United Way of Jamaica at 35

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a lid on most of those ceremonial rites linked to funerals, such as 'singings', nine nights, set-ups, and grave diggings. The grave digging is not as popular as the other ceremonies, but friends tell me it's missed. Contrary to what the name suggests, it is undoubtedly the most expressive show of community volunteerism attached to a funeral.

Grave diggers are often volunteers from the village dedicated to and expert in their craft. These pickaxe men have to know how to measure up, square up, and ensure a proper fit for the coffin. Copious amounts of white rum are considered necessary, and the act of digging is a spectator attraction, as family members and friends all gather around to sing and summon the diggers to labour and to refreshment.

When I am asked to give a bottle or two for the “diggin'” I know this is not for reward or payment for labour, but rather, a tradition. And I am reminded at these times that volunteerism is still alive and well in Jamaica. It stands out today in the generosity of spirit and unselfishness displayed by our health teams, civil servants, security forces, and political directorate in the long hours, dedication, kindness, and patience exhibited in the fight against COVID-19.

Resources are getting scarcer and scarcer, but off-the-front-page people still turn out to fight fires and protect homes, stand with families who are left desolate and homeless, join in searches for missing family members, still pack lunches for shut-ins and the elderly, and reach out with hundreds of thousands of care packages that are being shared with the less fortunate.

Who couldn't be moved by the recent media story of the nine-year-old girl on Charles Street who has been offering consolation and restoration efforts to her 11-year-old friend who lost her home in the fire on Pink Lane two weeks ago. She has been there every day with other children helping to remove debris, and reaching out to her grandmother in Canada to send food and clothing.

This current wave of volunteerism sparked by the pandemic is similar to other periods in Jamaica when circumstances have invoked community turnout to join hands to help neighbours in times of national disaster. In 1948 ordinary people formed a chain of protective neighbourhood watches around threatened communities as the police searched Jamaica for the legendary gunman “Rhygin”. On other occasions thousands turned up to clear roads and help rebuild houses following Hurricane Charley in 1951 and Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.

In 1952 Jamaicans responded to calls to fund expenses for female sprinter Hyacinth Russell to represent us at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. A grand total of £903, nineteen shillings and sixpence were raised from all levels of society by public subscription. Similarly, the country collectively pooled over £1,000 in 1953 to bring George Headley home from England to play in the trials for the West Indies-England series.