Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Last post from 5 Old Church Road

This final week has been full and wonderful. I have been as busy as ever with work and also had time to say many goodbyes. This post is the last one I will write from my apartment on Old Church Road in Kingston. I hope it will not be the last post I write from Jamaica as the week has shown that there is still much to which I could contribute and many connections which will last beyond this Jamaican adventure.
Work-wise I seem to have managed a little of almost everything I have been involved in and, in the main, I am left with a feeling of gratification.

A hastily planned meeting on Monday confirmed the confidence the Ministry of Education has in the Youth Programme and I was left with the strong impression that they will institutionalise the programme and provide long-term funding as part of their student support system. Given this was one of the primary goals for my placement at DRF it is gratifying to feel it may well have been accomplished despite funding cutbacks at the MOE. I have one more task - to write the Terms of Reference for the School Suspension Intervention Programme Management Committee, the group that will be charged with managing the partnership between DRF and MOE and to develop the long term plan for the partnership. Goal #1 achieved!

Mid-week I provided implementation training for the teams that will be implementing the first seven Parents' Places. It was an exhilarating day. The teams came ready to work and by the end of the day it was evident that the concept to which I was first introduced in November will actually be on the ground within the next five months. Introducing the implementation framework has been a truly facilitating catalyst that has enabled the creators of the concept to talk to funders and providers in terms that clearly provide for a sustainable roll out. There continues to be development for the national roll out and I am looking forward to continuing to be available at least electronically, and perhaps even for the occasional consultation on-site! Parents' Places across the island have tremendous potential to provide support for parents of children of all ages and will be tailored to meet the needs of the particular communities in which they are operating.

Yesterday I went to the Eastern Peace Centre to see the progress there. It was a bitter/sweet visit as I heard that ten of the youth from the programme are now in vocational training programmes and four are headed back to school. All have got their TRN numbers (needed to get employment) and several are helping with the improvement of the Eastern Peace Centre. One however has not succeeded. He visited a couple of weeks ago and talked about his frustration in not being able to find a job. Last week he was engaged in an altercation in which he was stabbed, he then retrieved the knife and stabbed his assailant who died later in hospital. How often we tell the youth and the students that there is no such thing as a defensive weapon, that if weapons are used someone will likely be killed. This is the stark reality of the lives of too many youth here. One heated moment and life is changed forever. My heart goes out to the young, he had such simple ambitions centred on providing for his seven year old daughter. The young man is twenty.

More positively the project at the Eastern Peace Centre has led to the involvement of an established private business man and there is activity at the centre to improve the facility and develop a couple of small businesses which will provide employment within the community. The plans are achievable and the support is there as long as those involved keep focused. I have committed to helping in anyway I can through electronic communication. My proposal writing days may not be over!

I had a glorious day on Thursday as I drove out to Spanish Town to pick up a friend, the woman responsible for connecting with the women in Riverton for whom some funds were raised last December. Having picked her up we drove to her home in country, winding our way deep into Clarendon Parish climbing into the mountains. As we drove higher there were breath-taking views out over the Portmore Bight to the Caribbean Sea. The air was fresh with a cooling breeze that took the harshness of the heat out of the blazing sun. Her home is very modest with no runnning water and only brief access to electricity. Everything must be carried up the steep path to the house but once there it is a haven of peace and tranquility. We stopped a number of times on the journey; at the little shop to get water, in the village to catch up the local news, at the local primary school to talk to the principal and say hello to two of her grandchildren. At each stop there was leisurely exchange of greetings and news, no-one hurried and there was a marked concern for each other with inquiries about those who were struggling, whether the funeral planned last week had been as it should, if the child with the cast on his leg was managing well enough. I was invited in and enjoyed the privilege of being treated as one of the community. By the end of the visit I had met many people, received mangoes, oranges, grapefruit, cashew fruit, and many blessings. Country in Jamaica is a different life from city, it too has great hardships for most but the pervasive fear of violence is absent in most of the deep country communities and the gangs and powerbrokering do not play the part they do in the urban communities.
The mint tea was fresh and refreshing and the few hours atop the mountain, looking out over the many peaks and valleys to the sea, was restorative.

The weekend was spent in Barbados with my brother and his family and my nephew from England. What a contrast to life here! It was a delightful weekend spent mainly sailing in the Mount Gay Regatta, being invited into a very different life-style than the one in Clarendon, but no less welcoming and warm. The generosity of the Captain, and his family was lovely and the days spent with my brother delightful. A wise decision even though I couldn't get the super cheap flights "due to poltical and regulatory reasons"!

And tomorrow this remarkable journey ends. I will leave here taking with me so much more than I came with. It has been a journey full of lessons and learning, of meeting incredible people, of gaining an understanding of so many things for which I did not have a great enough appreciation. I will miss my life here, I will miss many of the people with whom I have found friendship and common purpose but will take with me the lasting relationships that are forged through sharing time, purpose and challenges. I cannot offer enough thanks to all who have been part of this journey and will be forever grateful for all it has given me. Nuff respec and walk good...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Report writing and reflection, concluding my work here.

It has been a week of reflection but also a week in which new things have been started. Much of the week was spent at the Peace Centre, pulling together reports on my work in progress so that it can continue without interruption but I also spent two days working with the group of people who will implement Parents' Places, bringing them another step closer to realisation. The week provided a reminder that Jamaica is subject to the vagaries of nature as an earthquake shook many awake at 4:30 one morning.

Writing the final report for CUSO-VSO provided the opportunity for me to reflect on all that I have had the privilege of being involved in whilst here. The scope of activities has been broad and the number of people with whom I have had the opportunity to work has been large. From community-based initiatives to system-wide processes and from meetings with Ministers to working with youth, the opportunities have been far reaching. The report writing has served to remind me how many dedicate their work and how much effort is being put into improving the situation for those who are vulnerable. So many people are committed to making things different. The efforts are many and varied. I have been extremely fortunate to be invited to participate in so much and learn so much about this remarkable country.
The work people do is not easy and it is made more difficult by the lack of leadership from the government. As the country moves into an election year there is much discussion about the broken political system and ineffective bureaucracy. These are arenas in which it is acknowledged that change is urgently required but it would be naive to think that an easy task.

However, despite the barriers, there are changes and with concerted effort and a lot of creativity, pockets of change occur and improvements are made. I think Parents' Places will be one of the initiatives that will have the potential to create change. Not only because a network of community based parent resource centres, with information, support and parenting education has the potential to improve parenting practices, undoubtedly an important goal, but also because of the nature of the proposed network. A network of many small resource centres, each reliant on their own resources and supported by a structure that is aligned to support the community ownership of the centres has the potential to engage many and forge new relationships. The process so far has shown that people are willing to commit their time despite the absence of the National Parenting Support Commission, which the government has yet to create despite three years of commitment, planning and funding. The group working now has decided to move ahead and support the implementation of the first Parents' Places, rather than wait any longer. It will require considerable work but the individuals and their organisations have committed the time and the work has started. We spent 2 days this week working together to create a realistic implementation process given the limitations. It was a remarkable two days, in which the concepts and tools of implementation planning were taken, integrated and applied not only to the task at hand but also to other initiatives these individuals are involved in. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with people here!

With the Easter holiday over students are back at school and exams are starting. This leads to a drop in the number of students at the suspension programme and also demands much negotiation with schools to allow those who are suspended to take exams. It is interesting to see the difference in attitudes amongst schools, some that make every effort to enable the students to take the exams and others that are willing to jeopardise the entire school year for a student by lack of compromise and support. There is much discussion with the students to help them understand the part they have played in jeopardising their school year however, there is too much at stake should they miss their exams and the Youth Peace Facilitators do everything they can to ensure the students sit the exams.

Early Wednesday morning brought my first experience of an earthquake of some significance. At 4:30 as I was waking there was rumbling and the apartment building shook noticeably, moving my bed across the floor several inches. There have been 2 other tremors in the time I have been here but barely noticeable. This one however was of quite a different nature! It was brief and did not cause damage but in the 10 seconds of the event I was prompted to think about the best way out of the apartment, no mean task given grilles and locks for security, and whether I should leave. Luckily that was the extent of it and I was not challenged any further, but it was a strong reminder of the fact that in addition to other challenges, Jamaica, as many of the Caribbean Islands, faces a much higher incident of natural disasters than most places in the world. However, on these perfect and glorious mornings with blue skies, cumulus clouds and seemingly endless sunshine the potential of earthquakes and hurricanes seems very far away.

The week ahead will be one of goodbyes and conclusions, but will also include a brief trip to Barbados as I take advantage of proximity and cheap airfares to go and see the Bajan Brown's and visiting nephew from England. How appropriate that at the end of my time in this country of dichotomies my week will include one, the sadness of saying goodbye here and the joy of seeing family close by. I will then return after the weekend and have two days to pack up and leave and will be back in Toronto on May 19th. My next post will likely not be next Sunday but a few days later and it will be the last one from In Jamaica, for now!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Long weekend, long week.

Easter weekend provided some much needed time to do final planning for the conference but also to take a day of respite. Although the week was then "short" it did not seem so with two days to get everything in place and then the conference for 3 days. The week ended with party time in Jamaica as J'ouvert is celebrated with street parties, parades and paint.

Having worked hard at ongoing conference preparations I decided Sunday as a day to take off and go adventuring. In the company of friends we set off with a map, sunscreen and a desire to find a quiet beach. Kingston is not a "beach" city and it is necessary to travel a little way to enjoy the Caribbean dream of sun, sand and turquoise sea. Typically I have travelled east to experience south coast beaches within a reasonable distance, this time we decided west would offer a new adventure, and we were not disappointed. With the navigator directing we headed out and left the major road as we entered Clarendon. Our route took us through Salt River in which we discovered an amazing mineral bath tucked behind mangrove trees. It was busy with families and swimmers and the cook houses and shops that surrounded it were getting ready to do brisk business. After a brief stop and chat with others enjoying a relaxing Sunday we carried on west and south toward the place indicated on the map as a beach - Jackson Point. The landscape changed as we drove as the place we had decided to find is at the base of the Portmore Bight, an unique swamp land on a peninsula that stretches south. Mangrove swamps with stunted trees, dense bushes and apparently many crocodiles. At the end of the road which was relatively reasonable, and past a few houses and farms we found the beach, which was nothing less than spectacular. A vast stretch of curving white sand, pristine and without litter or washed up garbage, the sea showing off the incredible colours of the Caribbean, with sandy bottom and a gradual grade that was perfect for swimming. There were no palms, but the bleached silver skeletons of trees washed up as a result of hurricanes. A constant breeze reduced the intensity of the sun and heat which though delightful, has the inherent risk of creating the illusion that the sun is not going to burn!
The day was glorious and restorative in preparation for the upcoming conference.

The conference was a success, though I think the cost both in staff morale and financially may prove to reduce the sense of success. Attendance was moderately greater than we had thought it would be at the beginning of the week ensuring that sessions were well attended. There were some wonderful contributions starting with the key note address that opened the conference. Justice Kokaram, Trinidad, spoke of the importance of ADR, the social implications of continuing down an adversarial path and energised everyone to engage and participate actively not only in the conference but in creating change across the Caribbean. The partnership with the Chartered Institute of Arbitration brought excellent contributions and enabled over 60 people to engage in arbitration training, and the development of Restorative Justice was positioned in a cultural context by Professor John Faris, University of South Africa.
The most challenging but in some ways most gratifying day for me was the day in which 300 youth from volatile communities attended. They brought with them an energy and the picture of another face of Jamaica, that was interesting and educational for all who attended. They did not attend without incident as might have been expected. There was a distinct aroma of ganja from the men's room during the lunch break, and tension between a crew from Spanish Town and a crew from Rose Town that prompted security to call the police. The advent of two police officers in flack jackets and toting very large automatic weapons certainly added a dimension that, though familiar in certain urban environments in Jamaica, was new to many at the conference. All was resolved without incident and the Inspector and police officers invited to see the session in which the youth were participating. Their experience was that 300 (or perhaps 294) youth were actively and positively engaged, manageable and productive, youth who they would typically be rounding up off the street corners. The day at the conference was a great contribution to the 'Young Man Nuh Linga' project.

J'ouvert is the celebration of the dawning of a new day and has been part of the Caribbean carnival celebration for centuries. The street parades and parties start late in the evening and continue through dawn as the "jour ouvert" is celebrated. There are bands and parties throughout, and in a city in which wandering through the streets until dawn may usually be ill-advised J'ouvert provides the best of Caribbean street celebrations! Bands and music at decibels guaranteed to damage ones hearing, throngs of people of all ages, colours and nationalities, and the requisite "painting"! One of the traditions of J'ouvert is that one gets covered in paint by people moving through the crowds. The origin of this is thought to be from the days of slavery when participants needed to disguise themselves as slaves were not permitted to join large gatherings. Several of the international presenters ventured out to explore the celebrations and apparently enjoyed dawn on the streets and will treasure paint covered t-shirts as a memento of partying in Kingston!

With the conference over and May arrived my focus is on completing and transferring my work here. I am sure it is going to be a difficult three weeks despite the prospect of exciting opportunities ahead. Kingston, the people and the work here have unquestionably captivated me. Part of the task of the next three weeks will be ensuring this is not a conclusive goodbye, but the beginning of a different and continuing involvement with those at risk from the more difficult facets of life in Jamaica.