JUTC and road rage in Jamaica

Let me declare that I started my working life as a transport economist, working alongside the National Bus Company in the UK.

I need to get a certain frustration out of my system. I really do not like what the Jamaican Urban Transport Corporation (JUTC) is doing. This public bus company is effectively holding other motorists to ransom. Let me explain. Last November, JUTC was given permission, for a three-month trial, to have a lane of Mandela Highway (a major four-lane thoroughfare running east-west, to the west of Kingston) dedicated to its buses. Other bus operators were not allowed to use this ‘bus lane’ (more correctly called ‘JUTC lane’, therefore). At the time, many motorists were angry and upset. However, little regard was given to their protests, and the ‘trial period’ was extended for three more months, from February through April 2014. Authorization was given by the Ministry of Transport Works and Housing.

The management of JUTC was ecstatic about this trial. Its Managing Director, Colin Campbell stated the following:

  • “The JUTC is pleased to report that the temporary JUTC Bus Lane has been a success. It is of note that Spanish Town has now been ranked the highest revenue earner of the three depots.”
  • With the introduction of the bus lane on November 1, 2013, the JUTC transported 718,610 passengers compared with 686, 483 in October 2013.
  • The passenger load dropped in December because of the school break but it did not affect revenue intake which showed an improvement over November.
  • JUTC projected that 747,000 passengers will be moved in January 2014.
  • Revenue earned during the three-month trial period of the Mandela Highway Bus Lane showed an increase of J$1 million in November over October, $1 million in December over November and is projected to show an increase also of approximately $1 million in January 2014 over the previous month.
  • The ease of traffic congestion created by the bus lane also saw the JUTC saving on fuel consumption by five percent.

These are all wonderful developments for JUTC, which like many public bus companies worldwide, was struggling to get into and stay in the black.

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The victors: JUTC buses running freely, without congestion

To accommodate the bus lane, the westbound dual carriageway has been converted to two-way traffic from Caymanas Bay to Plantation Heights between 6:00 am and 8:00 am on weekdays.

Kingston already has some bus lanes, notably on the same east-west corridor, closer to the city along Washington Boulevard.

JUTC gets support from the public purse. Now, it is getting support in the form of free space for its operations.

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The vanquished: motorists and passengers heading east, into Kingston, and those heading west, out of Kingston

However, its self-congratulatory back-slapping misses some very salient facts. All of its success from the trial has come at the expense of other road users.

Those in cars or minibuses, heading east into Kingston are still in congested traffic. Logically, private minibuses could have access to the special lanes, and ease the journey of many passengers. Few would argue that the car drivers be given the same privileges–although in many places, if private cars are carrying 2 or more passengers, they get some privileged access to roads.

Those heading west out of Kingston–normally an easy journey against the prevailing flow of traffic–are now in congestion during much of the ‘two -hour’ window of the bus lane.

JUTC’s savings in petrol consumption is being offset by additional consumption by other motorists, especially those heading west.

I would have been very impressed if JUTC’s MD had added these points into his definition of ‘success’. Better still, a full cost-benefit analysis of the trial should have been made and presented to the public.

But, the scheme has some other pernicious aspects. I don’t usually drive on the stretch of road, but have had to over recent weeks, and usually between 6.30-8am. Here’s what I have noticed.

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Ending of a day’s lane restrictions: police staff vehicle at around 8.15am, February 27

The lane restrictions do not end at 8am. In fact, they tend to stay in place until around 8.15. Not much you may say. However, that extra period offers JUTC some more free time and space. It also extends the congestion for those headed west. The lane restriction is extended to allow for the dismantling of the restriction–removing cones, picking up personnel and police who are there to ensure it works smoothly.

Why does this scheme operate this way? Apparently, because government agencies can exert such power to do what they want, despite protests and inconvenience to other citizens.

Whether the rest of the motorists are national tax payers, or payers of road licence fees, or fare-paying passengers, or payers of taxi operator licences, they have some rights and say in the matter. They should not be disregarded.

Clearly, JUTC does not want to help its competition. However, the Ministry should be looking at the larger picture and the total ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’. The Minister is a very good economist, and he should understand these things.

Let me be an optimist and think that the Minister and the MD of JUTC will at least reflect on the other side of the ‘balance sheet’ of this trial, and at least stop crowing about its success if only looking at benefits to JUTC. Let me also hope that if the trial were to extended further or even put into permanent operation, consideration be given to letting private bus operators use the lanes (if carrying passengers).

Let me not be cynical or dismissive and think that the public agencies will not give a hoot. However, if they take that approach, perhaps other road users will have to hoot, too. Blaring horns could be a very stirring rallying sound for those who are not being represented by those whom they chose as representatives and have forgotten what public service really means.

Wok this way

The general population often make fun of public servants. Think of some negative sentiment–time wasters, pen pushers, etc.–and it will often be tagged onto those who do the bidding of government. I like to think that I can think, so I am wondering why the minds of some of our public servants and the politicians they serve don’t seem to want to do any yoga.

Jamaica’s Minster of Tourism has just announced that soon Chinese tourists will be able to visit our sun-soaked isle, and stay for 30 days without visas. The rationale given included:

  • China’s “potential for growth as a tourism source market for Jamaica”.

China is now the largest spender in international tourism, but Jamaica has had difficulty in achieving “substantial growth in Chinese arrivals, as many Chinese citizens have had to travel great distances simply to obtain a visa from the Jamaican Embassy in Beijing“. Wait a minute! This is the 21st century: information superhighway and all that. Why are we forcing Chinese people to travel to Beijing?130517141050-china-tourists-hong-kong-camera-story-top

Yes, it’s common sometimes to have to go in person to a consular office. But, other options exist, such as visa applications by mail or over the Internet. The actual visa may still be an endorsement in the passport or may take the form of a document or an electronic record of the authorisation, which the applicant can print before leaving home and produce on entry to the host country. Why can’t we have that option? Or, are we just wanting to do all we can for Chinese potential visitors?

The US State Department gave me the pleasure of spending 90 minutes recently on a computer to renew my visa, and uploading the picture alone took a good 15 minutes, including having it rejected for being too dark (hey, my skin is not pale). Why deny potential tourists such pleasures? Or, just let them boost internal travel in China.

Or, we could treat China like little Andorra (population 78,000), and let them get visas at the port of entry. True, all of Andorra could fit into Jamaica and not be noticed, but I suspect a worry about a tidal wave from the ripple of 1 billion Chinese people may be lurking around.

I honestly don’t care if visitors to Jamaica come from Timbuktu, or Wanganui, or Banjul. But, I’d like to think that government moves in a way that seems neutral and logical to the outsider and the insider of the country. Is it just the potential foreign exchange rather than the cultural exchange? Jamaica had already done the same for Russia. Jamaica’s embassy in Moscow is a nice little trek across the steppes from Siberia. So, the distance and hardship argument could apply there, too.

Interestingly, countries that are deemed ‘friendly’, such as those in the British Commonwealth, usually have no need for visas to visit Jamaica. That is, with the exception of Nigeria. I can only wonder why Jamaica would mete out such discrimination to our fellow Commonwealth brethren 🙂

So, it’s all about the Benjamins, baby. China, in 2013, recorded 72.5 million outbound trips for the first three-quarters of 2013. Chinese tourists spent US$102 billion abroad in 2012. Only 2,420 Chinese tourists visited Jamaica last year. What should yuan do?

 

Is Jamaica held in CHEC?

So, the good Dr. Omar Davies, Jamaica’s Transport, Works and Housing Minister, gave us some of what for which we had been longing. He told Parliament about the preliminary stages of plans, by China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) to develop a logistics hub on the Goat Islands. The Port Authority of Jamaica will be responsible for project development and implementation. The Minister called this preliminary thingy an Initial Framework Agreement (we may call it ‘IFA’…IFA this…).

The project is expected to create 2000 jobs during construction; 10000 jobs will be there at the end. The government will negotiate ratios of Jamaican to Chinese workers. What kind of jobs, sir? Wait boy! There will be jobs.

We were ‘warned’ that Jamaica is not the only ‘game in town’. CHEC is ready to mate with other suitors, though Jamaica has certain ‘advantages’ (unspecified). I wonder if it’s our wonderful jerk chicken or maybe some of our other greenfield developments sprouting in our countryside.

CHEC can go ahead and conduct geotechnical studies and engineering surveys. A technical feasibility study should be completed by April 2014, then preliminary designs of phase 1 will begin and completed by end-June 2014. Then CHEC will present to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), to seek terms of reference for an environmental impact analysis (EIA). At completion of the EIA, the project will be ready for presentation to Cabinet. Phew!

Oh, I nearly forgot. CHEC want to develop a coal-fired power plant on the Goat Islands. Imagine them not wanting to pay the current rate of US42 cents a kilowatt-hour.

If people were nervous about the whole development before, I think they are super worried now. “Look at that, Cheryl! Jamaica dun got itself some smoke stacks way off in the yonder that used to be blue.” Did I hear someone mention China’s record on pollution on coal-powered energy production? Turn up the gramaphone, dear. I love that song ‘Smoke gets in your eyes’.

Is there any chance the Chinese developers will produce some extra electricity to sell to other Jamaicans at a lower rate? That would be interesting to set aside current discussions on a 360 megawatt plant. What? Mega What!

Jamaica’s environmental lobby, mainly the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET) has already raised its concerns about the whole concept of developing on the Goat Islands. Their CEO, Diana McCaulay, has already been quick to raise that “Coal is the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels, so there are emissions of mercury, arsenic, ash, a long list of them, and it is also the main greenhouse gas; the main gas that causes global climate change.” Will the ‘fight’ over this project also have to get dirty and dusty?

Johnny Nash was a great Jamaican singer and he had many songs still memorable today. I feel that his time may be coming again, after the little expose we got yesterday. There are more questions than answers.

The more I find out, the less I know.

Don’t let grass grow under your feet

We are champions in many fields
We are champions in many fields

Once again, the world has not gone into a death spiral as another country broaches the matter of legalizing or decriminalizing the use of marijuana. This time, the brave politicians are those on the lovely island of Jamaica, where we know this product as ‘ganja’.

Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives Phillip Paulwell signalled to stake-holders that the use of marijuana in specific quantities is on the Parliamentary agenda for decriminalization in the upcoming legislative year (April 1, 2014-March 31, 2015). He made it clear this was likely within the current calendar year.

People like to make silly links, but I believe the government’s wavering was put to rest after the stunning performance of our lads in Sochi–blasting down the icy bobsled track to a more-than-creditable 29th out of 30, a mere 4 seconds behind the winners from mighty Russia. Let’s say that they smoked it. Naturally, with the image of Jamaicans bombing it in a green, black and gold metallic spliff, what would be more natural to take the image by the butt and run with it.

Jamaica, for all its speedsters on the running track, has not had a reputation for being in the fast lane when getting legislation done. Just look, after nearly 50 years of living with criminal gangs, last week we saw the passing of anti-gang legislation. Many would say that was a tad too long to get to grips with this cancer eating away at the country’s core. But, we love to stick to our proverbsFiyah deh a muss-muss (moos-moos) tail, im tink a cool breeze. [For those unfamiliar with Patois, here’s some help. Translation: There is a fire blowing at the tail of the mouse, but he believes he is feeling the effects of a cooling breeze. Explanation: Many times, in our naiveté, we remain unaware of impending danger until it actually overtakes us. Also, the foolhardy blithely interpret the signs of danger to mean that all is well.]

If ever a country should have been at the forefront of a development, Jamaica should have been head and shoulders beyond others in getting this kind of legislations onto its books. Look, man. It should have our getting up to our throats in debt to realise that we have money growing in the fields of St. Elizabeth. We seemed ready to cede (seed?) the ground to the cool people in the United States. Please! Why let Colorado, home of Denver–the mile HIGH state–get a jump on us? We have hundreds of thousands of Jamaica in a permanent high state! For goodness sake.

I’m not a total moron, so I know (partly from facts, but also from some simple logic), that the Jamaican market in so-far illicit herbal remedies has not been left to grow in Jamaica under the careful and watchful eyes of ‘the small man’. I hear that the leader of the big growers, who goes by the name ‘Don’, has been very creative in sowing, growing, and exporting what some call weed, but we should cherish as the cash crop of choice. Logic tells me that Don wont let the new world pass him by and waste all that he has worked for. We’ll see the little men scrambling like billy goats to get a foothold in this newly legal arena, but Don and his friends have all of that taken care of already.

We have a lot of marketing and image management to do to make the most of this opportunity to make ‘Brand Jamaica’ something that will be brand new, and not another branding iron on our skins. I hope that we use the upcoming World Cup in Brazil this summer, and the Commonwealth Games to get our ‘message’ out to the world, that ‘Jamaica is open for business’ and you don’t need to hide behind the tree to get into it. It may be too much for others to accept but our uniforms for sporting events could change to dread-locked people carrying a spliff. I, personally, would be petitioning the IOC and IAAF to change the shape of the relay baton, to better symbolize the new order. With Jamaica passing that from hand to hand around the track, faster than anyone, we’d need no words.

How this new world will shape up financially is not my interest right now. We need to get ourselves in gear and start. We can think about making stupid money, and moving from bully beef to lobster bruschetta in due course.

To the world!

We never saw the ‘Ochi’ in Sochi

Social media trumps other current forms of media because of its ability to present information immediately. The structure of established media houses does not allow them to be everywhere, all of the time. Social media can be, or more correctly, people who use social media can be. So, we need not send out reporters because potential reporters are everywhere. Now, we accept that not everyone can present a concise and accurate report, free from bias, but some of what makes social media unique is that all views can be presented. We may need to use our own or develop filters to really appreciate what’s going on. With the addition of sound and pictures and video images, social media is the 24/7/365 news ‘channel’. That’s by way of context. My focus today, though, is how we in Jamaica seem to be crawling along this real ‘information superhighway’.

Some blogging associates and I were lamenting over the past few days the lack of apparent interest shown by Jamaican media for the Jamaican bobsled team in the Winter Olympics in Sochi. As they have done in the past, the Jamaican team energized the crowds and citizens of the winter games. We know the reasons: it’s a feel-good story. Guys from a tropical isle come to take on Titans of winter sports and MAY win. How great would that be? All the imagery of tropical life may be behind the interest. Coolness, relaxed, happiness. Social and economic interest may be there: rags to riches, postcolonial issues, economic stress, etc. Whatever you want, our bobsledders could have provided it, yet we heard nary a peep from the local press or television, except a lot of copy borrowed from foreign reporters.

Maybe I’m naive, but we had the means to get the stories ourselves.

If our media houses wanted to, they could have sent representatives-maybe they did, but judging by the different coverage this winter and in past summer games, I’d say they were ‘missing in action’.

Jamaica has an Embassy in Moscow; they could have been asked to offer some insights, from the great vantage point of already being in Russia and getting to understand the people and culture. Maybe, they were asked and declined; it may not be within their remit. But, I think that we could find creative solutions.

We could have gotten the sledders themselves to give us a ‘journal’.

Bobsledders going back to their roots
Bobsledders going back to their roots

They were already doing that for themselves on Twitter, and it would have been nice to just say have 500 words each day and some pictures of ‘Cool Runnings II in Sochi’ or ‘From Ochi to Sochi–view from the inside’, or whatever. People clamoured to be seen with the Jamaican bobsled team. You could have had an “I hugged a Russian today’ or ‘Look who I met in the Olympic village’ series of photos. You get the idea. We could also have just fed questions, or even better gotten the Jamaican public to feed questions and requested the sledders to respond. The papers have done this recently on ‘hot button issues’ such as crime, and getting views from Police COmmissioner Ellington. We would not need to filter, except for the nasty or overly personal questions. “What do you eat in Sochi? Can you get ackee and saltfish?” “Do other athletes find you hard to understand?” “Are you doing some undercover promotions for vacations in Jamaica?” Endless. Something like this would have been wonderful as a means of getting us to feel we were with the athletes, especially in an environment unknown to many Jamaicans or Caribbean people. We could have done more to understand the origins of the ‘boblsled anthem‘. Plenty to work with.

I’ve travelled a lot to Russia, and in the winter, and it’s full of things to which we can relate and much that we cannot. Vodka for breakfast, to ward off the icy cold? What’s it like walking on bumpy icy sidewalks every day? How do you cope with the Cyrillic alphabet. but, whoever was in charge of covering the games did not seem to have a clue about using what we were being handed. Instead, we got to see how the rest of the world revelled and marvelled at what the ‘Bob(Marley)sledders” were doing. We got a video clip of one sledding ‘dancing’ with American sprinter-turned-sledder Lolo Jones. We related to that. Wuking up and wining. Yeah!

Our media could have taken and shared better lessons in fundraising. I hear representatives of sports in Jamaica–even those which we think are well supported, like football–crying out “We need more private sector support”. The sledders showed how it could be done. Maybe, their story was more compelling that the team in ‘Dustytown’ somewhere in Jamaica. Bu, you have to present your case. I wont go down the road of ‘dependency culture’ here. Again, with social media, getting the information and message together is much simpler. Even, if we wanted to, we could ahve had contact with those who run crowdfunding sites, looked at other examples, tried to contact those who helped with funding…anything.

Instead, my impression–and I apologise unreservedly if The Gleaner and The Observer or TVJ or SPortsmax were trying to do any of this and it just passed me by. I will go down on my knees at a public place of their bidding and prostrate myself. Put me in stocks and let passers-by belt me with bananas, if I am wrong. (By the way, if the stocks idea comes into play, I would suggest that Jamaica Producers get involved and we charge people to throw bananas, with the proceeds going to the bobsledders for their next campaign.)

So, here is where I plant my flag. We are in serious need of getting out of our comfort zone and dragging ourselves to where many in the world are racing. We have great sprinters in our midst–did you watch this weekend’s Gibson Relays–but we are also snails-paced in seeing ideas and making them real for ourselves. Money is not why we are struggling in many areas; it’s an inability to act quickly and see how that furthers our interests.

I look again at the potential that we have and what we do not value. I think of projects that have been run where children were given cheap cameras and asked to take and share their views of the world. One such venture involved autistic children. Another, similar idea was a photographic ‘conversation’ a father had with his autistic child.Screenshot 2014-02-24 05.42.12 I cite those because they helped us see a world that is visible that we don’t see. So, too, with Sochi. The Games were not just the races and events we saw on television. We really lost the chance for our Jamaican view of that to come to us live and direct and in real-time. An opportunity lost, but one that should be grasped firmly whenever we can.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (February 23, 2014)

Good

Back to Sochi we go. Jamaica’s two-man bobsled came in 29th out of 30 teams. That was no ‘flop’ as one of our national papers, the Jamaica Observer, headlined it. They qualified by entering races and getting enough points. They funded themselves by having friends with imagination who helped raise money through crowd-funding. They competed even though they had difficulties getting their equipment to the Games site on time. They raced very well–without qualifying their performance–ending 4.41 second behind the leading Russian pair, after three rounds. Think of that, over three runs on a 1365 meters course. Measure the difference between first place and the Jamaican time and you will find a minuscule difference. Meaning? The Jamaican team was very competitive, in a highly competitive and tight field. I could talk more about equipment, facilities, support, etc., but why bore you with what you know already in principle as the impediments they faced? The real flop? The sloppy journalism of taking a report from Agence France Presse and just dropping it onto the pages of the nation of the bobsledders, with little more thought that it takes to watch 4.41 seconds tick off a clock.

Bad

FIFA is not far from being considered a dinosaur in terms of its willingness to embrace technology to make football better in terms of quality of decisions at the highest levels of the sport. I am biased because I think certain changes are long overdue. I applauded the acceptance of goal-line technology this season, which has avoided many repetitions of egregious mistakes of goals not given (or even ‘no goals’ happening). Just this Saturday, we saw a crucial goal given to West Bromwich in their English Premier League draw with Fulham, after the ball barely crossed the line–all that’s needed. Mistakes are costly in many ways–monetarily, standings, etc.

Lampard scores past Neuer but referee 'saw' no goal
Lampard scores past Neuer but referees ‘saw’ no goal

This week, I again saw the case for instant replays in matches, especially to review decisions that concerns goals or goal-scoring possibilities. Liverpool lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup, but were denied what seemed like a clear penalty kick. Review would have at least given the officials the chance to see what they missed in the blur of action. Barcelona were awarded a penalty against Manchester City during this week’s UEFA Champions League. Let’s just focus on where the foul took place. I say outside the penalty area, definitely: no penalty. Some, even former referees, talk about ‘continuation’ and ‘second touch’. Guff, if ever I heard it. You handle a ball twice, one hand outside, one inside, it’s not the second touch that counts.

I’m not convinced by any arguments about losing flow of matches or time lost. The flow of games is broken more by many other things, and the importance of some decision argue against wanting to just ‘keep the game flowing’ above other considerations. My argument is simple: referees are asked to do something that is humanly very difficult–see everything clearly, even when at high-speed and from bad angles. Replays give officials the chance to look again. They can have their decisions confirmed or denied. It’s that simple. The use of replays has been good in removing much uncertainty from the minds of players and officials–fewer simmering arguments for decades. If FIFA wants to pretend that officials are superhuman, good for them. The world increasingly knows an ass when it sees one.

Ugly

I don’t know which is worse: the alleged sexual assault on a woman in the care of the St Mary Infirmary, or the case of cover-up on the part of administrators at the Infirmary. Both are disgusting. Desmond McKenzie, Opposition Spokesman on Local Government condemned the matter, and said that the incident took place on the February 9, but following what is suspected to have been a case of cover-up on the part of administrators at the Infirmary, was only officially brought to the attention of the St Mary Parish Council Wednesday at a meeting of its Poor Relief Committee. Add to this reports that the perpetrator was allowed to ‘clean himself up’ before fleeing. Jamaica has some people who are desperate. But, we also have a desperate shortage of people running institutions who are capable of making good decisions.

Tell me about gangs

A recurrent theme in crime reporting in Jamaica is the dominance of gangs in both crimes committed and murders committed. Anti-gang legislation is going through Parliament. I’m ignorant of what gangs are supposed to be doing in Jamaica, and what the police know of crimes, especially murders, that allows them to label between 2/3 and 3/4 of murders as ‘gang-related’. Reports and recent events have shown us that criminal organizations have a tight hold over lives in many communities. However, I think the police could help us by better explaining what these organizations are supposedly doing in Jamaica.

I’m not going to argue whether anti-gang laws will be effective, but I would prefer to better understand what we are combating. Many have already expressed their skepticism.

Happy Friday

Without a doubt, Jamaica is a country of dramatic contrasts. If I look back at my own writing this week, I can easily trace the things that have frustrated me, but even in that I can find much to like. Many days leave me with nothing but a head that is shaking in wonderment. But, many days also leave me with a warm feeling that comes from feeling so much pride for the people around me. How can that be?, I sometimes ask myself.

Today, my daughter’s school was hosting the latest leg of an inter-school sports festival. About six schools were involved, including one from The Bahamas.
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The children were focused on playing tennis and football today. Some elementary children were in tennis, but most children who were playing football were middle and high schoolers. The event was due to kick off at 9, and as usual, was running late. Two schools were absent at the opening presentations. Ironically, one was just adjacent to our location; the other was really just 10 minutes away.
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However, I was not getting into the logistics of how and why they were late. We sang the national anthems of the two countries–each being a very melodious and moving version. I really got a think feeling in my through as I sang the Jamaican anthem. Then the games were ready to start.

All of the school had been present for the opening, and children were encouraged to come back to watch matches where the host school was playing.
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It was a mixed up day, but scholastic things were still in place. My role, though a football coach, was to help sell tickets for refreshments and food; otherwise, I could sit and watch the play.

Flags and sponsors’ hoardings were all over the school grounds and it looked like a big event was underway. As always, the hands behind the scenes had worked magic to get everything looking right: tents for vendors; tents for teams; tents for spectators.

Parents started to dribble in to watch their children; never a horde, but a decent number. Not everyone can or wants to take the time off during the day. Later, as afternoon came, more parents appeared–work was ending or near to that, so a natural opening had been created. The atmosphere was not wild but had animation. Nothing untoward seemed to be going on between the schools, some of whom could harbour serious rivalries.

It was hard to see what could possibly be wrong with the country they were in, or the people with whom they shared the island. Admittedly, these were people who had been well-educated and their children, who were also getting good educations and seeming to thrive at school. Not here a cohort of potential school drop-outs, coming from homes with parents who had been school drop-outs. These are fortunate Jamaicans; privileged in a sense, but the sources of their privilege were varied.

The foreign visitors were being hosted by families from the school. The overwhelming feeling was “It is great to be in Jamaica for four days”.
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They know the crime statistics, but did not seem to have any issue with being here. Some wanted to see a cricket match, if possible–20 over Test matches are going on at Sabina Park. Jamaica was for these few hours a very happy place where everyone wanted to stay.

That is what I will hold for today, sometimes labelled ‘Happy Friday’. I will not twist my mind to search for the dark and nasty and violent. It will be there for me to rediscover tomorrow.

Schools for scoundrels

A few weeks ago, Jamaica’s Education Minister put his teaching community into a tail spin over a report on Crime and Education. The basic point was that certain schools were associated with a significant number of criminals in prison. The matter was botched in my view, not least by some loose language by the Minister and in the media that pointed the blame at schools as if they were factories, turning out hoodlums by the dozen. Naturally, that offended many teachers, who see themselves trying hard to shape children into good citizens, often in circumstances where the basic supports of life barely exist. They are struggling against some heavy odds.

However, the more-than-a-grain of truth is that many criminals in Jamaica were failures at school. Testimony to that came in a current affairs discussion last night on TVJ’s “All Angles”. They failed at school? Schools failed them? They wasted their time? Schools lost patience with them? Discipline issues. This is a chicken and egg topic. But the bottom line is that many criminals dropped out of school or came away with a much lesser grasp of many rudimentary skills. They are persons just not well-equipped to do many things, other than basic labouring work. Fast forward. Crime as an occupation then becomes an easy option, especially if the ‘skill’ needed is brute force and callousness. The attendant dangers to personal well-being are then taken as one of the risks of the trade. Maybe, people talk themselves into walking away from that life, but it rarely happens.

We can’t turn Jamaica around in a very short time, because the flow of potential criminals–if we take the failures in the education system as a proxy–continues unabated. But, can we manage the situation better? I want to be optimistic and say “Yes”. We know that various programs exist to put more resources into communities that have been plagued by crime. A lot of human time and effort is geared towards direct help. It’s not enough. Those communities often have little that will attract people or investors, so are condemned to ‘more of the same’. Life is so dire that little differences in opportunities can seem enormous, by comparison. If one street gets something a little better than the next, it may seem that the whole world has changed. That, too, can be the source of more rivalry–call it petty jealousy–over which people are not reluctant to take up arms.

But, one element eludes many of these communities–jobs. Most people are brought up with the mantra of hard work being important. But, when you cannot find work to do, hard, or easy, many struggle to know what to do with themselves. People who are better educated or have other skills can make things happen. If you are lacking in either or both, you will struggle.

Much airtime is being given to what Jamaica needs to move forward. A phrase that keeps haunting us is that the 21st century demands much higher levels of learning. We are in an era of fast-moving technologies. Jamaican politicians are sitting on the coat tails of a potential logistics hub development, but have not been very forthcoming about the type of jobs that will be generated and the kind of jobs Jamaicans are likely to get. They may not know. Or, if they know, dare not say. I’ll go there.

Just last summer, we read about the ‘mass’ exodus of skilled port workers from Jamaica to Canada. Concern was voiced about loss of technicians, but a training programme and new equipment would help keep customers. Ironically, Jamaica was becoming a ‘technological university’ for the Canadian market. Target skills had been those trained in the maintenance exercises of the mobile equipment, such as the big straddle carriers, trucks and big container lifters. But also crane operators and heavy-equipment operators. The only thing working against this high demand was ‘indiscipline of some truckers when they go to Canada’.

So, Jamaica has skills for the basic port work, but they are dwindling in response to the country’s fragile economic situation. Could they be brought back if the logistics hub works out? Probably not. Opportunities in Canada are far more attractive–harsh winter weather, notwithstanding. So, could we train enough people to do the work? We have time. But, the stock of people from whom trainees will likely come is unlikely to include many or any from crime-infected communities.

Many people without work naturally get excited at the prospect of new jobs coming their way, even if they do not have skills to take advantage of the opportunities. Truth is, they are likely to still be stuck on the corner, hoping.

If politicians can be honest about the prospects they see for their population, can they be honest about the potential disappointment that lays ahead for many striving for something to do? If they are, they know they will face questions about “What are you doing for us?” (leaving aside the dependency problem). Do nothing and keep watching what happens to crime.

Jamaica’s crime problem is not unique in the Caribbean. Islands that have had a history of performing much better have seen their crime problems grow–The Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago–even surpassing Jamaica in some unenviable categories, on a per head basis. The common elements have been drugs, gangs, and unemployment, with a familiar base of low educational levels. The region’s teachers used to be one of the aspects that set us apart from other developing areas. We lost many to migration, but kept a good many, too. The reasons for failing education are many, but some of the results are clear. It’s an area we need to fix, at a national and a regional levels, and fix fast.

A day in the asylum

Sometimes, the mistake made is to try to put structure onto things that don’t really have it. Life is often just a jumble of events and making sense of it is not possible. Today has been one of those day when so many thoughts have gone through my mind that I can understand easily why many people wander around bewildered–about their own lives and about the lives of those around them. So, with no attempt to structure the thoughts, they will flow.

Murder most heinous: beheading, like an animal butchered; chopped many times about the head; shot through the window of her car; kidnapped, raped and mutilated, the body strewn to be found by whoever came across it. Find the killers. Burn them. Burn their houses. Hurl stones at them. Hit them with iron pipes, till their blood spills and runs on the road like rain. Vengeance! Police! Police! Help! What a hope that would be. People who may be useful with enquiries. Hide, before they see that you are an informer. You’ll be killed as quick as you speak. Hide your head. Then, enough. March. March. Pray. March. Pray. Beg for help. Beg for deliverance.

Civil war within your midst, but you never chose sides. An enemy lurks in shadows and on street corners. Sitting in cars, gun on the belt; gun in the hand. Passing by, then bullets fly. ‘Gang-related’ we hear about nearly 2 of every three killings. So many gangs, how can they get recruits who are ready to die. Civil war being waged. But, one side has no arms, no soldiers. The other, coming trampling like the original Thugees; living amongst the people, like ordinary neighbours, but just waiting to kill to gain control.

Imagine, your house, your home, becoming a commodity for which you have to pay in order to continue living as if it’s your home. So offensive an idea. Reminds me of the way that invading soldiers during the Second World War would commandeer property and take over lives.

Nazi soldiers show who is in control of occupied country.
Nazi soldiers show who is in control of occupied country.

They had the force, so they had the rights. Come, pay homage! ‘Big man’, ‘Don’, ‘Capo’, ‘Godfather’. Pay respects: one for me, half for you; two for me, half for you; three for me, half for you. Squeeze! Survival? That’s your problem, poor wretch. Uneducated. Uninformed. Dependent. Always the victims. Always.

“Don’t drive through Mountain View; it’s a volatile area. But, all of east Kingston is volatile. How do people who need to go to St. Thomas reach there? Take a boat, and bypass? How do travellers to the Norman Manley International Airport get there? Take helicopter. Those people have enough money. They are the ones who take the food from the poor. Clichés. Need someone to blame.

Kiss the ring of The Godfather

How many children do you have? Five, sir. All the same father? No, sir; five different fathers. Are any of the fathers living with you? No, sir: all of them are in prison. It’s just me to look after the children. I have no job, sir, but I hustle downtown, selling cigarettes and sweeties. Let’s tie your tubes and stop you having any more children. You’re a burden. They’re a burden. The fathers are a burden.  You’re living lives that make no sense. Chinese investors will be our hope and answer all our prayers. We should learn from how they reached where they are.

One child policy
One child policy

You are getting what you deserve. A wretched life, for a wretched people. Did you vote? I did. I didn’t. Half cared enough. Half were scared. Half didn’t see the point. Half hoped to get work for voting–politicians promised us jobs. Well, no jobs. There’s a world recession. Haven’t you heard? Half didn’t need to; they have friends and friends of friends, and good friends and good school friends, and college friends. Everyone’s so friendly in Jamaica. Don’t it?

A learnèd professor tells us that one million Jamaicans have personality disorders. No kidding! Hold on. How many? We have a population of just under three million. So…about one-in-three persons is a little off their rockers? More or less. It all starts to make sense now. We’re in a mental asylum. The cuckoo’s nest. Some of us get to walk around the gardens and smell the flowers. Go to play cards and other games with our friends. We sit at meals alone or with some people we see, barely recognizing some, thinking we recognize others. Babbling to be heard as the orderly throws some slops in our direction. No one knows what they did to get placed here, but that’s what is happening. It’s just a big madhouse.

All the talk we hear are voices in our heads. Close your ears. “War against crime…” “Community policing…” “Increasing resources…” “Street patrols…” “We will find the killers…” The noise! They make no sense. The voices. La-la-la-la. Can’t hear you!

Houdini in his strait jacket
Houdini in his strait jacket

“Tommy? Can you hear me? You’re sweating. Were you having a nightmare?” You look up at the face of the nurse and doctor. Hypodermic needle in hand. You see the serum. Will it be calming? Take away the pain? “Relax. It will be alright.” That’s all they ever say.