I am now beginning to understand a certain personal discomfort. I try hard to take in what I see, read, hear, and experience. In Jamaica, as anywhere, one has no chance of being everywhere all the time, so it’s always a challenge to know how what passes you fits into a bigger picture. Put simply, when I follow Jamaicans in action, how much of it is just those Jamaicans involved or Jamaica as a whole? I get some idea of the answer when I share my experiences, but have to accept that I cannot connect to everyone at the same time and get at least a complete snapshot. Because Jamaica is a relatively small place with a population that is large by the standards of other island but one that tends to be close, we often think that what we notice in one place is reflective of the whole. We used to have some clear distinctions between ‘town’ and ‘country’ ways, but that is now much less we are led to believe. Let me keep wrestling with how the pieces fit in general, but try to deal with it in a specific way.
I think that most Jamaicans are caring people, and when it comes to children, the care is often very clear to see. Yet, we also know of and see examples of a disregard for children and their welfare that is really frightening. We are witnessing the unfolding of such an instance, and it has political ramifications, so can seem much larger for that reason.
Many of us will have read about the coming closure of the residential facility at the Alpha Boys School in Kingston. I do not know the school, but just the other day was told by an acquaintance that he had gone there as a boy. (I may talk more to him about the school in coming days.) I know that many of Jamaica’s famous musicians got a great start from going there.
The reasons for the closure seemed to be a combination of financial problems and behavioural problems with boys at the school. The news release by the Jamaica Information Service of the remarks by Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna indicated closure would come in June. The Minister outlined the financial problems, but also put heavy emphasis on child abuse in general (most of the 6 page release), talking of a ‘national crisis’ regarding depraved behaviour and ‘behavioural problems’ at the school: ‘The Sisters of Mercy cited the grave anti-social behaviour of children in the care system, the sexual predatory nature of the boys on one another, children who are witnesses of serious crimes or are victims of heinous acts‘ [my stresses]. The release thus gave the clear impression that this abuse was the MAIN reason for closure. Media interest latched onto that aspect, being more sensational, and perhaps suggesting that there was the tip of an iceberg that would generate more news interest. More stories and comments started to fly around–and I have only heard and read some of them–but, it became an uncontrolled ‘firestorm’ for the school. So much so that the Sisters needed to issue a statement yesterday. A friend wrote this on her blog post yesterday.
That action especially saddening because earlier in the day a cartoon depicting a boy running from the school, without his underwear, crying “Rape!” had featured in the Jamaica Observer. I found the cartoon distasteful but did not take ‘Clovis’ or the paper to task, preferring to just ignore it; there’s a fine line in humour between acceptable and unacceptable, and personal views often draw that line differently. I don’t know if many complaints flowed to the paper and it may feel the need to apologise. I read the online comments attached to the cartoon: some thought it was neither tasteful nor funny; many thought that the topic of abuse was something that had been going on for a while and needed exposure; some thought the depiction was fine. The comments are moderated, so we cannot be sure about what was culled. But, let’s take the evidence as it stands–mixed views.
The Observer today ran a front story entitled Untruths hurt Alpha, relating to the statement issued yesterday by the Sisters of Mercy and featuring pictures of the Minister. That Sisters’ statement, however, never mentioned the Minister, but mentioned “untruths and half-truths” in the press. As is often the way, we are now in a murky world of statements and counter-statements, and the matter may not rest there, but let’s see.
Now, here’s one set of problems. Was the Minister misinformed about what was going on at the school, and to a degree that led her to think it was appropriate to put the school’s action in the context of what she termed a ‘national crisis’? If so, how so misinformed, having met with the school’s officials? If she was not misinformed, are the Sisters hiding something? If so, for what reason? Both the Minister and the Sisters say that the care of children is uppermost in their concerns. How much of that concern is really on display?
PM Portia Simpson-Miller launched a blistering attack on child abusers at the start of the week: “I condemn every attack on any child in this country”. She also laid into those who have children for whom they cannot care or will abuse.
Politicians are often working with an election calculus when they act and speak. It’s not clear who the hat fits that the PM is tossing out. It’s not clear who is really the target for the Minister’s position of Alpha in the midst of what she sees as a ‘national crisis’. I hope that child welfare really is the driving force and that the children are not just going to become ‘collateral damage‘.