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Development can’t happen so!

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, August 05, 2014    

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ONE of my young cousins wants to attend the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech) to study mechanical engineering but he has not applied. He passed CSEC Mathematics at third form and he is certain his other results will be good when he gets them shortly. However, it has been a mighty struggle for his mother to take care of him, his brother, and his special needs sister, and he sees going to school in Kingston as imposing further hardships on her. I left south Manchester last Saturday with a promise that, as soon I could get Internet access, I would check out UTech's fee structures and see what could possibly happen for him.

En route to Mandeville, we detoured at Rudd's Corner to take pictures of the windmills at Wigton. Barely 90 seconds after we got out of the car, a sleek black Mercedes pulled up behind us. I looked at it warily. The place is isolated, and it is not expensive-car country. So, who was behind the tinted windows and why pull up right behind us?

"Don't hurry," the driver said, rolling down his windows. "I am just turning around." He was alone and skinny too. We could take him out if we had to.

"Great!" I said and turned back to see if I could get a good picture of the big mill at the front with the setting sun in the back. But the gentleman wanted to talk.

"Have you ever been to California? These are all over the state." He lives in California, he says, but he is building a house in Mandeville that he does not think he will ever live in. "Conditions are bad here," he said. "I have been looking around and there is just nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I cannot imagine living here."

"You want to see nothing?" I asked. "Try going further south where I come from."

I have been back to south Manchester many times, so I am not entirely unaware of how little real change has happened there. It just hit me hard this time. With my parents now gone, it was a less frantic trip. I had time to contemplate.

One of my favourite things about the community was the green hills and the escape it provided from urban congestion, but even that is going fast. The view from my father's old chair is of naked stones on the hillside where trees used to be. Why would people cut down the vegetation if the land is not even suitable for planting?

A simple wreath-laying ceremony to complete my parents "tombing" was long over, but the people remained. Early on, I began noticing just how many children were showing up with parents whose features I can no longer connect with the families I used to know, and how many teenagers turned up on their own. Where do they gather to run and play and learn some of those lessons that an unimaginative classroom cannot teach, I wonder?

Seven of my parents' 11 children are teachers, and those of the next generation are making their way in the world. When we sat on the verandah, the conversation quickly turned to education and the chatter about teacher quality, poverty, parenting, and patois. We laughed at much of it. My 12-year-old niece scored a 99.6 per cent overall average on the GSAT. She speaks in our native tongue, but in her hand she is holding a copy of Bel Canto. She is working through it. She reads at first-year college level. My other niece, a 2012 graduate of the University of the West Indies, warmed my heart with recollections of how much she learned by just reading the books I left behind. And she brought to my attention the plight of a young man from the community -- an extraordinary visual artist. According to her, he entered the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's art competition with four entries and placed first, second and third, but his high school sent him up for only two CSEC exams. As a result, he is unable to matriculate for the Edna Manley School for the Arts and to fulfil his dream to develop as an artist.

I can relate. I was barred by the Ministry of Education from sitting the traditional school-leaving exams. My teachers entered me as a private candidate.

"So where is he now?" I asked.

"Deh a Marlie Hill ah walk up and dung," she said. All my life, Marlie Hill, a community a little further south, has been synonymous with deprivation, and "walking up and down" is a metaphor for aimlessness and hopelessness. But remember now, if what my niece says holds true — and I have no reason to doubt her — this particular young man is highly gifted; just not in a way that some schools recognise.

This brings me back to my cousin. His back story is still painful. Suffice it to say, his grandmother, Martha, and my mother, Mary, were twins. Martha died more than 30 years ago. It's a testimony of his mother's resilience that he is sweet and well-adjusted and poised to escape the tentacles of rural poverty if the system will let him.

Communities like those in south Manchester continue to reflect the fact that our ancestors started their lives as free people with nothing of value and, in the ensuing years, lack of opportunities kept them trapped in poverty. It reflects also the impotence of the political directorate to effect real change. The area, on the surface, is not awash with opportunities. Subsistence farming remains its primary economic activity, but there is potential for more. That, however, takes commitment, experience, and imagination. Our political leadership is not awash with too much of that.

I have never felt so strongly that had my life been different in some fundamental ways, I would return home and wrest the constituency from whoever feels entitled and to use every single cell in my body to begin to create real opportunities for the people, because development cannot happen so! And, I have never felt so strongly that every descendant of a slave who wants an education should get one; money or not. I would like to have a conversation with the World Bank about that.

The plight of the poor is incompatible with sustainable development — defined as the process which "creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony that permits fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations".

Birthdays are good times for reflection and tomorrow Jamaica turns 52.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate

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