Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Very Different Island

This week I am not in Jamaica but in Barbados where Haley, Tasha and I are very comfortably settled for the holidays. It is wonderful to see family here and it is far too long since we have been here together. It has been a week of relaxing, visiting and celebrating Christmas with a difference. There is an easy going comfort amongst the family here and we have been welcomed into their traditional gatherings with warmth. We are staying in a lovely apartment in an old house, Camelot House, that has been renovated. It is on the beach on the south coast with the Caribbean, sunrises and sunsets being the uninterrupted view from the verandah.

Barbados has changed since the days of our annual holidays, with greater sophistication and showing off the well cared-for look of Christmas finery. Every street and road is trim and tidy, houses, trees, roundabouts and town squares are festooned with lighted decorations. Traffic is slow moving and polite, there are no grilles on the verandahs and balconies and the pace is slower and gentler than Jamaica. It feels as if it has embraced its visitors and treats those if us that come to visit as treasured guests with whom those who live here share generously the beauty and ease of this tiny island country. And those who live here are quietly and undemonstrably proud of their island, with a quiet complacency that suggests few think there could be a better place to live.

The variety of topography is different from Jamaica. Barbados is a small island with no mountains but it has glorious coastline and beaches from the placid and lush west coast where the resorts and private houses dominate to the wild and undeveloped north coast with rocky cliffs and caves carved out by the relentless crashing of the sea. The east coast is the Atlantic with no land between Barbados and Africa. The waves that break onto the east shore have travelled a long way and the beaches are long and wilder than the south or west coast, with sand-dunes and miles of open space. The south coast, on which we are staying, has a lived-in feel with holiday homes, hotels, residences and businesses sharing the coast and the roads. A cooling breeze reduces the humidity and the beaches and boardwalk provide a lovely environment in which to walk for miles.

As a visitor, even with family here, I realise my view is limited and I am not privy to the depth of understanding that my stay in Jamaica has provided. Unemployment and underemployment plague Barbados as they do many of the islands. The opportunities are limited but with one of the best education systems in the world, and with a literacy rate in the top five, it does provide for its people to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. As well, Barbados feels to have a comfort with itself and does not seem subject to the highly competitive and aggressive nature of Jamaica. Both history and politics seem to have been kinder to Barbados, with no garrisons (other than that built appropriately for its Defence Force), no Dons and a still largely unarmed police force Barbados is a wonderful island to visit and a lovely place to relax and soak up the sun and the warmth of a gentle Caribbean culture. However, I will return happily to the layers, complexity and challenge of Jamaica where my view includes the Blue Mountains and the Caribbean and where I will usher in the beginning of a new year and all it has to offer.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas and Best Wishes for 2011!

It is Christmas Eve and as the sun rises and I sit and look out at the Caribbean Sea, I think back on the year and appreciate how generous the world has been to me.
Through both gratifying and difficult events I have experienced a year in which family, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances have provided me with warmth and support.
Thank you all!
I wish for you a Holiday filled with joy and love.
May 2011 bring you wonder and fulfilment.
Happy Christmas and Best wishes for 2011!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Holidays Begin!

It has been week full of indications of the holidays and preparations for new work in the new year. Final days with the students, developing a workplan for a new project and hiring for another, shopping bonanza days throughout Kingston, Tasha arriving from Halifax via Toronto, Haley returning to Toronto from her annual US road trip and by tonight the three of us will be together in Barbados!
The Youth Programme was busy for the first three days of the week but on Thursday an eerie quiet set in as the school holidays began and no students were at the programme. This is a time for the Youth Peace Facilitators to catch up on the neglected paper work and get organised for the new year but this week had an added and uncomfortable dimension as the funding base for January is still uncertain. UNICEF staff had previously committed to continuing funding until it has completed the evaluation, which they have not yet completed, so we are hopeful they will honour this commitment which may provide another month of reprieve. Letters were sent to the MPs to see if they can offer some interim funding from their discretionary Community Development Funds but there are no certainties and in a climate of debt and cutbacks things feel very tenuous.
Given the reputation of the programme and the value the schools feel it has for them and their students it seems unconscionable that C$1000 a month per parish cannot be found to serve these students.
On a more optimistic note, the Burgher Gully Boyz - We Can Be the Change Project is getting underway. Budgets are finalised, equipment being purchased and the workplan created. The work will start proper in the new year and it will be a very interesting process to explore if this short-term, intensive intervention can interfere with the vulnerability of young men who are beginning to attach themselves to gangs.

UNIFEM also finalised the contract for The Way Out project and hiring will be completed before the Christmas break. I was included as part of the interview team for the Knowledge Management/Communications position and was impressed with the thoroughness of the process developed for hiring. Competition for jobs is fierce and a great deal is demanded from candidates through the recruitment process. The quality of the candidates available is enviable and the team that will emerge will undoubtedly be a dynamic and well-qualified group of five. One of the most interesting elements was as we rated the candidates there was without question a different cultural bias. My perceptions were focussed very much on attributes such as organising ability, task focus, clarity and others in the team much more focussed on storytelling and personal connections. One element that was particularly interesting was the difference in terms of expectations; the candidate whose resume had not raised high expectations exceeded those expectations and the one whose resume had generated high expectations was clearly at a disadvantage in terms of meeting expectations. It was evident that exceeding expectations definitely led to a more positive view at interview, obscuring whether the performance of the candidate was comparitively better or worse than the candidate for whom expectations were higher.
The week has seen shopping bonanza days in downtown Kingston and many of the plazas, though I must admit that I did not take advantage of them. The effort to re-establish downtown as a destination of greater draw and variety continues but the throngs of street vendors and density of people moving through the narrow streets is not an appealing challenge for me!

Tasha arrived on Monday and although the weather was disappointing for much of the week she has had an opportunity to relax and recoup after a very busy term. It is lovely to have her here and she settles very easily into the Kingston adventure, though the pounding music and screaming DJ that went on until 4:30 this morning was not a welcome experience!
"Night Noise" is a significant feature of Kingston and can be excessive. To those of us from places where decibels are measured and monitored and disturbing one's neighbours is unacceptable it is very difficult to tolerate the Jamaican propensity for huge banks of speakers and apparent oblivion to the impact of the volume for those who live within the 5 kilometres across which the sound travels! There is no way to eliminate the sound as windows and shutters are designed for air flow not sound obstruction. It seems, as the holiday season begins, that the noise levels and frequency of street dances increases. As I recall there is not quite the same propensity in Barbados!

As I write this Haley is on the plane to Barbados and Tasha and I will leave here in a few hours. It will be lovely to have time with them and with family there and I am very much looking forward to it.
Given I will not be "In Jamaica" my blog entries may be interrupted and in case this is so I wish everyone a very Happy Holiday Season in which you too enjoy time with family and friends!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A cold front moving in....

The feel this week has definitely been one of the ending of the current year and the beginning of a new one. DRF was a hive of activity getting ready for the AGM, there were meetings and conference calls throughout the week to get a flurry of work completed before the holiday slow down (despite the cold front this is the only "flurry" I am likely to experience I am happy to say!) I attended the launch of a powerful video. From Canada, what is becoming a family harbinger of Christmas, Haley headed south for a ten day road trip through the States.

The DRF Annual General Meeting, the second I have attended, went well. It is always good to pause and take stock. In the busy-ness of the day-to-day one may not appreciate the people with whom one works and the achievements that are accomplished. Accounting for the year provides that moment of pause and allows for the appreciation of what has been and what is to come. The DRF AGM was this opportunity. There are, of course, significant challenges ahead but probably no greater than those that have already been faced and overcome and it will be a pleasure to continue on into the new year to assist with these challenges. The meeting ended with lunch and the joking and conversations over lunch reminded me how warmly I have been welcomed by this wonderful and diverse group of people.

The flow of students to the programme has diminished as exams are in full swing. Those that have not been allowed back to sit their exams are experiencing the real-life consequence of the impact of their behaviour and poor decisions, as their marks will reflect their absence and thus be much lower than they had wanted.
The youth peace facilitators are catching up on paper work and have decorated our office which now looks extremely festive!

On Friday night Jamaicans for Justice, the human rights organisation at which I recently received training, launched a documentary "Victims' Voices" funded, in part, by the EU. reports the stories of three mothers who have each lost a son to police extrajudicial killing. The stories told of three very different young men but all quite unconnected to criminal activity or gangs. One, a fifteen year old cycling back from the store with banana chips and juice. Another, a young man with cognitive challenges, walking home and the third, a young man tidying his room at his home in West Kingston when police moved in during the declared State of Emergency, but after the incursion, and took him because "he looks like a gunman". The stories are heart-wrenching and the documentary, made by a young woman engaged in completing her Master's at UCLA Berkley and a journalist, Madeleine Bair, carefully chronicles the stories without gratuitous emotion. As a result the video is powerful and thought provoking. The three mothers are tenacious about telling their stories so that the police force here becomes accountable, and the killing is stopped. Madeleine and JFJ are to be congratulated for their courage and commitment. The video will soon be posted on YouTube.

Today I heard the weather forecast (something I rarely pay attention to given the constancy. What fun are weather forecasts when they are always the same and always right?) but today's grabbed my attention with the ominous phrase " a cold front moving in from the east" . With trepidation I listened. I was informed that I should anticipate a three degree Celsius drop in the temperature. I am prepared, I borrowed a quilt for the bed, pulled out my 2 long- sleeved shirts and calculated the temperatures that are going to assault me. Apparently, over the next three days it will be a chilly 23C, except during the afternoon when there will be some relief and temperatures will achieve 26C. Cold weather warnings are a little different here, and this is winter even I can manage!

As the week draws to a close, Haley will reach her good friend in California, Tasha will reach her good friends in Toronto and I will spend the rest of the day making preparations for our Christmas visit to Barbados. Tomorrow I pick Tasha up at Kingston airport (I don't think the cold front will trouble her too much given what she is leaving behind!) and "it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!"

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The week has been full with long and busy days mostly spent at DRF working on the Annual Report for the AGM next week, exploring potential funding sources from calls for proposals and happily receiving confirmation of funding from UNICEF for a recently submitted proposal. In addition of course time with students, who are preparing for exams, and negotiating with schools to ensure they are permitted to write their exams despite suspensions.
Christmas is definitely in the air. Attending church for the morning sermon is quite unneccessary at this time of year, one needs simply to ride the buses! The Christmas season seems to soften the tone of the preaching from the more threatening tone at other times of the year. In addition to the sermons there is the singing. One day this week the sermon and singing was from a man whose resemblance to Ray Charles was not only his blindness but also his incredible voice! Gospel being rendered passionately by a man who sings like a cross between Ray Charles and Keb Mo is great accompaniment on the morning journey to work.

The grocery store has increased its supply of flour and dried fruits as fruit cakes are being made in most kitchens. As with so many things here, there is serious competition as to who makes the best fruit cake and great pride from the baker regarding her (or occasionally his) particular recipe and creation. There are various kinds - moist and well soaked in rum, dense with fruit, more "cakey", those made with fruit soaked for months or even years in rum, those cooked well in advance and steeped in liquor, those freshly baked and eaten immediately, dark ones and light ones. My experience is that they are all delicious and I graciously and with appreciation receive any that I am given! I remember fondly a gift from Markham last year of a particularly delicious one, thank you Kharma.

The darker side to the pre-Christmas season is being more aware when walking around. Crime and muggings increase at this time of year as people carry parcels and often more money. The dark falls early and provides cover for quick get aways, so extra caution is required. As I was walking home one evening a young woman waiting for a taxi asked if she could walk with me as no taxis were available. She was walking home and uncomfortable doing so alone, however the protection of a small, older white woman was more than adequate! A reflection of the respect still afforded, about which I have to say I have mixed feelings. Regardless, the company was pleasant and we enjoyed the walk together.

Friends and colleagues are making plans, as am I and Christmas this year will see me in Barbados with my daughters and the Bajan side of the family. Another tropical Christmas with the only white stuff being the sand on the beach and the only ice being that in our drinks! As well as the delight of sun and warmth, it will be wonderful to spend some time with my brother and his family.