Mark Wignall wrote an article in the Jamaica Observer earlier this week, “It’s not the hot weather, it’s mass ignorance“, which should make any ‘decent’ Jamaican understand the negative impressions that many have of us, not just the view of foreigners, but also fellow citizens. His essential argument was that Jamaicans lack basic civility. It’s a sweeping judgement, and I don’t agree with it in totality, though I recognise many of the behaviours he described. Then again, I’ve seen similar boorish behaviour everywhere I’ve lived and also exhibited by people who claim to be ‘better-than-most’, eg, those who are strong adherents of religious tenets.
Ironically, just yesterday, a Jamaican friend, who himself is often a columnist for The Gleaner, sent me an op-ed written in 2011 by a Gambian professor of political science at Miami (Ohio) University, who was eulogistic about Jamaica and its people. One quotation from his piece gives a good impression of what the professor experienced, in his albeit brief two-week visit: “About Jamaicans, you could not meet a more pleasant, generous, purpose-driven, professional people, be it at a private home, airport, resort hotels, hospitals, or in high or elementary schools.” I don’t agree with the professor either in his sweeping positive spin on the land that we love.
Why so far apart, though, in the two observations? One can argue that the professor did not have enough time to see the real Jamaica, with its rough and tumble attitude to any and all. One could argue that Mr. Wignall, though duly slighted, swept too many with his broom. Bottom line: each is entitled to his view and each can bring enough evidence to support his case. What may be important about the professor’s perspective may be that he had a great experience as a tourist and was more likely to recommend to friends and acquaintances that they visit the island. We hope that they do not encounter too much of what Mr. Wignall had to face; but we need to acknowledge that the awful side may not be far from hitting us in the face.
I think that in most societies, there is a struggle going on over whose attitudes will prevail or appear to be most widely accepted. We could see it as a simple, old-fashioned, fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and it’s carried on in many areas of life. Almost all Jamaicans know that there is and has been a ‘rude boy’ or ‘bad man’ culture in this society, and it has often been put there as THE way to go. Music has had its rude boy supporters but also those who wanted to sing a counter tune. The culture is something that has transcended Jamaica itself and migrated with the Jamaican diaspora, notably to the UK. Many, however, have and still reject that ‘style’. Maybe those who do reject it do so without sufficient vigour or with a faltering or too-soft approach so that their real and strong dislike is drowned out. I remain convinced that it is an aspect of Jamaica, but is not more ALL of Jamaica than is the murderous face of the society.
I’m more inclined to clutch that view given where I am as I write. I really enjoy going to Strawberry Hill, whether for a day or several. As pleasant things go in Jamaica, I’ve yet to discover another place that never disappoints and always has something new to offer. I’m there again, for a couple of days, alongside a group of people also there for some reflection on their work and its priorities. It offers calm, solitude, quiet, good service, wonderful views., and more. It’s a great advertisement for Jamaica because it is full of basic civility. It may be that way because it offers that to those who ‘have’. However, I believe it is that way because it is not immersed in a culture of rudeness. Most of the people visiting at the same time are Jamaicans, and a good number also from elsewhere in the Caribbean, but there are also North Americans. Strawberry Hill is the kind of place that would fit the Jamaica seen by Prof. Saine. Probably, the same could be said for many whom one meets or things one experiences in the Blue Mountains. The staff at Strawberry Hill are always very nice; so too most of the people one meets coming up the hill as far as Newcastle. Last evening, while driving to and from Holywell in the waning light and the descending rain, we had many opportunities for rudeness as other vehicles met us on the narrow road. But, everyone was ready to give and take and no one bothered with any rudeness. “Come on, man, you can pass” displaced “Is mi a go tru. Yu ha fi wait!” Driving through the mountains, people were not focused on making life difficult for us or each other. Rather, they were just getting on with their own, sweet, business. No road blocks. No rocks being thrown. No insults. No pestering. We felt bad having passed a couple walking down the hill as we drove up when we met them again as we came down; we had a car full already. They did not gesticulate as if we had done them some wrong. No one was troubling any one else.
I spoke this morning after breakfast to the manager at Strawberry Hill and his wife, who handles events. I mentioned that this place is hard to leave in a sadder or angrier emotional state than when you arrived. You often see people with broad smiles in the morning. To me, that’s telling: many people are not joyful in the morning. Up in the Blue Mountains, the air is fresh and cool. If you live in Kingston, which is habitually very hot, that alone would make you feel good. But, visitors to Chris Blackwell’s famed island outpost, are not Just Kingstonians, as I noted a few sentences ago. My ear identified several Britons and other Europeans amongst the hotel’s guests. Maybe, the original point that Mr. Wignall dismissed–that the heat has something to do with the attitudes–has to be reconsidered in the mountains. No doubt, Strawberry Hill and the Blue Mountains can be seen as oases, but they are not really the only bright spots in what could be called a massive social and cultural desert. More generally, I think what one experiences up here shows that given the opportunity to be decent, many more people still want to take that route than be boorish.