High price to serve - A sound system operator's dive into the deep end
Daraine Luton, Senior Staff Reporter
A teenager skips merrily along the pothole-riddled road in Douglas Castle, in the hills of South West St Ann. A few yards away, Keith Walford, who is midway through his first term as member of parliament (MP), is addressing a group of farmers at The Church of Jesus Christ in the community.
"I am going to be the next MP," the youngster said as she walked by, expressing disgust at the poor state of the roadway. Inside the house of worship, the farmers pressed the MP for answers about several issues, including the condition of roads, the provision of electricity, access to health care, and fire service.
South West St Ann has four political divisions: Alexandria, Borobridge, Calderwood and Gibraltar. The seat touches the parishes of Manchester, Clarendon, Trelawny and St Catherine.
"It is a constituency that has been really neglected. I think we are one of the most backward constituencies in the entire Jamaica when it comes to roads and other infrastructure development. I have been fighting to lift us out of that. I am certainly hoping that before my first term is out, some of these projects would have been achieved," Walford told The Gleaner.
"I inherited a constituency that is plagued by extremely bad roads. Some of the communities are so bad you have to stop short of taking a helicopter to get to them because the road is broken away and no repairs were being done over the years," added Walford.
The MP, who sits on the government backbenches in Gordon House, ranks the delivery of water as number one on his agenda, arguing that only about two per cent of the constituency has the precious commodity flowing through their pipes.
He said it would take $568 million to provide piped water to the entire constituency.
"That is a little section in Cascade that I opened two years ago, and even then, most of the times the people are not getting adequate supplies," said Walford.
Also high on his agenda is having the Alexandria Community Hospital back in operation. He said with its location, it will allow persons from the interior of the deep rural constituency to access health care without having to go all the way to St Ann's Bay, Mandeville or May Pen.
Walford said he was also seeking to turn the old Armadale Correctional Centre into a skills training centre, even as he locks horns with Gilbert McLeod, councillor for the Alexandria division, over the proposed location of a community library.
McLeod has embarked on building a two-storey library just on the outskirt of Alexandria, but Walford said the location is not ideal.
"I have already identified a perfect site. The old teachers' college, it is right in the middle of the town. That library would not only provide facilities for students to do research but it would provide Internet access to the constituents, as only a few homes have Internet access," he said.
"The present councillor has started a little building, but it is very dangerous. We have been at loggerheads at this point. I am leading a battle right now to have it where everybody in the world sees as a better place; it is only he who wants to complete it there."
But even as he has his sights fixed on implementing the major projects, which he said would lead to massive transformation in the area, Walford said he has already started to make an impact on the lives of his constituents.
He pointed to the sidewalk that leads from close to the gate of his house in Alexandria, to the Aabuthnott Gallimore High School into town and road repairs in several communities, as examples of work that he has undertaken.
Walford also said he has worked overtime providing assistance to residents, and making getting piped water and electricity to some communities for the first time at last. He said he has also been instrumental in getting the first automated banking machine in the constituency.
Walford, a businessman who owns the popular sound system Bass Odyssey, was among 20 persons elected to Parliament for the first time in December 2011, but he claims getting to the legislature was the furthest thing from his mind.
"I was approached from around August, September 2011, but I had no interest in politics, so I declined the offers at that time. I then did a lot of thinking, a lot of soul-searching. I asked myself how it would affect my existing business and the way I am perceived," Walford said.
"One of the reasons why I came into it is that the representation that we were getting here was very, very poor, and it was something that drove me into politics. Then the people asked me kindly to put myself up because they did not want the previous representative to go back.
On the day The Gleaner visited the constituency, Walford was scheduled for a meeting in Douglas Castle, a small farming community which is located at one of the farthest points in the constituencies.
The MP said a section of the roadway that would have made access to the community easier had broken away, forcing him to drive through sections of North Clarendon, along some of the most rugged roads known to man in order to meet his constituents.
He admits to shying away from Douglas Castle because of his inability to deliver on a promise to have electricity installed in the community.
"I know that when I was campaigning, you told me that there are three main things in Douglas Castle that you want to address: the road, the electricity to the other side of the community, and the basic school, which we have been working to make a reality," he said during his constituency meetings.
He told the residents that St Ann was slated to get another basic school, and that if it is given to his constituency, it would be located in Douglas Castle.
Regarding electricity, Walford said that having been assured by the Rural Electrification Programme of a timeline for the execution of the project, he, in good faith, told the residents that it would be done within a month. He was wrong.
"I actually got scared of coming back because I want to be someone who, when I say something, you look at me as someone who will honour my word," the MP said.
He further said that when he got word that work finally began in the community, "it was like another green card to come back to Douglas Castle. I didn't want to come back, promising again another date.
"I know you are used to politicians making promises and nothing happening, but I don't want to fall into that bracket," he added.
Walford will be the first to confess that he is not a political animal. By his own admission, prior to 2011, he had no reason to traverse the hills and valleys of the predominantly farming constituency, which also relies on bauxite mining. But the realities, he said, are far from what he ever imagined.
"I went into politics to try and make better of the constituency that I serve. Since I have come into politics, it has been costing me more than what I have been getting from it. There are so many times when you walk on the street and you see somebody who says, 'Mr Wallie, my child can't go to school.' Someone who wants fertiliser, who wants something," he told The Gleaner.
"You are moved, so you go into your pocket and you take from your own sources and you give somebody. But there comes a time that you will have to say no or else you will end up on the street with your pocket outa door and your bottom outa door too. Everywhere you go, people are expecting that you will be there to help them with whatever problem they have," Walford said.
Challenging Three Years
The sound system operator said his three-year stay at the wicket has been a challenge.
"People do not see us as lawmaker; they see us as someone to come to because their child got sick this morning, or because the roof is leaking, or because they need some assistance with keeping their shops open," he said.
He said, too, that the responsibility of the MP extends even into the unimaginable realm.
"From a person who dies, a person who does not have a roof over their head, somebody who wants a little assistance with farming, and sometimes you even go to restock people's shops. It is numerous and far and wide.
"One of the challenges that I have is that the constituency is very big geographically ... . If I were to go on a tour of the constituency, it would take more than one day," the MP said.
He said living in his constituency also presents its unique challenges, even though it gives him the best vantage point from which to look at the issues facing his people.
As he sets out on his fourth year as MP, Walford is convinced that he has made his mark on the constituency. He insisted that he has done more than MPs before him in the past few decades.
However, Walford is mindful that not all his constituents will readily sing his praise.
"Sometimes no matter what you do, people will always have negative things to say. The important thing is that the work that you do should speak for itself. I don't have to go out there to brag about what I have done; the work is out there to show what I have done," the MP said.