I feel a small hand slip into mine. It is dry, and the palm a little rough.
I look down and see a girl named Andrina, walking beside me in her dark blue school uniform, keeping up a little monologue. Is she talking to me, or to herself? It doesn’t matter. We are in the Blue Mountains on Wednesday morning, in a place aptly described by Patrice Gilpin of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) as “a little piece of heaven.”
We are in Content Gap, St. Andrew to celebrate Trees for Life. As part of efforts to improve the biodiversity and management of the severely degraded Yallahs and Hope River Watershed Management Units, NEPA and partners (including the Forestry Department, the Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust (JCDT), Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), Social Development Commission (SDC), Content Gap Farmers Group and others) were gathered to establish an agroforestry plot – planting some 200 fruit trees around the Content Gap Primary School. The project is funded by the Jamaican Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). I will be writing more about the program in another post.
The trees planted are also for future generations to benefit from. Andrina is happy. She just helped plant a cherry tree. As we sit down for a celebratory event in the well-kept Community Centre (no air conditioning or fans needed, just the gentle mountain breeze) I feel quite overwhelmed by the children (in a good way). They are so excited on this special day for the community, and they have been preparing for it. There are students from three or four other primary schools there – and, not least, the very small students of the Content Gap Basic School, who trooped in, a solemn and rather shy single file.
In the Community Centre, the speeches are not too long, and we enjoy the children’s performances – traditional folk dance, ska with arms swinging like crazy, and a dub poem, Trees for Life. The children also participate in the talking section. NEPA’s CEO Peter Knight asks them questions about the importance of trees, and there are some good answers from older boys: “Trees give us oxygen.” “Trees give us water.”
Once the ceremony was over, the children scattered in all directions. Up at the Primary School (perched above the Community Centre) there are stunning views of the mountains beyond. As I stood near the edge of a thickly wooded precipice, I heard voices and rustling noises immediately below me. “Are there children down there?” I asked. Surely they could not be down there, on a nearly vertical slope.
“Yes!” chorus the children. Andrina adds with a note of pride: “They can climb!”
Climbing is, as it turned out, a major occupation for the children for the rest of the day. Climbing, jumping and running. “They are like mountain goats!” says my husband. They just leap, from one perch to another, from one foot to another, stepping light as air. Then, running helter skelter down the hill, shouting, arms flailing. “The boys can run fast!” says Andrina. We get to know Antoine, a charming little boy with big round eyes – who, the girls say, is the rudest in the class, despite his angelic looks. Ah, but they are running downhill, I say. That’s easy. Naturally, they take up the challenge, and run equally fast…uphill.
It is time to go back to Kingston – a far distant picture, covered with a thick haze when we arrived, but gradually becoming clearer through the morning. We leave the children with hugs. As I watch Andrina skipping away with her friends, I am already missing them all. The community continues to enjoy the day, the sunlight and shadows on the hillsides.
After days of rain, it was the perfect day for tree-planting – and for celebrating life.
Special thanks to NEPA’s Patrice Gilpin for inviting me – and kudos to all at NEPA (and to all their partners) for their hard work, struggling up the nightmarishly narrow, bumpy mountain road to Content Gap. This kind of supportive, educational hands-on work is hardly recognized, but it is so worthwhile. It helps strengthen communities, so that men, women – and children – understand more about the amazing environment they live, work and play in.
Below are a few more of my photos of some of the children we met.