Letter from Kingston

I went to a conference in the Caribbean and took my wife. Jamaica? No, she wanted to come.

Sorry. I’ve been desperate to tell that joke ever since I was invited to give a keynote at the Institute for Educational Administration and Leadership – Jamaica (IEAL-J) conference, held last week in Kingston. It was my first time to the Caribbean since a family holiday 30 years ago, when we left winter in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan for an all-inclusive vacation at a beach resort in the Dominican Republic. This scarred me, and I’ve not been on an all-inclusive vacation since. Fortunately the IEAL-J folk had the good sense to organize this conference in Kingston. Which is definitely not white-sandy-beach and drinks with little umbrellas country.

The Knutsford Court Hotel is an aging dowager – think Raffles, before the renovations – centrally located, and everything worked fine. There was even a fridge in the room. A quick chat with the security guy on the gate soon found me wandering a few blocks to a gas station where I could buy take-away beer (Red Stripe, of course) for half the price of those in the bar. Just FYI in case you go. I wish we could buy beer in gas stations here.

The conference was in the hotel, so that was good. There was an impressive opening address from The Hon. Mr. Burchell Whiteman, an ex-Ambassador to the UK, past Minister of Education, and current advisor to Government. He gave a superb analysis of the state of education in Jamaica, and what he saw as the key issues which need to be resolved. I was especially taken by his comment that what he termed the ‘massification’ of education has led to a stratified system, with uneven outcomes. Schools, he said, need to focus on helping children develop “the certitude of their own intrinsic value as individuals, as well as the skills to establish themselves in a series of changing jobs and contexts.”

It was a bit nerve-wracking to follow such a distinguished speaker, even with an intervening set of concurrent sessions and lunch, but I tried my best. My talk was on the conference theme, Educational Leadership for Sustainability: current realities, future possibilities, and I tried to unpack what we mean by ‘sustainability’, which seems to me to have become one of the buzzwords of the new century. I drew on two of the conference themes – ‘social justice leadership’ and ‘educational leadership and community engagement’ – to explore the concept of sustainability within the realm of educational leadership. I managed to expand this beyond the immediate and local to include national, regional, and global considerations, then over this conceptual framework laid the issues of post-colonial, post-conflict, and post-catastrophe contexts. It gave me a good opportunity to flesh out some of my ideas around the similarities of educational leadership in such contexts, the role of the ethics of care and social justice, and the different notions of sustainability that have emerged in the literature.

I titled my talk The mantra of sustainability: Premise or paradox? on the grounds that when we speak of educational leadership for sustainability, the why and the how we are talking about is just as important as the what. In fact, I would add another layer to this conundrum. I think we should also talk about the where. People seemed to quite like the talk, and I had a few good discussions that evening over the dinner. Indeed, I think this might evolve in to an article.

Dr. Steve Jacobsen (from SUNY-Buffalo) was another speaker, as was Ms. Rosemary Campbell-Stevens from the new National College of School Leadership. Steve presented research from three of his studies (in Canada-US, New Zealand, and England) and placed the findings within the Jamaican context. I loved his reference to “delusional leadership”, which happens when the principal thinks that s/he is making a difference but really it is the teachers who are doing things in spite of those efforts, rather than because of them. I’ve certainly seen a bit of that over the years!

Rosemary was a charismatic and emotional speaker – you can see why she was awarded an MBE – who spoke eloquently about “the need to disrupt the prevailing narratives of the communities we serve”. I found it interesting that when she spoke of her experiences in England, she did not refer to non-Caucasian principals as belonging to ethnic minority groups. Rather, she spoke of them being “black and global majority leaders”, recognizing that they are only minority group members within a certain bounded political and demographic context.

There were some interesting presentations from researchers and school administrators as well. The issues of education in high-poverty schools are well documented in the industrialized world, whether these are in North America, Europe, or Australia and New Zealand. There is less discussion of the issues experienced in places such as both rural and urban Jamaica. It was mesmerizing to listen to one principal talk about learning the names and locations of the ‘Zinc Alleys’ in his northern town, narrow lanes where sheets of corrugated iron form fences around small dusty yards, make up the walls of shanty houses, and provide shade where people can sit a while. He spoke of learning street talk, or patois, and communicating fluently with parents using that vernacular. He also noted that when they came to the school for a ceremony, they expected him to ‘speak properly’ for he was the principal.

Zinc alleyZinc Alley

Another principal spoke of her school, which she called Ghetto Prep as it was located in the inner city part of Kingston. The school had no water for four months each year, and the parents in her community were unemployed or unemployable. There was a daily menu of gunshots and the security guards refused to work at night. They worked during the day, though, and she spoke fiercely of how anyone wanting to go in to the school had to go to see her first. “Nobody’s going to come in and yell at my teachers, disturb my classrooms,” she proclaimed, “they want to cause trouble then they cause it with me.” Principal as gatekeeper, indeed.

The Hon. Senator Ruel Reid, Minister of Education, Youth and Information, gave a talk where he got the most applause (and all the space in the next day’s newspaper story) by announcing a loan system for school reading books. Apparently the cost of books is very difficult for many families, so instead of having to buy them parents will now be able to rent them (for a small sum) from the school.

Meeting the Minister[Photo credit: Chuck Berry]

Of course, it wasn’t all conferencing. We did find a beach, once, and managed a swim in the Caribbean (check). We ate Jamaican meat patties (check), went to Devon House (check) for ice cream (I think Cows could learn a lot from their servings, which were more than ample!) and saw a statue of Bob Marley (check), although we didn’t get to his house and the museum which bears his name.

Bob Marley statueBob Marley statue

We also got out to Port Royal, which in the 1600s was the center of operations for the pirates and buccaneers who ruled that part of the world. It was described as “the most wickedest city on earth”, before in 1692 an earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the place, killing a quarter of the population instantly and another third from the various diseases which followed. The old Fort Charles survived and still stands, complete with an artillery depot thrown off-kilter by a later (1907) earthquake and now known as the Giddy House.

Giddy HouseGiddy House

At Port Royal we went to Gloria’s, which is to Jamaica what Harry Ramsden’s is to Yorkshire, and ate fried fish.

Fish at Gloria'sFish at Gloria’s

They’re not big on subtlety. I got a fish. It had been fried.

We tried to go for a drive on the beach but our car wasn’t up to the sand as well as some of the larger SUVs it was trying to emulate, much to the amusement (and eventual assistance) of some local boys.

On the beachOn the beach

There were some nice views back over the bay to Kingston, though, with the Blue Mountains (yes, that’s where the coffee comes from) behind.

Kingston from Port RoyalKingston from Port Royal

On Saturday we went for a walk around Coronation Market, which is located in the inner city on the edge of the (in)famous Trenchtown. Our friends guided us carefully, because it’s not perhaps one of the most popular places on the tourist list, but I have to say I felt quite safe. We chatted with the vendors, one of whom taught me how to clean the fruit to make ackee and saltfish, the national dish of Jamaica. I’m glad I didn’t try to eat a raw one, though – apparently unripe ackee fruit can lead to potentially fatal toxicity, known as Jamaican vomiting sickness. I didn’t get that.

Ackee for saleAckee for sale

We bought sugar cane sticks and a pineapple for our drive to the north shore, and I found it a very interesting experience.

On the north shore we went to Ocho Rios, luckily there were no cruise ships in port and so the roads were only half-full of tourists. Actually it was quite quiet, until we got to the famous Dunn’s River Falls. You walk down along side the river, to the beach, then can get a guide and walk up the waterfalls themselves. Apparently it is a very famous attraction, indeed the top-grossing one in Jamaica. The falls themselves were beautiful, and I managed to get a photograph without people or “watch your footing” signs getting in the way.

Dunn's River 1Dunn’s River (1)

But mostly it looked like this, and wasn’t very attractive at all.

Dunn's River 2Dunn’s River (2)

There is an interesting place in the middle of Kingston, a small park with a 500m walking track around the periphery. The gates are guarded by a bronze statue of two slaves, gazing upwards to the heavens, hence its name – Emancipation Park. People wandered the paths under various flowering trees, or in a more focused way marched or jogged around the walking track, and it was a spot of serenity in the middle of a bustling city.

Emancipation ParkEmancipation Park

Across the street from Emancipation Park we saw a plume of smoke rising. My automatic “what’s that?” led to us crossing the road and entering a small courtyard. Shiny round tables made from brushed aluminium dotted the area, interspersed with wooden ones carved from old rum barrels. Couples and families sat around, laughing and eating. There were palm trees growing up through the gravel, ABBA blasting out from hidden speakers, and a small kiosk in front of a larger wooden cabin. The smoke was coming out of the cabin. It was a Jerk Joint.

My colleague knew one of the fellows who worked there and so I got to ask stupid questions. Apparently you marinade the pork and the chicken for a minimum of 24 hour hours, in a special sauce with spices and peppers – each place has its own ‘secret recipe’. Then you slow roast the meat, an hour and a half for the chicken and three hours for the pork. The wood has to be of a certain type – ‘sweetwood’ is preferred, apparently, and after some discussion we agreed that this was the pimento tree, the source of the peppercorn-like ‘allspice’. But you can use tamarind, or any fruit tree. Just not blackwood, and never dogwood, as the smoke from these leaves a bitter taste on the meat.

Suitably informed, I then got to go through the side gate, past the two guys on break who were sitting on upturned buckets and smoking ganja, and who were quite surprised to see me, in to the back room. It was incredibly hot and dark, the only light coming through a screened off window. A fire blazed in a half-drum outside the cabin, but inside there was a wide shallow rectangle made of metal. It was about 8 feet across and 20 feet long, and the edges were about 20 inches high. Lengthwise across the top lay a sort of rack, made up of series of metal rods welded at the ends to a cross piece. Each rod was about an inch wide and a quarter inch deep, and beneath them a bed of hot coals. On top of the rods one half was layered in split chickens, wings and legs outstretched, and the other half was covered in something which was, in turn, covered by a number of sheets of thick foil. “Under there that’s pork,” I was told.

A tall fellow pushed past me, reach in and tugged out a chicken, flipped it over, then replaced it. “Ah”, said I, in my normal stunningly observant manner, “your job is to turn them over.” “Yah mon,” he replied, “I jerk ‘em”.

So that’s why it’s called ‘jerk’ … you lay the meat on the grill and slow cook it, every so often someone has to jerk each one out of the pile, turn it over, and put it back. This has to be done very quickly, because of the heat from the fire. The pork under the foil gets stirred around at different intervals.

We ordered both pork and chicken, and sweet potatoes (which tasted suspiciously like yams) and Festival (which I can best describe as being very much like fried bannock), scotch bonnet hot sauce for some kick, and a couple of Red Stripe beer to wash it all down.

And listened to Mamma Mia.

Yah mon.

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