The Cassava satire

Ever since Agriculture Minister Christopher Tufton made his famous speech in which he advocated the return to the cultivation of cassava as a response to the global increases in the price of basic food items, and what is being characterised by many as an impending global food crisis, there is hardly a social gathering in which one does not hear some kind of joke or punchline which centres on cassava cultivation and consumption.

It may very well be that people see this as a return to a stage of national development which we have long outgrown and to which there is no desire to return, a hasty and ill-conceived idea which lacks appropriate thought and supporting scientific research before being articulated, or it is one of those uncomfortable realities with which we are confronted and for which laughter becomes the way to cope.

What is clear, however, is that the rise in prices is a current reality, a food crisis looms, and any meaningful response on the part of our Government and nation must involve a return to local agricultural production for domestic consumption of which the cassava may be a central element or a symbol of our local staple foodstuff. To that extent, the cultivation of cassava may not be a laughing matter.

At the end of April, the House of Bishops and Standing Committee of the Church in the Province of the West Indies (Anglican Church) issued a communiqué to its members and to the people of the Caribbean Community, which sought to address the matter of the increases in food prices and that of petroleum products with its domino effect on almost every aspect of the productive life of the nations of our region.

While not advocating the cultivation and consumption of cassava, it sought to join with those regional institutions and individuals who are seeking to find some creative strategies for facing the challenges which the current global situation is creating for us.

The communiqué sought to underscore the moral and social imperatives which make it necessary for us to address the current situation with a measure of urgency. It highlighted the reality of poverty under which many of our people live and the dehumanising effects of the same, the difficulties many are facing in providing for the most basic needs of their families, and points to the fact that, if this situation is not addressed, it will only sow the seeds of social unrest as we have already seen in neighbouring Haiti, and even some European cities.

This not only places a responsibility on the part of the Government to accelerate the programme of poverty alleviation, it also says that those of us who believe that we are okay because we can make ends meet, and that the problem is to be the concern of some other person or agency, may be in for a rude awakening when the social unrest turns violent in a society already overwhelmed by crime and violence.

We cannot ignore the fact that some analyses of the current high level of crime and violence posit the notion that poverty and the lack of means for acquiring the basic demands of daily living constitute a major force in the current scenario. So, even as we treat the call to cassava cultivation as a source of comic relief, it may really have in it the making of a tragedy.

In seeking to pursue a creative and responsible path, the Province has committed itself to the pursuit of a number of things, most of which will have to be undertaken at the local diocesan and congregational levels. The proposals include an acceleration of some of the interventions in which we are currently involved, including the operations of feeding programmes which provide a hot meal or care packages for the most needy, and in some instances the provision of cash to assist persons with their needs.

Sadly, one of the things which frustrate the attempts of the church to respond to those who are most in need is the spirit of entitlement on the part of those who are not the most needy and who often help themselves to the supplies intended for the needy. This is not unlike the response of civil society to any goods and services which the government provides for the poor and needy. These, however, constitute stopgap interventions.

Long-term strategies advocated include the following:
a Developing skills training programmes;
b Developing programmes of empowerment;
c Assisting with self-employment efforts;
d Improving education through the development of literacy programmes;
e Developing income-generating skills; and
f Collaborating with agencies and organisations involved in the alleviation of poverty.

While one can get almost any proposal to look good on paper, the real challenge comes with the implementation of the same. Realism has to inform what the church or any other institution attempts to do by way of poverty alleviation and social outreach. In this regard, it must be acknowledged that in many instances there are certain attitudinal blocks which one must overcome if one is to see social interventions being effective.

Granted, it may be true that at a point one is not only being confronted by attitudinal blocks on the part of those one is seeking to help but also the reality of the urgency of certain perceived needs, whether misplaced or otherwise.

I recall being at the launch of a goat-rearing project which was intended to empower men and women with hybrid livestock which would have the potential to increase their income, and listening to former minister of agriculture, Roger Clarke, exhorting recipients not to be like those for whom baby chicks and feed were provided, but who did not even leave the precincts of the building in which they were provided with the supplies before they sold them.

It has been my experience that in attempting a similar project in which sewing machines were provided, along with a course of training in various techniques in sewing, several participants never returned once they got their machine.

Attitudinal issues are also present among a generation of youth who say that they will not work for "slave wages", meaning that they will not work for anything that comes close to the minimum wage. At the same time, many of these individuals are the ones who, when asked what they can do readily respond, "Me can do anything, sir."

This is usually another way of saying they have no skill and often are challenged where literacy is concerned. Intervention strategies of a long-term nature which seek to empower persons must involve a commitment on their part to pursue some course of disciplined training, as there are few jobs that do not require some measure of competence, and, even as we talk so glibly about the Government providing jobs for people, we must understand that job readiness requires some commitment on the part of the prospective worker.

While the proposal from the church includes empowerment of persons, we recognise that this empowerment is not just about skills and competencies but also education in terms of values. Staff members at the Children's Hospital have spoken at times about seeing children who are malnourished wearing expensive bangles and jewellery on their tiny bodies, a clear case of misplaced values and priorities. The same is true of the many parents who are using their small wages to buy fast food for their lunch each day and keeping their children from school when they cannot find the lunch money for them to do the same thing.

There are so many ways in which to prepare a nutritious and inexpensive lunch at home and take it to work and to school. The commitment of the church is therefore to promote ways of budgeting and utilising the resources at hand in the most creative ways to satisfy the needs of families.

The church is also clear that the desired intervention at this time cannot come only from Government, but must be a collaborative exercise involving various non-governmental agencies, including the church, along with the mobilisation of the general population to address this major social concern.

Whatever the cultivation and consumption of cassava mean to us as Jamaicans, it cannot be just a source of comic relief. It comes out of a recognition of the serious situation we are facing as a people, and that our salvation in the current situation will not come from outside our nation but from a homegrown, domestically driven strategy.

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