Volunteer Report ‘Raoul 2009′
Essay based on personal experience by Raoul from Germany who volunteered and worked at the Trenchtown Reading Centre for 3 Months(!)
Arrival in Kingston and first impressions:
On the September 13th, 2009 I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, to do 3 months of volunteer work at the Trenchtown Reading Centre (TRC). I had travelled around Jamaica before but was never in Kingston. I was a little nervous about what I was going to experience in the Downtown area. As a dancehall and reggae fan I had heard the stories concerning gang feuds, drugs, shootouts and other criminal activities which haunt Kingston.
My friend Patrick aka Maro, a taxi driver from Jungle (an infamous Downtown area), together with his cousin Leon, who knew Germany from his past experience working as a roadie for Sizzla, picked me up from the Norman Manley Airport in the evening of September 13th. We went straight to Jungle, passsing the communities like Tivoli and Rema, places I knew from songs of e.g. Bounty Killer, Julian and Stephen Marley as well as other musicians. This was going to be the place I would live for the next three months. In between times I stayed at Stony Hill before deciding to go back down to Jungle.
Jungle and Rema are both areas of Trench Town. In many of the small streets burnt out barrels and cars can be seen, reminders of the days when urban warfare was going on and roadblocks were set up to keep both police or rival gangs away from one’s own turf. In this region the house blocks are named after different international places: Angola, Zimbabwe, Havana etc. My yard was located in Angola Park. Next to Jungle you can find the communities of Jonestown and Craigtown, with its zinc fences and zinc roofs and becoming a little better known several years ago for being featured in an English TV-series on violent street gangs all over the world. Up the road you have Arnett Gardens (where the Black Roses Crew originated from) with its football stadium, which is always packed with football enthusiasts at the weekend. Football is a major part of entertainment for people in Downtown.
On the walls one can see many portraits of heroes and dead people from the communities, mostly victims of the on-going gang warfare as well as other crimes. The architectural structures differs from block to block e.g. Mexico has round roof tops, while Angola and Brooklyn have little houses with flat roof. Maro introduced me to many people of the area, which made my life definitely more comfortable, because no one was about to bother me in any way.
I was able to walk up and down the road to work without encountering any trouble. But mentioning this, some people from Jungle were not able to come with me down to Rema and vice versa due to the past history of violence between these blocks. The role of politics and its influence and impact on the development of violence in the urban areas is complex and there is enough literature one can read up on if one would like to know more on this subject.
There are still many weapons in the area, and in my opinion the police are not serving nor protecting the population in the area. I don’t have to mention the fact that the people economically are completely dispossessed.
I will take a break here concerning my personal experiences in the communities and focus on my work at the TrenchTown Reading Centre, which was a very challenging, but mind opening.
The work at the Trenchtown Reading Centre:
The Reading Centre opens from Tuesdays to Fridays from 12:00am-8:00pm and on Saturdays from 10:30am-5:00pm. I was working everyday and once a month I took a Saturday off. Most of the kids from the area show up around 2:00pm after coming home from school. Therefore, we used the two hours between 12:00am and 2:00pm to clean up, rearrange the library and prepare classes or look for the books we were going to read to the children.
From 2:00pm -6:00pm we sat down with the children and taught them English, Maths, History or practiced pronunciation. Even though the Reading Centre is meant for the children as of six years and upwards, many younger ones still showed up and normally we would read a story to them or have one of the elder kids read a story, while Mrs. Thomas and I could sit down and help the other children with homework, preparing for an exam, and different language arts and other activities such as, “Book of the Week”. At 6:00pm we normally started with fun activities, playing chess or practicing drawing and playing other games. On Fridays, we had games and Saturdays Art Program with Nabby, a open hearted Rasta, teaching the children.
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Two days after arriving in Kingston I went to start with the work at the TRC. The Centre is located in lower Trench Town across of the Culture Yard, once home to Bob Marley. The Centre has one main building with the library, washroom and toilets and an extra building, which functions as a community space and classroom. Mrs. Thomas, the teacher in charge, was a little sceptical of me at first, but after a short conversation and some joking everything was okay. Mrs. Thomas then gathered all the children of the community together to introduce me as “Uncle German” to the whole of the bunch. Many curious children showed up to take a glimpse at the “Whitey”. After a short introduction round we got started and I read a short story for all, before I sat down with the children individually to see what they were learning in class and help them with their homework. Mrs. Thomas would focus on teaching Maths to the rest and those who were in need of increasing their math-skills. In the next weeks this became my daily routine:
I would sit with the children and do “Guided Reading”, then I would assist them with their homework, while Mrs. Thomas normally taught Maths or did language arts.
Once we had finished with the mandatory things I would shift then to history or cultural studies, teaching the interested children about Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks, just to name a few and practice writing short stories with others. Some kids went home after teaching them history, to sit down and collect the information presented to them at the Centre. We would sit down the next day then and write up sheets of information for those who weren’t experts on the subject, so they also had short information if needed.
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Improvising became an important skill, because the children did not always show up everyday and sometimes new kids came by, therefore I had to adapt everyday to the new situation and think up of what I could do with the children, besides homework and Guided Reading.
During my stay, Roslyn from Canada, who is running the TRC had organized a “Spelling Bee” competition, sponsored by the Scotia Bank. Roslyn was very busy before the competition getting things sorted out, while Mrs. Thomas and I sat down with the kids to test their spelling abilities and practice for the big day with the children. It all worked out well and the children, even if there were some tears on the cheeks of some kids who didn’t manage to get first place, were very happy and treated well by the Scotia Bank. They handed out Patties and fruit juices. All in all, it was a nice event for Trench Town with lots of parents enjoying it as well.
Saturdays, Nabby came to teach the children different basic skills in arts e.g. how to do your own postcards or origami. Joan also helps in the TRC on Tuesdays and Fridays, cleaning up the place and making sure that everything is okay.
Thanks to HELP Jamaica! in Germany, with the provided funds (100,- EUR) and the help of the FTRC in Vancouver, we were able to organize a daytrip with the ‘TRC-Kids’ over to Port Royal.
Most kids born and raised in Kingston do not get the chance to leave their area, and often know little about their own history. Therefore, this was a great opportunity to do something besides the normal work in the TRC.
The Daytrip to Port Royal
We got together on a Saturday at the end of October at 9:00 am. Since I was still getting used to “Jamaican time”, I was the last one to show up, five minutes late, but all the kids were already there waiting. We departed soon after: 25 children and five grown ups to take care of them. The bus driver did a little detour and showed the children the airport and we had the chance to see a plane take off. One might think this does not sound too special, but for many kids it was the first time they were able to see a plane from such a near distance.
After we arrived in Port Royal, we first walked through the little fishing town looking at everything around us, then we visited a fisherman taking a look at his fresh catch and all kinds of fish before we went by the old church over to Fort Charles. We were welcomed by a woman guide who took us through the Fort, telling the children all about its past. After that we visited the Giddyhouse, an old armor storage house, which shifted on one side by 15° in angle due to an earthquake. This house was the main centre of attraction for many kids, because it gives you a feeling of nausea once entering. After being led around we were taken to two remaining buildings where a different Guide took over from the lady. He took us inside the houses, explaining all the relics, which you were able to look at.
At the end of the tour we took a break, sitting down in the middle of the Fort. We ate sandwiches, which were prepared in the morning, and had juice to drink. Then we went on to play some games. Later some of us walked around with some of the children, looking at objects of interest. After a while, we left the Fort again walking back to the town.
Once we were finished we headed back to our bus and arrived in Trench Town around 5:00 pm. I personally believe this was a great experience for the children, for the grown ups and for me personally. The guides put a lot of effort in to keeping us entertained, it was all in all a day which will stay forever in the memory of those participating.
On the 5th, December I celebrated my farewell, which was a sad moment for many children and myself. I was handed postcards and poems by the children, who all said good-bye to me personally. Well, some were sad and me too, so it wasn’t easy for everyone. I am looking forward to going back and to see the progress the children will have made over the time. Until then, thanks to internet, I keep in touch with what is actually happening there. I thank Roslyn for the opportunity to work in the TRC and the HELP Jamaica! Team who arranged the contact and introduced me to the TRC on the first hand.
Finally I have to say: without Roslyn’s effort the Trenchtown community would be missing an important facility.
Slideshow with the best pictures of the Daytrip to Port Royal: