For the love of our children

My heart grieves when I see what some parents are allowing their children to do, and often with adult consent, encouragement and funding, in public. This week, I saw children enjoying the last days of summer holidays, doing something that made my blood boil. A boy and girl were seated on a shady bench. The boy reached out to the girl and offered her a bite of his lunch. She smiled shyly then opened her mouth and closed her eyes. He pushed the sandwich towards her lips. Her mouth opened slowly and in one savage bite, she took half of it. As her mouth worked I could hear her moaning in delight. Could a hamburger be so good?

Modern Jamaican children have been led down a devilish path of foreign influences, which threaten to stifle our little island’s great culinary culture. When I drove a family friend around Kingston early this afternoon, she told me a story about how her mother had worked as a cook at King’s House. She recalled how she’d been sent to Constant Spring Market to buy cow skin so that it could be boiled to make gelatin and then have colouring added to it to make home-made jelly. I laughed. My grandmother had also worked as a cook and I had never come across this gem.

But, have we been swept up by the waves of industrial progress and forgotten what we owe to the next generation? I loved it when two third grader children with Jamaican-Bahamian parents, born and raised in the USA, said boldly to their class mates in the US that they loved turkey neck most in Thanksgiving dinner, NOT mashed potatoes and gravy. Hail, parents and grandparents!

This morning, I met a class mate of my daughter’s here in Jamaica and asked what she’d had for breakfast. “Breadfruit and bacon,” she told me, proudly. So, it should be. This week, I’ve fed my daughter a steady diet of porridge before going to school–not oats, but hominy and cornmeal. I can embrace progress with this seeming backward gesture, because Jamaican food manufacturers now produce good versions of these staples that take less time to boil at home. It’s no big deal for me to make separate servings of different porridges. I’ve a cupboard loaded now with peanut, plantain, hominy and cornmeal porridges. Come, Mister Hurricane, if you bad!

My wife’s also gone a bit retro and bought an ice cream churn so that we can spend weekend afternoons making homemade ice cream. So far, mango and soursop have been dished up and were hoping that the guests who enjoyed it with us will soon pack up and leave. Two weeks’ stay over from a Sunday lunch is a little, forward, no?

I’m not someone filled with crazy nationalistic notions. I don’t think that all children need to spend 6 weeks in the country areas each year with grandparents or family members who farm or fish. But, talking about nights spent walking through the bush with a fire-stick or no light, feeling your way to your destination, makes me think that the modern generation is in danger of turning into a bunch of soft people. A friend just told me a story of two men walking through the bushes one night and they came to a river. One man, who knew the area, said to his visitor friend “Just jump!” He leapt and waited for his friend to follow. His friend summoned up courage and jumped. He landed on a slippery rock but kept his balance and stood on dry land. His friend then pulled out a lighter and set fire to some twigs, and they both looked down to see a raging torrent of water that was about 8 feet wide and about 30 feet below them. “Just jump? You mad!” said the visitor.

You don’t need zip lines for adventures. Go to the river and catch crayfish. Try taking a herd of cattle to the pasture. Milk cows. Fetch water. Collect logwood. I’m sure I can sign my child up for some ‘adventure’ activities at a camp, but I like simple.

This week, I decided to be firmer in my efforts to stop this slide down a slippery slope to ‘I’m a getting’ lost. I introduced my daughter to some essentials of life. Others may not agree on their relative importance but I’m not going to stay friends with anyone who thinks these things are not essential. Here’s a list of things I made sure she experienced this week:
*How to eat piping hot cornmeal or hominy porridge with chunks of hardo bread dropped in (I concede that Excelsior crackers work great, too). [As a friend reminded me, whole wheat bread has no place being near porridge.]
*Drinking a water coconut from the shell, without a straw.
*Eating soft coconut jelly with a sprinkling of brown sugar. (She’s even made her own variations, leaving some water in the coconut so that the sugar starts to dissolve a little into syrup. Children are inventive.)
*Ackee and salt fish on water crackers. (Water crackers make many a snack excellent.)
*Eating a slice of hardo bread with condensed milk. (She’s young, so I did not introduce her to the full sandwich.)

Her life changed forever when she tasted the bread and sweetened milk. Blame me!

Some of these things are part of the ‘inside secrets’ of Jamaican life. We eat patty and coco bread. Don’t listen to foolish talk about “too much starch”! We eat corn soup. All hot drinks are ‘tea’. Ah so we dweet!

Driving through Faith Pen last week, it was a given in my daughter’s mind, newbie though she is–to stop for roast yam and salt fish–and the fish was SALTY.

Though some of these tasty treats may owe their origins to poverty and hard times that some may want to forget, they’re very much a part of who we are. Bulla and pear, anyone?

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Jobs jabberwock

A democratic country often judges its elected officials by what they do on several fronts. Maintaining peace within national borders is usually very important. So, too, is improving the economic well being of the nation. On that front, a broad concept like ‘economic growth’ or some measure of national output and income, is not usually that important in the minds of the general public, except in terms of what possibilities it suggests are open to people. Rather, people look at economic activity in terms of what it means to them, personally. So, positive developments with jobs, pay, and prices usually cause people to feel that things are going well, or not. When they lose jobs, suffer frozen pay or cuts in pay, or have to face rising prices, they have a negative view of how things are going.

Jamaican governments have had a very hard time since Independence presiding over an economy that struggles to create enough jobs for the great majority of the working population. Mass emigration has helped reduce some of the pressures that could have caused. Nevertheless, unemployment has been stubbornly high, in low double digits in percentage terms most of the time, and for significant periods, much higher, in the midteens or higher. World Bank data for the past 20 years show this well.

Rapidly increasing prices have been another burden on the nation. Jamaicans have lived with inflation exceeding 5 percent a year since most of the past 50 years. At times, the annual rate has been well over 15 percent.

So, people have lived with a prolonged period of employment insecurity and also lived with the uncertainty that comes with price inflation. Data on wages are not very good and I will argue that most people have lived with at the very best stagnant real wages, over most of the past two decades, even though data suggest that poverty has declined. Much of that improvement comes from the support of informal activities and remittances. So, Jamaicans have had to live with a long period in the economic doldrums. Add to that natural disasters knocking the economy back on its heels very frequently and you have the makings of an unhappy lot of people when you start talking about economic progress. So, when more jobs seem to be coming onto the horizon, it’s like a ship laden with goodies passing a barren island; those who see it start to jump excitedly and wave flags and make noise.

Recent days have witnessed one of those chronic periods where government officials act like the inhabitants of a barren island, and talk a lot about potential job creation. This is happening not long after grim data about rising unemployment left a bitter taste in the mouths of many people. There is no magic wand to creating jobs, and the rabbits come out of the hat with more difficulty when so many things are going against economic growth. I’m always made uneasy when people who ought to have details don’t offer any or many, or the details have to be dragged from them like pulled wisdom teeth.

Hopeful talk is circulating about the job-creating potential of Jamaica developing a logistics hub, to take advantage of planned expansion of the Panama Canal. Chinese investors seems to have become the most likely investment partner, and the PM’s recent visit to Beijing raised hope more that this and other investments would come from China. If Chinese investment underpins the project who will get the jobs created? Chinese or Jamaican or other nationals? If Jamaicans get jobs, what kinds will they be? Maybe, the potential investors–and they need not be Chinese, have different sets of expectations in terms of job creation. In short, we are in a fog, and official comments reflect that. The problem for the politicians is that they are one side of the table and the investors on the other side really have the good cards to play from the other side of the table. Talk is not action, and no action means no actual jobs. But, politicians love to talk.

Opposition MPs don’t seem to have mounted any sustained effort to call the government to task and flesh out their vision for employment growth and unemployment decline in Jamaica, short of some stock snarling when the unemployment figures come out.20130829-195449.jpg

Jamaica’s real problem is lack of investment, either domestic or foreign, without which output cannot increase, incomes cannot grow and jobs cannot be created. People talk about investor ‘confidence’ and how it needs to improve for the economic engine to start spinning faster.

20130830-054831.jpgBut, confidence is not investment. Big projects or small don’t matter till they are realized. People can’t live off politician’s words. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many are skeptical about new jobs appearing. Where? When? For whom? What type? For how long? What pay? These are some of the questions people want answered, but from what I’ve heard few answers come back.

Yes, mi bredrin

So, listen! What is going on in Jamaica? Why are the people so discriminating?

I don’t wear dreadlocks and I’m not a Rasta; my shaved head signals that I’m a ‘bald head’. Beat me up for that? No. I walk into stores and staff do not huddle in corners and whisper or point at me.

I have dark skin but I don’t bleach my face. I could land a job in any bank or prestigious office. When the men who want to wash my car windscreen get close they don’t take a leap back and say “What the….? ‘Im so hugly!”

I don’t wear coloured nails or high-heeled shoes. Joking apart, that’s a combination not to be fooled with in this little island. Alright, I’ve been known to spend an good few hours in a spa trying to make gnarly feet–bruised and battered after years kicking balls–look more fetching. But, sporting my open-toe sandals, I can stroll along the sidewalk without strange looks or wolf whistles.

But, here’s what I’ve noticed happening. I walk into some situation and start talking to the Jamaicans there. Things are going along smoothly, but there’s a certain stiffness presented to me. Then, I let something slip that shows that I have Jamaican credentials–a look, a movement of the mouth, kissing my teeth, some understanding that foreigners are not supposed to have such as the meaning of ‘bangarang’ or the difference between ganja and janga. Then, budum! “‘Im is wan a wi!” Everything changes. “Yu is fram here?” That sadly flat British accent of mine, that people have told me should be on radio or TV, has been giving people fits. “No, man! A Hinglan’ ‘im cum fram,” has just been turned on its head. From then on, I notice that the conversation changes and I get the looseness that I’d expected from the start. People had been putting on a front, thinly in most cases, but now they could dump that.

I tend to think of Jamaicans as generally friendly people and quite welcoming to outsiders. That’s what I know from experience. But is that because I’m Jamaican and feel comfortable with most situations I encounter, or can relate in some way to the local people around me, even though I’ve not lived here for a half century? That’s the image Bolt and Shelly-Ann are selling ‘to the world’. One love!

When a foreign diplomat told me she thought Jamaicans were a bit reserved and tended not to invite you into their homes, I nearly choked on the piece of sugar cane I was chawing (Jamaicans don’t chew). Where has this woman been living? Look, she has a splendid residence and I’d happily go there instead of inviting her to my roost. But, that’s not it.

It wouldn’t be unnatural for us to give each other a pass on friendliness. That how most people are with their own kind. But, Jamaicans have so many kinds–out of may, one people, right. You’d think the smart thing would be to nice up everybody. But, we nice up those whom we think are foreign, but really, really nice up those whom we think are from Yard (Jamaicans double up on a word to make it really strong). So, when I pull up for gas and don’t acknowledge the attendant with a “Mawnin,” I get a glare. Justified for such rudeness. But when I say “You cyan fillit wid 90?” I see a little smile and a glint as she asks me to “Pap di tank fi mi an tun arf yu henjin.” It’s popping.20130829-050144.jpgI’ve been in many situations where people have run off with some stereotype of me. It’s usually been funny.

The Welsh-speaking lady in my office building in North Wales, who came to meet Mr. Jones, and was taken aback when I greeted her and said in Welsh “I’m Mr. Jones.” That’s a very common Welsh name. “But, you’re black!” she’d said with incredulity. Right, in one.

Those customers in grocery stores in the US, who ask me where to find items on the shelves. I’m struggling to find the mayo, myself.

The man who parked his car outside the restaurant where I was standing, waiting for my wife, and gave me to key and said “Park it, for me.” He was shocked when I said “Park it, yourself!”

The official driver waiting at the airport in Uganda, who asked me if I’d seen a white man on my flight. I’d said no. “Where is that IMF man?” he grumbled. Hello! We had a great drive into Kampala 🙂

That’s life, sometimes, in that graded world that assigns lots of roles by colour or gender or race. Like my wife bristling when the server in a restaurant brings me the bill, and the silly look on the server’s face that follows when I hand it over to her, it’s all part of renegotiating the world. But, now, I’m having to be a bit more attentive.

Yesterday afternoon, I dashed out to do an errand before the rains lashed down and the afternoon traffic got heavy: I went to buy coconut water. The sign said boldy “Sorry. No coconut water”. I went in and asked the lady, politely, what was going on; water had been short for weeks, now. Coconuts dried up? She told me that the shop had had supplies earlier in the day, but they were now finished. “Cum back tomarra,” she said, coldly. I just reacted: “Mi a go Mandeville a mawnin.” Her head shot up. She held my hand. “Tek dis numba. Call back ’bout four a clack. Is den di truck due fi cum,” she said, helpfully. Inside track? I can’t be sure. But, I’m going to watch out.

I’ve long known that people make snap judgements on first meeting. That’s why I go to hardware stores in tee shirt and rough shorts or pants: I seem more like a handyman and get better service. Do not go there in a business suit: the shark will bite you.20130829-052330.jpg

Wheel and come again

Jamaican drivers would be described by many foreigners as ‘reckelss’, ‘dangerous’, ‘Kamikaze’, ‘suicidal’, etc. In other words, when in their presence on a road, you’re taking your life in your hands or better put, you’re putting your life at stake by taking to the roads. Trouble is, you have few alternatives for getting around the island.

Drivers would argue that they take calculated risks, and so accidents will happen. To add to the speed at which people travel in motorized vehicles, you have to add that many people are also using their cell phones. Road accidents take an horrific toll in lives here, and while cell phone use may not be a major culprit, it’s notable the the government is planning to ban cell phone use while driving.

20130827-162105.jpgLegislation has been discussed for several years and is still to be enacted to ban cell phone use and impose large fines for transgressing. This would be under a new Road Traffic Act, the last one dating from 2004.

During the three months since I arrived I’ve seen some stunning examples of phone use while driving, or riding.
*Policeman riding his motorbike with no hands and texting 😮
*Woman driving with both hands on steering wheel but cell phone poised so that she could look at screen while steering.
*Many instances of one-handed driving or riding, with cell phone propped on shoulder and ear, while chatting.

Admittedly, none of these drivers or riders appeared to be driving very badly. I’ve not yet encountered a speeding driver who was also using a cell phone. On the contrary, I’ve often noted the use with the abnormal slowness of the vehicle, perhaps getting key instructions about directions or the last moments of a TV soap opera. That beats the random stopping midway in a road when a driver decides to let out a passenger or pick someone up.

As has been the case in the USA, drivers who are accustomed to certain ways of driving may have a hard time making the change. People habitually use their phones while driving here, and it’s not yet illegal. I see little sign that drivers are weaning themselves off phones.

I’m often calling friends and they answer saying “I’m on my way to…with the kids…” I usually suggest calling back when they’ve reached their destination, but often get “No, man, mi cyan talk.” I’ve still hung onto my modified US behavior, of not answering while driving. I end many of my road trips with missed calls, not that I get many. Or, I check calls when I make a stop for gas or food. If I have a passenger their role is to handle my phone calls or messages: my little daughter knows this well.

But, it’s part of a laissez-faire attitude that may make road use much more dangerous than it needs to be. Data released by the National Road Safety Council indicate that between January 1 and August 27, 2012 in comparison to the same period in 2013, road fatalities have increased from 170 to 194, while crashes have jumped from 148 to 173. These figures represent a 14 per cent and 17 per cent hike in road deaths and road crashes, respectively. The nation has a target to reduce road deaths to 240 within three years.

During 2012, Jamaica recorded 260 road fatalities. This was the first time in 13 years, and the first time since the launch of the four-year-old ‘Save 300 Lives’ campaign that fewer than 300 persons died on the roads. From what I’ve seen and read, most accidents result from speeding, but are made worse by overcrowding vehicles, poor maintenance of vehicles, and poor road conditions, either due to weather or damaged surfaces.

20130827-173052.jpgI’ve seen the results of one major road accident every week I’ve been here so far. In addition, I’ve read, or heard, about at least one accident on a stretch of highway on which I was driving within 24 hours of my being on that stretch. That’s a bit unnerving. I drive with care, I think, but I am also adjusting how I drive and am driving faster and taking more risks than I used to. But, road conditions are different and require different tactics. I know that behind a lot of the speeding and overtaking is the frustration that comes from being saddled with an limited road network and its restrictions on how quickly journeys can be made.

Everyone’s a hustler

If Jamaica is known officially as the land of wood and water, it could also be known unofficially as ‘the land of the hustler’, or ‘the land of make it happen’. Jamaicans have rarely been criticized as lacking inventiveness. The word ‘jinal’ is really a term of praise and endearment. Any ordinary Jamaican will often say “Mi a do a likely t’ing” or “Mi a hussle…”. In other words, the person is just trying to get along, somehow.

Some of the things that one sees in Jamaica and think are haphazard actually have order and structure behind them. That order may not necessarily fit into systems of regulations that elected officials like to use. But they work and meet clear public needs. Take, for example, handcarts: you see them everywhere being pushed with anything on them from fresh produce, to iron bars, to mattresses. For people who want to do delivery work or be a vendor and cannot afford to buy or rent a vehicle, even a push bike, the cart is the way to go. Earlier this year, discussions began on regulating handcarts: the local government for Kingston and St. Andrew outlined plans to introduce a scheme to license carts and their operators, for a J$3000 fee (about US$ 30). At the time, a spokesman had claimed proudly that carts “will be colour-coded, letter-coded and number-coded”. Focus was going to be on the capital’s market districts. Those discussions have not been completed, so the carters operate without official rules.

Every now and then the authorities clamp down on vendors and handcart pushers. Last week reports of vendors–supposed to be licensed–being moved from sidewalks; many had complained that their licenses had not been renewed. The police officer in charge had told them to go to the relevant office to get the permits and say that he sent them! Speak for them, big man!

Over recent weeks, police have been seizing handcarts. The arguments in both instances are much the same: blocking busy thoroughfares, operating illegally, etc. But, these people are often caught in bureaucratic Catch 22 situations: get licensed, but license are not being issued; pay fees, but fees structure not determined. How can you expect people to change in a vacuum? What can they do to get a livelihood in the meantime? Think, people!

But, you really have to wonder if the Jamaican police force is manned by a bunch of fresh recruits from Iceland, with no notion of what many people have to do to make a living. When I saw a picture of piles on carts dumped, I had to ask whether this heavy-handed approach was the only way. Di people dem jus a hussle! Why you ha fi treat dem so? Made from scrap wood and pallets, with old tyres reworked to make wheels, and steering wheels and mechanism fashioned somehow the cart says a lot about how Jamaicans will try somehow to get a thing done. People scrambling to town on a bus or in a taxi, to try to sell a bag full of produce. Higglers taking a chance on jetting to Panama or Aruba to buy cheap items to then resell at home. Briefs, panties, hair adornments, funky electronic gadgets… Ah, but it may be about power and control. That wouldn’t be a first. Don’t let me start a rant about slavery days!

I often meet hustlers on the golf course or just on any sidewalk. Last week, I met a man walking on the golf course, he was collecting mangoes as I’ve seen on many occasions. I asked how many he usually collected each day. “If mi get two-tree, mi do arite, God bless,” he replied. We walked together a few strides and I asked how much longer he’d be able to pick, as the season’s almost over. He said maybe another week or so, because even the green mangoes had already been picked from a few trees. But, he’d pick those if he could find enough, and put them up to ripen. I too had my bag for mangoes. I like to eat them when it’s hot, as does almost everyone. He gets them for nothing and sells maybe for J$50-100. I think he needs the living. I walked on without picking more. I was hustling, too, but my need seemed less.

A well-educated professor, who was visiting recently had been lamenting how we did not seem to make good use of the regular bounty of fruit and vegetables. I mentioned that several people I’d met we’re using mangoes to make jams and chutney, in some cases to sell. We had eaten more than our fill in the few weeks we’d been here, but if I got more than we could eat or the fruit were too ripe, then I would cut them up and freeze them, for use in cooking or ice cream. My wife’s already made one batch of mango ice cream. She loves it that I can hustle. My callaloo plants, though not for sale, tell me that those who grow and sell do many of us a great service. Like the woman selling pears and candies every day at the same junction. All the newspaper vendors. All the car charger sellers.
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In a land where the informal economy is large and important–some put it at about 40-50 percent of economic activity–bringing things into formal structures shouldn’t be done with sledge hammers, bulldozers, and seizures. That’s like the jackboot mentality and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people will protest and yell that their interests are being ignored. But, keep stripping away at that very thin fabric that has frayed but not yet torn, and manages to stop a society falling apart completely, and see what happens?

I’d really love to drive around this island and know that the reason I cannot get jelly coconuts and fruit and vegetables and new briefs as I drive around is because the license doesn’t exist or had not been renewed, especially if that can’t be done.

Who’s being foolish?

Tear down this wall?

One intriguing aspect of the informality that characterizes Jamaican economic and social life is housing. If you’ve visited the island and not noticed the galvanized zinc/corrugated iron surroundings for some communities, and the plyboard sidings for many homes, which mark shanty towns, then you were asleep or not paying attention. If you’ve missed them, then drive near some of the gullies on lower ground in Kingston, or alongside rivers around the island.

“I would tear them down,” I heard someone utter last night as we approached Kingston from the west, along Washington Boulevard. “Then what would you do?” I asked. Unsightly, they may be, but important they are, too. They display very clearly some of the strains put on a nation as it develops. Poor people looking for work and new opportunities far outstripping available housing. With a large enough housing stock, one could see more rooms to let absorbing most of the newcomers, if they were able to afford rents. When Caribbean migrants went to the UK, USA, and Canada, after the mid-1940s, that’s what many found, and they did not need to make shanty towns. They often lived in substandard and overcrowded conditions, at least, initially.

Shanty dwellings or similar are not new, historically or geographically, especially as urban areas developed and people left the land to find work in larger towns and cities.

Estimates put squatter populations at about 1 billion, worldwide, about 1/6 of world total. Other estimates put the number of squatters in Jamaica at about 1 million, about a third of the total population. Poor services, limited amenities, high-density living, drugs, crime, diseases–all are part of daily squatter life.

Those squatters, despite their parlous and shambolic housing, often mean votes. They certainly do in Jamaica. Who’d want to dislodge voters from their homes? Keeping people in such circumstances, however, keeps the embers burning under a possible tinderbox, so, periodic social explosions should not come as a surprise. These communities can also be the source of many vibrant and creative social elements, as people claw and scrape to rise from the slums.

Last year, sociologist Peter Espuit wrote an article about Jamaica’s housing challenges. It explained much of the social and economic origin of the migration from rural areas to urban ones, especially Kingston. He also focused on the inequalities to which housing added. Importantly, he looked at the political significance of squatter and low-income communities in the tribal cauldron of Jamaican politics.

Maybe, if you have no constituents or no national links then you can talk glibly about tearing down the zinc. I don’t see any spanking new housing sprouting up to take any of the shanty dwellers. Clearing the areas without any provision for the new homeless is tantamount to insanity.

Perhaps, it was propitious that today’s Daily Observer included an article about Digicel’s role in revitalizing downtown Kingston. By bringing business activity back into the long-rundown waterfront area, hopes have been raised. Digicel added to life by investing in rehabilitating Coronation Market. Interesting, revitalizing housing downtown doesn’t get much mention. Poor people adjacent to budding business areas often sit awkwardly. Think about the City of London or Wall Street.

However, for life to be brought back into downtown housing, which now has swathes of slum housing in what were once good housing areas, one would need something like gentrification to occur. Is that likely? This phenomenon, common in developed countries, has featured little in developing nations, including the Caribbean. Developing countries have focused more on new housing rather than rehabilitation of existing housing.20130825-141804.jpgJamaica may not have a substantial enough cohort of identified gentrification types for that to be a realistic trend, near-term–affluent singles or childless couples, homosexuals, and artists or ‘Bohemian’ types.

Enough Jamaicans know what it is to live in poor housing, or to have limited services. I know many who drive past the shanty dwellings and think back to either childhood days or life in deep rural communities, if not their own, then for someone close. Go, ahead! Think about tearing them down.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (August 25)

Good:

  • Jamaica passed the first test under the latest IMF arrangement, subject to Executive Board approval. Can performance remain good?
  • Queens Park Rangers (QPR) start off the football season well, with 3 wins and a draw to lead the English Championship, and are favorites to take the title and rebound immediately to the English Premier League. 🙂 Early days, yet. But, you have to realise that my heart has a soft spot for the team of my childhood.

Bad:

  • The ‘will he, won’t he?’ nature of the brewing leadership race in the Jamaica Labour Party. Audley will Shawly run? With Pearnel Charles 20130824-165741.jpgheading things, I would look at the shifting hair colour for guidance.

Ugly:

  • The bubbling discontent shown by Renee Anne Shirley, former Executive Director of Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCo). She has tried over recent weeks to set the record straight about the agency’s drug testing record and its weaknesses. 20130824-211140.jpgShe went ‘rogue’ this week by penning a condemnatory article for Sports Illustrated. Most of her claims were left unchallenged, but in response, JADCo has issued a statement with more data and explanation of its recent records. Good to be reactive? Would they have done so without being ‘put to the fire’? Why do I think not?
  • QPR’s new away uniforms.20130824-163447.jpg Those green and yellow hoops look fine on a rugby team. But, really?

Branded Jamaica

If I believe what I read yesterday, I would think that some Jamaican musical artiste is “appalled and disappointed”. Reports indicated that her appearance at the Rastafesta event in Canada has been cancelled. imageQueen Ifrica has been engulfed in a public firestorm since she used her moment on stage during Jamaica’s Independence gala to denounce homosexuals. Significantly, the Ministry of Culture, which put on the event, was not amused: it issued a statement where it regretted that an artiste had used the platform “to express her personal opinions and views on matters that may be considered controversial, rather than to perform in the agreed scripted and rehearsed manner”. She is, of course, entitled to her personal opinion, but should she have used her own time and space to do that, rather than at a government-organized public event?

Russia found itself recently in a similar swell of international disapproval because of its policies regarding propaganda supporting homosexuality. Russia is entitled to make whatever policy it wishes, but how did its views sit with athletes who have to visit the country to compete in the World Championships last week and what happens if they engage in the banned propaganda? The matter
takes on a different tone when Russia hosts the next winter Olympics, and its policies are set against the Olympic ideals of friendship, fair play, and solidarity.

Both artiste and country might have fallen on the same thorn, homosexuality, but similar controversy has faced others over other touchy issues. In the USA, those for or against gun control or abortion, for example, have had their views assessed and been forced to reconsider. China has found itself facing international condemnation of its human rights records. Years ago, South Africa’s apartheid policy was a hot potato.

In the Caribbean, I remember Barbados’ prime minister banning Jamaican dance hall artistes, Movado and Vybz Kartel, from visiting the country in 2010, citing concerns about consequences from their violent lyrics. Also Vybz Kartel was banned in other Caribbean due to his profane lyrics. Time was when Rastafarianism was vilified as both a religious and cultural movement in Jamaica. But, isn’t time a wonderful healer.

One simple modern truth is that you cannot hide in this world. Modern technology now puts any seemingly obscure event into the eyesight or earshot of the whole planet. A policeman beating a suspect. A politician saying something offensive. A burglar creeping through a window. All are now easily captured as images and sound, then shared. That wasn’t Queen Ifrica’s problem, but she seemed to forget that her provocative comments would be seen and heard, not just in little Jamaica, but also in a bigger country she was about to visit, and worldwide. Canada has a more-liberal attitude toward homosexuality and someone should have suggested to Queen Ifrica to hold her comment till after the rasta gig. Maybe someone did but she couldn’t resist the rush of excitement on stage in front of 25,000 spectators. I wonder if she had planned to give the same anti-homosexual message in Canada; we may never know.

Whether Jamaica realizes it or not, it has a multidimensional image in the rest of the world. Sure, it’s great to be known for producing fast runners like rain. We love to be loved for our music. But, the world knows us, also, for a range of less-flattering traits. All the recent talk about ‘brand Jamaica’ and whether that would be tarnished by revelations of failed drug tests by star athletes did not tackle the prospect that Jamaica has many brand marks. One brand is its violence: that is why some countries give their citizens severe warnings about personal safety when visiting the island, and why all-inclusive resorts are popular. “Jamaicans are violent. Beware!” The message is clear. Tourists are warned about driving on our roads: “Jamaican drivers are dangerous and reckless.” The message is clear.

Another brand is that the island is a drug paradise. Tourists may believe that smoking cannabis is legal and that they can get away with toting a spliff. Sorry! Jamaica tries to correct that image, but, I suspect the message is lost.

Jamaica is branded an economic failure. Some will try to contest that view; others will say only the blind cannot see it. The fact that we are trying anew with an IMF arrangement is clear enough to me.

One more brand is the country’s anti-homosexual stance, often seen as uncompromising and very violent. This is not something to deny, but it’s also something that the rest of the world seems to lie less about the island. We are not alone, but we are renowned.

Queen Ifrica could have wanted to promote that last brand. Was she naive to do so just before a gig in a country with a more-accepting philosophy? Canadian reactions shouldn’t have been unexpected. Perhaps, the adverse Jamaican reaction was novel. Did she, who seems so wise in her social and political observations, just lose the plot? I wonder if she’s getting ready to assail us on other dislikes she harbours. Watch out politicians. ‘Don’t cry, Mr. Bunting’ may soon seem like a nursery rhyme. Look out media moguls. Watch out other fans. Will the Queen call out at her next Jamaican concert those who bleach their skin? The mouth is ready to bite more hands that feed it? Why don’t I think so?

Jamaican ambassadors, formal and informal have their hands full trying to present their country at its best. I don’t know whether Usain Bolt has had to field questions on all or some of these brand images. Maybe the PM, on her recent jaunt to China, has had her ear bent. Did Canada’s High Commissioner to Jamaica have a word with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in private or formally about how our Queen may be seen as an unwelcome guest?

Just as a brand may sell well, so too may it be taken quickly off the shelves. Sponsors running away from brands is often a bad sign. Tell that to the athletes. Who’s running to buy brand Jamaica? Who’s getting ready to clear us off the shelves?

Where is the Jamaican economy’s ‘Donkey man’?

The Moscow 2013 World Athletics Championship saw the birth of a new Jamaican superhero. Javon Francis, an 18 year-old high schooler at Calabar, who hails from Bobo Hill. He unleashed an explosive last leg gallop in the final of the men’s 4×400 meters relay, which catapulted the Jamaican team from 5th place to 2nd, then held off a fast-advancing Russian for dear life to win his team a silver medal.20130822-172105.jpgAt the end of the race we had the now iconic image of one of his team mates shaking his legs while he lay on his back, trying to shake the lactic acid out of the limbs and revive his body. Soon, the world learned that this youth was nicknamed ‘Donkey man’. The story is that a coach at Calabar once set him to catch another younger star athlete, and when Francis was asked why he’d not caught that gazelle, he answered “I’m not a donkey.”

Today, the IMF mission reported that Jamaica had passed the first test under the latest arrangement, so should be eligible for a disbursement once these results are confirmed by the IMF Executive Board. Starting programs well is normally not a major problem: they are designed to have reachable near-term targets, which are easier to hit. The real test, like in the passing of a relay baton, is whether the country can go the full course, hanging on to get the prize, like ‘Donkey man’.

Analysts and politicians often speak about an economy’s engines of growth. To my mind, Jamaica has a real short- term problem, because the economy does not appear to have any robust or reliable engine that could pull the Jamaican train out of the terminus and head to some destinations along the train line.

The IMF program is meant to lay foundations for growth. It discusses several areas. Measures will be introduced to improve the business climate. Labour market reforms will be made to improve flexibility in the job market and reduce mismatches between training and job opportunities. The government will aim to improve public sector operations, including fiscal reforms, and enhance the courts system. Measures will also aim at lowering the cost of energy. Planning is underway to make Jamaica a logistics hub. The government will develop micro, small and medium enterprises. Small farmers will be helped with the introduction of nine agro parks to help establish an agricultural supply chain. Other measures will aim to improve the resilience of rural communities at risk from climate change and natural disasters.

Laudable though they are, I see no ‘donkey man’ in that set who will run from a losing position, screech past the crowd ahead, and continue driving its economic legs and financial arms to the finish line, to rousing applause from national and international onlookers.

The cynics out there hold a natural fear that Jamaica will not make any major changes and the economy will continue to limp along in its seemingly casual ‘business as usual’ state. Growth numbers will remain anaemic.20130822-181646.jpg We will perhaps see some signs of newness, like with the uniforms for the last major championships, but much of what is underneath is the same tried and tested.

I’ve not seen or heard much recently about the engines whom some thought could–creative industries, information and communication, agriculture, construction. Have they withered and died, like many other green shoots? Or, were they never really as muscular as some suggested?

Finance is a necessary lubricant to this whole exercise and the IMF money is an important part of that. More funding is needed, but its not enough. The PM’s current visit to China may see her bring back a few crocus bags filled with funding, and she will roll off the jet like the market women on the jitneys to Kingston, ready for a new day’s business.

Of course, none of it may matter because the whole thing is wrong and can’t work without some fundamental changes, from top to bottom.

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Mind sets

Perhaps, I come with an obvious bias, but I was shocked when a diplomat, who’s been living in Jamaica commented that without golf being available, life here would be difficult because “there’s not much to do”. I thought briefly before offering a response.

I accept that, compared to some large cities like London, Paris, or New York, Jamaica has fewer museums, theatres, sights of historical renown, large parks, castles (though NYC draws a blank there, too), huge rivers, trappings of regal splendour (sorry, NYC, you lose again, too), fancy and famous restaurants (yes, London stands up proudly), glitzy bars (Jamaica has lots of bars, but glitz costs a lot of moolah), swanky shopping arcades, sidewalks filled with name-brand stores and associated celebrities…

Perhaps, I’m too content thinking that exploring a country that, although physically small, has so much land that is hardly well-known to even its oldest residents, holds sufficient interest to keep so-called ‘busy’ people enthralled.

Assuming–and it does not seem an heroic assumption–that the average workaday person is spending between 8-12 hours a day doing their job, spsending about up to two hours a day commuting, spends about 3 hours communing with family, loved ones and domestic servants, and between 6-8 hours asleep, that’s much of most weekdays filled. Of course, each of those days could have a good slug of free time to browse around stores, or museums, or bars, etc., or to take in a show. But, more ‘free’ time comes at the weekend.

Alright, if golf is your passion, then bang goes maybe six hours over the 48 hours of the weekend. You’re religious, or even if not truly a believer in God or some supreme being, it’s better in Jamaica to pretend that you believe because explaining non-believing will take up much of what’s left of the precious weekend. So, that means about 3-4 hours of time in places of worship, and that’s without any socializing, which may be important if you truly want to gauge the temperature of a country that is foreign to you. That’s 10 hours gone, already. Time for sleep? Forget lying in, because you want to
max out on doing things, so figure on 16 hours over two days so that batteries are fully recharged. So, 26 hours gone.

What’s can you do in 22 hours? If you want to explore, you would have to allow a good 2-4 hours driving to get somewhere interesting, and that’s without any road problems because the marl patch up has been washed away by the latest rain squall. So, 18 hours to ‘do stuff’.

Let’s assume that you are health-conscious. Hiking, biking, running, kayaking, rafting, swimming, in some beautiful and challenging terrain is an option. I understand that an enormous amount of people pay hard-earned lolly to go to Jamaica to do this, and some have it year round. Imagine.

Health-conscious but activity challenged? How about the beach? Jamaica has some very nice spots. Eighteen hours hanging out at some of those would seem a good thing to try. True, the sun may be intense and so may be the heat, and though there’s shade in many places, the heat has no ‘off’ button. Plenty of people seem to make a living catering for these problems, though, and someone to lather your body with oils, whether natural and no-name but produced by Ras Rubbup in the hills or a brand that has so much printed on the label that you could use that as reading while relaxing.

So, 18 hours of body bronzing with or without some oily TLC pampering. That’s the stuff to make your friends on Facebook send a stream of comments and emoticons indicating that they love you, but… BFF no more, maybe?

But, you must get hungry during that time. Well, body bronzing places and good eating places are not necessarily close together, though they need not be too far. The food things won’t be hard to work out, but you may have to think ahead.

If you are a fishist, then Little Ochi or Border are not just a spin around the block if headed off to Portland or Negril or just some little sweet spot on the north coast. But, slickened with herbal oils, you may be able to slide easier and get there for a good fish feed.

If you are a porkist or just meatist, then finding your poison will be easier, unless our mind is set on jerk at its finest and you had to get to Boston. But, let’s just say that you are adventuresome.

Roadside food is never too far away. Oh, the soup doesn’t have a fancy name? Problem, in the land of “No problem”. Look, janga and mannish are about as fancy as it’s going to get, so just roll with it being called ‘chicken’ or ‘corn’ or ‘cow cod’. We don’t do bouillabaisse. We don’t do broth, unless you’re sick. We do tea, made with fish, but you don’t drink it with your pinky pointing northeast; you put it to your head and slurp slowly, if not quietly. Watch for bones. Watch out, too, for ‘the food’: a dumpling or piece of yam falling onto your face from a short distance is still a shocking experience, though not as traumatic as when the food falls to the ground. Then, the true power of latent learning comes as you utter words heard from the mouth of the gardener but not understood, till now. “Wha wrang widisya piece a yam, man!” (Notice, the Jamaican question is rhetorical and declarative.) Like the soup, you may have to season your contempt for the inconsiderate morsel with a “to r*%^” (speak to a Jamaican for clarification, here :-)).

So, you’re bronzed, oiled, and your belly full. Did we get drinks, at all? Cha! How we could forget? Notice, how a day out in Jamaica has somehow changed the way you think and form speech. Me better grab one a disya jelly cokenut di man ha pon di kyart. Like Elisa Doolittle, there’s a “By Jove, she’s got it!” moment coming. If life were a musical, then all the street vendors, and people working in nearby fields would suddenly appear and throw on straw hats carefully hidden under their stalls, wave machetes and hoes, and break into some spirited singing and dancing, flinging themselves and their wares all over the place is well choreographed moves. “Mi sehhh, day oh!”

What a way to end the day. Time to roll into bed and take a few winks before another workaday week presses the weary soul.

My wife and her colleagues were planning their annual picnic and produced a list of places on which staff could vote; she did not have a veto. They opted for somewhere on the north coast, based around some all-incisive hotel. We’d wanted to go to Chukka Cove, which sounded like a lot of fun. Maybe, we had the wrong idea of what would be fun to do. Not everyone is into zip lining or snorkeling or anything that doesn’t involve an iPad or Kindle. But, that’s what makes life interesting.
I’m intrigued that the choices did not include any spots off-island. There’s so much more to do abroad, I hear. Maybe, cost was an issue, and then there are those annoying visa restrictions to get into other countries. Cha!

Better get myself ready to be bored out of my mind for a couple of days. But, wait. My cousin’s suggested I play golf at Runaway Bay on Satday. Saved!

One love 🙂

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