Monday, April 20, 2009

Nyam wit yuh hand.

Lunchtime is chaotic in Mount Friendship’s all-age Catholic school. When the bell rings at noon, the children close their books, clasp their hands, and say a brief prayer in unison. Then, all hell breaks loose as they race across the dusty schoolyard to the window of a small outbuilding that serves as the canteen. They grab plates of white rice, stewed chicken, shredded cabbage, and a ladleful of juice. The meals are devoured back in the classrooms, and then the children dump their plates and utensils into a basin filled with water to soak. It is loud, it is messy, and it is overwhelming.

During my first few months at work in Mount Friendship, I stayed far away from the canteen, choosing instead to eat a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on the church steps. I was intimidated by the bedlam, afraid of falling sick from the food, and I longed for the salads and spinach wraps of Raymond Cafeteria at Providence College.

However, as the days passed, I developed a friendship with the school’s cook and I learned Jamaica’s school lunch culture. Slowly, I found myself digging into the lunch routine and then, tentatively, into the lunch itself.

The lunch culture is complicated: if a child has seventy Jamaican dollars (a little less than one U.S. dollar), he gives it to the Grade 3 teacher, Miss Rufus, who then gives Marie, the school’s cook, a head count. There are some children who receive a free lunch through Jamaica’s PATH program: Program of Advancement Through Health. PATH came about through a partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, and it has strict rules, one of them being that PATH students must attend school at least 85 percent of the month.

In Mount Friendship, however, the school lunch is a source of pride and shame. Often, children would rather skip school than admit that their families can’t afford their lunch that day—it is the main reason for the poor attendance rates at school. But thanks to Miss Rufus and Marie, the school is a place where children’s minds and bellies are filled. These women are fully aware of who hungers; it is Marie who slips the neediest children a plate of rice and it is Miss Rufus who utters the magic words: “Mek Marie give yuh a someting.”

For many children, school lunch is the only real meal they eat in a day—and, as I realized this fact, I began to understand the mad dash to the canteen.

As my confidence grew, I began excusing myself from whatever classroom I was in or leaving the library around 11:30 to help Marie organize the plates or mix the juice. She, like Aggie of the food bags, is strict about the portions (“Too much vegetable, too likkle rice!”) but she is patient with me. The canteen has a frenzied atmosphere when the children are getting their lunches, but handing out the meal and watching the children’s eyes light up does make for a truly pleasant experience.

Not too long ago, Marie and I were eating our own portions of rice and chicken after the children had been fed. “In Jamaica we have a saying,” she said, her eyes dancing, “put dung de fork an’ nyam wit yuh hand.” Eight months ago, the patois proverb would have been nothing more than gibberish, but on that day, her meaning was not lost on me: “Put down the fork and eat with your hand.”

Essentially, Marie’s words mean to roll up your sleeves and dig in. The distance I put between myself and the canteen in the beginning of the year is one I now regret, but it takes time to grow accustomed to another country and another culture. It wasn’t possible for me to “nyam wit mi hand” eight months ago, but it is now. I nyam it all now: the rice, the chicken, and the noontime feeding frenzy.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friday

Brevity reigns in the gospels when one examines Jesus’ walk to His death. His suffering--his falls, the assistance given to him by Simon--these details are given more clearly and passionately when Catholics throughout the world reflect upon that journey through the tradition of the Stations of the Cross.

My roommates and I were invited to join in this ritual in downtown Kingston with a Catholic order of brothers known as “Missionaries of the Poor.” As a third world order, the brothers are in Uganda, Haiti, India, and the Philippines—but their headquarters and their founder are in Jamaica. The MOPs have shelters throughout the Kingston area where they not only evangelize, but care for the destitute, the sick, and the physically and mentally handicapped. We have worked in these shelters before, but the Stations began at one we had not yet visited—Bethlehem House.

We arrived a few minutes early, and one of the brothers ushered us into the shelter for a brief tour, explaining that Bethlehem’s mission is to care for extremely handicapped children. During our past few months as volunteers, we have seen individuals with serious ailments, but the deformities I witnessed at Bethlehem surpassed all others. The sight of so many children with distorted and bowed bodies brought me to tears, and I barely had time to wipe them away before the service of the stations began.

The brothers that were to read the Stations of the Cross stood in the bed of a truck with microphones. Some brothers stood waiting to help the handicapped residents of the shelters to walk the stations, and still others stood waiting to take their turn to carry a wooden cross and wear a crown of thorns.

The first station was read, and we joined the procession of dozens of men, women, and children—either handicapped shelter residents or able-bodied community members—down the streets of Kingston.

My experience in Jamaica thus far has been in rural areas. Mount Friendship is a small village that is stunted by poverty, but its sorrows are tempered by cool mountain breezes and a natural tropical beauty. Downtown Kingston, however, looks as if it has been bombed, burned, and left to rot. It is stiflingly hot, dusty, and smelly. Shanties with zinc roofs are piled on top of each other, gang leaders known as “dons” mark their territories with violence and threats, and half-naked children scurry through the streets. There is no development and no industry on these mean streets, making Kingston the embodiment of third-world urban poverty.

And it was in this very setting that we began to walk. We sang simple hymns as we walked down unmarked streets lined with "tenement yards" and graffiti-filled zinc fences. And fourteen times, the brothers stopped, the crowd knelt, and the station was read. We went through the condemnation, the bearing of the cross, Jesus' three falls, the crucifixion...each station becoming more poignant with each step.

We walked these streets of the ghetto of one of the world’s poorest and most violent cities, in the noontime heat. We smelled the muck of the gutters, saw the grit of the streets cake onto our legs, and felt the sweat drip down our backs. Despite this, people were drawn to the procession. The sound of the hymns, the sight of the brothers dragging the cross, and the image of the faithful trudging through the ghetto made the procession swell from several dozen worshippers to almost two hundred.

Our walk was so very different from that one two thousand year ago, but like Christ’s, it was filled with suffering. The images of poverty: the zinc fences, the barbed wire, the filth, the crumbling buildings, and the haunted faces watching us reminded me that Jesus’ pain is always with us. I watched the brothers, Kingston’s poor, and the handicapped shelter residents sing of their love for Jesus and kneel on the blisteringly hot pavement. And, for the second time that day, I wept.

John, chapter 19 reads, "So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself, he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him." The Stations of the Cross give us a chance not only to recreate, but to relive Jesus’ suffering for ourselves. I was granted an unbelievable opportunity to walk the Stations with God’s people: the least of our brothers and sisters. I walked with the broken, the beaten, the sick, and the deformed. And their faith put mine to shame. Walking Jesus’ fourteen stops allows us to experience the range of human suffering, whether it be in the broken bodies in Bethlehem house, in the filth of a third-world city, or in our own hearts. Have a blessed and beautiful Easter.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Return of the Crunchy-Granola-Dirty-Hippie

At home, I knew it was Saturday when I heard my father collecting the house’s trash bags to take to the dump. In Providence, the sound of the garbage truck woke me early each Tuesday morning. In Pittsburgh, when I found myself vaulting over trash bags on my morning run, I knew it must be Thursday—South Side’s garbage day.

In Jamaica, there are no such cues. Rather, the smell of burning trash and the sight of gray smoke spirals is a perpetual occurrence. These trash fires, seen in developing countries over the world, are a symbol of systemic poverty. There is no sanitation in Mount Friendship—or Devon Pen—or King Weston—or Tom’s River. The poor dump their rubbish into a gully and then set fire to it. The smells are terrible, the charred remnants are ugly, and the released fumes are toxic. But for the forgotten people in the hills, there is no alternative.

I was all about the Earth in college. Friends dubbed me the "crunchy-granola-dirty-hippie." I separated cans and bottles and ranted about going green. I ate organic and had a brief stint at an organic co-operative farm. I even wore a grubby “reduce, reuse, recycle” t-shirt that made my roommates Mandee, Nicole, and Sarah plot my death.

I quickly realized, however, that Jamaica is not particularly “eco-friendly.” (Much to the dismay of my crunchy-granola side.) It was not until we stumbled upon some Peace Corps Sanitation Volunteers that we realized we had options.

Bill and Gail, our newest set of Peace Corps friends, told us about a partnership they had developed with local government officials—if they could get the people in the poor mountain areas to recycle, a company would come collect these recycled materials. They invited us to join them, provided us with the recycling canisters and the rules, and told us to give it a try.

We, the Passionist Volunteers, decided to start small—we planned to start in each of our schools. As with any service or justice initiative, one must begin with education. The four of us designed a curriculum based on children’s books about pollution and on protecting the Earth. I, naturally, turned to the Doctor.

The Lorax is a Dr. Seuss classic that features a forest of Truffala Trees and an evil gremlin named the Once-Ler who chops them all down and pollutes a fragile ecosystem. The character of the Lorax speaks for the trees and urges the greedy Once-Ler not to pollute. I decided that the short, mustached and adorable (and so very eco-conscious) Lorax would be the perfect person to remind children to protect their world.

I presented my curriculum to the staff of Mount Friendship’s school and it was surprisingly met with enthusiasm. We planned to start by recycling plastic: plastic bags, bottles, bottle caps—everything plastic. The staff gave me their full support and encouragement and agreed to help me with the project.

We kicked off the initiative on April 1st and my dirty-hippie side, a side that had lain dormant for months, was unleashed. I brought up the barrel, posters explaining recycling, a hand-painted sign where the Lorax reminds us to recycle, and a handful of worksheets. I read each grade the story of the Lorax, gave them their own Loraxes to color, and talked about what their job will be over the course of the next month. They are to put any plastics they see into the bin and the best recyclers will get prizes each week.
This is an experiment. As volunteers, our hopes are modest: we know we work in areas that are destitute. The people with whom we work are not particularly concerned about saving the Earth—their worries focus on feeding their children and keeping a roof over their heads. But we hope that this project will give them dignity—a chance to escape the toxins of the plastics and a place to put their garbage. Volunteer work is all about sustainability: Can your project survive? How will it last if you abandon it? We are not yet sure that this project is sustainable. We are giving it until Earth Day: April 22. It is then that the schools will tell us if this is something they want to continue on their own terms.

I can’t give Mount Friendship a garbage collection day. I can’t even give them my recycling t-shirt (sorry, girls). All I can offer them is an alternative to their current method. Will it work? I don’t know—but I’ll keep you posted.