Good gully!

Somewhere between the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) and the National Works Agency lies responsibility for clearing the corporate area’s gullies. Quite frankly, I do not care who is charged with the work. I just want them to do it, and do it fast. They are more than an eyesore; they are a source of health and hygiene problems. The stench…the stench. The rats and other vermin. Why does the city have to have these as constant features? Because government at all levels has failed? The proximate cause, as with many things in Jamaica, is likely to be ‘lack of funds’. That’s what I have read in a series of articles stretching over the past 15 years.

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A typical Kingston gully: this one in ‘uptown’ Kingston, and used as a regular place for garbage

When heavy rains come, of course, we get excessive flooding in Kingston. I suspect that, like the recent floods in rural areas like St. Mary, we’ll hear a lot of foot shuffling as the finger of blame searches for a target. In the city, we get the additional bonus of seeing lots of debris floating down the streets, as it searches for the quickest route to the sea. Yes, it will go there and cause another environmental problem. But, let’s leave the salubrity of the harbour out of it, for the moment.

KSAC has been pursuing other ‘issues’ with great vigour in recent times, notably, clearing the sidewalks of illegal vendors or vendors operating in undesignated areas. However, I have clearly missed the similarly vigorous campaign to clear gullies. I wonder if the vision that KSAC has is for these to be the basis of a bizarre perverse form of tourism–based on environmental degradation. ‘Brand Jamaica’ has many features, not all of them sweet-smelling and beautiful, but all part of the lasting image people have of this country. But, maybe, we have a new form of eco-tourism waiting to blossom. I wonder how many visitors from the USA, Canada, Great Britain or Germany would pay top dollar to take a tour of ‘the gullies of Kingston’.

Of course, the truly entrepreneurial people would see the enormous potential in this new venture. We could have tours of garbage dumps, official and unofficial. But, all of that is for the future. For now, I would like to think that the stink that should have been caused by the stink that has been caused by the gullies will be addressed. I do not love the visual art that is their array of food boxes, plastic bags, used diapers; rotting fruit and vegetables, tree cuttings, old fridges and washing machines, car parts and a few persons who have not figured out better accommodation. The goats have given up on trying to cope with the flow of rubbish being piled into the gullies. That tells you something.

When Royal visitors come to Kingston next month, I hope that they are taken on a tour of some of these sights of the city. Prince Edward would be thrilled. What? He wont be taken anywhere near them? But, but…Why? They’re part of us. Don’t soft soap the prince. Let him see all that we have to offer.

Still shackled

A random set of events today illustrate starkly something very wrong with Jamaica. We are more accustomed than other Caribbean countries, except Cuba, to the glare of sporting success. Admittedly, that has come more through track and field, and somewhat through football, than other sports.

But, over the past two days we went on another of those fairy-tale rides, as a team of bobsledders trundled down an icy slide, holding the slimmest of hopes of a medal. Not surprisingly, knowing the recent history of this team and how they got to Sochi, Russia, the two-man team came in 29th out of 30 (aided by one team not completing their final run). But, that was about what we should have expected. Underdogs, and holding up the stack. However, Jamaica got maybe more of the crowd’s love than any team other than the home-country boys, who came in with the gold. But, love and smiles won’t get us to the podium and wont build us at the lowest level. Our apples are not really piled into the bobsledding basket, even though it’s surprisingly open to many of our athletes or ordinary people. Note, one of the Russian team was a taxi driver and arm wrestler. We can find a few people who could fit that profile.

Our sledders were fantastic in qualifying alone. Consider that at least 4 countries put in three teams in the field of 30 teams. So, for us to be able to get into this small fraternity was truly a feat well done.

Where I gagged was in the process of trying to nurture one of the future athletes–my daughter. She had swimming practice this afternoon, at St Andrew High School. The school has a 25 metre pool and before my daughter’s practice, children from the prep school have a swimming lesson and practice. I often see a girls’ water polo team working out ahead of our practice. Then my daughter and other kids under 11 have their hour. After them, come some 11-14 year olds for a 90 minute session. My kid, sometimes does this session, too. She can hold her own and is often good and tired but well exercised at the end of 2 1/2 hours in the water.

We noted, as usual, the high school girls doing their practices, in preparation for Champs. Hurdles were out today. A girl was working the javelin. Another girl was throwing a shot. Most girls were striding and sprinting on the grass track.
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On the dusty, barely grassed track. On the track that is perhaps par for the course for the best track athletes in the country. I thought back to the high school my older daughter attended in northern Virginia. They had a stadium akin to Catherine Hall, in Montego Bay. This was an ordinary state school. That marked the difference between developed countries and countries like Jamaica–so-called ‘middle income’, but really among the poor.

Catherine Hall Sports Complex, Montego Bay
Catherine Hall Sports Complex, Montego Bay

This is how we have to prepare some of the better future stars. I looked forward to seeing what performances would be produced in a few weeks.

On the way home, I heard a news report that the swimmers training for Carifta (regional elite performers) were going to have no training facilities at the National Aquatic Centre, because the pool needed to be closed–again–while new filters are installed. Options are few in Kingston, but at least some exist. All with a good intent, but hampering in the process.

Now, I’m settled in front of the television, watching ‘Monday night football’ from the Red Stripe Premier League. Top two teams are duking it out: Waterhouse away to Harbour View (at the ‘mini stadium’). But, what is that surface on which they are playing? It’s a mixture of bare ground and sparse grass; the overall colour is red. A player goes through, clear on goal, swings and the ball loops high as if he were trying to kick it out of the stadium. It took a wicked bounce. I remember a game earlier in the season when it seemed that a ghost had spirited the ball away from the goalkeeper, but it had hit a stone and put the ball in the path of a striker for a goal. I did not expect a surface like those played on by English Premier League team, but a cow pasture is what I’d expect for ‘Molasses Vale’ in St. Thomas, with sticks and stones marking the field boundaries. What a disgrace!

I wrote yesterday about perpetual underdogs. I saw today without searching what squalid facilities we have to offer our best and those who want to be the best and represent the country at the highest levels. We do much DESPITE, not because of. What could we be if we were not constantly weighed down by the heavy blocks of our poor basic infrastructure?

Perpetual underdogs?

One thing that is unlikely to escape a Jamaican travelling to Trinidad is the relative economic situations of the two countries. It’s not that Trinidad looks like a runaway economic success and that Jamaica looks like it’s ready to check out of Planet Earth. But, the infrastructure and general physical appearance of the countries reflect their different fortunes. Both economies have been the children of mineral wealth–bauxite for Jamaica, oil for Trinidad. Bauxite had its heyday and says “Hey, there!” with a muted voice. Oil and its byproducts have had the pole position in terms of desirable commodities for most of the past 50 years. Other things have worked for and against each country, but the net result is that Trinidad has ended up in a better place than Jamaica. We have had much need to keep putting out the begging bowl to keep from drowning (sorry about the mixed metaphors). Trinidad has been able ot live high on the hog (sorry for any offence to some of its Muslim population). So, we’ve been heading in near opposite directions.

Let’s cut right to the chase. Jamaica is nearly insolvent, with its debt to national income (GDP) ratio hovering near 150 percent. We hand over a huge amount of our national income just to pay interest on debt–that’s about 10 percent of GDP, or about 1/3 of government revenues.

By contrast, Trinidad’s debt to GDP ratio is just over 45 percent; its interest payments are only about 2 percent national income, and about 8 percent of government revenues.

So, whenever Jamaicans think it would be good for government to fund something (in part or wholly), we have to remember that the debtors have to be satisfied first. Then, we can argue about the left overs. So, with about 70 cents of each dollar only to work with, we have to make sure that our priorities can be met by that lesser amount. We cannot think that we should borrow more to make the money up. But, we also have to note that we need to reduce the debt burden by about 50 percent of GDP in only a few years. Did I hear you say “Squeeze!” Where are those old trousers that I used to wear when I was not so fat? So, we are either going to try to raise more revenue or spend even less.

Alright, we want to develop and help the next generations have some prospect of a future. As part of the current IMF arrangement, the Jamaican government is committed to minimum levels of spending on social programs (education, health, etc.). Well, that leaves much less for any discretionary spending. In an ideal world, the government would have some clearly set development objectives and want to stay on track with those. Anything else, has to be considered (and probably wont get a look in now because the whole process of agreeing the current priorities wore out even the most patient of persons). Jamaica has Vision 2030, and having settled on that we should hold the government’s feet to the fire to stick to that. Otherwise, they’ll be open to comments that they are unfocused and wishy-washy.

The problem with that is people like to see things they like supported. Look at the national bobsledders working their hardest to be respectable in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Where are government in helping them? Not sitting at the beach bar drinking another pina colada. More likely, government had no image that the sledders were going anywhere. The sledders themselves were not really on a clear track to qualify. Nice that they did it, but not nice in that we never had them in our sights. Instead, we had in our sights Champs–madness in March–and the Reggae Boyz trying to raise the flag in Brazil–Poof!

I really feel saddened that the sledders had to struggle so much for funding.bobsledders But, could they have helped themselves a bit more, too? Maybe. When their backs were up against the wall–they’d shocked themselves and qualified–they found some imaginative friends and went to the modern piggy bank of crowdfunding. It got them over the hump in quick time. But, imagine what might have been the situation if there had been the equivalent of a ‘business plan’ or promotional venture called ‘From Ochi to Sochi–helping Jamaica’s sledders reach for gold’, begun in say 2010. Those four years could have been a very interesting period of fund-raising, consciousness-raising, talent spotting, and more to help the ‘cool runners’ run this time and maybe sow seeds to keep running after Sochi.

The world loves underdogs. We love being underdogs. We love being loved. However, if you keep putting yourself in the position of underdog, you will lose more than you win. All that worldly love doesn’t feed or develop us, even though it looks good on TV to see foreigners in false Rasta wigs and yelling “Irie, mon!” and wanting to take pictures with our struggling athletes. Our successes don’t and wont come from putting ourselves into the position of perpetual underdog. If not, we will end up where underdogs do most often–at or near the bottom–no matter how much ‘love’ is showered on us.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (February 16, 2014)

Good

Lizzie Yarnold (Great Britain), won gold in the women’s skeleton in the Winter Olympics, in Sochi, Russia. I would love to see this event up close and am glad that someone feels able to hurtle headlong down an icy run in search of glory. I’ve seen a luge/skeleton run from the top and have no intention, now in life, to have that ‘thrill’ 🙂

Lizzie Yarnold, heading, literally, for gold.
Lizzie Yarnold, heading, literally, for gold.

Bad

Word has it that the Tivoli Gardens Police Post, in west Kingston, formerly the seat of power for Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, may be haunted by evil spirits. Think about that for a few moments.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller told a contentious sitting of the House of Representatives that her administration spent a total of ~J$118 million on travels for Cabinet members between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2013. The PM said all the trips, with the exception of those associated with funerals she attended, had engendered economic or other benefits to the country, but would not elaborate. Her staff and junior ministers incurred additional costs of about J$40 million. The PM does not acknowledge publicly that she sees a need for transparency and accountability in matters such as these and that it’s really good governance to both account for the costs and inform Parliament and the population of the expected outcome and benefits of such use of public funds. Tell me again, who pays for the running of the Administration?

The viral game, ‘Flappy birds’ had its wings clipped.Flappy-Bird-Game-Wallpapers The mobile phone and tablet game was taken off apps. I have never heard of this game, but my 10 year-old tells me it’s great fun. Already downloaded versions of the game still work.

Ugly

Despite a sharp drop in deaths from road accidents so far this year, compared to the same period in 2013, Canadian visitor died after his vehicle plunges into the river in St Catherine, by Natural Bridge.

Natural bridge accident: car being hauled from river
Natural bridge accident: car being hauled from river

Road warriors

My daughter and I spent most of yesterday chilling out; we were very tired after our flight from Jamaica to Trinidad, and the late time to bed. We took a nice breakfast, including, for me, the statutory fish and bakes. She had some school work to do, so I had no problem with her lounging on the hotel bed, listening to some music and working on her exercises. I was writing and reading, as usual. Every now and then we’d break out into a song: we listen to some of the Jamaican popular radio stations while driving to or from school or after-school activities. One of our favourite songs is a Soca hit by Bunji Garlin, We ready for the road.

It’s an infectious sound.

We joined my wife and her colleagues for a cocktail by the waterfront, where there were some of the regular characters of Carnival: Dame Lorine, Fancy Indians, Midnight robber, and Moko Jumbie. My daughter was fascinated by them; no surprise. We took a picture her between the legs of the boy on stilts. We enjoyed a small plate of Basmati rice, vegetable and chicken curries, and buss-up-shut, washed down with some cool coconut water. We were then ushered to the hotel ballroom for an ‘evening of culture’. I had not known what to expect, but thought it would be around a Carnival theme. It was.

A stage was well-decked with the lights and banners of a concert. The show began on time, at 8pm, and we were into the rocking, swaying, hand-waving, and ‘chipping down the road’. The show opened with a singer named ‘Fes’ and his dancing men and women. His long dreadlocks swayed like the snakes on Medusa’s head, and he had us in his hand from the first beats. I tried to just revel, but was caught by the words. Trinidad is about partying and in the season of Carnival there is just nothing else in the air but its spirit; it just carries you away. “Drinking and win’ing” are what the season is all about. Putting it in the words of a Trini: “Carnival Tuesday reach, yuh woman wining down de road wit a drink in one hand and she bottom rolling on a man”. The woman or man could be you.

Carnival is not the time to get high and mighty about the moral fabric of the country. It’s about bacchanal–debauchery. I whispered to a friend that I was looking forward to my daughter’s questions the next day. “Daddy, what is a bumper?” I’m not sure if I’m going to go into all the elements of Bacchus/Dionysus–the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness and ecstasy in Roman/Greek mythology, from whom my own name is derived.

For a while, I could not get my head out of thinking about the economic impact of Carnival. Not the tens of thousands of visitors to the twin islands for the fete of all fetes; not the millions of dollars spent and the many more millions earned by the event. No. I was thinking about the drop in output and productivity during this period. Strangely, perhaps, the official view is that, on the contrary, productivity is higher during the Carnival period. Hard work and diligence are much in evidence in getting costumes and floats and all the street party paraphernalia ready in time. I still wanted to hold onto my image of lounging and liming for days, though.

The songs seemed to want to portray the time as one where wasting effort was very much accepted. Soca icon, David Rudder had us all nodding and shouting “Yes!” when he sang Guilty. He was accused of rousing the people and getting them onto the streets, and the judge asked him how he answered the charge. “Guilty!” he proudly proclaimed; again and again, till the judge, herself, fell under his spell. 

“Wave your hand if you’re wutless!” We all waved. We were on the road…next stop, Perdition. We were cast out of Eden, completely, when Bunji Garlin hit the stage. My daughter and I were laughing at each other at that moment, and her mother realised that her priorities were off for having been secreted away all day into the early evening. People were on their feet. Hands were waving in the air. Some were rushing into the aisles. This is a good reaction–to get people from ‘chair dancing’ to actually moving all of their body parts, and not feeling or looking self-conscious. Some, clearly, foreign visitors whose cultural vibes had been lost in baggage claim at the airport, barely managed to tap their fingers. As Jamaicans say, “Mi sarry fi dem.”

We were treated to Rupee–the mixed-race Soca star from Barbados, making his first appearance in Trinidad for seven years. He got the crowd laughing more than dancing as he went through his older songs, and he showed us how Trinis can animate any event with their voices and mannerisms. “Oh, Gawwwwddddddd!” he said, slapping his cheeks and his thighs. “Dat you, Rupee, bay? Oh, Gawwwwddddddd!” Maybe, he was positioning himself for a next career. He’s a graduate of Barbados’ top school, Harrison College, so his head is well-prepped. He got us rocking, eventually, with Tempted to touch. Spirit willing; flesh weak. It’s OK. Breathe in. Carnival time.

The evening ended with Destra, the queen of bacchanal. Her energetic style did not come across too well on stage, but she tried to get us ready to accept that ‘rolling your bam-bam’ was not only alright, but essential. Our region has already received the intellectual seal of approval for its obsession with ‘full figuredness”, with an Oxford University study showing that big-bottomed women were smarter and healthier.

The Caribbean female warrior in her natural profile
The Caribbean female warrior in her natural profile

If ever a name was made for a task, the researcher, Dr. Carpe, could have coined carpe diem (and Caribbean people may eventually have the phrase “carp dem” to described their full-fendered female friends 🙂 The time for seizing was now, and the place was here.

Thankfully, she was the last act. I looked at my 10 year-old, enjoying her first Soca concert. I wondered what the question mill was churning and would throw out the next day. I didn’t need to rush her probing, but I am going to be as prepared as I can be to deal with the scales falling from her eyes.

Who put the boy in ‘Boycott’?

Remember last November, a little furore in Jamaica about 13 Jamaicans being denied entry to Trinidad? No. Remember the idea of boycotting Trinidadian products? No. Shame on you. But, not really. I guess that Christmas got in the way. A reputable survey showed that only 4 in 10 Jamaicans were ready to put their money where their mouths seemed to be and support the boycott. Some people believe that its due to poverty and illiteracy that most Jamaicans have not jumped on this particular waggon. It could also be…shock, horror…common sense.

I tried looking carefully at things ‘Jamaican’ at the time of the suggested boycott. I noted that several prominent brands that we thought were ours, were theirs. When I was doing that I was just chomping on my bag of Excelsior Crackers. Well, Rahtid! They are owned by a Trini company.

Excelsior Water Crackers: Wonderful with anything or just alone
Excelsior Water Crackers: Wonderful with anything or just alone

The crackers flew out of my mouth so fast, my daughter thought I needed medical help. I gasped for air. She brought me a glass of water. I started to sweat profusely, and she went to get me a towel. I asked to lie down, and she guided me to the sofa, and held my hand as I calmed down, stopped babbling “Mi crackas! Mi crackas!” Her “It’s OK, Daddy,” just wasn’t helping, though. It was NOT OK.

The sense of sell-out was too bitter in my mouth. Could I find a truly Jamaican brand? I could, but they did not taste right. Would I have to live my life as a traitor, a quisling? Maybe, I would need to order them online and have them delivered to my home, rather than buying in the supermarket and have real Jamaicans point their fingers and hiss their teeth as I piled them into my cart. “Look at him!” I could hear them whispering. “I hope he chokes,” they would add.

I’m usually strong-principled, but this was a tipping point. I just had to stop eating those crackers.

But, the challenges were all around me. I wanted to go on holiday with my family over Christmas. My wife had booked the tickets and bought the presents for her family. We were packed and at the airport. Then I looked at her in an Epiphany moment. She had parked our luggage in front of the counter for Caribbean Airlines. What was the woman doing? She’s regionally savvy. Was she just being heartless? Was this another test? I’d failed so many. Why were we not flying American Airlines, even though their flights were not direct and would force us to have a four-hour layover in Miami, after enduring the long lines at Immigration, and the risk of not getting a connection because of the severe snow storms that were battering the US east coast? I could tolerate that in order to stay true to my cause. Was she selling us for the ‘thirty pieces of silver’ that was the promise of an tasty in-flight meal? She’s a good Christian, so it couldn’t be that. This was not the place to have ‘that talk’, so I did what good husbands should, I bowed my head and did not make eye contact with her for the rest of the day. But, the shame, I felt. The shame.

Caribbean Airlines: almost unique for giving passengers real food in-flight
Caribbean Airlines: almost unique for giving economy-class passengers real food in-flight

I let that pass during the festivities because she bought me such nice gifts. I had almost forgotten how she had acted until this week.

She had to travel for some serious work reasons, involving the region’s main financial decision-makers amongst the stakeholders who would be present. It would coincide with Valentine’s Day. (You know she cares enough to remember you at such times.) She suggested that our daughter (who had no school the following Monday and Tuesday) and me join her and spend a long weekend. She promised me the chance to play in a golf tournament with some of these financial high-rollers. Her previous trips had been either to exotic places, such as Brazil or Mexico, or to places in the US that offered new interests, such as Miami. I said “Yes, please.” Then the bombshell. She was headed to Port of Spain.

So, from almost needing the Heimlich maneuver a few months back, to being put into an embarrassing public position during the season of goodwill, I now had to suffer the indignity of going into Devil’s Lair.

Devil's Lair
Devil’s Lair

I took a deep breath. I saw my daughter’s eyes begin to well with tears as my brow started to frown. “Daddy?” Her voice quivered. “Daddy, say yes!” My head was spinning. All I could see was darkness in front of me. I thought about the notion that bad things happen in threes. Jesus and Peter; the cock crowing; denial. My mouth went into a pout. Was this her way of telling me something that she could not tell me? She’s not Jamaican, so her heart would not be broken like mine. Those fears about intercultural marriages raised themselves. I took a deep breath before I answered.

So, last night, close to midnight, I stepped off a jet plane. My daughter had slept most of the flight, drooling on my shirt as her head lay on my arm. We were met my ‘men from the Ministry’ as we cleared Immigration. We waited for our bags and were then taken to a large police force van. We were whisked from the airport to the hotel as fast as the driver could make it, with the aid of an accompanying jeep that helped us bypass every red light. Soca music was blaring from the bus’ sound system; the essence of Carnival was already in the air. We arrived at the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Jones,” was the greeting from the small ‘committee’ there to welcome us: it was past midnight. My wife called to us as we were headed to the reception desk.

Talk is cheap; money buys land, goes the saying in the Caribbean. Add me to the 6 in 10.

Jump on my waggon

I was standing very close to the CEO of a Jamaican television broadcasting company last weekend. It was Sunday morning. I should have been at church, but was supporting the congregation in other ways. We were waiting for the now-customary delayed start to an event. It was just after 8am. In our part of the world, that’s the hour to get ready for the first English Premier League match of the day. So, I asked the executive a question that had been bothering me for a while: “Why do Jamaicans have these love affairs with English football teams?” His answer was one word: “Waggonists.”

True waggonists
True waggonists

I can understand my passion for a team: I grew up in their shadows; they made my weekends exciting; now, I am a lifelong fan. In places like Liverpool or Manchester, England, passions arise for similar reasons. In the same way that some people want to pick out schools for their children before they are born, English (European and South American football fans, too) have made sure that onesies fit the colours of THE team. Blue for boys? Not if you support Liverpool: red or nothing. Blue is for Everton–cross-city rivals, to be hated, despised, defiled, destroyed. This is not the stuff of casual acquaintance.

I notice the way in Jamaica (and I’ve seen it in Barbados) that on game day the local fans sport the jerseys of their ‘favourite’ team. A man with whom I was due to play some golf yesterday had his son with him when he arrived at my house. The boy, whose brain had clearly not yet fully developed, was wearing an Arsenal shirt. I asked him if he knew whose house he was visiting. “Three points, today,” he answered. Clearly, he did not feel any fear or danger to his life. (For the record, I lived in Tottenham as my last address in England. You should understand the aversion to Arsenal’s colours, based on that. If not, then, please do a little research. :-))

In London, where more than a dozen top clubs are based, cheek by jowl, people don’t walk around, aimlessly eating pizza, with their team colours on. Unless, they are with a group of 10 others dressed the same. Unless, they are looking to ‘have a bit of bovva’. It’s just not proper behaviour; it’s truly disrespectful. Don’t come singing YOUR songs in MY neighbourhood, either.

But, Jamaicans are oblivious to this. They are ‘followers of fashion’. Not just any fashion, though. The fashion that is winning. So, when I’m asked what team I support and smile while saying “Queens Park Rangers”, I have to be ready for a few hours of guffaws. “Are they still in the league?” is a common attempt at humour.

Jamaicans want to be associated with the teams they think will be raising trophies. So, Manchester United and Chelsea have a hearty following.chelsea_vs_man_united_uefa_champions_league_1011_manchester The local fans may have no idea where the teams really are in England, apart from ‘up North’ or ‘in London’. Not for them, the nuances of east or west side of a city, or north or south of a river; things that would clearly divide the fans in their home area. ESPN understands that those lines exist and are real, even though they are less meaningful in substance.

Arsenal have a strong following; so, too, do Manchester City and Tottenham. I have seen or heard fans like me, who support lesser teams, let alone those outside the Premier League. The mighty old English teams, like Burnley and Blackburn? Derby County or Leeds or Sheffield Wednesday? Who?

The Waggonists are nothing if not international, though. Barcelona or Real Madrid (who have an academy in Jamaica) seem to have some serious followers in Jamaica. I’ve not seen or heard any fans of German teams, like Bayern Munich. The Italians have a smattering. The Scottish? Nah!

It’s mainly about the diet. What Jamaicans had been fed for years was a steady helping of football matches from England. As I noted above, the early mornings here were ‘game time’, through lunchtime, at least. Sit down with your mates. Grab a Red Stripe or Heineken. Pull out some fried dumplings and ackee and saltfish. Game time!

I overheard two Jamaicans this week discussing how ‘their teams’ had players who were not ‘their ballers’, meaning that they did not seem worthy of undying love. One man, a Barcelona fan, was saying “Messi’s not my baller…Ronaldinho’s my man.” The debate went on, with not clear rationalization being tossed into the air. “But, Ronaldo’s my baller, no doubt,” the other man said. They went on again, rationalizing.

Most of the Jamaican fans have no way to see their teams live. The CEO was different and had recently had the need to visit London and manage to see ‘his team’ play. But, I haven’t seen him cut and show what colour is his blood. Will it be red, like his team’s colours?

Arsenal were playing ManU yesterday; it ended as a goalless draw. Neither team walked away devastated. Arsenal are doing better so far this season. ManU have seen better starts to a season. I’ve yet to see in Jamaica the depths of despair that home fans show when defeat has struck their teams. Perhaps, things are so bad here that a defeat is just another day’s events. No reason to go out and kick a goat? Jamaican fans are not the real thing.

The English Premier League is shaping up to be a tight race this season. I’m trying to see if the waggonsts are nimble. Who will stay the course with Liverpool, or Chelsea, or Arsenal, or Man. City or Spurs? Will there be some jumping ship? True waggonists would. I’ve seen a few men bravely sporting their Man. United shirts on Satruday’s. I’ve asked if they have no one to do their laundry. They’ve puffed their chests. Results have hurt them and their team so far, but they stand proudly. Waggonists may be the order of the day, but not everyone will let the wheels fall off easily. Maybe, they are real fans in the making.

Mek wan jackass bray

Jamaican life is full of proverbs and most people will gladly share the wisdom gained from them. ‘Mek wan jackass bray’ can be translated as ‘allow one jackass (donkey) to bray at a time’.

It’s meaning is simple: It is difficult to see the merit in other persons’ ideas if everybody attempts to speak at the same time. Also, if someone is speaking foolishly, avoid adding to the confusion.

Yesterday, I listened to some of the live broadcast of Parliament, during a session when PM Simpson-Miller was responding to questions tabled by the Leader of the Opposition regarding her overseas travel. Such broadcasts have been available since 2007 (some 10 years after laws had provided for this). Jamaica has a British-style Parliamentary set-up, and with the now-tribal positioning of the two main parties, it’s not surprising that any face-off between politicians tends to be raucous. I think there’s a big difference between a vigorous debate and the near-juvenile behaviour one sees in both the UK and in Jamaica.

Many people are not familiar with the proceedings of Parliament and I would believe are shocked by what they observe and hear when the House is in session. Let’s say that Gordon House is often the place for a few choice “Gordon Bennett!” Or, in modern parlance, “Are these people for real!”

Though not from yesterday, this clip shows that Gordon House proceedings are not far from yard behaviour. Fulminating is the word that comes to mind. 

Don’t feel ashamed if you cannot watch the whole excerpt.

A few weeks ago, Everald Warmington, a JLP MP, got the nation’s attention with his declaration that if you did not vote you did not count for getting government benefits. His lambasting of non-voters never touched directly on reasons why that has become so popular. Perhaps, he needs to stand outside his Parliamentary role and ask an honest question such as “Would I want to vote for someone to go to Gordon House and act as if they are in a rum shop?” The proceedings could be mistaken for a session at the dominoes table. 

A common reaction heard or read yesterday was to describe the behaviour as ‘boorish‘. No disagreement, there. Many people view politicians as part of the privileged set of Jamaica. Given that the discussion underway yesterday was about the cost of the PM’s travel, it did not slip past many that the cost of politicians is not seen as public money well spent.

The substance of yesterday’s discussion? We got to hear the total cost of the PM’s travel and that of her Cabinet members and Minsters of State. (I have not seen the report that was tabled, and strangely only three copies made available to the House. But, it seems that J$118 millions for Cabinet and junior ministers’ trips , plus J$16 millions paid by the Office of the PM for her 25 trips, and J$25 millions for her staff.) We also learned something about what was accomplished by each trip. The PM got angry during the process of cross-questioning, and couldn’t avoid a few snide asides about the Opposition. Par for the course. Boring, to some extent. Unleaderlike, I’d also say. But, again, these are politicians at work, work, work. Blood was extracted from a stone. Teeth were pulled.

The PM seemed to have a hard time understanding that a large part of the populace wanted to know about her travel as part of the good governance of the country. Of course, most understand the important ambassadorial role the PM and other politicians play. But, it’s normal for the population to feel they are getting value for money from those elected to represent them. Often, politicians forget why they are in Parliament and performing their jobs in government. Their junkets need to be set in the context of what the people expect and need.

Mrs. Simpson-Miller has often bristled when asked about these trips, choosing to see ‘criticism’ of her travel, rather than a reasonable request that her people be better informed about the workings of government.

But, the whole matter could be simplified and need never raise any personal hackles. It’s not the norm in Jamaica for politicians to report to the nation on their overseas trips. It’s common practice in most organisations, worldwide. Not least, it leaves a clear record of how the stated purpose of the visits are matched by outcomes. It’s good management practice. Jamaican politicians are often telling us how we need to move forward and improve how the country operates. Yet..

The cynic in me could say that Jamaica’s politicians have not displayed a very good regard for good management. Nevertheless, we should keep pushing them towards being better than they are. Just make it a matter of routine that reporting on the trips is done. It could be in bland form with a short written report. It could be an oral presentation. It should be set in a very tight timeframe (say, within 7 days of the trip ending): that may be hard when trips are close to each other, but it means being more efficient. Government ministers have a civil service backing them and it’s very easy to set up good systems. Lots of examples exist internationally. Now, that the reporting has been done to Parliament, we should not break the mould and have this happen as a special exercise, but instead be part of government business.

Mr. Holness said the Prime Minister “should use her discretion in managing public funds frugally”. That’s important on many levels, not least because such spending is part of an overall national budget that has to stay within agreed limits as part of an IMF program. If the spending is within the agreed limits then the Fund should have no issues, but if it exceeds, then we need to know what offsetting measures exist to keep the budget deficit as agreed. In that sense, the benefits of the trips are irrelevant. You get no extra fiscal leverage for trips being ‘worthwhile’.

The PM’s response to Mr. Holness on that point was “I have not gone on any trip that has not been beneficial to Jamaica and the Jamaican people.” Let that be said. However, her saying so is not what government is about; a little substance to the statement will make it better. That’s really all that is being asked.

Who put the pee in puppy?

“Can I have a puppy, Daddy? Can I? Can I? I’ll love it and bathe it. I promise! Can I?” I never gave my consent to my daughter, but as is the way in many administrations, the power behind the throne is well-known, and the Minister for Home Affairs gave her permission and funded the venture. No risk of un-fun-ded man-date.

Economists are supposed to understand that economies grow not just from the initial spending on investments, but from the money and time spent on maintenance and refurbishment.

The puppy has been a good investment. It has increased the job opportunities in the Queendom several-fold. Lots of people who did not know that they would benefit from this small venture have now found themselves part of the core labour force to keep it running. And, it runs a lot, usually in circles, and also slipping and sliding on the tiles.

The workforce also ensures that this beast is socialized. Barking at strangers is discouraged, except if they are the garbage men. Gardeners, postmen, neighbours are all alright. Sniff and remember them sell.

Refurbishment is going on. The chairs that is being chewed will need to be repaired. My sneakers have become a toy to be destroyed again and again. Why did the puppy have to eat my avocado plant? “Not good, puppy!” More replacements will be needed soon. Rack up the cost.

Many people have complained during the current recession about the lack of ‘quality’ jobs. Flipping burgers is deemed to be not one of those. But, I’d take it, if I weren’t already retired. How about poo-scooper? The career opportunities are limited, but it’s outdoor work and has flexible hours. The main scooper is often occupied during the daytime doing intensive studies, and her supervisor and benefactor is often travelling. So the auxiliary force, some migrant workers, come into play often. Surprisingly, given that Jamaica has not seen snow and frozen ground since all the years I have known the place, the puppy has an aversion to stepping out in adverse weather conditions. Adverse? Yes, when dew is on the ground, his little legs do not clear the grass by much. As he stoops to conquer, his tush touches herbaceous leaves. Tickly! Aha! A raffia mat is nearby and has the rough feel of natural landscape. So, he chooses that. “Zeus!” Is he indeed The Devil? Let me find that dog. Screenshot 2014-02-11 09.10.02

Having an animal as a pet is a moving experience. You have to move everything. What are my shoes doing in the kitchen? Why are my underpants lying in the yard? How did my wife’s handbag get into the utility room? Don’t leave homework lying around. It will be eaten.

If we thought our house was haunted, we’d have been having fits. My golf balls have become hazards as they are strewn around the tiled floors. My bag is no protection if I have not zipped closed every pocket. The critter has the intelligence to climb up and snag things out of them. So, my gloves are all over the place. Golf tees are rattling around the floors. I hope he has his fill of golf balls; it seems that 20 is the number he finds fun. He has no retrieving instincts. But, he is a hoarder. Many things find their way into his bed. Many things are nowhere to be found. Men have little care sometimes about how they look, but I usually prefer two socks that match. Now, I’ve found my attitude to that has become much looser. One sock, any sock, is a plus.

Like many animals in Jamaica, a dog will eat almost anything presented as food. Mangoes? Oh, yes! Scraps of chicken? Yummy! Coconut jelly? Really?

Dogs will also make anything into a scary object. Boo! Of he goes, scurrying for shelter. Hiding under a table. Is the coast clear, yet? I have no hope that a burglar will have to deal with anything more than sharp little teeth grazing his or her gnarled feet. But, the yapping can be annoying. I’ve seen the puppy maul a toilet roll, so maybe he has some tricks up his legs.

It’s not yet mid-morning, and the day has already been hectic. The puppy is building up energy for a lot of fun later. He’s curled up in his bed. Vicious brute, sleeping soundly, dreaming of pouncing on all who dare approach. Grrr!

“Daddy? Do you love my puppy?” I do, and imagine how good he would be with some roasted sweet potato and a green salad 🙂 “Zeus! Come here, puppy!”

Jamaica is…

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.

Throw-up wires to steal electricity in Jamaica
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Cows grazing on roadside verge between Kingston and Spanish Town

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.

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Young athletes waiting at National Stadium, ahead of Camperdown Classic

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.