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WILD COOT: 1962 and all that

Harry Russell

WILD COOT: 1962 and all that

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On the 16th of February 2012 the University of the West Indies celebrated 50 years of contribution to the territories of the region.
Coincidentally, this year also marks the 50th year of Jamaica’s independence. Celebrations took place at Mona where the original batch of students marked its opening in 1948.
I was thrilled to be invited to the celebrations, being one of the first graduates of the full university. Previously the university had operated as a college of the University of London.
It had every right to celebrate, being one of the more successful unifying forces of the Caribbean islands – West Indies cricket being another.
A handful of 1948 graduates were present and a few of the 1962 graduates from Jamaica attended, but I happened to be the only graduate who trekked from the Eastern Caribbean to attend the celebrations.
I was treated like royalty.
On Thursday, February 16, we assembled at 3 p.m. in front of the Assembly Hall – along with hundreds of students from the Diaspora attending Mona Campus – to witness the parade of 1948 and 1962 graduates and the flag-raising ceremony. Flags from all of the UWI participating territories were raised and the Jamaica Regiment Band played the national anthem of Jamaica.
Campus Registrar Dr Camille Bell-Hutchinson made opening remarks while Professor Gordon Shirley addressed the gathering.
Friday was declared Caribbean Day and booths were set up where typical foods specific to each of the various islands were on display for sale and sampling. I had some fish cakes from the Barbados booth.
Saturday was reserved for the homecoming guest, who was to be the main feature at a luncheon at the Visitors Lodge and Community Centre.
Professor Orlando Patterson, a 1962 graduate and now holding a chair in the United States, addressed the gathering after diners had been serenaded by the Kes Chin Orchestra with favourites from the past. Here, more Jamaican 1962 graduates joined the celebrations.
Professor Patterson chose to make a comparison between the development of Jamaica and Barbados. I detected an uneasy reaction to his observations from the many Jamaicans present.
He said that the two territories became independent around the same time. They were both left basically at the same stage of development by the British – public service, education, economy and ethical standards.
He asked why Barbados progressed and Jamaica regressed. Funny enough, he remembered that Barbadian students were regarded as stodgy and pedantic but figured that maybe being careful and disciplined was responsible for part of the difference and resulted in a two-to-one relationship with the American dollar as against the Jamaican 80-to-one.
His further observations may have made the audience uncomfortable but I believe that the professor was making his speech a wake-up call to the Jamaicans, not a criticism.
On Sunday there was a commemoration service at the University Chapel where Reverend Dr Paul Gardner gave the sermon. He reminded the congregation of attending graduates and students that we at the university were in the “valley”, not on the hilltop, and our command was to reach out to the people of the Caribbean to make their lives better.
He was proud that the university had produced many leaders at all levels but saddened because those leader had affected so little.
He challenged the graduates to ask themselves what contribution they had made to the upliftment of Caribbean people.
We had produced prime ministers, economists, politicians, teachers and bankers (I thought that he looked at me), yet we were far short of cohesiveness.
I sat there in the pew asking myself what contribution I had made – me, the Wild Coot! Maybe setting up the banking systems or improving indigenous banking throughout the archipelago could count as a contribution.
I nearly put up my hand to tell the preacher not to count me as a failure because I suspected that he was going to start calling names.
I must highlight that irrespective of Professor Patterson high praise for Barbados, Barbados and Jamaica were slowly becoming closer in standards again.