Archive for the ‘Jamaica’ Category

A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls

A Love Letter to Jamaican Girls
January 5, 2017

I have been thinking about love letters lately. Do you remember the ones you used to write or receive when you were a teenager? You would write it in secret, always when you were bored or supposed to be doing something else, and would hide it until you had a chance to give it to the intended recipient.

The prose was flowery, full of rhymes, clichés of all sorts filled the pages, lots of hearts and roses and declarations of undying affection and adoration for every aspect of the person.  The receiver would hide it in a special place, to read by themselves, over and over again.

Image result for love letters

With scraps of paper,  borrowed pens and makeshift envelopes, we felt it important to record those feelings, to release them from captivity and hope that the person who received it would know what feelings they had inspired.

Jamaican girls need a different kind of love letter right now. Not the ones with the hearts and flowers, or written for humor’s sake, but the ones that will affirm and build them up against the ugly, hateful, toxic and deeply unloving ideas being spread about them.

Letters that anoint girls with the same intention and care as if she had journeyed to a balmyard for a bath.

Letters that girls can carry in their bosoms and pockets as spiritual defense, in the tradition of our grandmothers who used to carry herbs wrapped in pieces of cloth and tied to their brassieres to ward off evil.

Letters that make them feel strong, powerful and untouchable, as if they walk among us, but are not of us.

Letters that heal, that empower them to resist, that encourage girls to see each other as her sister’s keeper, to see herself in other girls, and to protect her fiercely.


Hilda Belcher, “Run Little Chillun, Run, Fo’ de Devil’s Done Loose”, 1931, Vermont

It is truly frightening how much Jamaican society has become invested in telling girls exactly how little they are valued as persons.  Maybe this isn’t new though; something I hope to investigate more over this year.   But it’s really not an exaggeration to say that nearly everything that is being said to and about Jamaican girls in public – on social media, in the taxis, comments from random strangers, sermons from the pulpit – is anything but loving.

The favourite response is to blame girls when they are violated by men.  Sadly, even girls themselves participate to prove that they are “better”.

Right after her body is found dismembered in a gully, canefield or latrine, or the unspeakable violence against her has been made public, the unofficial campaign to re-victimize her unfolds:

What could she have done to cause this to happen?

Why was she on that road?

What was she doing with him?

She must have wanted it or she wouldn’t have gone there.

She acts too grown for her age.

She should have said something.

She or her mother is being paid so nobody should complain.

She wants too much attention.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it: the deep dislike and distrust of girls. They are bad until they prove otherwise.  In the most casual conversation among Jamaicans, it takes nothing for adults to start accusing girls of being “too much” – too fast, acting too grown-up, too curious, too impatient, too impetuous, too loud, too mouthy – too whatever we don’t like or value in someone else.  In the stories that we like to tell, girls are, by definition, temptresses, schemers, always wanting to lure men into compromising positions.

The intention, whether stated or not, is always to blame girls for the harm that comes to them, and to remind us that men’s “nature” is particularly susceptible to being unleashed by prepubescent girls.  Whether it is a group of boys in a bathroom or a 62 year old man who is reputed to be a molester of an entire family of girls, men are presumed to be powerless to resist her.


And of course, the time-honoured ammunition for this position: the Bible.  There is simply no shortage of favourite misinterpretations to be launched from pulpits, verandahs and Facebook posts to defend sexual violence against girls. women are also harmed by the onslaught of negative talk. Just listen to the words adults use to curse them, to make them feel ugly, small, worthless, powerless, like nothing.  Instead of teaching girls how to love themselves and develop a positive self-identity, adults are quick to find ways to control and beat them into submission: ugly uniforms, limits on their physical movement, shaming them, denying them information, feeding them with outdated and unproven ideas, imposing silence, physically beating them.  In the warped way of many adults, this formula of “bending”, “breaking” and “moulding” is what will produce meek and mild girls, girls who do what they are told and march in exactly the ways they have been directed by adults, especially men.

The negative talk that is constantly hurled at girls seeps in, and slowly eats away at how girls see themselves and what they learn to expect in terms of how they should be treated. Too many girls spend their adolescent and adult years denying or burying their experiences of violence and humiliation, just biting their tongues and biding their time.


If they are lucky, they learn how to love themselves and the children that they are responsible for.  But what is more likely is that their rage and buried hurt visits their children – through beatings, hurtful words, silence.

When adults deny girls love, we set them up for failure. We make it more likely for them to make poor choices in their personal lives because they are willing to go wherever they will find something that feels like love. When we choose to act surprised when girls demonstrate agency or act out their self-hatred, we are denying our responsibility in killing their dreams and slaughtering their self-concept.


All of this is why Jamaican girls need love letters.

They need to be told that they are beautiful, smart, courageous, talented, that they matter, that they are poised to do great things, and that they hold the future in their hands.

They need to be told that being outspoken is a good thing, that bold girls become great women, that they don’t need permission to think.  They need to be told that they are no better or worse than any other girl who is different from them. They need to be told that all girls deserve the same opportunities to shine.

What they need to hear is that it is not ok for anyone to hurt them.  They need to be told that their bodies belong to them and them alone.  They don’t have to keep any secret when men and boys do unspeakable things to them.  And they don’t have to respect any man or do what he says just because of the political party he belongs to, which business he runs, whether he carries a gun or a bible.  Our girls need to know that they are not required to respect authority when that means they have to suffer in silence.

We need to tell girls that they don’t have to be afraid. They need daily reminders that they already know how to be courageous.  That surviving the journey from home to school to church to shop and back home with their dignity intact is an act of courage and defiance.  They need to know that other women have walked this path too, have survived and are willing to stand up for them.

We have to tell girls that their dignity is theirs to own and defend, and that no one can take that from them. No girl is dispensable or worthless.

All girls, and especially those who come from under-resourced families and communities, need psychological armor to protect them from the public assault on their character, their persons and on their lives. When we surround them with love, they become invincible. They are counting on us as adults, and we need to stop disappointing them.

So, here’s to you, Jamaican Girl!

Even if:

  • You live in the roughest part of the poorest community in your parish.
  • You spend all daylight hours sitting under a tree or in somebody else’s place just to avoid your own home or your classroom
  • The pastor/deacon/church brother has taken a liking to “laying on hands” during every prayer meeting
  • You were told that you are black and ugly like sin and you believe it
  • You are the “pet” and favorite toy of your cousin/uncle/stepfather/father/grandfather/neighbor and you don’t know why
  • You believe that you are better than other girls because you are sure that what happens to them could never happen to you
  • You have to decide between skipping school and asking the taxi-driver to drop you in exchange for a feel-up and some credit
  • You do not attend a “prominent” school, your picture is not in the newspaper, and you did not pass 10 subjects
  • You believe that it is a compliment when men of all ages call to you on the street
  • You have been held down, felt up, battered and bruised over and over again because they say that you are not a virgin so it doesn’t matter
  • Your family thinks you are worthless because you were raped
  • You have been told that you need to start fending for yourself, including having sex with older men, in order to pay for light bill and lunch money.
  • Your teachers tell you that good money is being wasted to send you to school
  • You can barely read or write and don’t speak any English
  • You bleach your skin because you believe that you will be more attractive and men will pay more attention to you and help you get ahead
  • Your community is a place where girls like yourself feels trapped or fantasizes about escaping from.

Regardless of where you live, what your situation, how well you speak English:
You are precious.
You are loved.
You matter.
You are a fighter, you are capable of great things.
We believe you.
We believe in you.

We have not always spoken up in your defence when we should have, but we see you.

We know that there’s no future if you don’t make it. There are many, many of us who are fighting for you and for your survival.

Stay strong, Jamaican Girl!

I love you.


Create your own love letter!



What a teacher decided that she could do to a 3 year old child

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy.

2015 - 3 year old boy with cuts from a belt

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River where he was beaten by his teacher.

That’s the forearm of a 3 year-old boy who doesn’t like to go to his school in Milk River where he was beaten by his teacher who said she didn’t think that the belt would have cut the child.

On Thursday, April 23, the child’s parent posted this note on Facebook: “when i went to pick up my 3 year old baby from school this is what he show mi say him teacher beat him when mi go to her about it this woman a go tell mi say she didnt know say it did a go cut him…tell what a baby could have done fi this happen to him you know say this little boy always a tell mi him dont want to go to school i always a say him dont like school i didnt know say a these things a go on make the baby dont want to go school……if mi fi beat the shit out a that bitch you would hear how mi go on like mi bad…….and yes this happen in milk river…..people please share this because it need to stop help mi protect the youths”

The responses were full of outrage, expressed in characteristically violent Jamaican ways:

“Mi belly move. If a even one rass lick mi would a afi get off a dah teacher deh. one good one, weh is ider it cripple had har or it make she feel some sort a constant pain so every time she try lick another baby she rem. And if mi fi go a jail mi naan stay long and daddy will take care till mi cum back”

“Weh teacher cud ah tell me seh ah baby do that u beat him an cut him oh fada god u see an u know smh an sigh”

“I’d find somebody to hold her and beat her cut up her skin same way”

“Me nuh done wid you bitch me a beat you, me sister dem a beat you, you a get a box each from me brother dem a throw give me mother after mek she screw out you fucking head and throw it back give you.”

“she should b glad its u because me nah ask no question one bcl lick she a pick up inna a rass face….. at ma son school if him run a drop dem have fi call and explain… me no run joke wit ma son yuh madddd.”

“If it was me like tht mother god know seh prison wouldn’t mis mi when mi done with that teacher caz what mek the situation even worst is the teacher facety comment, if a did mi she tell bout she never know seh it would cut the bby!!!!! God know seh mi would just Tek something an mash up r face”

Whether the commenters advocated for or rejected giving the teacher a physical taste of her own medicine, responses actively called for the parent to report the situation to the police, principal, Ministry of Education, and Office of Children’s Advocacy, they all called for *action*.

I don’t know what the parent has done since then since he has not posted anything.  He did note that he declined to tell his mother about the situation, for fear or exacerbating her health condition.

At any rate, you can read all the responses here:

I feel angry about what the teacher has done to that child: she has been busy trying to break his spirit – and that of the other children, for a while now.  Honestly, if that were my child, I would have had to take several deep breaths when that teacher said what she did.  I most certainly would have wanted to wring her neck and slap her into next year, much like the commenters have expressed.

But I already know that seeking redress in all kinds of other ways would be far more effective and long-lasting.

I also know that she’s a creature of the system.

As such, empathy goes only so far: I know that this type of harm would not come to my child. He’s not in that kind of system; other types of harm, for sure, but not this.

I know that this happened to this man’s son because the schooling system in Jamaica has regularly and consistently treated the children of the working classes in dehumanizing ways. Our elders recount stories and legends of teachers who used to cane, whip, and otherwise physically maim the children who came from the less-privileged groups.

Some commenters shared their own stories:

“Teach that teacher a lesson and others because she is not going to stop it happened to me when I was in grade 1 I am in my 30s and I remember my parents is Christians so they didn’t take it up every time I remember my eye that she lick me in hurts abuse is going on in school has well teachers doing it

And yet, the current Minister of Education, Ronald Thwaites flip-flops on an issue that is already enshrined in The Child Care and Protection Act.  In November 2012, he took one stance on the situation; In February 2015 he stated that it is ok for schools – principals, not teachers – to treat children in these degrading ways.

Not surprisingly, even the parents sometimes give the teachers permission to beat the children.  It’s what they know, understand, experienced, and uncritically accept.   Doing violence to children is traditional.

I feel really sad for this parent who feels like he has such limited options in seeking justice for his child.  Clearly, educating parents about their rights and responsibilities is not part of what this – o any? – basic school in Jamaica does.

Turning to Facebook and “calling dung crowd” to bear witness to both the harm done to his child, and his hurt and righteous anger as a father who loves his child makes sense in this digital age.  His stated aim is to prevent this from happening to other children.  By his own admission, he has seen it happen at this school before:

“but i said something and i went the b4 and next teacher was beating a next kid and i said something but now its my kid

Interestingly, he’s counting on the post becoming viral and thus reaching the eyes and ears of the Ministry of Education, instead of trying to contact them directly.  He didn’t publish the name of the school, or any information that people can act on.  Nobody can directly call or visit to pressure the principal to do something.  Mind you, Milk River is small so there could only be a few basic schools there.  Notably, he was cautioned by one person to report the station, but not to do anything that would cause the teacher to lose her job:

“Take it up with the principal and make sure the incident is documented. Also make sure the incident is reported at the police station but don’t file any charges. Time is hard and you don’t want the teacher to be fired. Maybe this will be her wake up call that she should never do something like this again”

But that’s exactly what should happen – she does not need to work with any children again.

In a way though, I feel sad for the teacher who is so limited and simple-minded that she could not even see why her actions are hostile and harmful to all children and counterproductive to their education.

But what’s troubling to me is this:

1) The fact that the child told his parent that he did not want to go to school, but the parent chose not to listen. What did the child see or experience at school to lead him to feel this way?  The parent doesn’t ask. Instead, he takes for granted that he knows best, that the school is the best and safest place for the child, and brings the child to the school anyway, right into harm’s way. And the harm is physical as well as psychological:

“the sad thing about it the boy dont like go school because him say him a go get beating”

At the age of 3 years old, children should see school as fun, not as a place where they are going to be tortured with rote memorization or with a belt.  That is simply unacceptable and the Early Childhood Commission needs to step in and say something about this!

Whether we are talking about teachers mistreating children, or adults sexually violating children, the issue is the same:  many, I would argue most, working-class Jamaican parents do not listen to their children, do not respect their children’s voices, feelings and views, and often, albeit unintentionally, both affirm and contribute to the harm that their children are experiencing.  This is a legacy of plantation slavery and our colonial past, a reflection of the deep commitment to social hierarchies that we have inherited and accepted. The ugly social truth is that we only listen and pay attention to our social equals and those above us. Everyone else is dismissed, their concerns trivialized.

Children are not perceived or treated as the social equals of adults. Instead, we assume they know and understand nothing separate from what they are taught by adults.  And so, when it comes to adults’ relationship to children, it is sad and painful to watch the way that adults dismiss children: Hush up, yuh chat tummuch!  Nuh badda mi – yuh ask tummuch question! Guh siddung an tap i nize a mi head! And when they become adults, they often turn around and treat their children the same way.

If there’s anything to be learned from this situation, it is that adults in Jamaica need to show *all* children respect. We need to listen. No matter how much this father loves his son, and no matter that he provides emotional and financial support for them, the one thing that his children need more than anything is to be able to count on him for protection.  In his own quiet moments, I can’t imagine that he feels great about not having listened in the first place.  But I hope that he learns this very important lesson: he cannot protect his child from what he doesn’t know about.  The only way to know is to ask questions and listen carefully.

2) Despite the clear evidence of harm to this child, this parent and many of the commenters still believe, just like the teacher does, that beating children is ok, just not too hard, in the right places, and only the ones who deserve it.

Says the parent: “if you did know this little boy you would see whats wrong with it if you talk loud to him he cry and him twin brother stay cry to so there was no need to beat mi baby”

Really? So if he was not a sensitive child, he would deserve to be beaten?
There is actually a “need” to beat other children?

Others respond similarly: “I don support ppl putting mark on kids body like that dose not matter circumstances don hit a child like that”

“If She Even A Slap Him She Can Do It Inna Him Hand Middle!! This Hurt Me I Swear, A Teacher Did This To Me When I Was 6 And I Had A Big Dark Mark On My Hand For 5 Years”

My favorite comment was this one:

“Am not saying she have any right to beat that kindergarten child.. she is wrong, bt I think corporal punishment should b in school.. these last a days students don’t have any manners what’s to ever . Look at the rate our education level at, they r more prostitutes,lesbians,gays and don in schools than in the working world.. again am not saying she have any right to hit that baby she’s wrong”

In other words, don’t throw the system of cruelty out just because we don’t like what happened to one child that we know and like. It’s still important to beat the “bad” ones; save the good ones.

Well, the teacher felt the same way.

By her response, you understand that:
– this little boy was one of the bad ones at the moment
– she beat him because he deserved it
– her only regret is that she hit him too hard, not that she hit him at all
– next time, she will do it softer and in a place that won’t bear the marks

This is the kind of fucked-up logic that Jamaican people use to hold on to this barbaric practice of beating children.  But, at least, the commenters were being consistent in their commitment to violence. Beat the “bad” children *and* beat the teacher who beat the “good” children. The take-home message?  Violence is the answer for anything that bothers you.

There are a lot of issues in here that need to be fleshed out.

But at this point, suffice it to say that Jamaican working-class parents really need to transform the role that they play in the education system and how they relate to their children’s education.  They also need to have a strong voice in schools and promote just and ethical treatment of their children in schools.

The mis-directives from the Ministry of Education continue to create the perfect scenario for teachers to abuse children and to get away with it.

All of this makes me think that there needs to be serious examination of how Jamaican adults think about children in the first place.

Year 4 of Summer Arts Workshop

I really felt more hopeful this year. Even though some of the same obstacles were in place, I felt a bit more familiar with the terrain – the political bullshit, the posturing and petty misuse of power among the educated/jobbed/credentialed ones, the wisdom and the terror involved when things are moving slowly, the helpfulness of ordinary people, the moments of “yes! this is why we do this!” that keep us going.

Jakki and I, we got this.

Major problem — finding a suitable place for the program

The community center was not going to work for this year.
More to the point, staff – instructors, volunteers – refused to return there.  And I can’t say that I blame them.

I wasn’t there for the entire six weeks, but they had a lot of stories to share as we wrapped up last year.  They weren’t pretty.

For me, the complaints about and the subsequent removal of the furniture last year sent one helluva statement about what people think is ok to do to children simply because they are poor and their parents don’t have economic clout (center staff said the chairs and tables were removed unintentionally; GRAP did not press them to return what they didn’t want to share; instead, the children worked on the floor for 4 weeks of the program.  Yes.  I said, the floor.)

Just try to imagine that being done to children in Ironshore, or Coral Gardens, or Mango Walk. Nope.

Requests made to churches have mostly been met by lack of response over the years.

One church flatly refused to even entertain the request: children are going to dirty up the place, one church leader said. In his mind – and what he shared at length – the community’s children are uncontrollable, they are “bad”, little more than sources of blight and blemish, and should be scorned, kept away from the pristine space that is his church.

Ironically, that’s the same sentiment expressed in 2013 by the representative from the Parish Council who also oversees the community center.  When I met with him and the community group to discuss the policies concerning fair use of the center, he talked about the importance of keeping the place “sterile”.  Folks seem to be really hung up on the issue of cleaning: they don’t want to spend time cleaning the space, and when people use it, it gets dirty.  So, to achieve that sterility, children need to be kept outside and away from the very resources that are put there for them.

So here’s another example of how public space is treated like it’s the private domain of those who are in charge.  It’s the same way that many people behave around their private homes: once it is cleaned, children are put outside or told to stay away or in designated places so as not to “dirty up the place”.  Children as contaminants.  There’s a theme here.

Another church leader told me, in a tone of voice that I find it difficult to describe, that I should take my request to the church that I used to attend.  Apparently, the proposal was so preposterous that the only place that was bound to entertain it was one that would be more forgiving of me – kind of like how your mother will put up with your blemishes in a way that nobody else will? I did do as she directed though.

That pastor told me that the church was used for one week in August to hold Vacation Bible School.  To him, that singular event nullified any possibility of the program using the space for the other five.

Another told me, equally bluntly, that the community people don’t know how to behave and treat the property with respect, so they are not allowed to hold any events there.  Apparently, the group did not have a plan in place for cleaning up the garbage and debris after use.

On one hand, yes, I can understand being pissed off when people mistreat your space.

But, on the other hand, the blatant willingness to discriminate against the children and deny them access is something that requires a different response.   There is this presumption that all community people, and thus this program because it serves the community, are incompetent when it comes to managing children, and again, preventing dirt and damage.

There’s definitely something to the laissez-faire and class-specific way that children are supervised in non-school events.  Chaos ensues, and not even the organized form.  Children are ignored, then yelled at, then punished.  It’s almost as if adults don’t know how to deal with children when they are *not* in uniform.  Once they are out of uniform, the adults are afraid of them (I’ve heard people say as much even though I’m being very tentative), or don’t know how to provide the appropriate guidelines for how they need the children to behave in these settings.  I’ve certainly seen this disposition at work in previous years in this program.

So, it seems like GRAP now has to prove that we can manage the community’s children in a way that is satisfactory to those who think they are uncontrollable and hell-bent on destroying everything in their path.

Where else? Sam Sharpe Teachers College rejected the request for two years:  Already hosting a summer program they said.  No space they said.  This year’s strategy: ask someone who’s higher in the social hierarchy to ask them to help find a space.  That didn’t work either.

One of the basic schools in the community.  None were open to the idea, although one did make me write a letter posthaste, but then the letter somehow never made it to the person who would decide.  And yet, the performance around directing us to write a letter was also interesting.  I started to wonder if the contents of the letter were as important as the letter itself.   I”m learning that email is a funny thing among Jamaicans who don’t depend on it for work.   Between intermittent access to internet, and a general nonchalance about using technology, communication is really still person-to-person, very much in Granville, but also in St. James.

The other thing I learned early: don’t ever leave a voicemail message, just keep calling.  Nobody leaves them either.  They also expect you to notice and return “missed calls”.

Fairfield Theatre – ideal setting but too far for the children to get to everyday, especially the younger ones.  Perfect for weekend and occasional programs as well as for a field trip though.

Granville All-Age School.  We were really reluctant about this option for obvious reasons:  if the whole point of doing the summer program is to create new learning spaces in the community, then going to the school reinforces what people already think: only schools should be doing education.   That’s exactly the message that GRAP doesn’t want to send.

But, that’s where the program ended up, after messy and muddled negotiations – calls that were never made, letters never delivered, keys not available, contracts not prepared – that caused the program to be delayed by two days.

To be honest, the condition of the space was in a word, horrible.  In some ways, it was worse than the community center.  We were assigned to what felt like a storage shed  that was dirty, filled with old and decrepit furniture, had a leaking roof and was infested with wasps.

This was the auditorium, the principal said.  The teachers don’t want their classrooms to be used, the principal said.

We did transform the shed into a learning space, but couldn’t keep the water out.  No amount of cleaning, mopping and dressing up the space could hide the cracked floors, termite-eaten desks, broken windows, water stains on the walls.  Then there were the broken toilets and pipes. The staff tried to ignore all of it.  I think they did a valiant job.  Parents noticed the squalid conditions too.  And they commented.  What they saw told them a lot.  The place that is made available to the program says something about the value being placed on the program by others. I agree.

And so, parents, donors, passersby decided that the school was having a summer program.  Not so.  But spending energy to counter that impression wasn’t a priority.  Who knows what could come of that unintended association?  So we let it slide.

I do hope there is an upside to the summer program being held at the school.  It certainly brought a new kind of visibility to the conditions under which the community’s children are being educated.  So maybe one of those groups will return to fix up the place and make it habitable for children?  Not just prettifying by painting and cleaning up the yard.  Replacing the roof, windows and doors, making the place seem like something for human beings, makes more sense.   It also raised the question of why the school has not been providing a summer learning experience for children, and whether it wants to consider doing so.  The entire community benefits in a way that only produces good feelings all around.

We will see how these issues unfold in the months to come.

In the meantime, we are thinking that we are at the end of the road, where spaces in the community are concerned.  The idea that we have to beg people to open up spaces to educate children is a little surreal, but that’s what it has been.   it’s now time to build a learning centre!

All we need to begin:  two shipping containers and a piece of land.   The money will come.

Andrew Holness’s commentary on language use in school

Dear Mr. Holness:

I read your commentary in today’s Observer, and while I will comment
in a more public fashion later, I thought it more appropriate to
respond to you directly at this time.

For far too long, public policy in Jamaica has been crafted in a silo
– one defined by political allegiance and expediency, and completely
separate from (as well as contrary to) the mountains of relevant
research and scholarship that exists on a given topic.  The government’s lack of coherent policy on how to treat Patwa and English in the formal school system is a casualty of that silo approach.

Jamaica is neither special nor unique as a post-colonial society
possessing both an indigenous language and a formal, inherited language.  Nor is this country unique in treating the indigenous language as inferior to the inherited language.  What is different (and quite troubling) about the Jamaican context is the absence of reasoned discussion and focused understanding among policymakers about what issues are at stake, how the issues overlap, and concern about the unintended effects of any policy on the population in the short and long term.  No topic can be meaningfully understood by casting it in polarized terms.  A debate requires multiple points of view, not simply the ones that are loudest or best mesh with political agendas.  This silo approach to public policy is simply unacceptable and, as we have experienced for decades, detrimental to the social health of the society.

In my view, your comments reflect the problems created by such an approach.

It may be in vogue to claim that Jamaica needs to get its people ready to participate in the information age and become “key players” in the “global economy”, etc. etc.  However, the country already does that.  What is being asked – indirectly – is for all institutional systems to work together to improve that performance, and to expand how (and which?) Jamaicans participate.  What is also being presumed, but not made clear, is that better facility in English expands such participation, and to what end.  And yet, you have not presented any evidence to support this point of view; nobody has, to date.  As [outgoing] Minister of Education, it would behoove you to make this argument crystal clear, providing whatever systematic evidence that exists about how English will improve Jamaicans’ economic and social standing.

It’s not enough to say that “English is a universal language.”  It could be argued that Jamaica does not observe other “universal” conventions, so what makes this situation different?  Indeed, is it true that we don’t speak it enough or adequately? Why should we speak it more than we currently do?  To me, good public policy is premised on being able to provide answers to the basic questions, rather than leave everyone guessing what those answers might be.

At this moment in the 21st century, there is also little value or sense in telling Jamaican youth that their future in a global environment rests [only?] on their ability to converse in the ‘universal’ tongue, English. The evidence simply doesn’t support that claim. To be “Jamaican” is already a distinct identity in the global marketplace, and one of those markers is that we possess a language of our own, Patwa, through which we convey what is unique to us.  It is a rather sorry state of affairs when Patwa speakers can be recognised as contributing to world culture but not to our own society. In case you weren’t aware, in a moment where hundreds of languages are dying every year, we have contributed a new one, and whose users grow every moment!

While I certainly agree that the quality of writing and speaking in mass media is paltry, that’s not about lack of respect for English (frankly, the warping/dancehall-izing of Patwa is just as bad), but about the generally low standard to which decision-makers hold and subject the population in all areas, from education to politics: appearance counts more than content.  Again, public opinion and impressions are not adequate bases for good public policy.

What you seem to be getting at, and which I do agree, is that not being able to speak, read and write English well does constrain the choices that individual Jamaicans do have and how much influence that one has over their lives. While facility in English does not remove all constraints, it is worthwhile to note that the limitations that youth may experience because of non-fluency in English are not created by the choices that they make.  Instead, those limitations are imposed by the kind of thinking that you are also guilty of, and which has already been embedded in the education system.

That is, there is no formal recognition that Patwa is a language, separate from English, and is not “broken English”. Those who come to school not speaking formal English are never taught to do so; they are dismissed as dunce, slow and backward, and treated accordingly. They are never given the tools they need to help them excel, and so leave school (often early)
feeling like they are not worthy members of the society.  In a similar vein, non-English speakers are treated with disdain in every quarter of the society except the ones where *only* Patwa speakers dwell.

It’s not a coincidence that those arenas are also the ones where you
won’t find well-stocked libraries, well-run schools, banks, effective
community organisations, etc. and where criminality and alternate
economies flourish.  So, it is indeed disingenuous for you to say that
you don’t “buy” the argument that non-recognition of Patwa in the
classroom is a form of marginalization, when the very working of the
institutions over which you are responsible is the touchstone of that

Unfortunately, your stance “It is not one or the other, we must be
able to speak English” is least supported by research-based
scholarship.  Perhaps you should have added “…as well”.  Jamaica is
a bilingual society; this is not about what one wishes or believes to
be true.  It simply is so.  Consequently, public policy on language
use in the classroom (and elsewhere) has to be crafted based on the
understanding of what that means for us, and what will work in the collective best interest of Jamaicans.  Cutting edge practices in
literacy and in Education today recognise that one cannot simply replace, ignore or wish away another language that already exists. Rather, one must figure out how to work with it to attain fluency in
another language.  This is a critical area of concern in your policy
recommendation, and which was never articulated clearly or addressed
properly in previous policy frameworks. For that reason, Jamaican
children have emerged from elementary education over the past two
decades as, at worst, illiterate in both languages and at best,
literate in one and completely ignorant of the other. And yet, this is
the precise area that will determine whether this new policy is
workable. I think everyone would appreciate some elaboration of how
you expect this to work, teachers included.

Getting Jamaican children fully fluent and literate in English does not lay in simply dictating that English be made the lingua franca of schools.  There has to be a process for making this so, one which takes note of the problematic way that Patwa is currently treated in schools i.e. as a non-language that is not being used to educate children in an adequate way.  In order for English language to become the formal language of school contexts, Patwa and English must first be treated as equal and complementary language systems. Administrators will have to communicate in the language.  Teachers will also have to treat Patwa as distinct from – not an inferior or broken form of – English, and be able to teach English as a language.

You must also deal with the systematic discrimination against people (including children) for not speaking English, including within the ministry’s jurisdiction.  In a context where value is attached to ability to
communicate in English, Patwa will retain its power as the language of
opposition, dissent and subversion.  How will this focus on English
affect how children (and staff) are treated when they don’t use English to respond to the authority figures? Does this expectation include non-teaching staff?

As you may be aware, the majority of teachers do not know how to
distinguish or move back and forth between English and Patwa except to
say “that’s wrong” or “speak properly” or to characterize Patwa as
“broken English”, as you did.  That approach is neither useful nor effective, pedagogically speaking.  Thus,  the teachers’ capacity to work with the languages must also change. In addition, you are essentially requiring teachers to use only English in schools, when you have no assurance that they even speak and write the language well enough to conduct instruction in it.  In fact, this may be an important moment to further distinguish between Jamaican English and textbook English; too many conflate these, as we see in the newspaper columns.

If your proposition is a backdoor strategy to delegitimizing Patwa, it will backfire quickly. Neither public opinion nor one’s biases about the problems of Patwa (and merits of English) are adequate or legitimate bases for making policy or taking public stances on this (or any!) issue. The language question is a sufficiently complex issue that requires you as incoming Prime Minister to step back from the fray, to tease out all (not just some) of the merits and drawbacks of the various approaches to a dual-language environment, and to present a careful, thoughtful, knowledgeable and pragmatic position to the public. Whether or not you like or approve of Patwa is irrelevant and ought not to figure *anywhere* in whatever decisions are made.  What should be done is what is best for the country, given what is known and understood.

I write this as an educator and as someone who is very invested in improving the capacity of every single Jamaican to be able to make
choices about their lives, including the ability to speak back to
power.  That is why I have been working to create a community-based
literacy programme that immerses children in reading and creative
activities in an English language environment.  I want children to know English because their social value and future possibilities are being determined by that language within a deeply unfair system.  I believe that they need to be given the tools they need in order to show what they are capable of, and to be able to choose how they express themselves over the course of their lives.  It’s why I tell parents to spend time talking to their children in English so that the link between what their children hear and speak and what they encounter in books, public airwaves, etc. is easier to forge.

But nowhere do I convey the message, subtly or otherwise, that it’s not
acceptable to speak in Patwa, that Patwa is somehow inferior to
English, or that if they do not speak English they won’t be able to get a job.  None of that would be true, and for obvious reasons. Indeed, I do correct parents when they restate my request as “telling the children to speak properly” – one can speak properly in Patwa as well!  The children also get to write and create in Patwa, and be able to read that back to themselves.  Myself and the other instructors teach them how both languages operate, so they are able to understand the differences and know how to use them.  Eventually, they will be able to tell when what they read or hear is “incorrect English”, separate and distinct from what is Patwa.
Knowing how to make that distinction is a form of cultural literacy. Unfortunately, this is not a form of literacy that is widely available or encouraged. Tellingly, your approach – English or else – does not support that form of literacy either; your comments certainly do not distinguish
between “broken English” and Patwa, nor do you seem to realize that in
a bilingual environment, a distinct form of communication emerges that
is a hybrid of the existing languages.

This is what silo thinking does: it blinds you to the complex
realities that do exist, and reduces those realities to dualisms that
are easy to swallow and to offer opinions about. Sadly, what Jamaicans
need more experience with is the ability to think in nuanced ways, and
to accept gray areas as legitimate spaces in which to work.  The
position that you have spelled out takes us a few steps backward in
that regard.  This issue calls for an attitude of respecting the
history and utility of each language form, and for making a case for
why English should be taught with more precision and attention in
schools than has been to date.  It is not necessary to create more
discord and to take potshots at Patwa in order to advance that

Your goal as chief policymaker ought to be to devise effective public
policy that reflects the cultural situation as well as creates a more
vibrant and inclusive society.  Such policy has to create better
outcomes than what went before, and needs to be useful to everyone
interested in promoting the social well-being of Jamaican citizens.  I
hope that you are able to meet that goal with regard to the language
issue and schooling in contemporary Jamaica.

Calabash kyaa dun

This summer I stayed at a friend’s place in Mt. Salem (St. James) while I was coordinating the reading & art programme in Granville.

In the front yard of the house is a lovely calabash tree.  I had never seen one like it before and was pleasantly surprised by it.   It was short, not even 6 feet, a young tree, growing in a pattern similar to an almond tree.   The ones I’ve known were old trees, large, mighty, and rather imposing, almost as if they had existed before humans.   In fact, in my mind, Calabash, like cottonwood trees, never came small, or reproduced themselves.  They simply existed.

This tree was quite pleasing to look at, with the fruit hanging from the branches like jewels.  It made my morning as I headed out every day around 7:30 to get to Granville by 8:30.  Sometimes I would touch one of the fruit, and let it rest in my palm for a moment.  For me, a spiritual connection with something natural, timeless, in this rather noisy, busy, garbage and potholed strewn place called Mt. Salem.

One morning as myself and a friend who was visiting were heading out, there was a man standing at the gate.  He called to us and asked us if he could pick some calabash for us.  We knew what he really meant – he wanted to pick some calabash for himself.  I answered and told him that I didn’t want any, besides, they were young I thought.  In other words, he couldn’t have any.  Jamaicans don’t like to speak directly; two can play at that game, I thought.

He then changes tack – “the lady [owner] said I could take some”.

I replied and said I’d have to verify that; at that moment, Ms. G comes out to the verandah and overhears the conversation.  She says yes, it’s ok if he takes a few.  I say to her, perhaps you might want to define a “few” for him?  All of us standing there know this script by heart.

She says, well, there aren’t many fit ones on there, since he just picked some a few weeks ago, so he could have about a dozen or so.  I translate for him: yes, you can come in, pick the fit ones, which there aren’t many; she says a dozen.

As my friend and I stood outside waiting for a taxi – we ended up waiting for about 30 mins – we watched him fill up one bag.  But as he was reaching for some rather small fruit, I asked him, a bit on the sarcastic side, if he knew how much was a dozen, pointedly staring at the bulging scandal bag that he had been putting them in.

Him look pon it an tell mi seh him nuh tink ‘im reach dozen yet!  Serves me right, in a way.

[Now, this is a well-honed practice among Jamaicans who want to get away with something wrong: they will say the exact opposite of what is visible and clear to onlookers, and will do so with such incredible conviction, that you become incredibly discombobulated by their response.  When your attention shifts to trying to figure out why they would lie in such a barefaced way, you are distracted from the problem, and eventually forget about it.  Bingo! They’ve won.]

My friend kissed her teeth in disgust and turned away.

I realized that subtlety was no longer appropriate and stopped being nice immediately.  I told him in the kind of stern voice I would use for a misbehaving child – he was acting like one! – that he had picked enough, and that he should take his hands off the tree at once and move along.

That’s when I noticed that he had been filling TWO bags at a time: one was at his feet, which I couldn’t see from where I was standing on the other side of the wall. And as I walked up closer, I realize that, prior to him asking earlier, he had ALREADY filled another bag from the branches hanging over the wall, and tucked it behind the bush.  S a  chree bag him have now, an’ it look like seh ‘im n’aa guh stop until him pick off every last calabash offa di tree.

My friend, who’s also an environmental activist, started to engage him about the logic of picking off every last fruit and not thinking ahead and considering that he would need some in the future, and that perhaps he ought to leave some to mature. Besides, she said matter-of-factly, it was not his tree and he needed to leave some for the owner.

Hear him nuh, with eyes and hands still trying to pick off a last one, as if we wouldn’t notice, him seh him nuh need fi leave none because we not using it anyway, and he will find a next tree for next time.

At that point, I jus’ lost it.  I told him that he ought to go find that next tree, since ah was gw’aa set sitt’n pan ‘im an mek him tun wutless ef him eva come back an’ try pick another calabash.  (He doesn’t need to know that I don’t actually live there).   If yuh si how fast him pick up di bag dem an’ move out.

We had to laugh about it when we finally got a taxi, just to keep from crying or feeling utterly defeated so early in the day.  After all, we were in the middle of working with children who, unfortunately, had already been honing their skills based on what they learned from characters like the one we met that morning. Hope and possibility, along with some hard work, was on our side.  We had to hold onto that, if only to be able to reap the promise that a fit calabash offers.

Why Granville?

This question is always posed when I tell folks about the literacy/arts education project I’m currently working on in Jamaica.

Why not, is my usual response.

But the questions don’t usually end there: well, why didn’t you do it in Kingston?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Why does everything have to be in Kingston, is what I want to know.

Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says Kingston should be the center of attention?

To say that resources are unfairly and unequally distributed across the country is an understatement.   And the more I get this question, as if St. James is in another country – and in some ways, it is –  the more convinced I am that I made the right decision to begin somewhere else besides Kingston.

In reality, the more that I talked to people in my home district of Granville, St. James, the more apparent it became that I had the perfect location to begin with, with lower startup costs.  For starters, I know Montego Bay and the district sufficiently to find my way around.   My love of reading had also begun and been nurtured there.   Certainly, it has been through regular visits that I first became cognizant of how, under the guise of ‘development’, institutions and resources were being redistributed within the country and western region in a way that imposed more suffering on working class people.

For me, the most palpable reminder of the deepening crisis and the neglect of communities was the closure of the Granville Branch Library in the 1980s.   I had a personal relationship with that place.  Frankly, I still do not understand how someone could allow a library to be closed.  How could one possibly justify this?  Well, I did ask.   The explanation that I got from someone in Kingston – the folks who I spoke to in the St. James Parish Library didn’t even know there had ever been a library in Granville! – was that the building was being sold, and they didn’t have anywhere else to ‘put’ the library.   The woman told me this in the same tone of voice that she might have used to tell me the cost of a photocopy.   I got the sense that this decision wasn’t a really big deal at all, then or now.

The space occupied by the library was taken up by a supermarket; this was supermarket No. 2 on that same small plaza that was occupied by the post office, a snack shop, a variety store that sold clothing, toiletries, etc. and a small grocery store.   The new one called itself a ‘wholesale’ supermarket and was owned by one of the Fisher’s.  They have since sold it to a Chinese family (indeed, all the locally owned supermarkets have since been sold to Chinese families).

How to begin?

After a trip to Granville in December 2010 to float the idea of doing some kind of reading programme at the Granville All-Age School, I participated in some rather intense conversations in a FB group called “Professional Jamaicans for Jamaica” (I’ve since been kicked out of the group for ideological differences with the organiser; no surprise there).  While mulling over the various positions that other participants were talking, it seemed to me that the Jamaican government’s lopsided approach to addressing illiteracy was part of the problem.  That recognition pushed me to commit to doing something more long-term and focused on an issue that I care very deeply about.

To me, it seemed as if the best way to respond to the problem of illiteracy was to go to the root of the problem.   And the problem didn’t begin in schools, although that’s where the majority of effort – money, time, resources, debate – was being spent.   Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means.  It just doesn’t make sense to me that a single entity – the Ministry of Education – with its heavy reliance on autocratic styles of leadership and hostile relationship to teachers, parents and children alike – should be allowed to declare the issue as its territory.  Furthermore, none of the policies enacted thus far suggest that the MoE has any clue about how to solve the problem!

Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means: a child, a book, consistent individualized attention by an adult.

Where is home & community in the mix?

All the research on literacy, intellectual and cognitive development among children points to the same causal factor: illiteracy begins at home and in community.

One could say that illiteracy is the parents’ fault, but the mechanisms are not so straightforward.   One main problem that I see is the restrictive social structure parents have to navigate, and which determine who has authority over whom, and who gets to decide one’s value.  In this setup, parents are presumed to have nothing else to teach their children but moral values, including the age-old “education is the key to success.”   What parents are being blamed for is not providing the ‘right’ orientation to education that would make children easier to teach, and where children would immediately ‘want to learn’.   As such, there is far less attention and resources given to the role that parents need to play, and which is closer to what the teachers imagine is purely in their purview: that of introducing the child to the written word from birth.   It’s not rocket science: find a way to engage the parents, and you can accomplish a lot more.

It’s been all about the schools, but shouldn’t be…

Instead, well-funded and well-intended projects and initiatives focus in on the schools because that’s where the children are.   But they are also giving more resources and responsibility to teachers who already have shown they don’t have the skills to do literacy work in the first place!  Teachers don’t just need more resources; they also need to be retrained, and that can’t happen in a 3- hour session.   As we like to say, wha’ gawn bad a mawnin’ kyaa cum gud a even’n.

So, the blame game about illiteracy continues, becomes quite intense at and hovers around the Grade 3 and 4 children like a cloud of toxic smoke.  Their parents are accused of never having supervised homework adequately, or at all, and foregoing the purchase of textbooks in favour of the latest hairstyle or fashion accessory.   Apparently, just having the textbooks means that one can actually read what’s in it.  There’s usually a throwaway observation that the parents are probably illiterate too, but not much in the way of policy recommendations for how to fix this.  One would think JFLL would have developed some kind of intervention around parents by now.  That hasn’t happened either.

Even the ones who ought to be able to claim expertise on children’s reading skills  – teachers – haven’t spent any time articulating what parents need to do at home well before the children reach Grade 3!    Count them – there are far more newspaper articles that go on about the stressors that teachers face – chaotic and overcrowded classrooms, few resources, low pay and esteem, lack of professional development – and the depressed conditions that children live in – insufficient love, care and support by parents, including absent fathers (this is a favorite!) are the top ones.   Not once do they point to the most basic issue of all:   The children have not grown up with books!   They encounter the books when they go to school, interact with them as required tools of education and testing.  Once they leave the classroom, the books are no longer relevant, and are certainly not ones they would voluntarily pick up to read.   The problem is and remains the lack of unmediated access to books.

So, with all the chatter and blaming of parents for not paying enough attention to the children’s homework, or having the right values that would make their children easier to handle in the classroom, a key piece of information was still being overlooked.   Where are children going to get the material to read?  They still don’t have access to quality reading material.

Where’s the Jamaica Library Service in the race to literacy, you ask?  Certainly, not where it ought to be, which is taking leadership on the issue.  What other institution ought to know best about getting books into the hands of children? And yet, that’s not what obtains.   Indeed, the majority of the buzz about libraries is coming from folks who are stepping into the gap and creating independent libraries and reading rooms!

Over the last year, whenever I visited Granville, I performed my Labour of Love routine there too, walking the streets, handing out puzzles and reading material to adults, who devoured them.  I also gave books to and read with children, as well as explained to adults that they need to read with their kids for 20 minutes a day.   Mostly, I got a lot of “yes ma’ams” to shut me up; I don’t think they realised that I would be coming back.   Walking the streets  made me pay much closer attention to what was going on.

The reading gap is very evident in Granville.   We already know there’s no library.  At the school level, the children’s test scores on reading and comprehension are abysmal.   Once they leave the school compound, there is practically nothing to read in the community.   Even the number of newspaper vendors have been drastically reduced, compared to when I lived there as a child and adolescent.

I rarely, if ever, saw someone reading as much as a flyer.  Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, ironically, are the only source of free reading material in low-income communities where I’ve been, were sitting in the shade of an abandoned shop, far enough away from any foot traffic that would have allowed someone to quickly grab a magazine or two.

There weren’t even the usual plethora of painted or printed advertisements for upcoming dances (I notice that vehicles are being used as billboards now).   The place was a desert, when it came to the printed word.

Nobody I talked to could remember the last time the book mobile from the St. James Parish Library came by.  It turns out that it doesn’t come to Granville.  The librarian I talked to told me she didn’t know but then acted like she did:  “the library that used to be there was closed which shows it wasn’t being used it doesn’t make sense for the mobile unit to go there/the book mobile only goes to rural areas/Granville is in ‘town’ so it’s close (but Tucker is not?)”   Look here.

She did tell me that I could write a letter requesting that the mobile unit go to Granville; I think I will do just that.

To me, if children aren’t reading in school, it’s because they aren’t reading at home either.  And if they aren’t reading at home, that’s because adults around them aren’t reading at home, and they don’t have ready access to books.  No library in the community sure doesn’t help that situation.

The solution seemed simple:  turn communities into literacy centers.

Create a reading room and a community-based program that is open and available to children who live in the district.

Give books to babies and young children in the clinics.  Create free summer programs so the children can attend.

Create newsletters, public art projects, book kiosks, etc. that are freely accessible and always available.

Basically, make it impossible for children to go through reading withdrawal once they leave the school grounds, wherever it is they go to school.

Make it difficult for adults to spend most of their time sitting down and staring into space with nothing to do.   If you notice, there’s a lot of this “doing nothing” activity in Granville, as in other places in Jamaica.  In fact, the overwhelming feeling in the towns is of adults – mostly men it seems – sitting around and waiting for something to happen to them.   I figure something worse than reading could happen, so why not offer them the choice to read?

None of these ideas are new.  I certainly didn’t come up with them; they exist in some material form everywhere that people care about literacy.

But, demonstrating an intentional approach to creating alternative institutions that supplement the [failing] school-based approach?  Way bigger and harder and more challenging to pull off.   Of course.  Why wouldn’t it be? The love is in the labour.

And so, I went at it.  Hours and hours and hours of research and writing as I tried to craft an outline of this programme that captured my vision and philosophy of education, taking account of how parents and families can be integrated into and transformed by this community-based process.  A whole lot of work.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard on anything else – not even my dissertation – as I have on bringing this idea to fruition, in its most basic state.   Along the way of course, it hit me.   I think this is IT!  This project contains and offers possibilities of engendering the kind of social transformation that I only dared to dream about in graduate seminars on social theory and social change.   Haven’t I been saying and teaching university students that interdisciplinarity is at the heart of every movement for liberation?  All the research and anecdotal evidence points towards arts education as a critical and necessary tool for addressing the deficits in literacy and critical thinking that mar public education.

So, why not try this in Jamaica? What does anybody, including me, have to lose?  And what is this opportunity except the perfect moment to meld everything I’ve ever learned and experienced about education as a praxis of freedom?

And that is how the Granville Reading & Art Programme came to be.

Whose National Symbols?

Marguerite Orane blogged about the recent uproar regarding the Jamaican athletes’ antics while the national anthem played during their medal ceremony in S. Korea.

Repost from FB:
I think too many of us don’t talk about our ambivalence regarding these issues, and how we arrived at the place that we find ourselves at right now. That absence of honest dialogue makes it seem as if there has always only been one way to think, act, respond, and that is to call other people names when they dont comply with the rules.
Its why I find nationalism and its variants e.g. the chauvinism that many Jamaicans exhibit, to be downright dangerous.  Its proponents don’t want to make room to think and be reflective, just in case they discover that theres a wrinkle or difference in perspective.

I used to stand at attention and all that, because that’s what I was expected to do. But when I started to think about what my own values are, how I came to them, and what I truly wish for all Jamaicans, there was literally a moment, just like you described, when I opened my mouth and the words could not come out. Instead, I cried. That was in 1994.  I don’t sing the national anthem or salute the flag because too much wrong and injustice is done in their name and by the very people who so proudly defend them.  It rings false to me.  Until I feel that all Jamaicans, not just some, are embraced and included in this Land, I won’t sing or salute.  And that is very saddening for me.