I’m an avid sports fan, and I woke early, as I have a lot in recent weeks, to watch top-level international athletes. This time, it is Winter Olympians in Sochi, Russia. Last month, it was Australian Open tennis. The early hours of the day are great times for thinking.
Jamaica is often synonymous with coolness. But, like many places, reality is otherwise. I find it hard to stop making comparisons between Jamaica and Guinea–an extremely poor west African country, where I lived and worked for almost four years. It’s more about carrying on with dogged determination in a country that has so much natural charm and beauty, which compensate for the many harsh realities of daily life.
Jamaica is categorised is a ‘middle income’ country. The reality is that we’ve a strong mix of highly sophisticated features in our lives, but also some abject poverty that is near the lowest of the lows. We also have infrastructure that is barely able to function.
This morning, I wanted to have some water. I turned on the taps: nothing. Water lock-offs are part of life. Many people have near permanent ‘lock off’, in that they have no regular running water. Other areas have no water during periods to repair leaks. I was surprised, but not shocked. I have large bottles of water. That may not be the case for others, in rural or urban areas. Fetching water from a well or river is part of daily life in some communities. Water from standpipes is the norm in some other areas. Collect what you need, in buckets or pails, and haul it home. In some places, that still what children have to do before heading to school each day. No time lolling around in front of a television or video game. They may have to tend to some animals, too.
A debate is raging over the approval of a new foreign investor to develop a new 360 megawatt power station in Jamaica. This concerns information that will be made available to the population about the accepted investor. Lots of transparency and governance issues are involved. But, the bottom line is that the country needs more generating and distribution of electricity. Many people cannot afford electricity and get it by using ‘throw ups’. Other people who can afford electricity also steal it: saving money, is saving. Life has moved towards the expectancy of many modern appliances, but for many it’s just about the basic need for light. Electricity is very expensive (about 40 US cents a kilowatt hour). I try to do what I can to curb our costs: I turn off lights and urge members of my household to use solar power when at all possible. It’s not easy, not least from habits that are born from convenience. However, something is wrong with our systems. I noted how much lower our bills became during the relatively cool recent months, but also because I’d ‘negotiated’ the turning off of air conditioners. However, a friend and I had a discussion about this last week: he’d given up trying to save, after cutting off the air conditioners in his house, but the bill barely changing. Either someone was tapping into his source, or his meter was dicky.
When I was growing up in Jamaica in the late-1950s, my grandparents home in deep rural St. Elizabeth had no electricity. I could not see an electricity pole anywhere. We lived by sunlight and kerosene lamp. That was in the time before television in most homes. Of course, we couldn’t have a radio, either. News was by word of mouth or by newspapers. News travelled slowly, not at today’s near instantaneous speeds. Life seemed slower. Rural Jamaica still has much of that slowness, best shown in the way people give directions: landmarks are more used, including the homes of families, which don’t change much. “Go up so. Turn at Mas’ Cambell’s house–the red one. Look for the mango tree down so. Then pass that and head toward the river…” How long this trip will take is not a matter of interest. “You’ll soon reach.” Take any fruit or food offered, because it could be a long walk, if on foot.
That slowness of life is still part of Jamaica. Even though I now live in the capital, it’s not all high-rise buildings, roads filled with cars and people, large homes with manicured gardens. Just on the edge of Kingston, life is lived at the pace of a deep rural community. Even in the city, trappings of rural life abound. I live with goats, and occasionally pigs or cows, being a feature of my surroundings. It’s nothing odd to see cows tethered on the roadside, grazing for the day.
Jamaica has a large population by Caribbean standards, but is still a small place. People tend to notice who they are with. I went to the bank yesterday afternoon. Banking is a slow process, even though we’ve seen much automation. As I stood in line, two men hailed each other. “Where’ve you been, man?” one asked. “In the country. I don’t come to Kingston much,” came the reply. Both men looked older than me, and I presumed were retired. As I noted above, country-life is slower paced and many people like getting back to that kind of environment.
However, when I got to the front, I joked that it was morning when I came into the bank, but it was now mid-afternoon. The cashier smiled with a wrinkled brow, then immediately asked “Do you remember me?” I took another look at her face. It seemed vaguely familiar. “We were at the swim meet on Saturday,” she added. She was right. Just one meeting, albeit over an hour or so, and my face was in her memory bank. We talked about how our children had performed, and parted, looking forward to the next swim meet. All of a sudden, my visit to the bank had taken on a different feel. I parted with my wad of cash–another aspect of how life has to be led. I could now pay a series of service workers whom I would meet in coming days. Cash is king.
Her mentioning the swim event reminded me that at the Stadium complex this past weekend, we’d seen the place used to the maximum. Swimming at the Aquatic Centre, over three days. Track and field going on in the main stadium during Saturday–Camperdown Classic. Netball matches going on at the adjacent hard courts. Jamaica’s youths were out in full force. They are not all feckless, sex-crazed, good-for-nothing individuals. Here was a hard core of hard-working people, looking to enjoy themselves and show off their skills. The young runners and jumpers would be alongside some of their idols, now international stars, who had begun doing similar events when at school. The netballers and runners were mainly teenagers, and we never saw one arrive in a car; on foot, by bus, they had made their way. The swimmers, mainly prep or primary schoolers, were the ones who’d arrived by car.
But, big events mean big sales in Jamaica. When my daughter and I arrived at the pool on Saturday morning, at about 7am, we noticed that the vendors were just setting up their stands. Food of all sorts. Trinkets of many types. A chance to make money during the next 12 hours. More than a day’s work and maybe more than a day’s earnings. It was a bumper weekend, because on the Friday night a concert had been taking place adjacent to the stadium. No fancy concession stands with name burgers or pizza. Soup. Rice and peas. Jerk food. Drinks. Staples of the Jamaican road diner.
This story has a new page turning every day.
Jamaica is a constant bag of fun and frustrations.