As a Peace Corps Volunteer people in the States have often asked me why exactly does Jamaica need volunteers? Isn’t it some kind of rich country with a heavy tourism industry. Well no and yes. It does rely heavily upon the tourism industry, it also relies heavily upon those returning residents or the gifts sent home from family abroad, or aforeign as the Jamaicans say.
The motto of this country literally is: Jamaica, No Problem, Mon. It would seem once you get outside the touristy places you begin to see a huge problem, yet why do the local people seem to not care? It is not so much that they do not care, but life can be hard and focusing on things that are outside of your control just adds to the pressures of life. So by adopting this attitude that there are no problems is essentially a defense mechanism. Jamaicans find joy in the simple things, yet most often long for the ability to obtain nice things, but not to the point of obsession.
In many areas communities have been built up on what is termed captured land. This is land owned by the government and occupied by persons who just built a “board house” upon it. A board house is a home built literally out of plyboard and or slatboards. It may or may not have a zinc (metal sheeting) roof. Typically these are small home with not water hook-ups and may or may not be illegally or legally hooked up to current (electricity). The roads are typically goat trails tramped down by years of walking through. Sometimes you will find a real road, but it is typically not paved.
The concrete, block homes are typically built by persons who have some sort of legal document for occupancy, although these are often questionable. So why does Jamaica need volunteers? Partially due to the large literacy issues. Partially due to the lack of community development. Partially due to an inability to navigate the governmental bureaucracy, even those of us trained in this area find it excessively difficult to navigate at times.
Examples of this is that our community association got a donation from a local business to put up a notice board somewhere in the crossroads. We have had it up for a few weeks and just posted some documents about the citizen’s association. We placed it within legal location (less than 6 ft from the road in the Parish Council easement). Yesterday the man who has been aforeign paid another man in a bulldozer to remove the sign and return it to Mr. Johnson’s business site. There was not notification that the board was a problem, just destruction of property. The police responded to my ex-pat friend who went to report it to the police, but in all likelihood that man will not be made to pay for the property he destroyed. It is a very sad circumstance and this is part of why Jamaicans typically do not try to improve their communities. People of class or power will go unpunished for willful negligence and the hard working men and women will be the first to be punished when things go wrong. How do you change this dynamic? That is a question I keep asking myself and I still have no answer. What you have is a system that is just not very functional. Why? I still have no answer. It might be lack of training, it may be that those with money are able to afford affluence and influence the system, but more likely it is simply that those with little are too beat down to protest and rise up.
This is how poverty works. It just beats you down so much that any ounce of fight you have left is just depleted. You soon learn that the best way to approach change here is to just hope for the best and work very hard at education and health aspects, because these are the only aspects you can really have control over.
Jamaica is one of the hardest post to live and work on. It might be the cost of living and how small the living stipend is, I spend my own money every single month. In Liberia I always had extra money. I never had to consider a beer a luxury, but here I do. In the public mind Jamaica is a constant party, this from the outside is true, but if you get deep in it is not so true. We have our share of alcoholism, we even had drug traffic issues and human trafficking is a highly avoided topic, but it is very prevalent, but what is underlying in all of these issues is that lack of hope. A people so beat down that a sense of hope is almost non-existent. How do you beat hopelessness without succumbing to it? Not all of Jamaica has lost hope, but on an individual level you can see the loss of hope in people.
The solution is not an easy one. It does not help that tourism is a huge source of employment, but the local people are paid very little. The industry itself makes a ton of money but it is sent to foreign investors and not reinvested into the country. This is the saddest part of everything I see. The tourism industry does not actually support the local people. So as in any other location if you spend your time only in an all-inclusive you are part of the problem! You are not helping the local economy and you are simply arrogant in your views of the local people. You will notice how aggressive people are on the streets to sell you things, or braid your hair, this is a sign of true inequality.
If you want to help build up the economy, stop shopping in shops that sell things made in China printed with Jamaica on them. Start looking at local hotels, bed and baths, hostels and restaurants. Street food I hear is good, being a vegetarian I cannot eat it. Buy local produce from vendors in the open market, buy locally made crafts, jewelry, carvings and handmade items. Look for local community tourism, get to know the real Jamaica, not the brochure they sell you. Seek out local taxis, ride with other Jamaicans, travel like a Jamaican. This is the benefit of serving in Peace Corps, I do not see the white washed tourist ideal things, I see the real people, the true Jamaica and it is beautifully flawed.