants Portland was unquestionably the winner! After an hour the wind and rain had ended, the clouds were breaking up and the sea settling back down. The relaxation resumed and lunch included fresh corn on the cob, boiled in a spicy shrimp soup - delicious!
Mid-afternoon we reluctantly left the peace and tranquility that had settled back to Winnifred Beach and re-energised us for the week ahead, and drove back over the mountains to the hustle and bustle of Kingston.
Although things are more settled than in May, the soldiers and police were on the road as we entered the city from Stoney Hill and the news of further curfews in Tivoli reminds one that Jamaica still has much to address.
Achieving paradise is still elusive, though there are glimpses of it in places like Winnifred Beach.
Next week will bring the need to finish proposals and no doubt will see the first suspensions and the referral of students to the programme.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Settling back home

Having arrived home late on Sunday evening I was up and out early to start the work week. The two weeks I was away were relatively quiet at DRF with many on leave as the summer holidays wind down.
This week however has been busy. There is a sense of urgency and pressure as parents get their children ready for school. Demands on tight budgets are high as uniforms and books need to be purchased and fees need to be paid. This adds a tremendous stress to most of the families and youth that attend the programme. Youth are concerned that their Mummy's will not be able to manage the additional expenses for the several children in the family, there is more talk about the minimal support that is provided by many fathers and fewer of the youth had bus fare or lunch money. The stress extends to the Youth Peace Facilitators, some of whom are experiencing the same struggles, and the Manager who will start graduate school but continues to work to support herself, her younger brother and others in her family. There is a culture of sharing income for those who make it that does not feel like an unwelcome obligation or expectation but rather a reasonable way of addressing finances in a society that clearly does not have enough capacity to offer jobs and income to all. There is no residual sense of owing but there is an increased sense of responsibility to use whatever opportunities are supported. In this spirit, those of us that have funds make sure that lunch is available to the youth and staff at the programme and my colleagues contribution of J$5,000 will be of great benefit in the weeks to come. Thank you!
The week included a trip to Spanish Town to celebrate the training of over 30 new mediators, through the EU partnership "We Want Justice". The training was provided to Justices of the Peace and it is exciting to see more and more decision-makers in the Justice system becoming familiar with an approach to settling conflict that is neither authoritarian nor adversarial. Alternative Dispute Resolution promotes each party taking responsibility and requires they find a solution between them. The Mediator facilitates but does not direct or pronounce adjudication. This approach has real capacity to impact the paternalism and judge and punish culture that is so pervasive and destructive in Jamaica. The participants were energised, excited and proud of their newly learned skills and it was delightful to celebrate with them.

I returned to Jamaica in time to say goodbye to one of the volunteers that has been on the journey with me since our first training in Ottawa in June 09. He has made an invaluable contribution to DRF through his work with finances and technology and is held in high esteem and great affection by those who worked with him. I will miss our lunch time consultations, discussions and occasional gossips, he with his gourmet creations, me with my avocado salad or cheese and crackers! As part of the original team that initiated the project at DRF I will miss his investment, energy and colleagial approach to the work. He was also a great travel companion who comfortably explored new places in an easy-going fashion. I wish him well in his next ventures...
Through the week I have settled back into my usual routine. The days have been hot and sunny and have been punctuated by brief but intense rainstorms that come and go so quickly one just waits them out. The city is incredibly green and lush, the vendors have all manner of fruit and roots available from sweet sop to bread fruit. I have enjoyed my walk and the warm greetings and news from the people I see regularly between home and work. I hear of their sons and daughters, their joys and challenges and feel included in their lives in a small way. No threat of hurricane so far this season, and all including me, hope the season spares the island from another challenge. It seemed peculiar that I was in touch with my daughter in Halifax discussing hurricane preparedness and, as is typical of her, she was well prepared and fared fine, kindly and responsibly checking in with her mother so I did not worry!

The week ahead looks busy with decisions to be made about another proposal submission for an EU call, school orientations, commencing the evaluation of the suspension programme, re-integrating students back to school, and setting up the planning group for the 5th Caribbean Conference on Dispute Resolution. It is good to be back and good to be included in so many facets of work in Jamaica.