The Four Most Important Lessons My Service in Jamaica Taught Me.


Important Things I have learned during my service:

The two plus years I have been in service have been the most amazing and the most challenging. I have learned so much about myself, about working outside of my culture, about how you can be percieved outside of your own culture and mostly how women in another culture are viewed and view the world.

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  1. How women are viewed:

As I ride my bicycle around my community I have noticed a very interesting point. Other female PCV’s have altogether given up riding in their communities as it just increases the harassment. For me my tattoos and piercings give me a more intensified level of attention that I have altogether given up ever not being viewed as an object to be obtained. Because of this aspect, I choose to not give up the freedom of my bicycle. Women here are not often seen on bicycles, and when I ride I get all sorts of comments. One time a man even tried to chase me down, luckily I was going downhill and he had no hope of catching me. Most recently I have heard over and over: “Aye yuh a get on some exercise!” “Yes mon, go brownin go!” Apparently when girl rides a bike it is specifically to get exercise, not to go from place to place! I have never heard anyone speak to a man riding a bike as getting exercise, he is just moving from place to place. This kind of bothered me for a minute, but then I thought about it, and there are so much more offensive things that can be said or done, this is just a minor issue. The issue is really about how women are viewed, sometimes I want to challenge that but then I would exhaust myself to no end, and that is just not worth my time or energy.

This ibikes and boys

  1. How tattoos and piercings are percieved

Back to my tattoos and piercings, boy, I tell you that just never ends. I could take the piercings out, I could try to hide the tattoos, but then I am hiding the things I love most. In fact a school girl cornered me the other day as I was walking with a group for plastic pollution awareness (One Love, One Step). She has cornered me before about my tattoos. Last time she told me not to get any more tattoos as I was surely going to burn in hell for it. Uhmmm a bit late on that aren’t you? This time she asked my why I “bored” up my face? “Don’t you like the way God made you?” Being a non-believer can be hard to hold my tongue somedays. I answered, why no, actually I did not, but I love the way I look now! She was persistent and continued to drill me about the word of God and Bible says and blah blah blah! I had many heroes at that point step up and tell her she was being rude and disrespectful, she continued. She asked me how I thought “I might be influencing young girls like her?” I told her that was not my job to influence them, and if they were tolerant they might ask what my tattoos and piercings meant to me, or try to understand the person under them. She persisted still. She asked me “Don’t you believe in God?” Ok I have had enough. I looked her dead in the eye and I said “No actually I do not!” This shocked her. She then asked “What do you believe in?” “Science!, I believe in Science!” She asked, “Who created science?” Now exhausted, I responded, “Science always was, who created God?” Blank stare! Silence, then she proceeded to change her tactic and tell me I should tattoo Jesus on my arm! I told her that would not be appropriate since it would offend other cultures and religions and since I am not of her belief I would never do such a thing. She was like who would be offended. I looked over at the Rastas and said they might be, the Muslims and the Hindus for sure would be. At that point the Rasta walked over to give her a life lesson on tolerance and I escaped to the far corner of the group. Just before she left she walked up behind me and gave me a hug. I am a little confused by this, but maybe, just maybe she learned a little bit about tolerance of others. At least I hope so. (Had she not cornered me multiple times I would have never been baited into a debate about God, but this child is persistent and she exhausts me.)

One time, actually many times, but one time was really offensive, taxi driver suggested he could come visit me at home. I told him no, I was married. He insisted and persisted. He even had the gall to say that my lip rings looked extra hungry! Dude seriously they have spikes on the end where the captive ball should be, that will get caught and hurt, believe me, they are not hungry and you do not really want that! Or the time the taxi man licked my neck and begged me for sex. Seriously men everywhere, begging for sex is not attractive at all, it is repulsive. The fact that a woman’s no has no real meaning is one of the hardest things I have had to overcome, am still trying and failing most days. Also, cultur

  1. How skin tone is viewed.

There is no such thing as racism in Jamaica, simply colorism. They call each other all manner of yaad names (yard names) some of which include skin tone! (ie; blackie, browning, indian, white girl/boy, darkie, and some more offensive that I will not repeat!) There tends to be a viewpoint that darker skin is not beautiful and that is why bleaching is a thing here. They literally bleach their skin with bleach, lye or even tumeric! I am not certain all the manners that they use, but just like white people like to tan and bronze up, darker people tend to try for the same tone that we do as we sunbathe. In fact it has not occurred to many of the people, that I know here, that white people may not want to be “pasty” white. This was a bit shocking to them.

The fact that women of color spend so much money on their hair is a bit heartbreaking. They have been told for so long that their hair is not right, it is inferior to white people hair. So instead of embracing their own beauty, they focus on fighting their natural hair, they braid it, they add extensions, they straighten it and do all other manner of things that are likely not healthy for the hair or the body. When I visited my host family a week or so ago my host sister took her braids out to wash her hair. She had so much hair, I had no idea it was that long or big. She wanted to go out with it natural but her mother insisted she “tame” it down into braids. I told Ms. Rose it was terrible of her to tell Kaylor her natural hair was inferior! “You take the white man look at things ya know” I told her. I said it jokingly, but maybe it helped Kaylor to stand up for herself next time. The beauty of the hair on person’s of color is that the water just repels off of it. I noticed that when we were out to sea. My coworker’s hair dried within minutes and mine was still wet when I went to bed that night, this is why blow dryers were invented! Our hair just holds the cold water next to our heads, their hair just keeps their head mostly dry. It is truly a fascination of mine. Instead of having to wait for the water to stop dripping all over me, they can just get dressed and move on with their day/night. Me it takes literally hours for it to finally stop dripping!

  1. How seasons are viewed.

The final thing I learned is that mangos are to be eaten outside and you are required to be covered in sticky sweet mango juice/pulp when you are done. Also one mango is not enough. When different fruits are in season many Jamaicans will literally survive on the one thing for days at a time. Mango, Breadfruit and June plum are all main courses when in season. Kind of like how Strawberries and Huckleberries were back when I was a child!

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There are specific seasons for specific crops and when out of season you will pay dearly for the item. Pear is a great example. Pear season June through September. If you want it bad enough outside of that time frame you will pay for imported pears or pears that are grown out of season and they are not nearly as good as the ones in season. Right now it is cabbage season and the price of cabbage drop low, but the price of other produce rise up. These are balances to be had, I just wish farmers would rotate crops so they did not rush the market with the same crop all at the same time. If they would focus on diversity there would not be such a severe price drop or rise.

Early Service Conference, CASI and Moments of Frustration.


Every Peace Corps Volunteer spends the first four months apparently doing not much of anything.  Those months are actually spent collecting data for a very deep heavy document.  The document also known as CASI (Community and Sector Inventory) at least in Jamaica, is the heart and soul of a volunteer’s service.  It is not something you can just throw together, it is also something that can terrify you, once you realize how deep it is.  At the four-month mark, it is expected that you have pretty well integrated into your community and have figured out a tentative plan for your next year.

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Easy, right?  No not in the slightest.  First off you have to present this document to your supervisor and counterparts, secondly you have to present it to your colleagues at Early Service Conference (ESC).  The CASI is designed to guide you with questions and tools to utilize while looking for information.  I have a hard time with the tools.  PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) is designed to guide a volunteer in how to get the community to participate.  In theory it is a great idea.  In reality it breaks down.  I tried very hard to get a needs assessment grid done.  Sadly my group meetings rarely had the same people attend.  This makes an assessment difficult mainly due to the groups having differing ideas on what needs are within the community.  I actually gave up the idea of ever getting that done.  The community mapping and seasonal or daily calendars were also unrealistic for me to try to use.  Fortunately the only two tools left were the two I am best at.  Interviews, both casual and structured are ways to gather much-needed information.  The information gathered may be contradictory depending upon who gives that information.  This just increases your knowledge base.

school

Peace Corps is about learning about other cultures, but it is also about learning about yourself.  During the CASI you cry, you jump for joy when people show up to a meeting, you drink some, you walk away and you come back the next day.  The thing is you have no idea how much of your own bias is present until you present it to others.  Richard has been reading my CASI piece by piece.  I have learned how much this man loves me, he actually asked what am I going to do now that you are done with that document?  For someone who was not outwardly interesting in my writing before, he is my biggest fan, even on a document that has no information about me in it.  He would send me back comments and ask me to clarify some statements.  He also asked if some of what I wrote was real.  In all of this he helped me pull my bias out of much of the document.  Having my supervisor read it was even more telling.  He saw things differently, but since there is no factual data it cannot be confirmed or denied.  After I pulled myself out of the document what was left was the community.  How the community feels about things and what they see in themselves.  So yes, the document is mostly supposition, but it is the supposition of the community and not my own.

farming

The reality is this document is a living breathing document.  It changes as time passes.  It expands and it grows.  It will never be a stagnant document.  It will be ever-changing and updating it every so often will be an exercise in grounding myself.  My work plan is also not something that will stay the same. Events in the community will change how I approach my work plan.  Currently I am looking at a pretty busy year, but at the same time, much of it can change.

The thing you learn about yourself in writing the CASI is that you still have biases.  You still see things from an American perspective.  I love it here, I really do.  In fact I was already considering a third year, but I have a man at home who would probably die inside if I extend.  The things that I think I see are often not what I see at all.  If I see lack of motivation, what I am likely not seeing is an individual who is tired of being told no.  If I see poor health and a terrible diet, what I am likely not seeing is a family who can barely buy more than a bag of rice to last a week.  If I see high percentage of school drop-outs, what I am likely not seeing is a child whose parents could not afford school fees or transportation to school.  So all the things that I think I see have underlying causes which I cannot see.  I make assumptions based on observation.  I make assumptions based on what I am told by different people in the community.  What I do not see is more telling than what I do see.  That is the saddest fact of any foreign aid worker’s reality.  It is often hard to pull yourself out of your own bias because you have no idea just how deep your bias is.