Jamaica: Second Hand

We get a lot of questions from friends, family, and even strangers about our upcoming Peace Corps experience in Jamaica that all center around similar topics. There’s obviously a lot we still don’t know yet, but I’d like to share some Q&A about what we think we know so far, based on second-hand experience (blogs, Peace Corps materials, etc.). So please do keep in mind that I’m summarizing based on preliminary “research” and giving my best guess here, just to give everyone else an idea of what to expect. Once we finally get there and get to know the country better, we’ll have our first hand experience to share with you.

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Jamaica: The Country and Culture

Where is Jamaica and how big is it?
Jamaica is in the Caribbean, south of Cuba and West of Haiti/Dominican Republic. It’s the third largest island in the Caribbean, slightly bigger in square mileage than the big island of Hawaii at 145 miles in length, 50 miles wide. The population is almost 3 million people with around 100,000 people in the capital city, Kingston.

What language do they speak?
Because Jamaica was a British colony up until the 1960’s, the official language is English, however most people speak Jamaican Patois (patwa). There is some debate whether Patois is its own language or just a dialect. It’s
 kind of like pidgin in Hawaii or an English/African creole.

What’s the weather going to be like?
The climate is tropical and humid, tending to stay in the 80’s throughout the entire year. The Blue Mountains in the center of the island get a little cooler. Most hurricanes do not hit the island directly
(although it is the Caribbean and hurricanes are common) but there is a lot of extra rainfall in some parts.

Why does Jamaica need Peace Corps volunteers? Isn’t it a vacationer’s paradise?
Most Americans associate Jamaica with its tropical all-inclusive resorts. Many tourists never see the poverty just outside their resort, but the income disparity in Jamaica is significant. Jamaica was originally a slave colony, which is why the majority population are of African descent. (Chinese, East Indian, and Lebanese were brought in to work after slavery was abolished.) Britain only withdrew its rule from Jamaica 
relatively recently, which left the formerly-dependent country somewhat unprepared and desperate for loans. Because of restrictions from lenders like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), more than half of the country’s budget goes to repaying debt and many social services have been cut. Unemployment is high, even as people have flocked from farms to the city seeking factory jobs. With a history of interaction among political officials, drug lords, and gangs to control power, territorial divisions between city neighborhoods are plagued by high crime rates. Today, tension between the country’s two political parties is still high but last month’s election passed with minimal violence. Because of unemployment and low funding for education, youth often have few options and a lot of time to “get into trouble” (one reason why Peace Corps Jamaica has created the Youth As Promise volunteer sector).

What are the people like?
Again, these are “second-hand impressions” but it seems there is no singular type of Jamaican. While predominantly of African descent, there are also white, asian, and middle-eastern Jamaicans, not to mention that light-skinned or “mixed” blacks are considered different than other citizens of darker skin. Not everyone is a dreadlocked Rastafarian. Many are Christian. Prejudice (racial and class) is surprisingly prevalent, even among those who are themselves discriminated against. 
Being “politically correct” is not valued. Due to historical and social factors, respect for things like human life and personal property have eroded- especially among youth- making crime somewhat commonplace. Partially influenced by the Rastafarian belief that deliverance will come in the form of returning to the homeland, Africa, there is often a lack of motivation to improve their situation or to take ownership for making change. (For all these reasons and more, Peace Corps in Jamaica is said to be one of the most psychologically challenging placements.)
Jamaicans are known to be bold and blunt and passionate, telling it like it is. According to several sources, they can be “in your face” but are generally extremely welcoming and hospitable. They value neatness of dress (everything must be ironed), modesty of dress, loud music, good food, and many still have a strong admiration for all things British.

Peace Corps Particulars in Jamaica

How does training work?
We gather that we will be flown with about 36 other new volunteers to our Staging Site in Atlanta on March 13 for an initial one-day orientation and paperwork. Pre-Service Training itself takes place in country. The first two days will probably be at a hotel in Kingston and then we’ll move into our first home-stay with a Jamaican family for 17 days. Training, held nearby, consists of program overview, language development, safety and security and medical issues.
Next, we expect to be separated into our technical skill groups (Michelle will go with the Literacy/Education volunteers and Jedd will go with the other Life Skills Advisors) to take part in community-based training for approximately a little over a month, living with a new Jamaican family while gaining technical skills relevant to our jobs through hands-on projects. During the final week, we will come together as a larger group again to process our experience, complete our assessment, and finalize our commitment before being sworn-in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Our final service site will be selected for us toward the end of training.

PC Jamaica volunteers "swearing in" 2011

Where will you live? Will you have electricity, water, internet?
As mentioned above, we will spend the first part of our experience living with Jamaican host families. Where we end up after training will be determined later on. 
We’ve heard there are no volunteers placed in the bigger cities of Kingston or Spanish Town. The most common living situations are a room with its own entrance, attached to a bathroom and kitchen that you share with a family; or your own apartment. The living situation is not quite as rugged as other Peace Corps posts. Most Volunteers have indoor plumbing and running

Current PC volunteer with host mom (http://mattandjulieemslie.blogspot.com)

water (not usually heated). Laundry is usually done in a sink or a washtub. Electricity exists island-wide, except in very remote areas. Very few Volunteers go without a refrigerator and other electrical appliances. Cell phones are issued to each volunteer and modems are optional. Internet speed may not be too fast. Living conditions will vary depending upon whether our site is rural, peri-urban, or urban- and we won’t know that until the end of training.

Do you have specific jobs?
We’ll both be working with Youth. My assignment (Michelle) is English Literacy and Jedd’s is Life Skills Advisor, which can mean a variety of things. We’ll be matched with our specific project(s)- whether it’s a school, non-profit, or community organization- at the end of the 2-3 month training. Literacy volunteers seem to work with a school classroom or library. Life Skills volunteers can work with youth groups, after-school programs, HIV/AIDS education, computer skills, etc. That being said, our technical job assignment is really only 1/3 of the Peace Corps goals; the other 2/3 consist of cross-cultural understanding. More than getting things “accomplished,” our work will be in building relationships. Also, volunteers often have unrelated secondary projects and they can create projects based on the needs of their community. Our general impression is that our job assignments are very fluid and flexible.

Well, that’s probably enough for now, right? If you have more questions, please share them in the Comments section and we’ll do a follow up post. -M

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