I’ve now been on my placement in Jamaica for six months. Instead of counting up, I can count down.
A milestone like this gives you pause. I thought at first that I might reflect on how far I’ve come and where I hope I am headed in the next six months, but I am developing a mindfulness curriculum for the Youth Development Program at the YMCA and so, in the spirit of being present, I will instead reflect on where I am today, half way through my adventure.
As much as I feel settled and comfortable in my every day life in Jamaica, I am still very much an outsider. I might know how to navigate *my* life, and I may have learned A LOT about Jamaican culture, life, people and history, but I can’t say I truly know how to live like a Jamaican yet. Safety and privilege impact almost everything I do, far more than I ever anticipated they would.
The warnings and worries that were so concentrated at the beginning of my time here haven’t stopped, and I still haven’t figured out how to navigate them. Shootings, robberies and harassment are common place – not a week goes by where I don’t get warned by someone about something. While most of the crime and violence seems targeted, there is a general anxiety throughout the country that makes you feel like something bad could happen at any time. Even though I am pretty sure Jamaica is dangerous mostly for criminals and other ‘bad’ people, the predominant feeling is that Jamaica is dangerous, period. I can’t (and don’t want to) get used to feeling unsafe and watching my back all the time, and I wish I didn’t feel so anxious about exploring more widely.
There is a lot of baggage that comes with being a privileged visible minority. The miserable consequences of systemic racism and poverty surround all of us every day, and there is much atoning to be done. I spend a lot of time and energy being careful about how I present my opinions, requests and ideas, and reflecting on my reactions to being excluded, underestimated, prioritized or set apart. I’m conscious that even this is an example of my privilege. In fact, I am hyper conscious of my privilege a lot of the time. I humbly and graciously accept the opportunity to learn and hopefully become a better ally.
In spite of these challenges, not everything in Jamaica is hard and scary. Every day I am witness to a sense of hope and opportunity I rarely see in Canada. People are grateful, generous and benevolent, no matter whether they have much or little. No time is wasted debating how urgent or important a particular need might be, or which need should take priority over another. The consequence of being surrounded by so much difficulty and challenge is that any well-considered action is meaningful and helpful. I can’t imagine a volunteer ever feeling like their work wasn’t appreciated. More importantly, I can’t imagine a volunteer ever feeling like their work wasn’t making a real difference. In Jamaica, things change, improve and move forward, and tangible results are easy to see. It is a welcome difference from back home.
On the lighter side, I am still loving the amazing fruit (we are nearing avocado and passionfruit season, and I ate local, organic sweet sop and sour sop for dinner yesterday). Thunder and lightening brings a little excitement almost every day, and the rain is finally starting to actually cool things off instead of just making it feel more muggy and humid. The bugs in my apartment are mostly gone (no cockroach sightings for months, and only a few ants here and there) and I have successfully avoided chronic mosquito bites and serious sunburns thanks to liberal applications of sunscreen and a delicious smelling natural bug spray I found that actually seems to work. I haven’t worn a sweater in months, and the only time I wear socks is when I go for a run with my fitness group. Most importantly, I have built meaningful relationships with students, coworkers, neighbours and friends.
My first 6 months in Jamaica have been alright; I look forward to whatever the next 6 have in store!
*The image above is the original “half way tree”, a giant cotton tree that marked the half way point between Kingston, Spanishtown and Hope Estates for many years. It was eventually replaced with a clock tower, which still stands. The Halfway Tree area continues to be a major commercial centre in Kingston and is located about 5 minutes from the YMCA.