* Michelle Thoughts, * Peace Corps

Topics in PCJ #2: Culture and Effectiveness

Continued from previous post

Finally a working computer at the school, thanks to a donation from USAID specifically for literacy education
Finally a working computer at the school, thanks to a donation from USAID specifically for literacy education

Jamaican culture is full of beautiful, colorful, and praiseworthy things. We feel blessed to take part in it and plan to adopt some aspects of the culture into our lives back home. And Jamaican culture, like any other, is full of diversity. Depending on where you are and who you interact with, you can encounter a wide range of experiences, life philosophies, and cultural norms. Today’s post is about some aspects of the culture in general that present a challenge to volunteers on the island.

Perhaps the biggest challenge here is being in a place where so few people want to help themselves or to put effort into positive change in their communities. In our discussions with other volunteers, we surmise that this stems in part from Jamaica’s history as a nation both enslaved by and in love with the British. It’s a culture full of contradictions and, though independent, still without a cohesive identity. A remnant from plantation days, those slaves who did well and earned the “cushy” jobs inside the master’s house were envied and even sabotaged by the others. If someone else was successful, it meant that you were not. This has also been called the “crabs in a bucket phenomenon” where a crab must pull down the crab above him and stand on top of it in order to climb out of the bucket. Many volunteers wander if Jamaicans today are behaving in a subliminal echo to that poisonous philosophy, as they spread rumors and shunn those who have started to rise above their situation.

You can imagine how this atmosphere hinders community development. It has caused us volunteers to conclude that we must seek out those few Jamaicans, those diamonds in the rough, who are willing to help themselves and their communities. We cannot help people who aren’t interested in putting in the effort to help themselves. And nothing will change if we enable those who just wait for an easy out, a gift on a silver platter (another cultural trend, reinforced by the high number of relatives abroad who send money back to their family and donor organizations who “dump and run”, among other things). By supporting people who already demonstrate integrity, leadership, and motivation, people who are already trying to make a difference, we can have a bigger and lasting impact with the short two years we are here. Our best bet, then,  is probably not to start something new but to simply become the “wind beneath someone’s wings.”

Letter sound Bingo with grade three
Letter sound Bingo. This third grade boy always asks me if he can read a book when he comes early to scool.

I have personally struggled, especially at school, with where to best put my efforts. The need for literacy help at my school is overwhelming, with more than a third of the students (80+ kids) several grade levels behind and many of them still not past a kindergarten reading level. Since the beginning, I have debated about which students I should work with and whom I should leave out. At first, I tried to see as many kids as I could, but that meant only 30 minutes per week with groups almost too large to manage. I’m realizing now that I will get more done by giving more time to the students who are more motivated or simply more capable of learning. It’s really, really hard to just leave kids behind. Many of them just need a positive adult figure to give them some attention. Some of those students, even though they have bad behavior or they’re not making progress, I will continue to work with in one way or another when I am moved to do so. For those, they many never really learn how to read but maybe they’ll gain something less tangible. That is, after all, two-thirds of what Peace Corps is truly about: the personal, inter-cultural exchange between Americans and nationals, changing lives people-to-people.

Whether in the classroom or out in the community, volunteers in Jamaica are up against some serious, deeply rooted and complex cultural challenges. May we continue to have hope, to be a gift to those we encounter, to accept the things we cannot change, and to do what we can with the time that is given to us on this island.

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