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I don’t know if Jamaicans are good at looking at themselves and their country in a mirror, and if they can, whether they see what others can see.

A few evenings ago, a friend was collecting her daughter from our house, when she regaled us with a tale. She prefaced the story with the remark that “No one, especially a woman, would choose to use a public bathroom in Jamaica.” We all understood. However, she told of an incident where she had entered a stall and was so shocked by what she found that she called her husband to tell him: “There’s toilet paper!” The point was well made.

Jamaica is not one of the world’s desperately poor countries, but it’s a country that falls short of many things that could be fixed with more money, and certainly from money better spent. On a global level, we are known for poor sanitation. Many people, living in makeshift housing, have few or no installed sanitary facilities; instead, they use bushes and dumps to ‘dispose of human waste’. That situation persists as you move around the country, and public facilities are scarce. We can see this–not a pretty sight–on many a trip around Jamaica: man posing against wall, being the most familiar sighting. It’s just a fact of life here.

At a worse, institutional level, we have the desperate situation of schools that have only pit latrines: over a 100 primary and all-age schools still have pit latrines, for whose replacement the ministry is working with Food for the Poor. Sixty of these should be completed during the next fiscal year; the rest during the 2015/6 year.

But, bad though such situations are for school children, less bad, but not good situations persist elsewhere–under our nose, so to speak.

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What is missing?

My daughter trains at the National Aquatic Centre each week, as do hundreds of other children. She uses the bathrooms to change most weeks. I’ve never been into the ladies room but I have seen the men’s. It’s not the worst I have seen, but it is far from the best or prettiest. Broken and dirty sinks. Toilet facilities often without paper. No soap for hand washing. No paper or towels to dry hands. Broken window shutters.

I would be reluctant to use the facilities myself, and wonder what parents think when they send their children there. Many may be ignorant because the use is during school time or children are dropped off.

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There is running water, but…

We don’t need to compare our situation to that in, say, the US or UK or Canada–places with which many will be familiar. But, it’s clear that this is woeful.

The Centre was closed temporarily in mid-February, by the Ministry of Health. The Amateur Swimming Association of Jamaica (ASAJ) had been trying to keep the pool operational even as they switch out filters which had been in place since 1962. But, construction problems emerged as the brand new filtration systems were being installed. The diving pool was also closed last summer by the health ministry due to cracks in its base.

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Swim training: the happy side; March 13, 2014, 4.30pm

The Centre was closed for several weeks from late 2012 for renovations ahead of the 2013 Carifta Swimming Championships in March-April.

The work included complete resurfacing of the pool floor, the installation of new touch pads and a new scoreboard, as well as a comprehensive beautification programme. The objective: ensure that the country can boast a truly first-class swimming facility. The work was set to cost at least J$5 million. The new scoreboard cost about J$1.4 million, while the touch pads–used for electronic timing and placing– set back the association J$2.5 million. Sadly, ‘truly first-class’ it isn’t. I attended those Games and things were not pretty then. Judging from experiences over past months, uglier things are happening as the pads and scoreboard give problems. The starting blocks are unsafe or unstable.

Most of this is away from the public gaze. Sadly, we don’t host enough international meets or have visiting teams come to train for the groans and howls to be louder. Maybe, we need a MRSA infection scare. Wish it, not.

Doing things is one of the country’s biggest problems. Fixing things, by extension, is also a major problem. Fixing things well?

Happy children, learning to swim, or trying to perfect their strokes and turns hide a sorry state.

The Ministry of Youth & Culture is the central government body primarily responsible for the development and welfare of Jamaica’s youth. In keeping with many a government agency, it boasts fine intentions: ‘All the initiatives of the ministry serve to protect and enhance the lives of young people and assist them in becoming contributing members of society.’ All? Protect? Enhance? Can I sue for false advertising?

We are great despite, not because.

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