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Learning, living and giving – the Tobago way

B Y   B E V E R L Y   J O H N S O N ,   A S S O C I A T E   P R O F E S S O R   O F   N U R S I N G

Tobagonian nurses proudly display the fruits of a PLU project to spruce up a breastfeeding room at the local hospital: one PLU student created posters, like the one at left, and the university contributed money to have colorful curtains and pillows made for the room.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Led by Associate Professor Beverly Johnson, nine baccalaureate nursing students spent March-April 1998 in Tobago, a southern Caribbean island barely 125 miles northeast of Venezuela. The temporary Tobagonians took the same courses as their peers at PLU, although living and learning in a new culture added a dimension to the classes and clinical experiences. The 1998 PLU-Tobago contingent followed on the heels of Professor Marilyn Levinsohn, who took the first group of PLU nurses to Tobago for the entire spring semester of 1997.

What can I say about Tobago (te-BAY-go)? First, the people there opened their lives to us in so many different ways: they shared their family life, their work, their play, their food, their music and their affection. We experienced the beauty of their island, too: the sun, the beaches, the quietness of small villages and their bustling city of Scarborough. Tobagonians always asked us, "How is your visit to Tobago?" and told us, "Enjoy your stay on Tobago."

Trinidad & Tobago

LOCATION: Sister islands in the southern Caribbean, roughly 125 miles northeast of Venezuela
LAND AREA: 5,130 sq. km, slightly smaller than Delaware
CLIMATE:Tropical, with rainy season from June to December
POPULATION: 1.13 million
ETHNIC GROUPS: Black 43%, East Indian 40%, mixed 14%, white 1%, Chinese 1%, other 1%
RELIGIONS: Roman Catholic 32.2%, Hindu 24.3%, Anglican 14.4%, other Protestant 14%, Muslim 6%, none or unknown 9.1%
LANGUAGES: Engilsh (official), Hindi, French, Spanish
OCCUPATIONS: Services 62%; manufacturing, mining and quarrying 14%; construction and utilities 13%; agriculture 11%
Source: E-Conflict ™ World Encyclopedia & Simulation at www.emulateme.com

      The people were truly our partners in learning. Their healthcare delivery system is much different than ours at home, and we spent many hours working alongside doctors and nurses in a variety of settings: hospital clinics, community health centers and home health visits. On Tobago, community health nurses know their individual and family clients intimately, emphasize health education and view families as responsible for their own health. The major medical issues on the island are diabetes, hypertension and AIDS.
      We constantly reminded ourselves to ask the question, "Why is this different in Tobago than in the United States?" rather than to simply say, "Well, it is just a developing country." Here was an island where pay is low but literacy is high, and nearly 100% of children are immunized.
      Despite the intensive professional exposure, much of our learning occurred during the time of just being and conversing with people as colleagues and new friends. How much we can learn from Tobagonians about taking time to talk and laugh with each other!
      On Tobago, many kinds of family constellations exist, and gender relationships, roles and expectations may be different than ours. Women are advancing in the work world and attending universities. (In fact, 70 to 90 percent of the graduates of the University of the West Indies on Trinidad, the sister island, are female.) Men seem to be struggling to find a place for themselves, since the island economy is no longer based on agriculture.
      The government employs about two-thirds of the workers, and tourism is increasing as a major part of the economy. All this is occurring when the minimum wage is US $1 per hour, and the maid at our guesthouse is earning about US $120 per month.

"How much we can learn from Tobagonians about taking time to talk and laugh with each other!"


      So what memories do we take from our time on Tobago? These multicultural, self-described "rainbow people" have few financial resources yet place a high value on their families and their time together. And while the friendly Tobagonians welcomed us as strangers, we left as friends.
      Our group from PLU was privileged to have experienced the reality of the daily lives of these people. I believe we are better persons, women and nurses because of our time on Tobago.

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