Jamaica is not a developed or industrial country. It is developing and is classified by the World Bank as ‘upper middle-income’. Many of its people live in rural areas and live off the land or sea. I remember a Jamaican colleague at the IMF, who once went on a mission to one of the then-former USSR countries, Tajikistan (low-income, according to the World Bank). By comparison with Russia or the Baltic countries, this country lagged badly in terms of its development. He had been shocked by what he’d seen of the standard of living and lifestyle. “That is the third world!” he had said. What he had tried to stress was that, despite the economic problems Jamaica had, it was really quite well off, or “We don’t have it that bad”, especially when you add the beauty of the country, its food and warm climate all year round. Of course, Jamaica has people whose lives are marked by grinding poverty, many of whom may feel that their chances of escaping that are slim. Jamaica has its well-off people, too, who can look ahead in their lives with an optimism that is not likely to be evident among the very poor or even amongst those many who don’t see themselves as poor but also have no claims to be financially well-off.
A series of jokes are going around, which are termed ‘White Whine’, and are meant to depict the kind of frustrations and complaints that are experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. They are typically used as tongue-in-cheek comedic devices to make light of trivial inconveniences. While people in dire need have problems with the basic elements of life, such as access to food, safe drinking water, and basic health care, the privileged have these things well covered, and more. However, they have become so comfortable that their ‘problems’ are often seen as really mere inconveniences, such as the inability to find the desired colour paint to use in a new child’s room or which handbag makes the better accessory for an evening dress.
For sure, there are many people in Jamaica who are very well-off. They need not have come from privileged backgrounds and often have the benefit of a high level of education, from the very good schools here or from studying abroad. They tend to be comfortable, financially. Many of them will live in the suburbs of Kingston, which have formed on the high hills near the city, in the parish of St. Andrew, but they are also evident in many other parishes in the country.
You don’t have to visit Jamaica for long to realise that it also has its variant of ‘white whine’–I can’t think of another term that better fits the physionomy of Jamaica. It’s associated with the significant number of people living in Kingston and elsewhere on the island who enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. Let’s not get into how that was achieved or how it is sustained, and what kind of work gets good pay. Suffice to say, they can live life much as they would want to.
I remember being surprised when I visited Jamaica in the 1970s and I saw some of the houses that better-off people had as homes. I was astonished, having rarely seen any such homes in the better-off neighbourhoods in England. I was taken further aback because most people had more than one car and domestic help–‘helpers’, Jamaicans say–whether living-in or day workers. Kingston often reminds me of a South African city, where you see household workers (say, maids, child-minders, and yard workers) heading up to the better-off neighbourhoods in the morning and leaving there in the evenings. In South Africa, those workers are black and headed to homes with (mainly) white residents. In Jamaica, the workers are also black, but the residents are also (mainly) black (and I’m not going to get into the shades of skin issue here). Domestic work is big business in Jamaica: the Jamaica Household Workers Union was formed in May this year, to cover the approximately 58,000 workers across the island.
Many of those who could, migrated to the hills around Kingston in a bid to escape the influx of low-income earners into what were once middle to upper middle-class communities. The ‘good life’ that happens in these upscale neighbourhoods–newer and more cars per household, fine dining, better schools, bigger homes, less violent crime, better amenities, etc.–is in marked contrast to the life that is commonplace in the low-income areas on Kingston’s inner city or in its deep rural areas. The gap in lifestyles and perceived concerns is exemplifed in a satirical video about so-called ‘Upper St. Andrew’s women‘. Its essential point is that what passes for problems in these well-heeled areas, the Jamaican equivalent of ‘white whine’, is alive and well.
It’s part of the ‘them’ and ‘us’ that exists in many countries. It’s part of what ‘making it’ means in the modern world. Why should Jamaica be different? Is it in keeping with the national motto, “Out of many, one people”? Many who are now in the better-off ‘us’ have clear and strong roots in the worse-off ‘them’. Do people have good opportunities to move from one state to another? Yes. Could they be better? Yes. When reporters and news cameras descend on areas plagued by violent crimes or when gullies flood and wash away whatever personal possessions people had, do those in the hills breathe huge sighs of relief that these are rarities where they live? Probably. Do values get skewed as our situations improve? Often.
Having seen and lived in countries that would evoke more comments and looks of disbelief at how dire conditions can be, I would be worried if Jamaica was like that and had not managed to create reachable aspirations for its citizens. How to help more people to attain those aspirations? Not one simple answer.