BY GARFIELD MYERS Editor-at-Large, South/Central Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
SANTA CRUZ, St Elizabeth — No one knows its age but the tamarind tree has been the meeting place in Queensbury — a close-knit farming community just outside Southfield in South East St Elizabeth — for as long as anyone can remember.
The story goes that during World War I (1914-1918), and two decades later during World War II (1939-1945), Queensbury residents — worried about their loved ones fighting in distant places - would often gather under the sprawling shade of the tamarind tree to hear the latest news.
In subsequent decades, the residents moved their meeting and greeting a few metres down; to the grocery and bar belonging to the now retired Annette Myers. It is quite fitting then, that the shop, still shaded by the ageing tamarind tree, has become home to the community's brand new computer centre.
Managed by the Queensbury Citizens' Association and funded by the Universal Service Fund (formerly the Universal Access Fund), which is dedicated to computer connectivity and broadband spread across Jamaica, the computer centre is regarded as key to development in Queensbury.
For Myers, who leased the building to the citizens' association at peppercorn rates, the potential for the computer centre to boost education in Queensbury, strongly influenced her decision.
"Education is the way out of poverty, that's my motto, and if the building can help the village I don't see why I shouldn't allow them," she told the Jamaica Observer Central.
The centre, on which the Universal Service Fund spent $2.9 million, operates as a low-cost Internet café and computer training laboratory. It has 15 computers, a projector and a screen and is manned by two employees as well as a Peace Corps volunteer. According to secretary of the association, Tamor Blake, it is already sparking a "greater sense of unity and pride" among the citizens of Queensbury.
Crucially, Blake argued, Internet access will bring "marketability" and new educational, employment and business opportunities to the residents. He and others at the recent launch of the computer/Internet facility hailed coordinator for the citizens' association, Fern Falconer (Miss Luecke) as the "visionary" who planted the seed.
Back in 2010, Falconer, a life-long social worker and community activist, had witnessed the launch of a similar facility in Treasure Beach. She heard the head of the Universal Service Fund, Hugh Cross, speak of what was needed to make funding from his organisation possible, such as a strong community management group and a solid building.
"So I took him (Cross) to Queensbury from the function and he looked at the building and he said 'it's a good building'... and then we revived the community group to ensure it was up and running because you have to have a community organisation to access these funds, and with the help of SDC (Social Development Commission) we were able to apply, and here we are," explained Falconer.
All agreed at the launch that the new Internet café in Queensbury fitted appropriately with Jamaica's 50th Independence anniversary celebrations - a point underlined by 12-year-old Regina Bell who captivated her audience with a rendition of her original dub poem Wi a 50.
Cross, who says his organisation is dedicated to continuing the spread of Internet connectivity on the basis of the model adopted by Queensbury, stressed the importance of modern communication technology to human development. "There are numerous other game changers that have revolutionised the world. The Internet is now perceived by many as, perhaps, potentially the biggest game-changer to date, which is likely to revolutionise human existence as no other development has done so far," he said.
Cross told his audience in Queensbury that "online education is a critical part of the future" which will allow students to pursue their academic courses in real time at home.
The potential of the new computer facility to improve education and literacy, a major problem in south east St Elizabeth, was also emphasised by political representatives, member of Parliament Richard Parchment (PNP) and councillor for the Southfield Division Gregory Myers (JLP).
Falconer envisions the limitless possibilities of the Internet in promoting economic activity such as tourism in Queensbury, targeting especially the many Jamaicans, including former prime minister Bruce Golding, who trace their ancestral roots to the community.
"We want to set up a tour of the community: we want visitors to take in how we farm, show off our farming techniques ... there is a cave we would like to show, UB 40s father was born right over there, and the first house in Queensbury was built right over there and some of the original tombs (of the first settlers) are over there," said Falconer, gesticulating as she spoke. "And, of course, we want to tell visitors about our tamarind tree," she added.