The Silent Community

March 9th, 2015

Sometimes the news overwhelms you, doesn’t it? It has not been an easy week for Jamaicans. Let us focus on two specific incidents, in the midst of a sea of crime and violence: the murder of two girls, Santoya Campbell in Westmoreland and Kayalicia Simpson in St. Thomas. The two cases have much in common: both the girls were fourteen years old. Both crimes took place in deep rural areas. Both girls were pregnant at the time of their deaths. Both were “in sexual relationships” with older men – in other words, both were the victims of child abuse. And in both cases, of course – the community is in shock.

In Newlands, St. Thomas, nobody knows anything about anything. Some people noticed that Kayalicia was “getting fat.” No one noticed her pregnancy, although she was “at least four months pregnant” according to the autopsy report. No one (not even her grandmother and several younger relatives living with her in a tiny house) noticed her showing symptoms. She didn’t make any trouble, said one relative.

No. She didn’t make any trouble. She just suffered.

Young Kayalicia was reportedly sexually abused by a man who had a relationship with a family member. Was her grandmother not aware of the abuse of her granddaughter? She apparently shared a bed with a relative (male or female?) – who also, one supposes, “knew nothing.”

What is really happening in our marginalized rural areas? I am an urban animal myself. I have never spent much time in the country in Jamaica. Passing through sleepy villages, I see country people going about their everyday routines: a farmer with machete in hand, on his way to “ground”; a woman with her basket piled high with washing; one or two well-dressed young men or women making their way to work, probably in town; schoolchildren straggling along the roadside, on their way to or from school.

But there are others in these communities, on the sidelines. They are the observers. They are not particularly busy, at all. Time moves slowly in these communities. A middle-aged man (possibly unemployed or under-employed) stands outside his house, looking up and down the road and greeting people walking past; an elderly woman puts her feet up on her verandah; a small group of young men, with nothing to do, sit on a wall, or under a tree when the “sun hot” reaches them.

And then, a crime takes place. A young man is shot dead; a woman is raped – or as in the case of Kayalicia Simpson, a child is brutally murdered, apparently with a machete (neither the murderer nor the weapon have yet been found). Women throw themselves on the ground, weeping, screaming in pain. Family members, neighbors, hold up the women, mop their foreheads covered with sweat and tears. The men grieve quietly. It is a familiar picture that we see on our television screens almost daily.

I always look at the faces of the observers – the neighbors, who may have known the victim all their lives. They stand on the fringes of the dramas that play themselves out daily. They look on, their faces expressionless, hardly speaking to each other, while children, excited by the presence of television cameras, jump up and down.

But the observers are silent.

Remember, too: Communities often close ranks. A visitor, or a transient from another community is quite often blamed for a crime. Perhaps an itinerant laborer. Stranger danger.

Jamaican government reports note that poverty is highest in rural areas (although urban poverty seems to be catching up). Access to even basic amenities – sanitation, water – is often lacking or inadequate. Housing is sub-standard and over-crowding is an issue. Family members often don’t have their own beds, but share them with a relative or relatives. But poverty in itself is not the primary factor; the mindset of poverty is.

Rural areas are neglected, and in a sense, abandoned. Fathers – even mothers, aunts, uncles, children – leave the communities and often never return. There are “barrel children” who depend on the next shipment from relatives in “foreign” for food and clothing. There is the Western Union syndrome, too. Many simply leave for the city to find work.

So, what are the solutions? We cannot continue wringing our hands forever. Our lamentations must somehow be turned into actions. We need action at the community level, at the national level and regionally. The issue of child abuse is not limited to our island, but across the Caribbean. There is the old phrase “it takes cash to care,” and there’s no doubt that more money should be spent on social programs and education (oh, by the way, our education budget has just been cut, again).

But let’s face it. Some leadership – real leadership translated into action – is required. Not photo-ops, not speeches. We have had enough of those to last a lifetime. An Action Plan. Not necessarily a security plan; the police are struggling along as best they can (and they are seeing the terrible social conditions, hearing the stories, trying to calm the waters). We know the police are under-resourced.

We certainly need a plan, though, and a change of mindset in our leaders. We don’t want a feel-good public education campaign, with community marches etc; the effects of these are ephemeral. We need a coordinated strategy, involving more community-based social workers (these are very thin on the ground); more school guidance counselors (many schools have one counselor for several hundred students); more mental health practitioners; private sector involvement; and opportunities for employment and empowerment for men and women. What about “The Church”? Does it see itself as playing a role in the rebuilding and healing process?

And the law must be enforced. These men must be arrested and locked up, on a regular basis. Sex with the girl child is a crime, as the non-governmental organization Eve for Life says in its UNICEF-sponsored campaign: “Nuh Guh Deh.” The damage done is irreparable.

Communities must break the silence. Take responsibility. As Dr. Martin Luther King said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


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5 Responses to “The Silent Community”

  1. […] I am sharing today a blog by my friend Emma Lewis, who had the courage to write about something I di… For the past few weeks, this has been weighing on my mind. The murders of two fourteen-year-old girls, both of whom were pregnant. They were sexually abused by older men in their communities. Emma wrote about it, I could not. I am also trying to gather the courage to write about another murder, this time of a young man in Montego Bay. […]

  2. Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah says:

    A cry from the heart for our children and for the victims of poverty in Jamaica, Land We Love!

  3. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you so much, Barbara. It’s for the children, and for the entire community really…

  4. EmmaLewis says:

    Oh my goodness, Kate. Yes, it is incredibly hard to write about I must say. And that murder in Montego Bay is another absolutely tragic and utterly depressing event. When are we going to start caring about the most vulnerable and marginalized among us? Don’t they deserve our respect and caring? It truly is an indictment on our society. To me, the silence is the most disheartening of all. It’s as if we don’t want to know… Sigh.