Jamaica: The Country and Culture

Where is Jamaica and how big is it?
Caribbean

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 like?
The climate is tropical and humid, tending to stay in the 80′s throughout the entire year. Parts on the island that are low elevation and near to the sea tend to be the hottest areas.  The Blue Mountains and large hills in the center of the island can get unexpectedly cool (verging on cold). 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. With all this mind, the best and most practical item to have is a compact, but well-made umbrella (like Totes) for those occasional passing thunderstorms. A jacket is great to keep you warm in the mountains but too hot and won’t protect against rain.

Why does Jamaica need Peace Corps volunteers? Isn’t it a vacationer’s paradise?
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 the recent 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.”

The government of Jamaica has asked Peace Corps to help with education, specifically literacy at the primary level, and environmental projects. The youth program of PCJ, which Jedd is a part of, is being phased out and incorporated into the two previously mentioned programs.

What are the people like?
Jamaicans are diverse. 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, as well as the Christian paradigm that all will be well in the after-life,  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. They can be “in your face” but are generally extremely welcoming and hospitable. Jamaicans are generally lively, fun, and extroverted.   They value appearance and neatness of dress (everything must be ironed), loud music, good food, and many still have a strong admiration for all things British.

For more about Jamaica and its culture, see our Top Jamaica Culture Posts

Peace Corps Particulars in Jamaica

How does training work?
We came with about 36 other new volunteers from our Staging Site in Atlanta on March 13, 2012 for an initial one-day orientation and paperwork. Pre-Service Training itself takes place in country. The first few days we stayed at a simple hotel in Kingston and then moved into our first home-stay with a Jamaican family for  2 1/2 weeks. Training, held nearby, consists of program overview, introduction to language and culture, safety and security and medical issues. Then the group was separated into our technical skill groups (Michelle went with Literacy/Education volunteers and Jedd went 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 came back together as a larger group again to process our experience, complete our assessments, and finalize our commitment before being sworn-in as official Peace Corps Volunteers. We received our site placements in the last week or so of training and were able to go out to our new sites with our Jamaican supervisors for a couple days as a brief orientation to our new homes and places of work.

Where will you live? Will you have electricity, water, internet?
Generally, Peace Corps does not place volunteers in the bigger cities of Kingston or Spanish Town, and there is a push for volunteers in more rural areas. 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 in a host family’s yard. The living situation is not quite as rugged as other Peace Corps posts. Most Volunteers have indoor plumbing and running water (not usually heated). Laundry is usually done in a sink or a washtub, though some families do have a machine. Electricity exists island-wide, except in very remote areas. Very few volunteers go without a refrigerator and other electrical appliances. In Jamaica, there are always exceptions to the norm. Cell phones are issued to each volunteer upon arrival. Internet speeds vary. Living conditions will vary depending upon whether the site is rural, peri-urban, or urban.

What do volunteers do in Jamaica?
Volunteers serve with Jamaican schools, health centers, or environmental organizations. There are a small number of HIV/AIDS education volunteers. Most education volunteers pull-out small groups for literacy tutoring at their local school. Environment volunteers work on projects ranging from fish sanctuaries to bee-keeping to environmental education at schools. Apart from our official, primary assignments, we have some liberty to do secondary projects according to our interests and the needs of the community. Volunteers also have a 24/7 task of being a cross-cultural ambassador, building peace and friendship between Jamaica and the States.

For more about the Peace Corps Jamaica process, from application to training to moving in to site, see Our Peace Corps Process  blog post.

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