the youth of YOU

People often ask why I continue to work abroad. Isn’t it hard to leave what you know? Yes. Isn’t it frustrating to have to adapt to a new reality? Yes. But…Isn’t it amazing to meet new people? Yes. Isn’t it powerful to find inspiration? Yes. I have met many people in many corners of the world and I carry them all with me, but the people who continually steal my heart are the youth that I have worked with. Today I realized once again that the primary reason I continue to choose to work abroad is to learn from them. Yes, I also hope to teach something, to make an impact, but most of all, I hope to learn. And, therefore, I thank and give credit to the youth of YOU for teaching me the following:

Shandale: strength; Andrew: hope; Raymond: patience; Richard: maturity; Felicia: loyalty; Atalia: spunk; Ajan: surprise; Dwayne: sarcastic humor; Shaneeka: grace under pressure; David: chivalry; Anthony: joy; Beres: persistence; Sashagaye: beauty of the spirit; Romaine: sly humor; Christopher: calmness; Kadian: hard work; Alisha: spirit; Ceyan: thankfulness; Arressi: trust; Andre: self-knowledge…and, of course, there are many others. Many others who make even the hardness times somehow worthwhile.

And therefore I thank them, each and every one of them, for teaching me more about myself and for being themselves. If this is Jamaica’s future, the Caribbean’s future, the world’s future, then all of the scare stories we get told about Jamaica, about youth in general, are far from the truth.

The future is about persistence, calmness, hard work, strength, spirit, spunk, maturity. The future is about beauty, trust, humor, loyalty. The future needs individuals who are thankful and have self-knowledge. The future needs hope and joy. The future is now and all of those things exist.

Thank you to the youth of YOU. You are brighter and better than you are often told. You have stolen my heart. I knew it would happen. Filipino, Marshallese, Peruvian, and Canadian youth have all done it. I am not surprised that you have done so as well. Thank you.  

And, if you need a reminder of what strength means here is Shandale Campbell’s story (one of the youth mentioned above): http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/videos/audio.php?f=SGVyX1N1cnZpdmFsX1N0b3J5.

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a ‘middle’ income country

**Disclaimer: I have done no statistical research for a post that really needs more stats and I am also probably speaking a bit too authoritatively for my limited knowledge…sorry.

Jamaica is a ‘middle income’ country. This means that the United Nations (et al) have determined that enough Jamaicans earn a relatively decent income. It also means that it has become increasingly difficult for NGOs to receive international grants (and other forms of funding) as Jamaica isn’t ‘poor’ enough in the harshly competitive world of international funding. What has been largely left out of consideration is that the cost of living in Jamaica is extremely high — very approximately food, transportation, etc costs 75-80 percent of what it does in Canada. Sometimes more. Rarely less.

Theoretically I have known of this situation for quite some time. This past week it hit me a lot harder. A youth came to ask me about his latest pay cheque. It was for $2800 (approximately $33 CAD). For a week. He normally works 6 days a week; however, the Easter holidays had occurred during this time and he had not been compensated. I told him I would look into the local labour laws and get more information for him.

What did I find out? Minimum wage is $4070 a week (5 days a week, 8 hours a day) — approximately $46 CAD. That is just over a dollar (Canadian) an hour. Yes, that is a lot higher than the dollar a day that Millenium Development Goals aims to eradicate; however, it is also a lot lower than the 8-10 dollars an hour that workers at similar jobs in Canada would earn.

And let me remind you once again of the cost of living in Jamaica. High. And continually higher. 2010 has not been a good year for inflation in Jamaica. Transportation: up. Food costs: up. Taxes: up (17.5 % GCT). In fact, even CUSO-VSO recently recognized this and the volunteer stipend was increased this past month (although the pay cheque of an average Jamaican will not be increasing).

In addition to the cost of living and the state of the minimum wage, one should also realize that extent of the informal economy in Jamaica — an economy that “employs” many yet where “income” is not at all predictable. Consequently minimum wage jobs, even if they barely cover the costs of transportation and lunch, are coveted . I work at an employment centre where we have barely any jobs to advertise.

So, does “middle income” tell the true story? As always, a lot remains unsaid. Costs can be close to those in “high income” countries, but incomes can be close to those in the lower brackets. Is this what is meant by “middle”?

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Views and Thoughts for Contemplation

Yes, I decided to add one more post for today. The thoughts are in my head, and, therefore, now is the day to let them travel through my fingers. So, below is a list of some rather interesting things that I have seen / thought of throughout March. Things that struck me or made me do a double-take and therefore things that I don’t want to forget:

  • A chicken wishbone moving across the sidewalk (the power of ants!),
  • A donkey cart holding up traffic on one of the busiest streets in town,
  • Trees laden with mangoes (so many bits of goodness),
  • A tree full of new pink flowers that looked just like the blossoms of a Canadian springtime,
  • Where have the sci-fi chirping crickets gone?, and
  • The security of having the flu with so many people looking out for me.

Try to watch out for random views and thoughts that should demand contemplation in your life.

Have a lovely upcoming long weekend (I will only be at work for 2 days this workweek!).

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“We had a good day”

Amongst all the difficulties and imperfections and unfairness in life, amongst all the hard work and doubt, there are moments which stand out and, if you are lucky, there are entire days that are seared into memory as shining examples of human potential. Or, more simply put, as one of my youth said, “we had a good day”. 

This past Thursday, YOU and the Youth Centre hosted a Youth Summit. Youth Summit? What is that, you ask. It is an opportunity to put the youth center stage, to highlight the Centre’s successes and activities from the perspective of the participants themselves. Of course, there were a number of potential glitches to this idea. First, YOU had never done such an event before, Second, I wanted to invite quite a hefty list of past, current, and, most importantly, future stakeholders — representatives from the World Bank, CIDA, and a long list of Jamaica schools, NGOs, and businesses were expected to attend. To do this required a lot of calls, letters, emails, etc., etc., etc. The tird challenge was, perhaps, the most risky — the success of the show largely relied on presentations by young, inexperienced, and, consequently, very nervous youth. Youth who many people believed wouldn’t arrive on time or dress properly let alone write and present professional presentations. However, as most of my readers know, I often take the more difficult road, and, therefore, an untried idea with untried presenters was to go on…

Admittedly, even I had my doubts. As anyone who has organized an event knows there is always those nagging doubts that arrive despite all of the best preparation. Add that to organizing an event framed by different cultural expectations and the risky decision of turning age and power roles upside down, and I admit that I was nervous. What if the prominent Jamaican distrust in youth actually had some merit?

Despite that, as I sat in the back row, with all of the organization and planning complete I tried to let go of the doubts. The show started on time (an abnormality in Jamaica), the MC made the audience laugh, the Executive Director of YOU spoke, the guest speaker (a representative for the Minister of Youth) was quick and to-the-point. Everything was going well…but now my heart leapt to my throat…my first youth was up to speak. You could read the nervousness in his eyes. I mentally urged him to smile, to speak into the microphone, to be himself. The presentation was okay, not brilliant, but okay. But, then, slowly but surely, everything started to roll to perfection.

The MC reminded the audience that the speakers were new to their roles. The third speaker got the audience to laugh. The audience started to clap to points that they agreed with and nod their heads in understanding. The stories of youth who had previously rarely had their stories listened to were being absorbed by an audience of professionals. Every time that someone spoke the atmosphere got better and better. The audience was smiling and so were the youth. Unfortunately, in Jamaica, adults and youth aren’t expected to smile and learn from each other. I am not sure that this expected to happen in Canada.

During lunch, at the end of the show, stakeholders were telling me that they wanted to visit the Centre, work on finding money for the Centre, learn more about our activities, and, equally important, when I looked around the room, the youth were doing proper networking and speaking with their audience. When I had to call them together and get them on the bus they didn’t want to leave…and, truth be told, I also didn’t want them to leave. 

My goals for the Youth Summit had been about spreading knowledge of the Centre, developing our stakeholder networks, alleviating negative perceptions towards youth, but, perhaps, they should simply also have included having a good day. For, as one of my presenters later told me: “Miss Anna, we had a good day”. I agree.

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Psst, sexy, baby, psst, psst, darling, psst…

The fuller list may go something like this: psst, sexy, baby, psst, psst, darling, psst, princess, psst, baby, empress, dove, psst, sexy, psst…repeat and randomize and potentially throw in something new.

Now, while anyone who has lived in Jamaica is still either laughing or rolling their eyes, I will explain to the rest of you…the above is a soundtrack that I listen to whenever I leave my house or office. Are you thinking that I am receiving my fair share of compliments? Does it sound like I should be happy? Not quite…defintely not quite.

I was sitting with some of my colleagues today (yes, we were working on a Saturday) and I was asked to name two good things about life in Jamaica and two bad things (one work related and on non-work related). Automatically, the biggest non-work related negativity that came to my head was the constant barrage of sexual comments that are thrown my way whenever I leave the confines of a building. After some laughs about the topic, I was told that I should write a blog post about this ever-present side of Jamaican life.

I am not quite sure how to explain it to someone who has not been here. Yes, men in many countries try their hardest to attract the opposite sex through a trail of cat-calls, but, simply put, Jamaican men play this ‘game’ with more ‘skill’ (note the sarcastic quotation marks) than anything I or others I know have previously experienced.

Originally I found it annoying, but amusing. I would note the more unique names (such as dove) and take note of how many times someone would hiss ‘psst’ even when I refused to look at them (at least 5); however, more recently this barrage has become simply annoying. I have been told to ignore it and that it is part of Jamaican culture; however, for all of my ability to accept parts of other cultures, this is one thing that I am not willing to accept. I am trying to live with it…but accept? — that seems a bit too much to ask…

And, by the way, the two good things about life in Jamaica — relaxing moments with my colleagues and trips to unique spots. Although they sometimes seem a bit too far apart, moments such as the YOU Christmas Party and climbing Blue Mountain will always hold special places in my heart. Further, simply sitting with colleagues today and laughing after a long day will stay with me and give me needed strength.

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A manifesto against negativity

I haven’t written lately as I haven’t known how to put things in words. Or, if putting things into words makes them more realistic, then I didn’t want to put them into words. Life has been increasingly difficult lately. I don’t want to go into the ugly details (if you want those they will remain relegated to personal messages); however, suffice to say that there has been a lot of struggles and a lot of challenges.

For the past month or so I have felt as though work and life have been conspiring against me. I fully recognize that when one works abroad they need to be able to ‘roll with the punches’; however, it simply felt as though there were too many punches coming in too quick succession…too many things that did not make enough sense.

That said, why I am now writing such a cryptic post? Because I have decided to take some control back. Was that decision as easy as it sounds? No. Definitely not. Absolutely not.

I don’t think I have ever reached a point of comparable stress, not in Canada nor in any other country. I am famous for not getting stressed. I get angry, I get frustrated, but then I get over it and move on. Stress is a relatively new feeling for me. More so, recently having a friend point out the effects it was having on me and being concerned for how I would be able to cope struck me. Most often people seem to believe that I can take anything, so having someone express concern has struck me hard.

I can’t change what is happening at work or in the lives of the youth who I work with. I can’t change poor decisions, strange timelines, hopelessness, fear, horrible occurances, and horrible occurances happening to good people. I can’t even change my reactions to such things as we really don’t know how we will react when faced with a reality that shouldn’t be reality. However, what I am trying to pursue is that I can change my actions that occur after the reactions. I can do my best to make decisions that still let me be me even when I am located in a framework that is not mine (and should not be anyone’s).

This is how I want to move forward. This is how I need to move forward. This vision is also less than 36 hours old, but it needs to continue. So this is my manifesto. The negativity will not win. It can not win. There is still too much good in Kingston to allow the bad to blur that away.

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Still here (living) in Jamaica

And for part two…some stories from my January outside of the office.

Bus moments: Interesting things always happen on buses in Kingston…For example, there are often ‘bus preachers’ singing and giving sermons throughout the entire ride. The most ‘famous’ of these being a man that another volunteer and I had termed ‘blind preacher dude’ (I don’t know how that happened). We works the route from downtown to New Kingston (where I live) and has a shockingly good voice. Short story: I now know that he has a name and I have his CD…’blind preacher dude’ is now a real person. Similarly (and not), yesterday I was on the bus and met a man from Saudi Arabia (this is not common in Kingston). We got talking and by the time I got off the bus he had given me his Quran and invited me to his Mosque. Hence is the strangely religious nature of my bus rides.

Running moments: One of my goals for 2010 has been to get my running back on track. It is still very hard to be a consistent runner in a country that sometimes feels sauna-like; however it is getting a bit better and I am back to doing at least 3X a week. So…last weekend: mile 5 (of 10) and a huge full moon was slipping behind the mountains, the sky wasn’t dark, but also wasn’t light. It was a surreal moment…and then the moon slipped away and we kept on working our way up a hill. And…evenings at the park: post-run, warm nights, starry skies, extended stretching sessions, random discussions with others out for their evening departures from the busy, hot realities of Kingston days.

People moments: Meeting an artist at Treasure Beach who gave myself and another volunteer an extremely reduced rate on making our own tile designs (which turned out much better than I expected). Returning to the Blue Mountains to a guest house that has become a second-home. Seeing my parents arrive at the Kingston airport. Conversations with lifeguards, security guards, and restauranteurs who have become part of my life. Watching the audiences at a pantomine play and a Jamaican football game express such pure joy and unity.

Watch for the moments…

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