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.

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