Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hurricane season is not quite over

The week has been somewhat challenging as much of what I have been involved in focussed on children as the victims of violence. I attended a two day consultation on the National Children's Action Plan - Children and Violence in Jamaica Workshop; worked on the implementation plan the for gender equity project The way Out; and had an exciting afternoon discussing the implementation of a new initiative - Parent Places - with an extremely committed parent education scientist/advocate. My time with the students was limited this week and I realise that my sense of accomplishment is always diminished when I have less time with the students!

I have spoken before of one of the gifts that those who come to contribute to Jamaica can bring is a sense of hope and optimism but there are times when sustaining a sense of hope is difficult and a week that is focused on the violence perpetrated against children certainly makes it difficult. There is an awareness of the need to make changes at all levels from how children are parented to how communities are supported, from how the bureaucracies operate to how leadership is effected. There are many documents with plans for change, and another soon to be released. Many are working hard at exploring how changes can be made, are enormously concerned about the future of Jamaica as the levels of violence and poverty increase and the levels of education and the country's infrastructure deteriorates. However, the opportunity to make changes that appeared to have potential following the incursion seems to be slipping away as it is clear there is no political will to effect fundamental change in the current power structure and no strategy to address corruption. The fierce pride in being Jamaica also seems to be a barrier to making change as the national identity includes pride in being an aggressive and competitive people. At the workshop there was discussion about whether this contributes to the difficulty in reducing the violence. Discussing the violence and its roots, who is responsible and the possible solutions is a national pastime, from taxi drivers to Permanent Secretaries, however implementing a sustained strategy to take action that will promote significant change seems seems to be notably absent.

The work week ended with a delightful dinner, in the garden of Star Apples, welcoming new
volunteers and a number of South-South interns. South-South volunteers are those who come from one developing country to learn from and contribute to another and this group will spend two weeks in Jamaica on a training programme to increase their knowledge of dispute resolution and human rights.
When sitting at a table of close to thirty people whose ages cover a range from early twenties to mid-sixties, whose nationalities span the globe, all engaged in animated conversation that shifts from one language to another with an ease that is daunting, all whose time, energy and intellect is devoted to contributing to improving the quality of life for those experiencing poverty and oppression, my hope and optimism returns. There are so many who contribute locally, nationally and internationally and I am fortunate to be surrounded by them. On that note, congratulations to Cathy Dandy and Tracy Folkes Hanson ( (friends in Ontario) for their commitment and success in local elections. Their contribution will definitely be an asset to their communities!

The upcoming week is beginning with the threat of Hurricane Tomas, which appears to have potential to hit Jamaica by midweek. It also has the potential to hit Haiti and I truly hope it does not. For me, today will include preparation to ensure I have batteries, water, and food that does not require cooking or significant refrigeration as the inevitable consequence of a hurricane and the rains it brings is no power and no water for a period of time. I am once again house-sitting and the evening also promises some trick or treaters in the safety of this well secured community. Happy Hallowe'en!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Just trying to survive

Another week in the rainy season in which storms threatened but luckily for us, did not materialise here. There is a feel of change in the air, though subtle. Nights are definitely cooler and drop to 24 or 25 degrees, the rain is less frequent, the clouds less persistent and dusk is hurried and quickly ushers in dark before 6pm.
Although the work week was short it did not feel so! The youth programme was enormously over-subscribed with close to 50 students each day. As the first blush of the new school year fades, teachers are less tolerant and students more stressed. The youth peace facilitators did an amazing job of working with the students despite the constraints of too little space and too many needs.

On Wednesday the programme entertained a visit from a delegation of "important" people from UNICEF, the Child Development Agency (Jamaica's child protection agency), and the Ministry of Education. For nearly two hours the guests talked with a dozen of the students and the youth peace facilitators from Kingston and Spanish Town. The guests were wonderfully respectful of the students. They asked serious and difficult questions which the students answered thoughtfully and frankly. The representative from the Ministry concluded the discussion with one final question to the students: "If you could do one thing to change the schools what would you do?" The students' answer: "Have all the teachers be youth peace facilitators!" What greater accolade could the YPFs receive to confirm their success?

Jamaica is full of small vendors and higglers. At every junction in the city, on every major road across the country, around every market area in every town, commerce and entrepreneurialism are an integral part of survival in a country where there are far too few jobs and many leave school with limited literacy. From hand built stalls with blue tarps that are erected and remain day and night, to goods that are placed on the street and collected and stored at the end of each day. From pet shops to fruit stands, from steering wheel covers to newspapers, from jeans to Tupperware, any item you want can be found at a vendor somewhere. The majority are small and offer a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, sweeties, single cigarettes, soda, juice and water. Vendors walk the centre of the roads as cars are stopped at traffic lights or stuck on the congested city roads, artists and artisans display their works on fences and on street corners, farmers and gardeners carry their produce into the city or to the heavily travelled commuter roads. It is a service that is convenient and brought to the purchaser. The prices are cheap but not up for much negotiation. This is not a country of hagglers, the price is the price! This is an "informal" system of commerce with few vendors having the required permits. In a country where so many are poor this opportunity for commerce may be the only way to earn anything with which to feed family, buy lunch money and uniforms for children going to school and kerosene for the stove. Jamaica is abundant with resourcefulness and this is one of the ways in which it is displayed.

Over the last two weeks the police have determined that they will remove the "illegal" vendors from downtown Kingston. I am not sure of the reason for this, or who has initiated this action. To an outsider it would seem an impossible and unnecessary initiative, but it has been initiated and caused disruption and concern. The vendors certainly provide competition for the shop owners in the area, but market economies are supposed the thrive on competition! Certainly the stalls and wares obstruct passage along the pavements and streets but there are many other thoroughfares that accommodate cars and pedestrians can traverse the area and be wonderfully entertained! It feels as if it is another measure that targets those simply trying to survive in a country in which the poor and underprivileged are not adequately supported and are typically victimised and re-victimised.

The week-end provided the opportunity to attend, at the Grosvenor Galleries, the opening of a project that was the idea of a tremendously committed advocate for families and communities in Kingston, and supported by Jamaica National. The project "The Tivoli Resolution Project - The courage to look inward. The Determination to move forward" is a photo/video record of the opinions and impressions of those in Tivoli following May 24th incursion.
Ten young men who had been detained during the incursion were given cameras and asked to take photographs. They were interviewed by a small team who created a video record of the project. The photographs are mounted a displayed at a gallery in uptown, The Grosvenor Gallery and last night was the opening of the exhibition. Many of the photographs are powerful and engaging and it is remarkable to think they are the product of young men who had not used cameras before. The statements and descriptions captured in writing and on video are equally powerful. Unfortunately the young photographers were not at the opening, despite the provision of transportation. It was discovered that there was a free Movado concert at the National Stadium! Apparently an easy decision for the young men - a sophisticated wine and cheese opening in uptown with strangers or a vibrant, free concert by one of the premier dancehall stars? Guess where they went!
The crossing of the boundary between uptown and the garrisons is something that appears to be happening a little more.There are many attempts to bring to the forefront the reality of life in the garrisons that is so hidden to many of the privileged. Though, as I knew many of the people who attended the opening, it is clear there is a core of activists and committed people providing leadership.

It has felt like a full and demanding week and I will take advantage of today's sunshine to relax and re-energise. Next week I am looking forward to following up with a new colleague to discuss the development of Parent Places across Jamaica and offer whatever help I can to her very ambitious project.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Kingston has been home for a year!

As anniversaries often do this week has prompted much reflection about the past year. Kingston has now been home for me for a year. A year that has offered so much and included more than I had anticipated. I had anticipated the experience would expose me to a different world and challenges that would teach and stimulate me and I have not been disappointed. The year has also provided the opportunity for me to experience amazing support from good friends and family and warmth and concern from strangers. I have also learned that though the differences are many the commonalities are more and who we are and what we offer is the greatest determinant of our experience. Changing spaces promotes paying attention and it is the paying attention that offers the greatest opportunity wherever we are and whatever we are doing.

This week my attention has been focused on a few things: completing the final programme planning for a UNIFEM grant; further developing the programme for the adolescents in Burgher Gully; welcoming new volunteers; and of course the students at the Suspension Programme of which there have been many!

I spent two and a half days working closely with three other women finalising the activities to be engaged in for a proposal funded by UNIFEM. The focus of the proposal is to promote the capacity of women taking on leadership positions, from those in politics to those in the garrisons. It is an ambitious project but the women with whom I was working are wonderful examples of the energy and commitment that can be found amongst women here, despite the significant barriers to women assuming leadership positions. Another of those dichotomies of Jamaica - it is a country in which "mummy" has great respect and status but in which women have little power and influence. The capacity to support women assuming and maintaining leadership position needs to be built both institutionally and individually in both men and women. This is the ambition of the project and it was, although hard work, exciting to be able to contribute a little to the refinement of the project.

The Burgher Gully Project (affectionately named the Burgher Gully Boyz until a more appropriate title is settled upon) is feeling as if it might well offer a contribution to the range of things that could have a positive impact when trying to re-engage youth who have been recruited by gangs. It may successfully provide one first step to re-building relationships with the boys' community and parents but we will see.

My work with the students this week was to complete many discharge interviews. I was struck again by the fact that every week I will hear at least one story of a student who has witnessed the death by gunshot of a brother or other relative by either a gangster or police officer. The impact of exposure to this trauma is not really acknowledged and the capacity of the Victims' Services Unit falls well below the capacity required to support those exposed. It is evident that amongst the students, but as well the Youth Peace Facilitators, that it is hard to understand that there are places in the world where this is not the norm and it is reasonable to expect something different. Even our brief conversations at discharge seem to offer some relief and often the students return to check in. Having had a few weeks where my time has been more divided I realise how much I value and enjoy the time talking to the students. They are so responsive and engaging, with such energy. Spunky adolescents are an undervalued group!!

Three new volunteers arrived this week and will be joining DRF in the next fortnight. I look forward to getting to know them and hope they enjoy the opportunity of working at DRF as much as I am.

I have been very unambitious outside of work, doing little beyond my usual routine. The rain continues its almost daily deluge making for some damp walks. The stress on the infrastructure has been shown in water lock downs again (water,water everywhere and not a drop in the taps!) and occasional power outages. The traffic lights seem particularly vulnerable resulting in very congested streets and the advent of numerous police officers directing traffic at junctions. These can be wonderfully entertaining even if not necessarily particularly effective! There is one who accomplishes both entertainment and effectiveness. He is of fairly small build and wears enormous orange or white gloves making his hands look like large paddles at the end of thin sticks. The gloves serve to accentuate his dramatic, rhythmic and extremely energetic gestures, which, it should be noted, are not limited to his hands, and to which the drivers are very responsive! It is like watching a well choreographed performance with an extremely extrovert conductor!

This is a long weekend and The Heroes will be celebrated tomorrow so next week will be a short week which I hope sees the approval of the grant for the Burgher Gully Boyz!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

No obligation

The week has not been quite as wet as last however the rainy season is certainly more typical than my first October here! My umbrella has been pressed into regular service and my evening swims have occasionally been as wet out of the pool as in the pool. The days typically start with the sun rising strong and clear and only the slightest hint of clouds developing over the mountains. As the day progresses the hint of clouds changes to a mass of cumulus white that moves up and into the sky, by 4pm the clouds that looked like whipped cream spooned onto the mountains turn menacingly dark and move across the city depositing sheets of rain, typically just in time for my walk home! After an hour or so the clouds dissipate in preparation for the spectacular sunsets that accompany the rainy season. Through it all it remains hot, so I have no complaints!

This week I have learned more about the young men who get recruited into gangs. I am assisting in the writing of a proposal that will offer a brief intervention that is hoped to be the catalyst for the young men to abandon their guns and leave the gangs. It is interesting to explore who is vulnerable and why they are the ones who get the guns. It is also interesting to consider a brief intervention that will shift behaviour rather than a long term solution to the problem of gangs. The complexity of youth in gangs can be overwhelming and requires a multi-faceted approach, however we are exploring whether the use of a limited amount of funding and an intensive, targeted intervention may have some positive impact. It is a little chilling to think we will be able to offer personal invitations to 30 youth between the ages of 14 and 18 to join the programme. Equally disconcerting is the prospect of meeting with the "influential men" who recruit them so that we can get their support to offer an alternative!

Twice this week, whilst waiting at the bus stop, I have been offered a lift to work. On both occasions the people who stopped to offer me the lift had to go considerably out of their way to drop me at DRF but this was apparently not a problem. Having made the offer I was generously and graciously dropped at work as the drivers returned through busy traffic to their original destinations. Regularly I experience the ease with which offers are made and equally regularly I experience the ease with which Jamaicans ask for things. There is no awkwardness and no obligation. This can be quite disconcerting if one has been raised to "wait until offered" and "never impose on anyone". As transitory members of this society we are frequently asked "can I have your computer/ipod/phone etc... when you leave?". Initially this felt quite awkward for me. However what I have learned is there really is no obligation in the question and the request is reflective of the directness and practicality of Jamaicans rather than any expectation. This establishes that it is equally acceptable to answer with yes or no. More and more I appreciate the direct and uncomplicated interactions that seem dominant amongst Jamaicans.

The week has ended with a wonderful visit from Triple P colleague. We ventured up the mountain to Strawberry Hills for a lovely lunch on Saturday and despite torrential rain and one wrong turn we enjoyed the excursion. The rain stopped long enough for us to experience the amazing view across the plain upon which Kingston is built, to the harbour and sea. The visit has provided great conversation and stimulating discussions about how to manage the incredible uptake of Triple P across the world. Once again I was struck by the clear values and principled motivation of those who have dedicated their time, intellect and energy to Triple P.

The week ahead will be predominantly focused on the completion of two proposals and will end with the National holiday Heroes Day, celebrating the seven National Heroes, which means a long weekend. The week also includes the completion of my first year in Jamaica - how the time has flown!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rain, rain go away...

For the first time in a year I have experienced a week with almost no sunshine. So far the hurricane season has been relatively kind to Jamaica but this week, although Tropical Storm Nicole was not a hurricane, the rain was torrential and relentless for five days. There were spectacular thunderstorms that lasted for many hours and whose ferocity set off every car alarm within the vicinity and at the end of the week two days of more gentle rain and cloud. On Tuesday the schools were closed and remained closed for the rest of the week. The news held stories of houses being washed away, roads that had caved in, and many places were inaccessible due to landslides and floods. Much of the normal business of the week stopped as an enormous amount of effort and energy was diverted to the immediate situation. I was again struck by how distracting the immediate can be. I have previously written about the difficulty in looking at the long term view in a place where surviving today can assume all available energy, and such was the experience this week. The helicopters overhead were not patrolling for gangs and guns but were monitoring the flood waters and providing emergency supplies to those who needed them. This is not to say the police and defence force presence was not also keeping a close eye out for those who might take advantage of the chaos.
Much of the island was without power and water for periods of the week but things are returning to normal, silt is being bulldozed off the roads, potholes are being marked (not filled yet!) and a tally is being done for the required repairs. Another drain on the near empty government coffers, so, again, less will be available for education, health and justice.

Work-wise it was also a different kind of week. I participated in a five-day workshop sponsored by UNICEF. The rain added challenges to an already challenging week as the material presented had been designed for a three week course. Despite the rain most people (there were almost 30 of us) managed to get to the venue every day. The material being presented was a model of communication planning that assists in focusing action on creating bahavioural impact. There was lots of energy in the group and as usual lots of talent, both intellectual and creative. Although the model was not one that appealed to me (full of acronyms and more complicated than I think is feasible to apply) the value of the week was working with some very interesting and committed people.

Yesterday I attended the funeral service for the mother of a colleague. The service was lovely, a joyful celebration of the life being recognised. The marking of a death here has its own rituals and provides not only for the sharing of grief and loss but also for a celebration of the life lived. The rituals extend over two or three weeks with a series of events and gatherings that include a wide circle of family, friends and colleagues. The service I attended was far from sombre. It followed a familiar pattern of singing, eulogies and prayers but the tone was one of joy and celebration with active participation of the congregation. Attending offered the opportunity to share in another aspect of my colleague's life and get to know her better.

Today I am once again writing from the garden. The sun is shining and the only clouds in the sky are whisps of white. This is the first time in a week I have been able to sit in the garden and, as my house-sitting duties conclude tonight, I will try and take full advantage of this quiet haven for the day.

Next week I will be back at home, back at street level and back at the Youth Programme. I am looking forward to returning to my usual routine though enjoying lovely surroundings and the luxury of a car has been a welcome change. A large part of the work for the week will be to contribute to another funding proposal. This one focused on 40 youth who are currently part of a gang in a local community. The ambition of the project is to persuade these 14 - 19 year olds to give up their guns!