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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?

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