In wrote this while on the island of Antigua in the country of Antigua and Barbuda for our annual Rotary service project. We’re working in the schools installing computer labs, giving all third grade students their own illustrated dictionary, setting up a video teleconferencing system (so the teachers on Barbuda can get proper training). We are also working with a community center and teaching ladies how to sew so they can make school uniforms and support themselves. I say “we” because it’s a team of two-dozen including 14 Bellevue students in the Cisco tech program. It’s the students who set up the computer labs and the video system.
As I’m here it’s hard not to notice the differences between our day-to-day lives and the day-to-day lives here in Antigua. Here are some observations.
The day before we left The Seattle Times (February 16, 2012) had an article on the resurgence of manufacturing jobs. While only 10% of jobs in the US, manufacturing is leading the recovery. Here they wish they had 10% of their economy in manufacturing; it is a true service based economy with an emphasis on tourism. A few years ago I asked how much of their food is grown here (there is some very fertile land). The answer was maybe 30% because too many people think working in agriculture is beneath them.
We’re in the middle of a hullabaloo over church, state and birth control. In Antigua there is very little separation of church and state. It’s a very religious country (overwhelmingly Christian but many varieties of churches). Even secular events will be held in a church or in conjunction with a church service.
There truly is “Island time.” Meeting times are pretty loose. A couple years ago I asked a restaurant owner how this affected her business. She said it was annoying at best and caused lost income at worst. A 7:00 pm reservation for eight may mean two people at 7:10 and the rest filtering in over the next 45 minutes. This would drive most of us nuts. Especially those of us who feel compelled to make a courtesy call when we’re running a few minutes late. In Philadelphia it would cause angst. My “Partner” On-Call associate told me that in Philly, “When you arrive on time you’re late.”
We have educational issues in the US. A crisis in some places, mediocrity in others and fantastic schools elsewhere. Here, it’s a struggle, which is why we’ve been working in the schools for five years. As with the US we’ve seen some very dedicated and hard-working teachers (and administrators). We’ve also seen teachers who considered it an imposition to come in and give their students dictionaries (because, in one case, it interrupted the teacher’s reading of a romance novel). They struggle with kids skipping school, especially on Friday, and the parental involvement (from what I’ve heard) often makes our parental involvement seem fantastic.
The people here are very hard working. It’s just that there isn’t the same level of opportunity that we have. We’ve been inundated with the 1% and 99% slogans. Here there truly is a big difference in economic conditions. We deal with the local Rotarians and society here has recognized it is an honor and privilege to be asked to join an organization like Rotary. This ties back to my first point; those who have got out of the tourism service job cycle have substantially improved their lives (and do a lot to give back).
Finally, everybody is very appreciative. We’ve been stopped in public places every year as people thank us for what we’re doing (we’re on TV every year as this project is a huge deal). In Antigua, the Rotary clubs are the big fish in a small pond.