The good, the bad, and the ugly (September 29)

Good
Tessanne Chin and bread and butter 🙂 taking the world by storm on NBC’s The Voice.

Bad
The JPS Foundation will be investing approximately J$2 million (US$20,000) to provide York Town Basic School, in Clarendon, with electricity, as part of the Foundation’s model school initiative. A Jamaican school that has been in operation for 73 years, WITHOUT ELECTRICITY! This is an insult to everyone of the teachers and students who have had to function at that school. INEXCUSABLE in a country that has 12 hours of sunshine or daylight almost very day of the year, or good wind almost every day.

Ugly
No doubt, the horrific bus crash in Manchester, Jamaica, which took the lives of four students from Holmwood Technical High School. So many pieces of loose action or inaction underlie this tragedy.

Fifth grader in a romper suit: my Jamaica

Imagine that the country in which you live were a child. Replace the trappings of childhood, and put in their place the laws and actions of nation states. What would you get? Mother P is always interested in her children’s progress.

Chief Justice, pookums, do you have the laws in place to deal with reckless driving on the roads?
“Yes, Momma. Yes, Prime Minister. I passed the Road Traffic Act, which sets limits for driver qualifications, road speed, vehicle licensing, penalties for infractions, and more.”
Why then did the news report a bus carrying children crashed killing four of them, and the driver was speeding, driving recklessly, and had over 100 traffic infractions?
“Good question, PM.”
Pookie? Come here! I want to hear what you have to say about the basement buses….

First-born children may be too uppity, so Momma looks to one of her younger brood.

Oh, goodie. Here comes my bright button education minister. I really want to check something with him before I go off to discuss how my country is doing compared to those in North America. I need to show them that we can do more than run fast, dance slowly, and drink Red Stripe.

Ronnie, honey! Tell me that all of our schools are as good as in America. Just a simple yes will do.

Strangely, the minister scratches the ground like a chicken looking for corn.
“Well, not quite, PM. We have a few shortages in equipment. Some of our schools don’t have enough chairs or tables for the teachers or students.”
The PM strokes her bangs.
In my Jumayka?
“We also have a few schools which don’t have any electricity, and they’ve always been that way.”
Ronnie, dearest. I know you revere tradition, but that’s a little extreme. You mean they have solar power and windmills to give them light? After all, we have so much sunshine, and I know you’re bright, my sunshine.
The minister now scratches his chin, and his face is reddening.
“We plan to expand technology and use of electronics nationwide.”

Momma P ponders this and her hands are pressing on her temples.
“We have lots of very good students, Momma, passing more exams than letters in their names. That’s something! We also know when brown shoes help studies or when black shoes help studies. We also know that khaki helps the mind focus. Of course, we lock the children out of school if they wear the wrong shoes and let them figure out what to do while their parents are at work. That helps their critical thinking skills. We teach!”
Portia’s bangs are gripped in her tightly clenched hands. Ronnnnniiieeeee!

20130928-072909.jpg“Oh, and don’t forget, we have children who wrote on slates and they will be wizards on iPads. Jamaica to the world?”
Ronnie was heard reciting a verse from Psalm 23 as his kind mother was in the yard finding her favourite broom….

Momma Portia went back inside to fold up some clothes before heading out to work. She caught a glimpse of the apple of her eye, Peter. She could always trust him with the family money. Such a good boy.
Peter, did you count up the shop money?
“Yes, Momma. But, I think Daddy took some to go to buy a flask of rum. Oh, and Miss Ivy asked for some flour but we had none, so I lent her some money. And don’t forget that you asked Ronnie to get new books. So, I gave him the rest.”
So, the money’s counted but we don’t have a cent in the house?
“No, silly mummy. Mr. Grabbe at the bank passed by to look for you and said he would lend us a few dollars till we got back what was owed. Except Daddy’s rum money. Then he called his friend in America to lend us a little bit more because he saw that we had no car and thought buying one would be a good idea. So, we have lots of money!”
Peeta! You will be the death of me.
Peter was just about ready to start shaving and his dimply face began to itch.
“I wonder why Momma sounded so angry,” he said to himself, then went to look for his favourite abacus.

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Hard ears. Hard head. Kind hearts.

The true enigma that is life in Jamaica is hard to understand unless you are living it.

The past 24-hour spell has had yet another gruesome murder, and a bus crash that killed four school children on their way to school in Manchester (rural Jamaica). I read a report last evening of a family being held hostage by gunmen in their home in uptown Kingston.

The government has moved quickly to try to put in place safer transport for school children in rural areas, asking for large buses from JUTC. Holmwood High School, which has had its students involved in several horrific accidents since 2011, puts on a charter bus, but students prefer to take the ‘bashment buses’, which have loud and raunchy music. A news report just a few minutes again indicated that the drivers of the two buses involved in yesterday’s crash had some 200 traffic citations against them, several of which were still outstanding.

The Jamaica Teachers Association are concerned about the number of accidents involving Holmwood students. Some people have been quick to argue that the school is cursed, even calling for exorcisms. People have focused on how resources are lacking to deal with the victims of road accidents. It’s common that ambulances are not available and injured or dead have to be moved in pick up trucks. We are not really a backward country but we have some skewed priorities.

Violent crimes seem to have come back into fashion in past weeks. September, not to remember.

Some say–and I’ve heard it in conversation often this week–that we love to do too little and too late. We also refuse to learn lessons, especially if we cannot say that they are our own ideas. I’ve seen this aplenty in other countries, so we’re not alone in the small-minded stakes.

Hand-wringing and teeth gnashing will be in much evidence for coming days.

We have more evidence that some people in high places just don’t get it. This time, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) did not smell hard enough when he decided to accept an award from the ruling political party. Yes, it’s a dead rat! How he did not sense any impropriety in doing this, and not mentioning it to other members of the ECJ. How the PNP officials who proposed this did not sense any problem can only be because they don’t understand what it means to be above reproach. The sense of being out of touch gets more fuel from this kind of dunderhead action. So, of course, the man has to resign. But, not leave the ECJ? People smell impartiality, so you can’t hang around in some other position as if you’re washed clean and waiting to be recalled. You can’t half fall on your sword.

Jamaicans talk about people having hard heads or hard ears, if they seem unable to act sensibly when given good advice. It must be a national disease.20130926-121114.jpg

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Taxi!

While farmers and fishers may show their KMT attitude through a dogged determination to go on, you see it’s full-disdain cousin in taxi drivers.

20130926-054336.jpgMany people give thanks after taking a taxi ride–mainly, for getting there alive.

Before laying into taxi drivers’ bad side, let’s be thankful that people are there to provide transport to most of the population, at almost all times, and to most places, and at fares that are reasonable. But, at what cost? Taxi drivers control many traffic conditions.

Taxi drivers are notorious in Jamaica, for good reasons. Their instinctive stopping and starting to, pick up or offload people is often the reason for a line of traffic building up. They switch lanes with little apparent regard for rules of the road or other users of the road. They may ignore road regulations, like stop lights or turning lanes. They mayoverload vehicles: but, they must do this with the tacit willingness of passengers. If passengers complain, they don’t do it loud enough or with enough conviction. Passengers stay, like sardines, carrying whatever else they need on their journeys.

Taxi drivers drive too fast, most of the time. But, the fare system is partly to blame. Taxi fares cover routes and are for set maximum distances. No meters. So, full car is more money. Faster trip is more money. When taxi drivers have passengers, they want to finish the rides fast and get new riders. When they are empty you can tell: they crawl along or they wait at the terminus till full. In some cities abroad, the taxi drivers love traffic jams or circuitous routes so that the meter keeps ticking over.

In Jamaica, the driver with the hand pointing ahead is the local version of the ‘for hire’ sign. When I think about it, that’s one simple, sustainable aspect of local taxis. It’s not much, though.

I should not confuse taxi drivers and minibus drivers. Though they are similar, the latter deserve their own day in court.

Taxi drivers are survivors. Some are owners; some rent cars. Those who have nicer vehicles may get different clients, maybe hired or chartered for special trips. They take vehicles, which would often be condemned in other places, and make them into chariots of hire. What if the window won’t go down, or go up? What if the doors in the rear can only be opened from the outside? Note the flexible right shoulders drivers have developed over years of curling them backward to pull door handles.

Give them credit, though. I rarely see taxi drivers yelling obscenities out of their cars. If they are cursing, it must be quietly or just so that passengers hear.

Taxis in Jamaica are not for everyone. Unlike New York or Washington, you don’t see many business people hailing taxis: they have their own cars, or on occasion have official cars. Well-dressed party goers don’t take taxis. Taxis are for those who either have no car or need to move and do not or cannot take a bus.

Taxis are official, unless they are ‘robots’ (unlicensed). No, Jamaica has not leapfrogged over Japan and invented electronic cars. We just have a lot of unlicensed taxis. Officials taxis have red licence plates; unofficial ones have white plates, like most private vehicles. Take them at your peril, some would say. I don’t know if there is any difference in the ride experience. The fares are the same. Let’s not discuss insurance. I don’t think this is in the mind of the passengers. Much like the absence of seat belts. If the drivers have insurance, I’m not sure what it would really cover.

But, many people face simple choices: use taxis or get nowhere. You cannot get all haughty and take an express train from one end of the island to another. Most communities won’t be served directly buses, even though bus services are widespread. You probably can’t move faster than by taxi. I’ve never heard of a taxi driver turning down a fare, though if you’ve a big load you may have trouble. I’m never surprised to see a taxi with a weed whacker or some planks sticking out of the window.

Sure, the taxi drivers can be thieves and overcharge. They don’t offer luxury or much style. Music may be an option, but don’t bank on it.

Jamaican taxis don’t generally offer door-to-door service: they tend to stick to routes. So, you get onto the main road and get in at a convenient spot and get off at a point near to your destination. You may need to mix routes, and so have to pay more than once.

Once upon a time, taxis in Kingston had brand colours, such as checker or yellow. No longer. Most taxis are white, because most imported cars were white. Some taxis are grey. Colour is not really that important, though. If you’re picky, I don’t think taxis are for you. Then again, let’s see what happens if you’re running late or your car breaks down.

If politicians really wanted to feel like the bulk of their electorate, I’d suggest they spend a day being driven around in taxis.

Time for Chin music

Up until 7pm last night I had merely heard about the US TV programme, The Voice. But, over several weeks, I’d gathered from social media that Jamaicans had a big interest in the series. Last night, I understood why. My little daughter was curled on a sofa with some cousins, all were chewing on their hands as keenly as they tackled the chicken bones. We were not at home and I needed to get her home. We dashed off before the the show got too far, so that she could bathe and get ready for bed. Then we waited…and waited…and waited. The sensation we were hoping for came out as the last contestant.

The profile of Jamaican singer, Tessanne Chin, was short but very touching, with nice shots of Jamaica and a link up with Sir Jimmy Cliff, with whom Tessanne had sung as a backing artist. He said some kind words. “Mr Cliff, thank you,” said Tessanne to the tablet screen, while Sir Jimmy posed with fez-like bonnet by a black grand piano.

Then, Tessanne started her number, covering Pink’s ‘Try’. Within moments, judges were hitting buttons, spinning chairs, and starting the mad rush to bid for her talent on their team.

20130925-115631.jpgTessanne blew away the judges and the studio audience with her singing. Adam Levine won her over,perhaps with his professed love of reggae music.

She went stratospheric when she started talking afterwards, and gave the world another glimpse of the rich mixture that it is to be Jamaican. Many with close connections loved it when she talked about “bred an’ butta,” in that soft lilt that we know and love. We could have all whispered “Yea, man!”

Tessanne has set social media alight and Twitter trends may get rewritten soon; she was the number four trending topic soon after the NBC broadcast.

Let’s be like her father, Richard, and wish her well throughout the series and we’ll all be pushing hard for his “likkle baby”.

Jamaican icons have come in many shapes, sizes, and ethnic flavours. Remember, out of many, one people.

Daily grind

Jamaicans have shown much resilience over several decades. In local parlance, people have adopted a KMT (kiss my teeth) attitude. In other words, they show some disdain, and they’ve accepted that things will be just what they will be, and have just dug in for the long haul. Just getting on with it, would be another similar characterization. A gritted teeth determination has become part of daily life for many who live on the island.

The economy has not been a friend to all Jamaicans. Let’s take a quick look at farmers and fishers.

Those in agriculture and fishery have suffered while that sector has dealt with drought, floods, hurricanes, crop and animal diseases. Small fishermen deal with harsh conditions everyday, but have had to deal with competition from large vessels. Thefts has also plagued farmers, robbing them literally of their livelihood. Market conditions, with fluctuating prices, have also made life difficult. Capturing of land for housing has robbed agriculture of important sources of production. Financing has often been hard to obtain at affordable rates. Not surprisingly, many left the land, hoping to find easier conditions in towns.

Climatic changes have also started to have negative effects: excess rainfall, land erosion, reef destruction, have all taken their toll. Invasion of species have seen the loss of certain fish stocks.

The country has seen its international options suffer as agricultural preferential treatment dwindled. Our staples of sugar, bananas, rum, coffee, citrus have had a hard timing staying ahead of regional and wider international challenges. We’ve also been guilty of eating ourselves out of a living by importing foods at an astonishing rate. In the process, we’ve suppressed demand for many local foods. In economic finance terms, we’ve put ourselves in a horrible bind of needing too much foreign exchange to keep up with our food tastes, especially, importing meats and packaged goods.

20130924-214441.jpgSome of our leading processing companies, such as Grace Kennedy, have stayed close to the forefront in developing local foods in better packaged forms to meet local demand and also for export, and been daring in challenging huge markets abroad, including in west Africa and China.

But, legal farmers, mainly small, often little more than subsistence producers, have had a tough time.

Those who have taken chances to produce illegal goods, such as marijuana, have reportedly had good luck. Some legal farmers have added illegal produce to help them stay ahead. Some have even been bold enough to add tours of ganja farms to tourists.

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Farming is very much a mainstay of much of Jamaican life. Most people still like to eat local food and are accustomed to finding it available easily. They’re not concerned about the plight of farmers when they enjoy lower prices, such as presently the case with ripe bananas. The battle between the strong Jamaica Producers and the many small growers is helping consumers but may kill off many small cultivators. Higglers and vendors, who live by selling fruit and vegetables in many roadside places are threatened with removal from locations which become designated as ‘no vending zones’.

I heard a few stories about how chance made or killed agricultural ventures. Young family farmers, who had their calves sold and could never get the start they needed. A budding chicken farmer outwitted by natural predators, and losing 2/3 of her chicks: otherwise, unemployed and without many educational qualifications, she’s stuck without money to start again.

Many give up on farming or fishing. Many never start, hurrying to leave rural and coastal areas. Without many or any qualifications, their choices are few. Become new entrants to the ranks of higglers, but hawking non-agricultural goods? Become drivers or mechanics? Join the unemployed or underemployed. Both of these latter options put pressure on the rest of the economy. Homeless? Aimless?

Farming has rarely had an attractive image: early rising, long hours in the sun, the many challenges and failures that are the norm. Some have seen opportunities by finding niches: hill farmers who now try to be organic and focus on the healthiness of fresh fruit and vegetables. Farmers trying to link with major enterprises, such as hotels. Development of farm-to-table ventures, either through a restaurant or through direct sales to consumers. Focusing on flowers and herbs. These are small changes but none is worthless.

I’ve never heard any of my relatives, living or dead, speak of famine; I found a reference to famine in eastern parishes in 1907, after a severe drought. The thought of Jamaica without food seems ridiculous. Long may that last.

Agriculture and fishing are important first links in a long chain of employment. Forget about it or let it wither and the consequences could be ugly.

Feel my pain? Really?

Some politicians often try their best to show they are not far removed from the mass of their electorate. When times are rough, especially, remarks such as “I feel your pain,” start to make more appearances. Given the lifestyles many people see politicians living, however, I’d be surprised if any but the most naive would really believe that all the roughness that ordinary people encounter in daily life also leave visible marks on politicians.

20130924-095908.jpgJamaica’s prime minister chose her party’s conference this last weekend to make one of those remarks. I can’t say for how many people it rang hollow, and I’m not wishing to suggest that she was anything but sincere. However, as I was traveling to country this morning, my eyes focused on what some were feeling.

The roads in Kingston, at around 6:45 in the morning, are filled with children walking to school, or waiting at bus stops. Most look astonishingly neat, especially the girls. Cars are crossing the city with children perched in seats with their parents, many of the kids are getting some extra sleep. Some children are on the gas tanks of motorbikes, clutching backpacks. Long lines of traffic clogged the roads entering Kingston from the west, with people headed to work. Many of the market people would already have reached town. Once you get into the towns outside Kingston, you see groups of children and adults waiting for taxis, or children clustered around school gates. That’s the day starting.

I took a short stop around 7:45 to grab some porridge for my breakfast, and of course the place was busy. As we proceeded to Mandeville taxis sped past us, jammed packed; some buses, too, jam packed. I remember the scene in Kingston last night as I was headed home with my daughter. “Wow! Look at those people!” she was flabbergasted to see an express bus filled to the brim with passengers.

We can ask and know the answers about how people are dealing with bus and taxi fares 25 percent higher than when schools closed for the summer.

Taxis may be flying along but I hear that business is tough.

Many people don’t have a job, so are trying to earn money in other ways.

A young girl, living near Mandeville, whose father does some small farming, is trying with her mother to raise chickens for sale. I’ve eaten some and can’t wait to get more. But… Rats have been digging their way into the chicken coop and killed and taken away nearly 35 of the 50 young chickens they were raising. So, economic wasteland still on the horizon. What to do? Not give up. She has to find a way to deal with the rats. She can’t use another predator on rats, which may also prey on the chickens. Don’t want to use poison. Dilemmas.

That was just a few thumbnail sketches. But, I’m sure none of that has been what Sister P has been dealing with for quite some time. Explaining to the population what sacrifices they need to make to see economic progress won’t be easy. I’m not sure that empathy is really needed, rather than words that suggest that what people have to endure is not endless.

It’s time already?

Jamaica has not been built around the notion of orderliness: it does not resemble paragons in that league, such as Germany or Switzerland. It is not so different in that regard from many developing countries. Roaming around other Caribbean countries, Jamaica seems not that different. It has many characteristics that I’ve seen in west Africa. Whether our cultural background from Africa has determined that I will not venture into now. Improved education and wealth have brought changes, as the country has tried to introduce ‘good’ things that could be seen abroad, and were available through imports. However, Jamaica and many developing countries cannot buy themselves into a developed country because they lacks the finance to import the trappings and output needed to bridge that gap? Many developing countries understand that while imported goods may give a better look to life, ideas and practices need to change to move from being under developed and poor. But, bringing in ideas and processes is much harder than just paying for goods from abroad.

In the areas of process and ideas, Jamaica has a lot to do to make significant progress. One necessary change is that Jamaica has to grapple with its love of disorder. When I read that Finance Minister Phillips wants to improve the business climate, I ponder what that really means for many budding entrepreneurs and customers in Jamaica. I also think about what it means in terms of ‘brand Jamaica’ as an economic agent.

In the business world, ‘time is money’ should have real meaning. So, how can a nation notorious for being liberal in its interpretation of timeliness hope to succeed if it takes that attitude to the world? If ‘Jamaica time’ is always behind everyone else’s time, we will always be missing the boat.

Take also our attitude of ‘Soon come’ (also known as ‘never reach’). If we can’t be relied upon to do something and do it promptly, why would we think we have a fighting chance in a world where some are striving to do jobs ‘ahead of time’?

I laughed last week when I read stories of high school students in Kingston being locked out of school for being late. I wondered where they had had timeliness reinforced in their lives.

My wife told me about some meetings she was due to attend, and people preparing to leave their offices to travel to the venue elsewhere in Kingston well after the meeting was due to have begun. Or persons arriving late and being surprised to see people leaving when they arrived, asking if the meeting had really finished.

20130923-080236.jpgWe are notorious for arriving on time for dinners or parties, and still can’t get used to people being shocked and unprepared when we show up, as scheduled. I always think about what one does when hoping to get a train or plane. Go on, be late! Again, that is as much a Caribbean trait, as it is evident in Jamaica, and we’ve also seen plenty of it in tropical countries.

The island image of everything being cool and easy with no need to hurry is perfect as a selling
point for holiday getaways, but it’s dangerous for business. Jamaica is not alone in this, by the way. I’ve had my unfair share of people in the USA not showing up for scheduled appointments. If I have the option to choose someone else, I will take it and the business can go hang. But, we are often captive when it comes to public utility companies or specialists serving us.

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I always laugh when I travel past the little settlement in Clarendon named ‘Wait a bit’. I wonder if it should be the centre of our attentions and be marked as the new capital.

So, go ahead and make it easier for businesses to operate, but make sure that we don’t get more of the same old attitude to how things will operate.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (September 22)

Good:
My youngest daughter turned 10. Happy birthday!
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Apple introduced the iPhone 5 series, and silliness about people’s efforts to be amongst the early buyers was able to crowd out some of the world’s grimmer stories. Apple also introduced IOS7, which I understand makes more joyous still Internet experiences.

Bad:
Henrik Stenson trashed a locker room after the BMW Tour Championship, in which he played a poor final round. He damaged his driver and redesigned the locker room at Conway Farms Golf Club while venting his frustration. Conway Twitty?

Ugly:
Fear and hysteria ran rampant at Sydney Pagon Agricultural High School, in St. Elizabeth. Was it something paranormal at work or play? The Observer reported “Hysterics, fainting spells, and reports of ‘demonism’,” Education Minister Ronnie Thwaites called it a ‘health scare’. Either or both have caused a mass exit of students. Paton or Pagan?

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Virtue out of necessity

If life gives you lemons, then make lemonade, goes the adage.

An article published recently in the Observer focused on growing demand for Jamaican sauces in prisons abroad, citing experiences from the UK and USA. To my mind, I could see several good things in this situation. We cannot control people’s lives, so cannot stop them falling afoul on the law, and if they end up in prison, we should be aware of their conditions.

What was interesting when I read the article was comments who saw negatives from what was going on. But, I still feel that smart business should be about seeing new opportunities and using them well; if they help improve our overall position, I’d see that as a plus. In this case, we gain foreign exchange and dent a little the balance of our food import bills. We could do more out of this particular opportunity, for example, by making the same cuisine more widely available across the prison population. The article did not give us enough context by citing what was happening to satisfy prisoners of Polish origin, for example. Was the prison system buying more kielbasa?

20130921-114935.jpgOf course, we can lament that our compatriots have messed up and maybe brought more shame on the nation, but we should, also, not hide our head in the sand and let opportunities go begging.

More neutrally, I’d love to see an article that showed we were making a marketing push to get Jamaican food more widely known in prisons or anywhere eaters and drinkers may be. We believe in our diet, so what’s to stop us trying to sell it to the world, wherever the hungry bellies and thirsty mouths may be? Are the prisoners no less ambassadors? If we read that they spent their time in jail helping others understand and appreciate Jamaican culture wouldn’t that be a plus? Some of that is clearly going on with music.

We can see an obverse side to this with tourism. Little research has been undertaken into tourists’ food preferences. We may have a glaring opportunity going begging. Market analysis may show that foreign visitors are happier consuming more of their customary foods, but we should introduce our cuisine to them. They buy some of our food before they leave (subject to annoying restrictions about importing food or drink). They may look to find it when they get home. More power to us. I’ve always known about foods that travel well in terms of lightness: weight is now a major issue for travellers. Our food producers do good things for the benefit of locals when they sell foods in easy-to-carry forms, but they then become great export items. Airport shops have been filled with sauces and jams and patties and gizzadas. But, could they not start giving shelf space to other packaged foods? Sure, they are in supermarkets. But, do visitors with no Jamaican connections venture there? My daughter visited a few weeks ago and was thrilled with being able to slip into her luggage (lighter) packages of porridge and Milo, and gave up on (bulkier) bottles of sauce. Plastics may get a bad rap, but they are lighter than glass and tend not to break.

Food is big business. We focus on our import bill, and we know we have to develop non-traditional exports. But are we thinking about the many little things which may have to feature more in our thinking if we are to maximize our potential in driving more strongly our food exports?

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20130921-122321.jpgOur cuisine is very much part of our ‘brand Jamaica’.