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During a week when I have been thinking more about Jamaica’s problems and solutions to them, an IMF staff visit occurs. Those of us who follow Jamaica’s economic misfortunes can point to this latest visit as another step towards solving a well-identified problem. We’re far from out of the deep, dark economic woods, but we’ve seen light at the end of the tunnel. Enough of the mixed metaphors.

An article in yesterday’s Gleaner, entitled “Tessanne-Mania Is A National Embarrassment” has put some of my people into a spin. (I digress immediately to acknowledge our Prime Minister celebrating 40 years of political representation. Hip, hip!) Two paragraphs from the piece struck me (my emphases):

We’re used to crumbling infrastructure and rampant crime, to heat and heartache and hurricanes. We’re used to being 83rd in transparency, behind Mongolia, and 145th in literacy, behind Micronesia, and 188th in economic growth, behind Montenegro. We are used, in short, to being irrelevant. Our sights are so low that one woman moving from modest to outright success is cause for mad celebration.

And that, clearer than anything else, is the sad revelation of Tessanne Chin’s fame. That, louder than anything else, is the embarrassing message we broadcast to the world with our irrational exuberance, punctuated by the prime minister’s congratulations.

First, I took the piece to be more tongue-in-cheek than a simple critique. Perhaps, I’m being generous in my reaction. Others took it literally and have begun the march on The Gleaner building to search for the author’s head. I’m not naming him because some argue that it was about his ego and search for quick fame as a new columnist that led him to write as he did about the latest hero that Jamaicans have seen. I’ve been searching for more signs of satire–‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues’. It fits the bill well. So, I moved on.

Next, I thought about the grains of truth. We have been ‘irrelevant’–though I think that term is wrong. Our low ranking in many areas that show human and social development could be interpreted as pushing us way out of the sight of those who only look at those who excel in those areas. But, then, I remembered somethings about economics and statistics. I recalled that it’s good to look at data that have not yet been counted and to test the hypotheses again. I saw the many areas where our ‘irrelevance’ was not apparent.

From our barely 3 million national population (many more if you count our migrants and their offspring)–world irrelevance writ large, in itself–we’ve produced the fastest man of all time AND the fastest woman of the present time. Of course, records are to be broken. They both came from the mire that is Jamaica’s broken social and economic mould–Bolt, from the inadequately served rural areas and Fraser-Pryce from Kingston’s ghettos. In her words (my emphases again): “I didn’t become just another Waterhouse statistic but someone who could uplift the community, who showed something good could come from anywhere in Jamaica. Even the ghetto.”

But Usain and Shelley-Ann (we are good friends :-), man) were not alone and isolated in their feats, because our relay teams showed we had the depth to go with the individual strength. That we could win all three medals in an event said a lot. 1-2-3 is historic, truly monumental.exuberance

They came from our limited ranks, and when they excelled we joined them with banging pot lids, blaring horns, excited screams, dancing in Half Way Tree, millions of phone, text, and email messages to whomever we knew as we let our ‘irrational exuberance’ flow. I remember the day Bolt won the 200 metres final in Beijing. I was just on the road from Mandeville to Kingston. A security man at a local bank had his rifle pointing in the air, yelling “Bolt win! Free money!” Shame on you, sir. I trust that he calmed down and got back to quietly guarding the cash of the customers. Yes, we’re really touched by the greatness that some of us can display against the world’s best, to an audience far bigger than we can imagine.

I don’t think I need to go far down the road to get to other times that we have shown our irrelevance. Today, February 6, is the birthday of Bob Marley (born 1945). It’s also the birthday of ‘Bunny Rugs’ (born 1948 as William Clarke), who died this week. As life’s little twists go, we have two of reggae music’s greatest icons and ambassadors born on the same day. Two more diamonds in the rough. Jamaica went into another bout of ‘irrational exuberance’ when Marley tried to fix what politicians had helped break and unite a deeply divided country, that was on the verge of wrecking itself in a civil war-like manner. ‘Bunny’ put fabulous new meaning to the term ‘Third World’. His fellow band member, Richie Daley, said “It’s the little things that he would do every day”, when talking about the legacy Bunny left. What an apt phrase. Jamaica can easily be seen as an irrelevance, but can change with lots of little things done every day.

When I think back to my life, taken from Jamaica, raised in England, moving to America, and now back to Jamaica, I cannot think about the irrelevance of the country of my birth. I cannot see how people react to the successes we manage to achieve as irrational exuberance.

In London, I lived next door to a small football team, in England’s lower divisions. They did what many ‘minnows’ dream of doing: they got to perform on the big stage and wowed the crowd. In the case of Queens Park Rangers (QPR; third division), they got to a national cup final, the 1967 League Cup final, at Wembley. They were against West Bromwich Albion (first division, and the cup holders from 1966). David versus Goliath. Minnow versus shark. QPR went behind 0-2 by half-time. They came back to win 3-2.

But, QPR became a ‘national embarrassment’. As noted on Wikipedia, ‘QPR’s victory caused a problem for the Football Association as typically the League Cup winner would qualify for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, but one of the criteria for that competition was that the team must come from the highest tier of that country’s league system. QPR was replaced in the following season’s European competition by a First Division side.’

I was not yet a teenager at the time. I was growing up in England supporting this little team, whom most of London derided for its lowly status, compared to Tottenham, Chelsea, West Ham or Arsenal. I cried when we won (we!). I was not in the stadium, BUT I WAS THERE! We won. The world took notice. But, soon, I cried when I learned of what would happen to our chance to play in European competition. Kicked in the teeth again, for being uppity and killing the hero? Too small to fight back.

David had downed Goliath, but now needed to get back into his little hole and forget about what had happened. Get back to irrelevance, varlet! But, it did not happen. QPR won promotion the same year, and won promotion again the following year to rise themselves to the top flight of English football, for the first time in their history. They had scaled the highest mountains they had faced. Greatness, bigness and richness are not the same, and they showed that.

A true fan is nothing if not full of irrational exuberance. Tell those teams who feed off the support they get from the home crowd that the crowd is full of irrelevance. Some places you do not want to go and face that rabid fervour. The Jamaican diaspora became that kind of crowd. Happy to cheer wildly, madly, irreverently, especially when they thought that they had to do that to even stand a chance against the cheerleaders-in-chief, the USA. Three million versus 360 million? Jamaicans said they liked those odds.

Let me stop before I bring myself to tears. Jamaica’s story is all about how ‘we little but we tallawah’. I’m not going to rail against the newspaper columnist for his approach to something that I find symbolically very positive–how a country that appears to have so much dysfunction can produce so much that is great, not just by our estimation but by the better gauge of world opinion. Jamaica has been nothing if it’s not about hope against adversity.

Remember how we were irrelevant and full of irrational exuberance when our political leaders decided to stand up against Apartheid. REMEMBER! The first in the western world and second in the world to officially ban travel and trade with the South African regime. REMEMBER!

I think the columnist chose the wrong target for his arguments, but it’s a free country and good for him and his career (he’s also a playright, apparently) if he can use the springboard on which he now stands. Ironically, he wrote about Tessanne Chin. The idiom, ‘taking it on the chin’ (meaning to accept misfortune courageously or stoically) seems so fitting, sometimes for the life that we have to live in Jamaica.

To quote Claude McKay’s poem, If We Must Die:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Mock us, but do not forget our nobility.

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