Tuesday, June 23, 2009

This One's For The Boys

A great deal is said about women in Jamaica—they are the cornerstones of the churches of Jamaica and I am of the belief that they are the backbone and the silent leaders of this country. It goes without saying that they are my heroes.

But I want to talk about men. Boys, really.

Jamaican men—boys—are a unique bunch.

They harass me at the bus stop and as I am getting into my taxis; they tell me in no uncertain terms what they think of me: my hair, my face, my legs. They follow me onto busses and stare at me as I walk children home after school. They sit in shops and drink cheap white rum and smoke forests of ganga and hiss at me as I walk past.

But these men are the ones who chase after busses to make sure I get on one that is pulling away. They are the ones who notice the cuts and scrapes I acquire while tramping through the bush and offer to clean them out with rum. They are the ones who carry me on their backs over landslides and who check the fluids in PVI’s car engine. They defend me against ravenous dogs and chop down coconuts for me.

And the boys! The boys at Mount Friendship’s school do all of my heavy lifting and teach me how to pack a soda bottle to make a really great soccer ball. And no matter their grade, be it one or six, they hug me and do their best to recycle their plastics.

It is these men and boys that break my heart. There are few employment options in Jamaica, but even less for the rural poor. The boys and men of Mount Friendship have little hope. They can become taxi drivers and bus conductors if they are lucky. They can be hustlers and farmers and the men who chop away the bush on the sides of the road. If fortune smiles on them, they may go to the States or to Canada for farm or hotel work. These men and these boys have good hearts, but many of them are trapped in a country, a culture, and a way of life that offers them little opportunity.

It is when that I am re-tying a uniform tie before afternoon devotion service or listening to nine-year-old Jona chattering on about mongoose and birds that I wonder what the future holds for my boys. My boys, boys that will be men all too soon. I don’t want my boys to become the troubled young men who are responsible for Jamaica’s often violent, drug and gun-riddled society.

A great many of my library monitors are boys. I didn’t appoint them because they’re the best workers or the best organizers—rather, I constantly struggle keep these boys on-task. But my hope is that if I can give these kids a sense of responsibility and pride, as well as a skill, they might have a fighting chance in this world. I hope that the kindness that years of female volunteers have shown them will teach them to respect women. I hope that our after-school activities, art projects, camps and Sunday School lessons teach them that they have potential, talents, and gifts that should be recognized and shared.

Often, I’m at a loss. I break up so many scuffles and fights between boys and often, the harassment I receive on the roads leaves me exhausted. Boys and men here make getting through my day a challenge. But, at the end of the day, I love my boys and I can only hope that wherever they end up in this life, they will be happy. Say a prayer for my boys today.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just So You Know

When I made my decision to come to Jamaica, my father, Richard, sent me an email with the subject heading of “Just So You Know…” In the email was the U.S. State Department’s official warning about travel to Jamaica, and their information was grim.

Spending a year in a third-world country, particularly one as violent as Jamaica, was not my father’s ideal choice for his only daughter. However, he has been the most supportive father any volunteer—any person, for that matter—could ever ask for. He’s encouraging, interested, and (I hope!) proud of this year’s work. I couldn’t do what I do without his love and support. His concern and enthusiasm for my projects this year mean everything to me. I’m putting out my own Just So You Know right now…Just so you know, June 13th is my father's birthday! I may not be home to help him blow out all er…36…candles, but know that I’ll be doing it in spirit.

Now, on to the delightful little link at the bottom. Some children in Mount Friendship, particularly Cecela, Maya, Cristina, Ronique, Jevoy, and Nicolas (cameraman extraordinaire) wanted to wish my dad the happiest of birthdays. After two weeks of hitting every internet cafĂ© in Stony Hill, I’ve managed to find a way to get the video online. I am no techie, so the video is rough and without editing, but I think it just adds to the charm. :-)

Happy, happy, happy birthday, Daddy. I love you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Driving Miss Doris

As my time is starting to draw to a close, my memories of joyful times in Jamaica become more poignant, more treasured. And, some memories that I feel should be shared are those in which I drove Miss Doris.

Miss Doris is 79 years old and Mount Friendship’s resident church boss. She keeps tabs on the sick and shut-in of the community, hip-checks me out of the way when it’s time to distribute food bags, and manages to keep the altar linens snowy fresh and immaculately folded. She has a high-pitched voice that she’s not afraid to use, either to praise her Jesus or to scold a naughty child.

My first interactions with Miss Doris came when she told me to collect her at her home so that we could hand out the food bags together. I drove the van and after criticizing my driving, Miss Doris directed me. She told me when to “mind de gully,” and when it was time to abandon the van and walk. I followed her like a meek puppy as she strode on arthritic knees to feed Mount Friendship’s neediest, and through the driving (and the walking!) that day, I learned Mount Friendship the Miss Doris way.

I quickly learned that Miss Doris was never afraid to demand a ride, either to visit a shut-in or to pick up her mail from the village post office. And I became accustomed to driving Miss Doris because, frankly, she’s not the type of person to whom you say no.

As the weeks passed, however, I stopped seeing Miss Doris as a lady I drove and started seeing her for what she is—a damn good time.

She’s crazy. She pouts if I don’t come see her in my free time, but hugs and kisses me with joy when I show up unexpectedly. She grabs my bottom and tells me how fat I’ve grown in Jamaica. She regales me with stories of her girlhood and spanks me if she thinks I’m misbehaving.

Not only does she have a remarkable joi de vivre, but Miss Doris has helped me to find my own inner crazy. When I visit her, I stand and dance in her doorway until she notices me and starts giggling. I made a paper crown for her on her 79th birthday and the two of us laughed hysterically together when she wore it for an entire day and attracted stares galore.

But it’s in the quiet times that we share that I find myself wondering what really drives Miss Doris. I’ll be eating saltfish fritters on her kitchen steps or tucked cozily under her arm after church when I’ll realize just how extraordinary she is. At first glance, she’s a lonely widow with arthritic knees and lots of money troubles. But in the time I’ve grown to know her, she’s a deeply devout woman who keeps a faltering church community together. She’s a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who thinks constantly of her family—and her adopted family. She has a sharp intellect and a soft heart. I don’t know what it is that keeps her trekking the mountain paths, saying the rosary on her knees, or putting down her washing to dance with me around her yard.

Something is driving this woman to be everything for everyone, but I am not sure what keeps her going in the face of her adversities. Most likely, it’s her faith that keeps her eyes clear, her smile bright, and her heart buoyant.

I adore her—she’s my Jamaican grandmother, my inspiration, and my partner in crime (no one else will make absurd faces during mass with me). She is the force that drives me, everyday, to be a better missionary, a better volunteer, (a better driver), and a better friend.

And here I was thinking that I was driving her.