* Jedd Thoughts, * Peace Corps

Cultural Lessons Learned from Event Planning

Westmoreland Parish Show
Westmoreland Parish Show

Last week Michelle and I represented the community center where I serve in the Westmoreland Parish Show, a town fair-like event for our area of the country. What was suppose to be one of- if not the- largest events of the year for our area, turned into a disappointment for the organizers because of the lack of attendance. It was a great example of some of the cultural challenges that Jamaicans face in community development, a lack of community involvement,  and organizing issues. I never realized how much I could learn from not a lot happening.

Island Time
For some reason whether it has been in Hawaii, Haiti, or Jamaica, time in these area seem to move more slowly and more casually. The parish show was supposed to start at 10am and my co-worker asked me to arrive at 9am to help setup. This seemed reasonable. When 10am came, the advertised start of the event, there were only a couple of vendors set up and nobody from the outside community present. I thought to myself, “This is pretty typical. Jamaicans are late to events.” When 12pm came around and more vendors had arrived and started setting up, I thought to myself, “Maybe things will pick-up.” At 2pm an announcement from the emcee was made over the P.A. system that the event would start shortly. Mind you there were still vendors setting up and a handful of community members finally arriving. At 4pm when Michelle and I finally left for the day, there were still only a couple of community members attending the event and yes, one or two vendors still arriving. The stage show had not yet started.

In Jamaica, one thing I’ve learned is that things start when they start and end when they end. You don’t need specifics and most people live by this, so only a few people, like myself, get worried about exact times. Better to just go with the island time than fight it. I don’t see this attitude/way of life changing any time soon.

No Good Day For an Event
I feel bad for event organizers in Jamaica. There’s hardly a good day to have any kind of event. A large part of this is due to the fact that Jamaica runs on a specific schedule. Monday – Friday is a typical work/school week. Fridays and Saturdays are market days were many people travel to buy and/or sell goods. Saturday is also a work day at home, meaning many people take time to clean their homes and wash their clothes. You might think it’s probably ok to miss a Saturday work day now and then, which is only true if you like smelly laundry and lots of dust in your home. Sunday is both a day for worship at Church and a day when everything shuts down (meaning business are closed and public transportation is scarce). You would think that these planned days should be flexible, but they aren’t.

People live by their routines here. I remember my first host mother telling me about soup Saturdays. Every Saturday most families in Jamaica make soup. Why? It goes back to Saturdays being a market day and having access to certain ingredients, but mostly because it’s just the way it is and it’s hard for people here to do something different. Soup Saturdays. I’m telling you it’s a thing here and yes though it’s hot and humid, Jamaicans love their soup.

Unpredictable Weather
When you live in the tropics, you can expect that there is a good chance it will rain at some point during the day. Again, you would think that in a beautiful, warm weather climate, outdoor events are common. And they are. But rain has some serious implications for attendance, especially in Jamaica. People here have a  love/hate relationship with rain. Most people seem to understand that rain is necessary for drinking, irrigation, and washing. At the same time, many people avoid the rain because of the mess it creates with their clothes (Jamaicans like to look nice), the roads, and potential damage to their homes because of flooding. I have attended meetings where as soon as dark clouds are spotted and moving towards our Center, the meeting will be adjourned so people can leave before the rain starts. Most of the time, the rain showers are passing over- meaning they rarely last for more than half an hour to an hour. Though short, the rain storms are usually intense, soaking up the grounds quickly, combined with poor drainage- and you get mud. Regardless if you are Jamaican or not, most people don’t like mud at their outdoor events.

Around 3pm at the Parish Show, thunder crackled and rain started to fall. Mind you, it was actually a very small passing storm, but the organizers  blamed it for keeping people at home, afraid to be caught in it (“rain catch ya” as Jamaicans would say).

Lack of Enthusiasm
Of all the challenges that we face in event planning and community development in Jamaica, the lack of enthusiasm to participate in is the most perplexing and frustrating. I would like to think that the main reasons why turnout to the parish show was so low were for the reasons stated above. Yet speaking to other vendors and organizers, many of them felt the main issues why there was a low turn out was the following:

1. No give-a-ways/prizes: Jamaica has become a culture that loves and and feels entitled to free things. Every day on the TV, internet, radio, and now even to our phones via text, we are all bombarded by messages of contests and the promises of give-aways.

2. No big celebrity draw: Jamaicans love concerts and parties but only with people that they know and love. If Usain Bolt, Tessanne Chin, or a famous dance hall artist was scheduled to be at the Parish Show the crowds would have poured in.

As I said before, I feel bad for any event planner in Jamaica. It’s not an easy job. A lot of the challenges that event planners face here are the same challenges we face facilitating community development work. How can we get our communities to care about development projects and self-empowerment? How do we excite and entice participation without having to give something away for free? How do you honor culture and tradition while at the same time hoping for change because of the unintentional barriers it creates, preventing people from living their lives differently?

I remember a Jamaican ex-pat in the states telling me to be positive amidst these challenges. He was saying that being away from Jamaica, even he has seen how Jamaica is changing, slowly at times, but changing nonetheless in ways he never imagined it would. That’s all I can say to the other community development volunteers here: don’t give up hope because things are changing- slowly, but still changing.

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