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55 years of service - US Peace Corps making its mark in Jamaica since Independence

Published:Friday | July 28, 2017 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju
In the 2013 file photo US Peace Corps volunteers repeat their oath after arriving in the island.

Established by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961, the United States Peace Corps is celebrating 55 years of service in Jamaica, having started operations here when Jamaica gained political independence from Great Britain.

Since then, more than 3,925 Americans have served in Jamaica, and with 65 volunteers now working on projects in education and the environment, there are currently no Peace Corps volunteer openings in Jamaica.

Jonathan Gosse, who served from 1995-97, has made a name for himself as well as a home in Jamaica, having since become a naturalised citizen. A farm boy from Wisconsin, the 24-year-old had no idea what he was in for when he signed up.

"I don't know what's it like today, but I when I signed up you didn't have a choice where you go. No man, you just sign up and they tell you where you going.

"I didn't know nutten about Jamaica at the time. My recruiter said, you should go because Peace Corps in Jamaica has one of the highest dropout rates anywhere in the world, and I said what? And I thought, OK, well, all right, fine. You want me to go to Jamaica, I'll go to Jamaica," Gosse told The Sunday Gleaner during a recent interview on the grounds of the Oracabessa Bay Fish Sanctuary in St Mary.


Providing ground


Accepting that dare would set Gosse on a journey far removed from the dairy farmland he had grown up on, and Jamaica would emerge as a proving ground for the young American.

"I am past a lot of these things, but what I found is that other places where Peace Corps goes maybe are more physically demanding, like I hand friends who were in Mongolia and Eritrea, I mean just physically hard. Like you walk for hours to get to the nearest town and just crazy, so physically it was really hard.

"Jamaica was not hard physically but mentally it's really hard, and one of the reasons I've been able to stay in Jamaica is because I've noticed that a lot of the things that I find hard about Jamaica are the things I love about Jamaica," said Gosse.

"Jamaicans are independent people and when you're trying to get people to work together, that's really hard. Jamaicans are not the kind of people that are gonna come up to you and say oh, thank you. Thank you for this. Maybe the day you're leaving but not on an ongoing basis and you gotta understand.

"A lot of Peace Corps volunteers they are young kids, coming straight out of college - they feel like they are really doing something huge with their lives. And I feel like a lot of Peace Corps volunteers kinda want somebody to come up them and say, 'Oh, thank you' and Jamaica is just not that place," added Gosse, who came to Jamaica on April 5, 1995 as a young boy.


Organic produce outlet


Gosse was a member of the Corps small business development sector and based in St Ann's Bay with a mission to work with a rural women's organic farming collective in places like Nine Mile, Prickly Pole and Bamboo.

"Way up, past Alexandria in St Ann, and our objective was to start an organic produce outlet," he recalled. "The buildings are now kind of demolished and they are not really there anymore but it went okay and I learnt a lot."

Come 1997 and the end of his service when he should have been preparing to return home, Gosse found himself hankering to do more in the place he had come to call home.

"I remember thinking, boy, there is a whole lot of youth that would walk across hot coals to be able to play basketball and there was really no basketball around the place. So I made a move to start the Northern Basketball Conference and the court got built on Buckfield, Ocho Rios, and we ran leagues and things. So that was one of the things that I did."

When his Peace Corps supervisor and her husband started the Drax Hall Kite Festival, the youngster was caught up in a mix of activities that kept him well occupied, if not gainfully employed. And then he fell in love - with Jamaica.