Last week, a longtime family friend wrote an article in the Gleaner, which provoked many thoughts; it was entitled “The Ja I Knew Is Disappearing“. In essence, it focused on solving national problems, the need to take responsibility for our national health and welfare, and to be truly competitive, internationally. I can stand up for those sentiments. But…
The Jamaica I knew is also disappearing, and in many cases, has disappeared. But, I am going to see if (some of) what remains is hopeful or hopeless.
I regret that digital cameras have not been around for all time. When I try to remember, I know my childhood memories of Jamaica are a blend of reality and imagination. I wish I had more pictures to convince me and others which was dominant. I also wish that our ears and brains were wired to reproduce the sounds that we’ve made or encountered. When I recite the alphabet that I learned as a small boy, it would be so nice for my little daughter to hear the ‘recording’ of my recitations: “A is for apple. B is for bat…” Wouldn’t it be great for her to hear my grandmother yell for me, “Time to come in. Night come.” She’d better understand that the message is decades old 🙂
This is not nostalgia, what Websters describes as ‘excessively sentimental yearning for return to, or of, some past period or irrecoverable condition’. I don’t expect the world I knew as a boy, over 50 years ago, to still be there, unchanged. But, I wish more things were not mere memories or that the memories were tangible and had depth and texture. Where are those holograms that pop up in sci-fi films? I could pull up the Palace Theatre when it was filled with people enjoying a show, not as it is now, all overgrown with bushes. What about the smells that I remember, such as roasted peanuts? That I can still enjoy, because street vendors still sell them in their tightly wrapped cones, from carts, whistling as steam escapes: “Peeeenuttt!” Many Lannaman sweets (candies) are still there, pressed now by more foreign brands: suck those mint balls and paradise plums. Mmmmm.
I am going through a fascinating period, as my memories get triggered while I drive around Jamaica. Before I left Jamaica, life here was enjoyable, but I am not pretending that it was idyllic, like paradise. Bad things happened. People I knew and loved were unhappy or in pain. My mother’s family in St. Elizabeth had lived through dislocation from the land they owned and farmed well to lands that seemed less well suited to cultivation. Money was less the issue in the transaction, but moving was a trauma. A deep unhappiness led to my parents’ decision to migrate to England in 1961.
Jamaica, pre-independence, was a colonial country in a social and political spin. It was coming out of the deeply contentious discussions about a West Indies Federation, an idea the nation jettisoned in a referendum. It was only about a quarter century away from having its first political parties. Universal adult suffrage had existed for about 15 years. People had started to leave the island in larger numbers to head mainly to England. The country was on the cusp of major change. I know that now, but cannot say that I felt that as a child. But, my ears heard much about Bustamante and Manley.
We lived downtown, not far from the waterfront. I remember Rockfort Baths and cherished going back there, recently, with my daughter who seems to have a thrill in her every time its mentioned. I remember downtown Kingston for many things. Big buses, run by the Jamaican Omnibus Service–‘chi-chi’ buses, we called them, because of the hissing sound the air from the hydraulic doors made. I remember them as white/silver. I remember being fascinated by the air vents. They are gone. Jitneys took their place and offered more flexibility to the growing city and its need for transport. The fleet of modern city buses–yellow, sleek and new–hold no magic for me. A big bus with no chi-chi. That’s no bus.
People in Jamaica complain constantly nowadays about taxi drivers, for their wanton disregard for everyone else on the roads. I can’t remember ever getting into a cab before I left Jamaica, but I have vivid memories of the cabs plying their trade on the downtown streets. I remember two main companies–Checker and Yellow, and their cars carried their names in their colour and design. I had no idea what taximen were like; my dad rode a BSA motorbike, and all three of us would take trips, me in between my parents. Nowadays, cabs are bland, and mostly white estate cars. Boring! Bring back the old cabs, or at least tThier designs?
If the Jamaica I knew is going or gone, is there only regreit? Not at all. Jamaica has new things, few of which I saw or experienced directly from their outset. I did not have them around me while I lived in England. But, I felt pride or shame deeply when I learned about them or sampled them when I visited. Shame for the bad, which made my skin crawl. My Jamaica? Pride for the good, that would make me jump like leggo beast. My Jamaica!
The bad: near-rabid political tribalism; ugly, violent crimes, spreading seemingly like wildfire; shanty towns sprouting like topsy and creating new urban life of a kind that was harder than many could comprehend; a nation full, it would seem, with racing driver wannabees, rishing headling into crashes and exacting an awful toll of deaths; economic circumstances that seemed much worse than almost anyone could understand in a country so blessed by nature, so rich in talent, so ready to create. And more…
The good: music was in our veins and the world soon understood that; sporting talents were always present and now world stages would see that often and wonder how a country so small and seemingly unable to get its economy and society right could produce such excellence to unseat the bigger and richer nations; schools that could educate very well and very good students who could hold their own against many others; natural beauty and climate that many envy. And more…
I discussed on Friday with my wife and one of her colleagues something perplexing about Jamaica. We have found a way to develop people who can excel on a world stage, yet we see much that is wrong around them on this island.
Most recently, our athletes have shown again in Moscow what we are in danger of taking for granted. Our popular music has been taken by the world, even bettered by foreigners (Japanese reggae dancers beat off Jamaicans, recently). Jamaicans and those of Jamaican heritage are not strangers to greatness: Garvey, Marley, Colin Powell, Ewing, Blackwell, Nettleford, Wint, Ottey, Belafonte… Our cultural distinctiveness is well known and capable of being used for market major international brnads–see VW and their recent ads. We can talk about ‘brand Jamaica’ as a hugely pisitive thing: ‘cool runnings’, ‘Irie!’, ‘no problem’, ‘Bolt’, ‘to the world’.
When it comes to hard work and commitment, those who have shone on the world stage are less exceptions than indications of what many Jamaicans espouse. Whether it’s in the hauling of wood and water before going to school, or digging yam, or standing on roadsides trying to sell fruit and vegetables, or studying hard to make through school exams, Jamaicans know about hard work and its benefits. Pef6rsonally, I know of few people who demonstrate better what that means than sportsmen and women, at all levels: it’s a long haul, whatever the discipline, with many bumps in the road, and often the need to build a very strong inner fortitude.
But the individual star is always the product of many hands helping to shape. Our track successes have also demonstrated clearly that we can build this excellent product at home. That is not to say that we cannot do well or better by honing our skills abroad, in some cases. It shows that we have great resources at hand–let’s say we’re ‘self-sufficient’. We have also been able to sell those development skills and top athletes from other countries now look to train in Jamaica, even with our somewhat sub-standard or limited facilities.
We see the same with school students, poring over books and writing essays and exams to get to that special school of their choice.
So, we know we can find individuals and groups around them who can take on and better anyone. Jamaicans say “No one betta dan wi!” But, we have not (yet) found a way to transfer these strengths and skills to how we perform in our economic activities. We do not see support and collaboration across our communities and social groups. Why this disconnection? I don’t have the answer. Jamaican political, social and religious leaders and experts do not have the answer.
Many Americans or proponents of full-fledged capitalism may say that the individual drive of our athletes give good core material for entrepreneurship. A society that can produce such people must do well. Hello! How has Jamaica missed that boat?
Proponents of a more socialized model of economic activity could say that the willingness of others to support and build others gives good material for a different route to economic progress. Maybe that’s what Michael Manley hoped for. But, guess what? Jamaicans don’t like being told what to do.
Not surprisingly, the success of the athletes is generating questions about lessons we can learn from them. One clear lesson is that we start the process of developing athletes early and sustain it. Does anyone in the country thinks it’s strange to do that? Don’t the students know that you can’t do well by cramming at the last minute? Even criminals like drug dealers understand that you can’t just show up and take over markets in Jamaica or abroad! Imagine, even in crime, we show how to do it well ‘to the world’.
Part of the seemingly illusive answer to the disconnection must lay in the fact that at their core Jamaicans have not strayed far from what seemed to be good in their past.
Our African ancestors gave us foundations of strength, pride, creativity, joyfulness and more. Our experience through slavery taught us how to deal with suffering and oppression, and like our cousins in Haiti, we did not take slavery lying down: the Maroons were not fools or foolhardy. Freedom and the desire to preserve that is a powerful force. We did not suffer oppression without a fight: our National Heroes attest to that.
Those who came from other countries and cultures, freely or as indentured workers, and joined the offspring of former African slaves added many talents, which blended to make what we now proudly hail as ‘Jamaican’: the Chinese, Lebanese, Syrian, Indian, British, German, and other talents added and entwined. You like patties and hard dough bread? You like reggae music? You like jerk food? You like vibrant dancing, traditional and modern? They’re not due to one kind of Jamaican.
Do these diffenrent people all love each other? No. Do they want to live beside each other? Maybe, not. Do they get along? They had better.
We have the raw material to do better. What needs to change may not be very much. Maybe, more of us need to lead rather than be led. Maybe, we need to trust each other and ourselves to get it done. Like the relay team, be ready to hand off the baton, because if anyone drops it we all lose.
A 10 year-old was in the backseat of my car yesterday, next to my daughter, and we were talking about how we like Jamaica for what it is: we were looking at goats on the roadside and commenting how normal that is, for us. People come to Jamaica and may raise their eyebrows when they see the goats, but they serve a purpose and fit our needs. “It’s my country and I’m proud of it, however it may look to other people,” she said. That’s a good start. You can work lots of magic with that attitude. She does not know the chi-chi buses. She does not know about Checker cabs. She can’t fight murderers and defeat scam artists. But, she can strive to be proud of herself and all she does. She can denounce those who try to pull her down, or her family, or her friends. She can spread the word of those who lift her up and inspire her. Out of many doing the same may we make something close to one country.