Stir It Up
Excerpts from student essays about three life changing
weeks in Jamaica

Duncans is a small community just outside of Falmouth, Jamaica. It’s also where a group of USD students became immersed in the local culture for several weeks this June. Most signed up for the trip to earn three units over summer break by studying “The Black Atlantic” or “Afro-Caribbean Literature.” But what they ultimately learned went far beyond the coursework assigned by professors Rafik Mohamed and Carlton Floyd: Students got involved with an all-age school, spent time at the Granville Place of Safety (a residential facility for girls), played pick-up basketball , visited former plantation “great houses” and interacted with locals on an up-close-and-personal level. To hear the participants tell it, a lifetime of experiences were crammed into just 21 days.

Throughout Jamaica, painted on the side of several buildings, even homes, are the words, “Welcome to Jamaica.” The message is simple and clear. The Jamaican people rely so heavily on the tourist industry and precious foreign dollars that they are willing to paint their home in black, yellow and green. They will contort their lives to extreme measures, all at the will of the tourist.

— Emily Mignogna

Doubting my decision to come to this poverty-stricken country, I looked around in utter disbelief. People actually lived in these houses? Were these really houses? The only thing I could think of was, ‘Mom wouldn’t keep her tack for the horses in some of these people’s homes.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that sounded so spoiled!’ Was it spoiled? Yes it was, but was that completely my fault? I was raised a certain way and that is all I know. My heart felt for the people along the side of the road as they looked at us in our air-conditioned bus. Did they hate us? I would hate us if I were in their situation. I was tired, and all I wanted was a bed, a nice cool bed where I could finally close my eyes for the first time in two days. Then I thought, ‘What kind of bed do the people in these shacks have? Do they sleep on the floor?’

— Tammy Harmer

We were told that if we were ever lost or in trouble, to find an older woman and ask her for help because almost everybody respects the older women in the community. Trust and respect for an older generation, and from a people who society has historically tagged as “savages”? Damn right.

— Shane Farmer

(Jamaica) has been a popular destination and has therefore housed thousands of visitors each year. But vacationers visit with a closed frame of mind; neglecting to consider what they can do to help this struggling island. As they spend their cash, they attempt to fit every Jamaican trinket back into their oversized suitcases ticketed for home. These items were mostly bought out of arguments of prices, because many vacationers feel Jamaicans owe them something.

— Brooke Sherick-Odom

Walking through the Great Houses was like walking through any other museum, which is why they appeal to the tourist economy. Slave history was portrayed as no big thing. The black tour guides would throw in a fact here or there, but by no means did this provide any justice to those who were ripped from Africa for labor. Were these black women really okay with sweeping their history under the rug for some white tourists on vacation? Slaves were deprived of their culture and ripped apart from any history they had. The same could be said for the workers at the Great Houses who can barely speak of the little history they do have.

— Erica Falkner

My very first encounter with invisible servitude was when I observed the manner in which my house ladies refused to sit in our living room with me. They were constantly running back and forth from the kitchen to their small, cramped, humid side-room.  This room was constructed in such a way so as to ensure the guests would never have to interact with the ladies.

— Kelly Gillespie

I was in a taxi driving up to the front gate at Silver Sands. We were questioned for a few minutes because the taxi driver was Jamaican and I am black. They had to make sure I was a resident staying there, otherwise they were not going to let me in. I cannot imagine not being able to go somewhere in my own city where I was raised. That is something that just blows my mind. These places are set apart for the tourist, in order to keep them in and the natives out. It is like we are taking their land once again to build up for our profit and there is not much the natives in the community can do about it. That makes me sad; it’s something that really hits home.

— Gyno Pomare

While our class spent a day (at the Place of Safety), I talked to classmates who went there repeated times to help teach the girls to read. These classmates were greatly troubled by what they saw. The teachers are unmotivated and slept or talked on their phones for most of class. They are short-tempered with the girls. The girls do not get along and often violently fight with each other but supervisors rarely intervene. The girls were ecstatic when we visited, as they were able to go out and play with us. Even though our time there seemed happy and carefree, there were disturbing times where this image was shattered. From time to time physical fights were on the verge of breaking out. When we did leave it was depressing, as many of the girls stood near the fence looking sadly at us. Some even begged us not to go.

— Kyle Ferrell

While we were at Place of Safety I made friends with a girl named Melissa. What struck me most about Melissa was when we all went to leave.  She had been standing with Shane and myself, smiling and joking, and as soon as John announced that it was time for us to go her face instantly dropped and she replied with a simple question, “You guys have to go?“ In a matter of a second, her face, her voice and her mood dropped down into the saddest sounding person I think I have ever heard. She had instantly been forcibly pulled from her happy care-free feeling with the realization that she had to return to her life once again.

— Amanda Jessie

When I think about my experience, the same scene keeps racing through my mind.  What was it about leaving the Place of Safety that has left me unable to get the image out of my mind no matter how hard I try? Going to say good-bye to the girls on that Sunday afternoon was probably one of the hardest moments during my three week stay in Jamaica.  As soon as we drove out the gates the tears started rolling down my face. What had come over me? Why could I not control myself? I am not the type of person to let my guard down and show my emotions so openly. Something about the POS had changed me, and on that drive home I was beginning to realize I would forever be a different person.

— Liz Bonomo

I was able to see how I was among the privileged. I didn’t see how this was possible at first. After all, I come from nothing, I don’t have anything, and with the amount of debt I have accrued for my education, I may never have anything. However, in Jamaica, I was privileged. Privileged because what I brought as “spending money,” was enough to pay rent for six months at one of the houses I visited. I was privileged because the average college education in Jamaica is at trade school learning a craft or skill, whereas my education allows me to use not just my skills, but my brain. I’m privileged because a pair of shoes I carried with me cost enough to buy groceries for the average Jamaican for two months. It dawned on me that I was in a place where I was in a position to help others.

— Terisha Taylor

I am not white, but I am light-skinned, educated and have an economically decent background. If I were to fall into a category in Jamaica, in a strict sense of dichotomy, I realize that I would be white, or indulging in a lot of white privileges. It wasn’t the best feeling to realize this, because though I would consider myself a person of color in the U.S., it’s not happy to recognize that one can unintentionally be an active oppressor.

— Jennifer Suh

We Americans think of ourselves as superior for some invalid reason. We Americans are actually more uncivilized because we have no sense of community. We are an ”I” country, not a “we” country.  We think that because we have more money, we are better than the people of Jamaica. This is a very sad commentary. I was raised by parents of means, but at the same time I knew people who weren’t as fortunate as me were not bad people.

— Tammy Harmer

This idea of the island paradise is powerful and dehumanizing to visitors and to residents of the country. If a significant number of tourists turn away from this way of thinking and educate themselves about more valid realities of the country, like its social problem, then this harmful idea can be defeated.

— Kyle Ferrell

With all of the poverty in Jamaica, many would like to leave; by forcing them to stay in a nation that cannot even supply jobs that produce living wages, they create a dysfunctional relationship between the people and the government. Jamaica has a lot to offer, but there are many changes that must be made to affect the people that need the most help. By allowing these systems to exist, we create an acceptance of how these people are being treated, and we must begin to show the world how to live within ones means, instead of striving for the unobtainable. This seems to be an American epidemic that has spread throughout the world.

— Ryan Lynch

As I was riding my bike today, I read the bumper sticker:, “Freedom is not Free.” When I returned home, I read the sticker on my bedroom door: “No One is Free When Others are Oppressed.” These quotes eat at me from the inside.

— Rachel Freeman

I (now) find myself entering conversations I had never considered before. Exploring terrain of debate I would have been scared to approach before. Talking to a black man who has lived all over the world about the insanely frustrating beliefs and actions of most Americans and our footprint wherever we go seemed natural to me, like it was something I had been discussing my whole life. This has been happening a lot lately. Naturally, without thinking, it comes in to the forefront, and I relate it all back to where I have just returned from: Jamaica.

— Shane Farmer

Note: This is an expanded version of the story that appeared in the print edition of the Fall 2008 USD Magazine.