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.

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