Jamaica: Slowing down to appreciate each other

Submitted by Derek Alton on March 23, 2014 - 10:34pm
Reflections on Community in Jamaica

I just returned from a trip to Jamaica with my family. I always enjoy visiting other cultures. They help both as a way to open me up to new ways of looking at things, while at the same time serving as a mirror for my own culture. When I travel, I like spending time with the local people, seeing their country through their eyes instead of the staying at resorts designed to make me feel at home. I want to be pushed outside of my comfort zone because that’s how I learn. This trip to Jamaica was particularly special because we were going with my Aunt Michelle and her mom who were both born there. They were really excited to show us their birthplace.

I remember my former colleague, Jeanette, telling me that Canadians were very reserved.  Jamaicans are the opposite. As a researcher of community, I was particularly interested in how Jamaicans experienced community. What I found was that, in general, they experience it with a higher degree of intensity than us, Canadians. This means all the emotions attached to community seem to be magnified compared to what I am used to seeing. This can be both positive and negative.


We flew into Montego Bay and from there, took a bus through the mountains to Kingston. The trip was very treacherous with narrow roads and steep turns. There was a buzz of chatter on much of the trip; I was amazed by the laughter that seemed to bubble up both in front and behind me. Half way through the trip, the sharp turns got to my aunt and she unexpectedly threw up. Immediately, the bus pulled over and several of the women sitting at the front came over to help. They assisted my aunt by cleaning up her clothes, rubbing her back and speaking encouragingly to her.  Another woman came rushing past me with a package of gravel in her hands to help with the carsickness. It was an outpouring of compassion, empathy and support for a stranger that I could not imagine occurring in Canada.

In Canada, we tend to mask or moderate our emotions. I felt that in Jamaica they seemed to boil much closer to the surface.

There is no doubt that Jamaica has a much slower pace than Canada- my mom talked about how inefficient everything seemed to be. The flip side of this, though, was they made more time to be in relationship with each other.

I noticed the idea of family was much looser. At my Aunt’s step-dad's funeral, I learned that his family was the coming together of three different families. There were the kids from his first marriage, another child who had been born out of wedlock and the most recent marriage to my Aunt’s mother. Through this, all three families had been woven together to form a new family with each looking out for the other. 

Family also played a more prominent role in people’s lives.  On my second last day, we spent the day with a man named Charlie on his boat. We quickly learned that we would be sharing this boat with his wife, son, two nieces, brother and friend of the family. After an incredible day, Charlie invited us all to come and visit his house later that week for dinner. Unfortunately, I missed this because I had to return early but I heard my family had a blast.


In summary, community and in particular family is far more central I found in Jamaica.  This may lead to a slower pace and greater inefficacy, but ultimately, what is really important in life?

It's about who we are

Derek's sharing of his experience in Jamaica resonated with me this morning.

Last night I had an opportunity to meet 15 young people in a second year social work class at Redeemer University. I was asked to share a bit about Shalem Mental Health Network's WrapAround work in community. As part of the experience of our work, they used the questions on the back of the life domain cards to get an experience of their classmate. I learned through the exercises, where they came from and where they live now. A young person who had chosen to come to Redeemer from Jamaica to go to school said, "I had to  adjust to Canadian culture. When I was at home in Jamaica in social situations, we asked, "Who are you and tell me about you. Here in Canada, we ask what do you do and where do you work?" She said after two years here she has adjusted. Now that is how she  starts a converation. I was surprised, as I hadn't really thought about it. In my walking alongside families using the wraparound process, I do ask who are you? However, out in social situations I ask, what do you do?  Is that what forms us, where we work and what we do or should it be who we are? Derek's illustration certainly has me thinking..



Love it

I love this.  I completely agree that we are so focused on what each other is doing.  Its a status thing maybe or just how we measure value.  I have started asking people "whats your story" and it can be awkward because it forces you to stop and think, it is an unusual and sometimes personal question to ask.  But by shifting towards focusing on who each of us are instead of what we do, I think we are able to touch the humanity of each other. 

Yeah mon!

Thanks for this, Derek!

I really appreciated the story about your aunt being sick and how people she didn't know were quick to support her. I think you're right- our pace of living in Canada often prevents us from truly supporting each other consistently and deeply. That said, I think there are many instances of caring and kindness- we just miss them because we're moving too quickly.

How might we slow down... is it realistic to ask people to slow down? (ie. what if people need to work a coupld oe part-time jobs to put food on the table?)

Where are our priorities

I agree rachel, it seems like every day I will see something but by the time my brain computes that I should react, help out or give the moment is already gone and I feel guilty for not having reacted faster.  I think it ties into the comment that was made earlier.  In our society it feels like we value what we do over who we are, as a result we try to be really busy doing things because thats where we feel our sense of self worth.  If in contrast the focus was less on what we do and more on who we are, I think we would have a slwer lifestyle.

I also think that our society works too much (ironic i know) and that if we want greater community we need to structure our society in a way that pushes people to work less and put more time into family, friends and neighbourhoods.