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It Takes Two Hands to Clap

Walkerswood, Mitchell's village, has become for many Jamaicans synonymous with development as it should be.

'Jamaica no problem.' The slogan attacks the tourist on T-shirts and pants, on boards and in advertisements, and is standard response to any request for assistance. It's a tribute to the islanders' humour.

'It should be written with an exclamation mark,' says Woody Mitchell, who knows with some pain the challenges that face people in a developing country like his. Mitchell helps direct a multi-faceted 'cottage industry' with a J$1 million (US $182,000) turnover that includes exports to the US, Canada and Britain - all without a telephone, ('the one in the village doesn't work') and from a wheelchair.

Walkerswood, Mitchell's village, has become for many Jamaicans synonymous with development as it should be - community based and as self-reliant as possible, minimizing government intervention and reducing 'internal' migration to the cities.

'Jamaica no problem' was certainly not the message of Dr Headley Brown, Governor of the Bank of Jamaica, to the First Conference of Caribbean Economists in July 1987. The country was only slowly recovering from a series of catastrophes, he said, including in 1980 one of the most destructive hurricanes of the century, which had smashed sugar and banana exports. But the effect of worldwide recession and the fall in commodity prices was 'worse than the most severe hurricane or earthquake'. The demand for Jamaica's alumina and bauxite - which, with sugar, had sometimes accounted for 70 to 80 per cent of total exports - had plummeted.

To describe the experience of one village in that 'macro' context could seem out of place. But hand in hand with the financial and structural changes which are governments' concern must go the local initiatives, the small-scale cooperatives that can help make a nation more self-sufficient, the ideas that can capitalize on the strengths of the poor who make up the majority of Jamaica's 2.3 million people. In fact, in the mid-Seventies the UN's Cocoyoc Declaration emphasized the need to redefine development so that priority was given to people and their needs: food, shelter, clothing, health, education.

Most of the readers of this article probably live in cities. But the majority of the world's population live in villages. American development journalist Richard Critchfield says that 22 years of reporting the Third World, 12 of them from villages, has persuaded him that cities are not necessarily where our real history is being made. Because of journalism's emphasis on crisis, he writes in his book Villages, a lot goes on we don't hear about: 'If the ordinary villagers or slum dwellers are not on a rampage of revolting or rioting or dying of famine, they stay out of sight and out of mind.'

Unfortunately, too, villages usually come low on the development totem pole. So that, for instance, city-dwellers have better access to sanitation while villagers have a greater infant mortality rate. Slowly the countryside is drained of its most gifted people, putting enormous pressure on urban areas and reducing the vigour of village life.

Jamaica is not immune. According to figures published by the World Resources Institute in Washington last year, in 1960 a third of Jamaicans lived in the cities, in 1970 two-fifths, and by 1985 more than a half. So any village which is managing to keep its brightest people and has, as one development expert told me about Walkerswood, 'gone beyond rhetoric and someone coming to identify their problems' to doing something about them themselves, is one of those out-of-sight stories which the world should be told.

'Whenever you talk about community development,' Ed Bartlett, the Jamaican Government Minister responsible for Social Development, told me, 'you talk about Walkerswood. What Walkerswood is doing is known throughout the country and has international recognition.' Likewise, Seymour Mullings, Opposition Spokesman on Finance, says Walkerswood has succeeded where other villages have failed because of its leadership and the way it has inspired people of different ideological complexions to work together.

Certainly it would be hard to find another village in Jamaica which has attracted as many high-powered visitors - the Governor General, the last Prime Minister, ambassadors and cabinet ministers, even the Governor General of Canada. A Vice Premier of China, Keng Piao, veteran of the Long March, was shown Walkerswood by the local Government Minister as 'an example of Jamaica's efforts at self-reliance'.

There is a history to all this which shows that Walkerswood, as an article in Jamaica's national daily The Gleaner stated, is 'fortunate not only in the quality but also in the continuity of leadership'.

In 1938 a political awakening in Jamaica led to the formation of trade unions and political parties. In Walkerswood young men created a 'Pioneer Club' and started farming. Assisted by social worker Thom Girvan, who later became Chairman of the government Social Welfare Agency, in 1941 they started Lucky Hill, the first farm cooperative in the country. Today it is still productive, growing bananas and citrus and rearing beef and dairy cattle. Forty years later Thom Girvan's widow, Rita, was back in Walkerswood, developing a product for its cottage industries.

In the 1970s a citizens' association was formed under the management of a community council. In 1976 the community had running water for the first time. That same year, in cooperation with central and local government, the Council embarked on a village development programme. On land given by Reynolds Jamaica Mines (a Virginia based company), a multi-purpose community centre with a large hall, a clinic and space for craft work was built. It was opened in 1979 by Prime Minister Michael Manley, who likened its spirit to that sought by his government in its hoped-for social contract. Today, as you climb into the hills above the growing tourist town of Ocho Rios and negotiate the winding curves of Fern Gully, you come across this attractive farming community of some two to three thousand people which seems to straddle the hills. Across from the community centre, its sports fields and the local post office is a new cafe, craft shops, general store and wood-working shop and the offices of the Walkerswood Community Development Foundation, created as a non-political entity giving legal standing to the Community Council.

Out from Walkerswood go jams and jellies, marmalade and fudge, jerk seasoning (a spicy Jamaican speciality), grapenut for the island's ice cream makers, soya products, jewellery, wood products, handbags, table mats, belts, soft toys - providing local employment for some 50 people. There is even at Walkerswood Jamaica's only village satellite communication system linking the village school though PeaceSat with other schools and communities in the South Pacific.

The Simson and Edwards families of Bromley, the 'Great House' on a hill above the village, have given land, worked with the local people and played a significant part in all these developments. Hector Wynter, Jamaica's Ambassador to UNESCO and former editor of The Gleaner, says that the way the family, without being patronizing, has become a part of the community is a 'revolution'. Victor Henry, Chairman of the local school board, believes that if more communities had come under the influence of similar families there would be many more Walkerswoods' around the country today. The family has managed, where some have failed, to work shoulder to shoulder with others who have then persevered.

Selena Tapper, Regional Field Officer in the Caribbean for Canadian Universities Service Overseas (CUSO), says that the story of Walkerswood is about whites with an answer to racism and privilege and of blacks learning a certain trust and being prepared to work as equals. It has been a commitment over years. To meet a white family who shows a love which is prepared to share and give up something of its power and resources for the sake of the village, 'is strange and unique'.

Some ascribe the steady development of Walkerswood to its foundations in faith. The original Pioneer Club and Lucky Hill Farming Cooperative had strong Christian foundations. They decided, for instance, that only married couples could live together in the Co-op houses - important in an island where family structures had been loose, with many children born out of wedlock.

These foundations may account too for the readiness of many in the community to take the time to seek for what is right rather than their own interest when disputes arise which have racial, class or political undertones. For instance, the local MP, Patsy Pink, felt that she had been badly treated at the community centre by a member of the Council, Hughen Reynolds. At a meeting called to sort out this problem, he apologized to Mrs Pink for any ill feeling he might have caused. The reconciliation defused the tension.

'Sometimes the meetings get very, very hot,' says Lurene Ellis, who runs the Women's Centre. 'But we don't keep it up and at the end of the meeting it's like we have a silent agreement. You can't develop a community with one side against the other.'

A 'grassroots' democracy has been nurtured, with elections for the Community Council and an emphasis on participation. The workforce of Cottage Industries Ltd own most of the company shares, an experience uncommon in Jamaica. On occasions workers have decided to take a pay cut to keep others employed and met deadlines by working consecutive shifts.

It was during the building of the community centre that Mitchell's interest was engaged. His need and that of the community coincided.

In 1972, Mitchell, now 37, was paralyzed in a traffic accident in Kingston, Jamaica's capital. 'I was turned upside down,' he says. 'All my dreams went out the window.' The active young man who had represented his school at cricket and played football for the Reynolds Jamaica Mines team, who didn't know anybody in a wheelchair, was suddenly dependent on others for everything.

'For the first three weeks in hospital I couldn't eat anything, my system was rebelling,' Mitchell remembers. 'I was waiting to die.' Then, thanks to his family, who visited him daily over the months, to others in wheelchairs, to reading books about people like Helen Keller who had overcome their disabilities, he began to realize 'it wasn't the end of the world'. He had hours and hours of physical therapy and was determined not to let others do anything for him that he could do himself. He took a correspondence course in accounting and when he came out of hospital picked up a job in a survey office. And, along with his parents, he began to participate in community work in Walkerswood, particularly with young people.

The building of the Walkerswood Centre really excited him. 'The community was so motivated,' he remembers. 'On three Saturdays we put in the floor, laying 40 by 90 feet of concrete. And we built it for J$10,000 ($1800) under cost.'

He met his wife at this time. Pat, 34, is a primary school teacher in Ocho Rios and came to live with her aunt in the village. Soon friends became confidantes and a long courtship ensued. She, too, had suffered a car accident. Getting to know Woody gave her a lift. 'It got her to stop moping around,' he laughs.

Both had earlier been turned off church by compulsory attendance, but now attend the local Methodist Church. The whole community, indeed, like most Jamaicans, takes faith seriously. Mitchell believes that churches must deal with the whole person, spiritual, emotional, physical, financial.

With the aid of a specially adapted car, Mitchell took on sales for Cottage Industries Ltd for a few years and then came into the office, where he is now Managing Director.

As an example of the community spirit, Osbourne 'Apple' Francis, Chairman of the Walkerswood Farmers' Cooperative, points to the saga of the post office. In 1984 the owner of the building in which the village's post office was housed gave notice to quit. No other building or funds were available.

It was a blow to the community. Without their own post office, pensioners, for instance, would have to travel miles to collect their money. The Walkerswood Community Development Foundation, under the leadership of Joyce Hinds, put up notices calling attention to the consequences and convening a village meeting. Some 50 people turned up. They decided to raise the money to build a post office themselves - a first for Jamaica.

A Jamaica Information Service report later stated, 'It began as a dream. It became a challenge. Today, one year later, it is a reality.' The building was put up by the local people, block by block, with hardly a cent paid out for labour, with carpenters, electricians, masons, unskilled helpers, all pitching in. 'It is valued at J$90,000 ($16,400), 'the report concluded. 'To the citizens of Walkerswood, however, no price can be put on their labour of love and necessity.' The Governor General, Sir Florizel Glasspole, opened the post office, and an editorial in The Gleaner called the villagers' action a 'challenge to all'. While I was there a cheque was delivered from the Bank of Nova Scotia paying off the final debt outstanding on the building.

A new cottage industry addition is Walkerswood Woodworkers, managed by Armon Llewellyn. Llewellyn worked for 28 years with Reynolds Mines until, in a body blow to the community, it transferred its operations elsewhere - as a result of what looks like unsuccessful brinkmanship played by the company and the Jamaican government.

Llewellyn oversees four skilled workers and several trainees who turn out bowls and goblets and tables of all shapes and sizes, often using a local wood, Guango, which others have discarded as too difficult to work. He says the whole object of what he is doing is to get local people involved. It is not easy. It would be possible to go outside for qualified people, but that would defeat the object. 'It is easier to give vocational training than to change attitudes,' he says, talking of the challenge of establishing time-keeping, high standards and planning ahead.

In spite of this, Walkerswood Woodworkers, putting their emphasis on quality and finish, are beginning to establish a reputation and to get custom orders from many places. In ten months of last year the workers exceeded their quotas and earned bonuses. As one of them said, 'If I put my back into this project and work hard I have a future.'

In recent years there has been an international element to the Walkerswood development, with support from volunteers. From Britain, for instance, came Tony Bigland, a skilled woodworker, and earlier a youth club from Brixton, London, who worked with Walkerswood youth to build a community volley ball court. CUSO and the US Peace Corps have sent volunteers.

International aid agencies have played a significant part, under-girding the role of successive Jamaican governments. Oxfam, for instance, helped finance the market complex, the British Embassy supplied money for tools for the woodworkers and the Reynolds company, aluminium roofing.

Why do international agencies respond? Mitchell thinks it is because Walkerswood has established a good track record. People have come, he says, and been impressed with what their money has achieved. 'We have given people value for the money they have given us. People in the Foundation have been honest in spending other people's money.' On one occasion, for instance, Cottage Industries Ltd discovered that it was not paying a production tax amounting to several thousand dollars a year. As a small company in a rural area they could have kept quiet for much longer, but they decided to tell the government and start paying. On a wide enough scale, honest tax-paying would help the government reduce foreign borrowing.

I asked Julie Sutphen, Senior Representative for the Caribbean for the Washington-based Inter-American Foundation, why her organization had given assistance to Walkerswood. The Inter-American Foundation, she told me, was expected to help private, non-governmental, self-help development organizations and had to stay out of politics, US and local. It was difficult to find places which hadn't become politicized and where people went beyond wonderful statements to doing the hard work that improvements required. There was so often an expectation that government would provide.

Walkerswood, which had come to her Foundation for help with expanding agricultural production, was different. She had been there four times. She cited the village's initiative in installing a kerosene tank at the Women's Centre. The villagers used to have to go miles to Moneague to get a little bottle of kerosene, or further denude the hills by cutting wood. The new tank eliminated both the time and the money involved.

The village, she said, had the advantage of a good location on the main road with a fair amount of traffic as well as access to land. It also had a depth of leadership. 'It is a lucky community to have that level of education and people willing to stay in the community and work,' she told me. 'With our budget we can't solve problems with money. We have to find organizations like Walkerswood that provide an example for others.'

The story of Walkerswood is bigger than any individuals, says Woody Mitchell. 'It's a community experience. It's a coming together of energies and forces from all over the world. There has been a spiritual component in our sticking it out. We have a core of workers with a common goal and some idea of where we would like to take the community.'

'Apple' Francis adds: 'You have to learn to do things for others as part of the community. Like when you've gone to your bed late at night and somebody comes to call you to take somebody to the midwife. Sometimes you groan but you have to do it.'

Most agree that the next priority for Walkerswood is its housing programme, for which the plans have been drawn up but the implementation too long delayed.

Maurice Facey, a local businessman whose own Foundation has contributed to the woodwork project, wants Walkerswood to be a model village for Jamaica. Some already see it that way. To Minister Bartlett it is 'a model of non-partisan community development'. Geof Brown, Director of Social Welfare Training at the University of the West Indies, regards the village as a catalyst for releasing energies, where there's always something new that never fails to excite.

It has been said that a Jamaican sees a problem to every solution. If that is true and if these assessments have validity, then Woody Mitchell is a true Jamaican. For he has to deal with things that are rather less than 'model'.

When I talked with him he was wrestling with such matters as the missing customs papers from a shipment of seasoning which had just arrived in England and the theft of the battery which operates the satellite facility at the community centre. He was also disappointed that more people were not stepping forward. 'The hope was that the more we employed people on community projects, the more the numbers would swell at meetings. No such thing happened.' The more people got, the more they expected. They didn't always pull their weight. Sometimes, Pat Mitchell admits, she feels like 'throwing in the towel', but she has learnt not to be despondent about others' reactions.

Woody Mitchell is sad that because of his cottage industry responsibilities he doesn't have the same energy to deal with the community problems that he had when he started. He sees the need to consolidate and 'not to spread ourselves too thin'.

He hopes that his example will give strength and courage to others disabled by accidents. 'Had it not been for the accident I would not be here,' he says. 'It might be God's hand at work.'

Because of its success, and possibly even more because of its continuing problems, Walkerswood is certainly a model of a sort. For Walkerswood is about the kind of development which matters most, that development the Cocoyoc Declaration addressed. As Mitchell said at a seminar on 'reconciliation' held last year in Walkerswood, 'For any change to be effective, we need to change the hearts of people.'

A report in The Gleaner said that the 'miracle at Walkerswood' was in the spirit of the people there and reflected initiative and community enterprise rarely paralleled in Jamaica. 'In a country debilitated by multiple divisions, jealousies and suspicions, they have retained their common sense. The result is that all classes and ages have been able to work together.'

Walkerswood has demonstrated, as another Jamaican saying goes, that 'it takes two hands to clap'.

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Publishing permission refers to the rights of FANW to publish the full text of this article on this website.