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Imagine that! I wrote a piece yesterday, which featured Minister Roger Clarke, and there I was in an audience under a big tent, listening to him, at the launching of an agricultural financing project in Morant Bay, St. Thomas.

I’ll be interested how the local media report this event, but I have several reactions. The man is keenly aware of his image, and embraces it. He told the audience how he loves seeing his cartoon in the papers and wishes he could see one everyday; he frames each one and can’t wait for when he gets his royalties for helping sell papers. He mimicked the Boltian pose from yesterday’s cartoon, and shouted its caption.

I was surprised when he touched on something similar to what I wrote, by saying that people must be wondering “What is it with these people and chicken back?” In making fun of his own image, he tried to clarify himself, saying that he had urged people to eat things other than chicken back–chicken meat, pork, fish, beef…and ox tail. He quipped that those who were now worried about the poor were really thinking about their poor dogs, for whom they usually bought chicken back. That may open up more avenues for problems.

But, he wanted to outline ways in which his ministry was trying to build bridges between local supply and demand, and rebuild production in areas where good capacity once existed but had been reduced. Jamaica’s imbalance of food imports and exports has some odd elements. Why was Jamaica importing so much ‘Irish’ potato when it could grow much more? Could the right varieties of potatoes be developed to help reduce imports of potatoes for fries? Tilapia had been produced previously in plentiful quantities, but that had diminished greatly. More onions can be produced. “We love onions! Look how much is put on the fried fish at Border?” The mortality rate for certain livestock could be reduced. Grown animals could be brought to market faster. Many crops have been hit by diseases. It was interesting and appropriate that Mr. Clarke was paired with the Minister of Health, Dr. Fenton Ferguson, who is MP for St. thomas East. Those two portfolios should work closely together.

Morant Bay has a revered position in Jamaican history and folk culture. It was the site of a rebellion in 1865, which involved the capture and execution of Paul Bogle, a native of St. Thomas and Baptist preacher, and George William Gordon, a landowner and politician. Bogle was much concerned about the conditions of the poor. Gordon was critical of the British Governor, John Eyre, for his handling of these grievances and support of abuses by the white landowners. Bogle led a group of black farmers to discuss their grievances with the Governor, but they were denied an audience. This lowered confidence in the British rulers and the group gained in membership. Bogle and members of his group were then involved in several protests, which resulted in the police being beaten into retreat. Brutal reprisals followed and a warrant was issued for Bogle’s arrest for riot and assault. He was captured, tried and executed. Gordon was also arrested for conspiracy and executed. The incidents set off political debates in Britain over the manner with which Jamaica was being governed; they became pivotal in the relation of Britain with Jamaica. Both Bogle and Gordon were made National Heroes in 1969.

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Ironically, Jamaica’s small farmers are still under the cosh. They are sometimes at a loss to fix the ‘markets’: difficulties in moving produce; options for dealing with gluts; inability to deal with big producers and retailers, who could turn quickly to imports; financing problems; losses from praedial larceny (by the “two footed puss”). But, small farmers are the backbone of much of the food production which Jamaicans love to see and eat: yams, potatoes, callaloo, ackees, dasheen, cho-cho (Christophine), okra, mangoes, plantains, peas, more…

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Take a road trip through the island and you’ll see that up close. Most people love that aspect of Jamaica, along with the many and tasty options for cooked food on the road. We know the wildly varied offerings at produce markets, such as Coronation. Let’s not get into health issues here, but our local producers know what people want, even if what they have to offer seems limited compared with supermarkets.

So, we are headed back to Kingston and roadside vendors have much of what we could want by way of fruit: sweet sop, sour sop, mangoes, plantains, bananas, naseberries, plus honey, molasses, and noni juice. My wife is easily tempted, and when she hears the prices, not for single fruit but for bowlfuls, she’s transported back to our days in Guinea, when we got similar offerings. We buy enough to share. A happy carful.

Buy local, eat local! It’s more than a hollow mantra. I do not like temperate fruit enough for them to get first pick. Sure, I’ll find a use for them, but do I want to pay four times the price just to have blueberries or Bartlett pears? I don’t think so. Those whose income allow, can choose the many imports, but is it because we have to show we can? When I ate jackfruit this week did I wish for something foreign? No. Our visitors don’t come here to eat what they buy in Bethesda. In Gandhian style, it’s good to try to be the change you wish to see.

I’m not on a campaign to erase the US$1 billion food import bill singlehandedly, but I can see ways to dent it.

Now, I’m going to check how my little market garden is starting to grow.

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