The objects of our desires

The Caribbean in general, and Jamaica is no exception, is a place of much muddled thinking. Currently, we are grappling with what seems to be a wave of sex offences, notably including children, especially girls.

Yet, this region loves to make women sex objects. In the short time since coming back to Jamaica, I’ve been struck by how commonplace that is. Have a product to promote or sell? Find some beautiful young women and dress them skimpily, then spread liberally around. Voila! Hit event.

I’m not going to lay blame on ‘dance hall’, but show me where women gyrating sexily is not a constant image. This is with or without a male prop.

Carnival-style fêtes are similar in terms of what passes for dancing.
The recent brouhaha in Jamaica over videos featuring teenagers, sometimes with adults, involved in sexual acts is just ‘more of the same’. That coming months after another viral video of school children in Maggotty showing that they know ‘the moves’ and ‘the grooves’.

What Jamaica experiences is similar in other islands. Yesterday’s Gleaner screamed about the number of sexual offences and the high proportion involving minors. Trinidad’s PM went on the warpath over her country’s tolerance of such things, proposing fines for non-reporting.

We are what we tolerate. Practice makes perfect. We reap what we sow.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (February 8, 2014)

Good

The Winter Olympics began in Sochi, Russia. I love most of the winter sports, especially downhill racing, and get an enormous thrill watching that, ski-jumping, snowboarding, ice hockey, bobsledding (where Jamaica now has interest in the two-man…Cool Runnings II coming?),  and luge. I really admire the skills in curling. Another series of nights watching sports in the wee hours beckons.

Bad

I understand the urge to curb people from producing more children in conditions where they appear unable to support them, but reproductive rights should be protected. So, Sen. Ruel Reid’s suggestion of mandatory limits on reproduction do’t sit well. Reactions to this in coming days/weeks will be interesting.

Ugly

Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1…not the treatment that title leaders in the English Premier League like to endure. Worse, perhaps, for having to see Daniel Sturridge perform that very weird dance to celebrate a goal.

Cooking up stories

A few days ago, I wrote that we could get a lot of Jamaican history recorded if everyone who has the ability to record the actions and words of someone from an older generation did so. Jamaica is full of story tellers. I heard about a school in the Blue Mountains portion of the parish of Portland that was creating its own oral history bank by having older citizens come to the school and tell stories, which were then recorded on an electronic tablet. But, stories are all around us, if we just listen.

Last night, we were invited to share curried chicken and rotis with a group of teachers and their friends and family. It was a must-accept invitation. My little fish-daughter was swimming in the Karl Dalhouse swim meet at the National Aquatic Centre, which began at 5pm. The dinner seemed like the ideal end to her evening and excellent preparation for a weekend full of races. After her race last night, she and her mother headed home while I continued time keeping for a while.

As luck would have it, though we left 30 minutes apart, we arrived at the gate of the residence at the same time. I went behind my wife’s car and said to the guard that I was going to the same place as she was. Then I saw my wife turn her car around and start to head out of the complex. She told me that the guard said that we needed to find the residence on another side of the complex. Off she went. I was a boy scout, so I got out my phone and called our host–who had told me that she lived just down the street from us. Yes, I was in the right place and in seconds I could see her waving as we talked on the phone. I called my wife and told her to high-tail it back.

Our host had her mother visiting from the countryside, which was a pleasant surprise. We went through the usual introductions and settled into relaxing. Little by little the stories started to flow.

My wife had found out that a relative of our host’s husband was also a relative of hers in The Bahamas. Small coincidence? The relative was due to join us for dinner.

I started sharing stories about how we had found related people as members of the swimming club that my daughter had joined in Kingston. We felt like family with that team and were even happier to be part of it. More coincidences?

One of the guests asked me about my writing, and I gave him a little insight into what it tries to be and why I write. Then, our host told us that her mother was a mystery writer who got paid for what she does. Her mother, who was born in England, had married a Jamaican, and lived on the island for over 40 years, explained that she could not tell us about her writing, done under a pseudonym. her daughter had never read any of these mysterious works. How intriguing.

The appetizer arrived and we tucked into a tasty salad made with cabbage (grown at the school) and salt fish, which went well with crackers. Our host’s mother had made it. We were in danger of spoiling our appetites as we ladled heap of the salad onto biscuits. We talked about some of the exotic dishes that were popular in Jamaica. One of my favourites, curried tripe and broad beans, had its lovers and its haters. We talked about eating braised liver and bananas. We reminisced about living in England and going to the butcher to get the cuts of meat we wanted, not pre-packaged as was common in the USA. I love of braised kidneys with port and talked about times when I used to live in Wales and would get a present of a pack of meat of sausages from the local butcher whenever the local football team, for which I played, won at the weekend.

The roti cooker realised the danger, so moved quickly to intervene and place his signature dishes in front of us. Out came the dish of curry and alongside a plate full of ‘buss-up-shut’. No more invitations needed. We all tried to be polite as we hastily grabbed at our makings of our dinners. This food is best eaten with the hands, and preferably in clothes that don’t show curry stains.

Buss-up-shut
Buss-up-shut

Within minutes, conversation had slowed as eating took over.

As the evening went on, we were joined by some more guests and the evening rolled on. This is a regular gathering and we were glad to be part of it.

We talked about devoted parents who spent their weekends watching and supporting their children 🙂 We talked about living in England. We talked about enjoying travelling around Jamaica’s countryside and enjoying what it offered. I described my recent trip to Mandeville and the pleasure of coming back to Kingston with a car laden down with produce: a trunk full of bananas and yam and a car caked in mud were signs of a good trip.

We were asked, after a good rest, if we were ready for dessert. Silly question. Lychee cake was being offered. My wife asked from where the fruit had come, and several of us explained that Jamaica produces plenty of the fruit, including in my father’s yard. We were well-behaved as plates with hefty slices of cake were passed around. Again, conversation slowed down.

My daughter left with her mother soon after 9pm so that she could get a good night sleep. Reluctant, of course, to leave the company of some adults who were enjoying her company.

The rest of us settled comfortably into a round of stories. We talked about nicknames–a staple of Jamaican life. How do you get a name ‘Clock’? Have one arm shorter than the other.

The funniest stories were about attending the ‘wrong’ Nine Nights. It’s a great piece of Jamaica’s culture that deaths are celebrated and the party atmosphere of a ‘set up’ is something that many Jamaicans enjoy. From what we heard, these have now become more festive, with ‘ban’s’ being part of the events, and even some ‘winding up’.

Nine Nights celebration
Nine Nights celebration

We heard that our host and friends had gone to pay respects to the family of a grandmother, only for find that in the a settlement of some 1500 people, there happened to be two such celebrations going on at the same time. Just their luck to walk into the wrong one. Still, walking with bottles of rum and ready for manish water and curried goat, they boldly waltzed into the mingle. Why be surprised that no one was coming up to you and talking? Well, it’s because you’re at the wrong place! Eventually, they found their way to the right place and got into the revelry they had been awaiting. Singing, dancing, drinking, praying. I hoped that the group of Nine Night chasers would give a sample of their singing routine, which I heard ranged from Gospel, through Soca. We rolled around as we imagined this wandering band of duppy watchers.

I was fading, after a long day of activity and I needed to get my sleep, too, with a day on a swim deck awaiting me. We hugged and kissed and wished each other a good weekend, as I headed home.

Another friend, with whom I’d played golf earlier in the day, had mentioned to me that every Friday he gets a lot of Parrot fish and has a good ‘fish feed’ at his house; Saturday is soup day. Jamaicans (and other Caribbeans) love to get together and just lime (as the Trinis call it)–just hang out with each other. Food and drink, as the world over, make the gathering so much better. 

My story-telling idea has its place, but clearly, we thrive on being able to share our lives with others, not only by being together physically, but also from airing our experiences. We get to know a little more about each other that way. Doors open. Doors close. Chapters start. Chapters end. We never know how we will intercept each other’s lives, but a good beginning comes from telling a little tale.

 

 

We deh yah still! (We’re still here!)

An IMF team is on the island to assess economic progress through December 2013 and look at prospects for coming months. Some of the Jamaican financial officials whom I know commented casually in recent days that “everything is alright”. The official numbers seem set to pass the levels needed to satisfy the Fund. All’s well with the world. Well, yes and no. Jamaica’s economy is not on its knees, but it walks with a gait and with a bent back. It’s not striding confidently ahead and may yet find some rocks over which to stumble. But, apart from the official data, what do our eyes and ears tell us?

I cannot go anywhere in Jamaica without thinking about the state of the country–it’s economy and its social structure. I’m more struck to think when I get out of Kingston. Yesterday, I headed to Mandeville, in the hills of the parish of Manchester. It’s economic base has been based on bauxite industry activities and agriculture. In more recent times, the parish has gained from being an attractive location for returning residents. Coming back to Jamaica, often with foreign currency incomes, these people have been able to deal with harder economic times in Jamaica. They are not super-rich by any measure, but can enjoy a comfortable life. Some have found readjustment to Jamaican life a real challenge. Others have thrived on being able to get back to their national, if not really local, geographical roots. Of those, a good number try their hand at market gardening, planting and rearing enough to provide much of their daily fruit and vegetable needs, maybe with a little poultry rearing thrown in.

The parish is mainly rural and spread out. The decline in bauxite activity has taken its toll on the fortune of what is Jamaica’s third city (it’s a large town, really). A report last year noted that one of Mandeville’s former private schools, Belair High, was becoming government-funded, and begun to open itself to a wider market, in part because the fee-paying base has declined. Changes such as this are not easily seen by the occasional or casual visitor, but they are still real.

What appears more evident is the hustle and bustle of the town centre of Mandeville, or that of towns one passes on the road, such as Porus. At a glance, not much seems different from a year ago, but it seems less than in years before then. Taxis and Coaster minibuses ply their trade as usual, but I heard from some drivers that business is harder to find. People have no other options to get from settlements outside Mandeville to the centre, or from the parish to other places. Of course, the market for public transport is tough: taxis and buses will fill themselves with people and belongings and try to maximise fares from each journey. That, sometimes, means a tough time for the riders. I got an impression from people I know who use taxis a lot and a driver that the operators are fewer. (I’m frustrated that I cannot find figures to prove that.) I know, from press reports that the business has become more dangerous, with reports of attacks on drivers, and a recent report of a driver being allegedly beaten by police.

Crime has risen and that has begun to take its toll on business confidence, especially as several businesses and their owners have been targets for violent attacks. Police commentators talk about the area still being safe. Everything is relative: more crimes are reported than before, but fewer crimes occur than is say the more populous areas of St. Catherine and Kingston/St. Andrew.

I did not get to go outside Mandeville town centre yesterday, so I cannot say how things appeared in the field, so to speak. I did not go to the area near the normally bustling market, either. I still saw a good number of vendors on the road side, selling oatahite apples (in season)

Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite
Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite

, pineapples, yam (of which, I read there is a glut, and also in abundance at the Melrose Hill yam park, where I wanted to stop to grab some soup). As I pulled into the area, a flock of vendors waving roast yam and sweet potatoes rushed towards my car. “Buy one, nuh, sah!” I waved them off and focused on the lady with a large soup pot. I asked her how business was. “It’s up and down,” I heard. It’s on the busy main road that brings traffic from Kingston and east through to Montego Bay and west and south. During the week, the business will be the passing travellers, who, like me, are hungry and need a filling and easy meal to break their journeys. I reflected on the fact that it’s not an area where many tourists will reach–their loss (but that’s another story).

Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester
Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester

A few vehicles were parked and travellers were standing, enjoying what they had bought. I started drinking my soup, put down my corn for later, and headed back on the road; I wanted to get to Kingston before traffic got too heavy in the city.

Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park
Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park

Life lived abundantly would not be a bad phrase to apply to the parish, most of the time. As I noted, I did not get out of the town centre. I went to a supermarket to buy bottled water. I also went to a large pharmacy, to get school supplies for a geography project. Both were quiet; but a 10 am in the morning, that was not surprising. It was also a day on which a funeral was being held for a well-known son of the soil, and the car park to the church was jam-packed. I saw a lot of people also standing near the church. Not invited, but interested?

I also went to the post office, to try to help draw pension money for my father. However, the post office had no cash! This was a first for me. I don’t know how the government funds the agencies such as post offices, who are charged with paying benefits. I thought about the wasted journeys that had been made that day, with money and time spent for no purpose. For those, who needed to cash to do other things that day, tomorrow would have to be better. I thought of the simpler arrangements that exist in places like the USA or UK, where payment could be made through bank or even post office accounts, and then spending could be done with check or credit/debit cards or online. But, Jamaica is not there. I thought about lost productivity and lost production. Another brick in the inefficiency building.

We went to buy paint supplies. We checked prices at one hardware store, then found that they did not have the colour we needed for the exterior. We went to the next store, a few minutes away. We found all we needed. A reasonable number of customers were there for the mid-afternoon. Outside the store was a large armoured truck with a guard clutching a shotgun rifle (I think, not being an arms expert). Prices were a little higher than in the other store, but we were stuck because of choice. I asked if we got discounts for bulk or for being senior citizens. We were told to ask at the cashier’s desk: we got a 10 percent reduction.

Outside the first store, a man was selling cucumbers, two in a bag, but sold as a pound; they looked really nice and we bought two pounds. I asked why he didn’t sell them by number–they all looked about the same size. “I weigh them and know it’s right,” he replied. (It’s fairer to buyers to sell by weight, but without a scale, at time of sale, the question about true weight will always be there.) Outside the other store, another man was selling yam, but we did not need any; he backed off readily and looked for the next arrival. Typical of Jamaica, people freely try to sell things and make a little living. Where there are people passing, there be markets.

On the way home, we stopped to buy fruit from a lady on the roadside, just as we entered Clarendon, from Manchester–as planned. We know her well and she was pleased to see us. We bought ortaniques, bananas, sour sop (for juice),and limes; she gave us two papayas as brawta (a little extra). She lives in her roadside shop, and I looked through the opening behind the fruit, where she had her bed. The room looked to be about 9 feet square. I wondered what else was there besides a bed. She guarded us as we tried to cross the busy road, back to the car and gave us her blessing. Screenshot 2014-02-07 07.00.51

We made one last stop, also planned, near a bend in the road where the river passes. We’d seen in the past young boys with bags of janga (fresh water shrimps/crayfish). We wanted to make soup with them. As with the yam sellers, as soon as we stopped, three youth came running with their bags aloft. They were selling one pound bags, and we got two to be sure we had enough. We bought from a boy we’d seen before, but missed out on buying because we hadn’t known the sellers would be at that spot. Now, we were ready 🙂

The car was full inside and in the trunk. That’s how it’s supposed to be when you visit the country, we joked to each other. The land is very productive and we enjoy that when we see its riches on display. But, we only see the surface, and usually that is the result who hard work and struggles needed are hidden from us.

On the radio, the first report was about the struggles of pineapples farmers in St. Elizabeth (which borders Manchester), who are being blighted by disease, low prices, and bad roads that hamper getting produce to markets. Reality check.

Read all about it! David floors Goliath!

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.

Land that we love? But not the same for all, at all.

When I’ve thought in recent days how to try to fix some of the problems I see in Jamaica, I came back to a familiar stumbling block. The image I have for Jamaica’s future may not be shared by many.

Take aside the fact that I may have an image of a country where many things happen smoothly, in an environment that is largely clean and litter-free.

Ignore that I foresee a time when time means something important to everyone.

Put away the notion that we would not feel that a free-for-all was possible any and everywhere, and that many would not need to opt for that because they had plenty of good job opportunities, or good options, generally.

I’m not sure why my image of Jamaica keeps coming back to a Caribbean version of Switzerland. It may be that I like the Alps, and living in the shadows of the Blue Mountains in Kingston my mind can make the switch more easily.

Whatever vision political leaders have put forward to the Jamaican people, they have not painted a picture of a Jamaica that is really very different from what we had and what we have now. No doubt, north coast hotel developments have changed dramatically the coastline. Yes, Highway 2000 has changed dramatically the road landscape between Kingston and May Pen. The newly remodelled Norman Manley International Airport is a showpiece, matched by a newly paved road along Palisadoes, with its huge rocks protecting us from sea surges. The mining and industrial complexes in St. Elizabeth and Ewarton light up the sky in a spectacular way.

Whatever they promoted, did we really expect to see Jamaican streets largely empty because most of our people were working feverishly in offices or factories, tilling farmland, reeling in fish, studying in classrooms, or doing things in homes that were truly welcoming to those who had to spend the days productively outside? Or did we still see street corners with young men playing dominoes, drinking beer, talking, sitting with hands in jaws, appearing to have nothing to do?

Did we see a country that did not have men pushing hand carts, each one a unique design of natural woods, and cast-off tyres?

Did we see a land where cars were not idle on the roadside, with men running to or from them with petrol cans, and passengers waiting patiently for their return so that they could continue their journeys. Did we visualise that the 5-seater car in which passengers sat would be a comfortable waiting area for all nine of them and their bags?

Recent discussions about how Jamaica could learn lessons from, and follow, Singapore have at their base something similar to my visualization of Jamaica as a Caribbean Switzerland. Both are pristine-looking countries, where order reigns, where tidiness rules, where rules rule. They are places where garbage cascading along the roads when there has been heavy rain is not a usual sight. They are place where when someone says “I will come soon” it means that they WILL come soon. Could that ever be Jamaica? If the country were to change what would it have to give up?

It’s hard, maybe impossible, to visualize a Jamaica that does not have goats running along the sidewalks of commercial and residential districts, chomping away at the unkempt grass and weeds that line the road. Those goats serve a purpose by trimming when the public purse and personnel are not there to do so, and when the private entrepreneur who could make work from doing so has not yet seen the ‘market’ opportunity. Those same goats max out by noshing on whatever garbage Jamaicans have thrown from car windows of dropped casually as they walked. Jamaica’s gone backwards. I remember years ago, when pigs were there, snout by horn, with goats. Where are they now? We’re told that that country has a glut of pork, so where are the street pigs?

Who can see a Jamaica where roadside vendors, with their rickety shacks, and colourful displays of fruit, vegetables, briefs, panties, Dutch pots, tyre rims, and other life-essentials do not form the scenery for every journey on this island?

Who could imagine taking a road trip and not seeing the cookshops, the soup pots, the oil drums converted into barbeques, the bammy and fried fish offered on plates, bags of pepper ‘shwims’ [shrimps], cashew, roots drinks, and more?

All of those things I love about Jamaica. But, am I to believe that they are also part of what is wrong with the country? Could we move to another state and keep all or most of that texture that has been what makes life here the pleasure that it is?

Do we look forward to a Jamaica where road users keep to their side of the road at all times? Why should I be surprised to see a motorcyclist, without helmet, carrying two small children (without helmets) on the petrol tank of his bike, headed toward me in traffic, on my side of the road? Where did I think I was that this would not be a near-daily happening? Life’s hard and people do what they need to do! Get over it!

Do I want a Jamaica where taxis and private bus operators do not mistake the roads for speedway circuits? What kind of country would it be if those same public transporters did not just stop in the road when it seemed right for them, oblivious of anyone or anything else on the roads at the time?

I love to see the bodies pressed together in the large city buses in Kingston, with their faces looking from the windows wondering how long it would be before they got near to home.

What about a Jamaica where every time I stop at a traffic light I do not have a flock of young men spraying soapy liquid onto my car windscreen, and scraping it off to leave a sparkling, clear glass through which I can see the long line of cars waiting ahead? The Jamaica that does not have nearby that same youth, an old woman, with crooked teeth and bent back pressing her hand against my window, with gnarled fingers hoping to clutch just a few increasingly worthless dollars?

The country that we have is one that has less than it needs to live the way that it does. People in fancy suits talk about the fiscal deficit–we’ve spent more than we earned. We were not broke because of that. We borrowed some money to tide us over. But, we were never really able to pay the money back. So, now, we earn as much as we can and pay back as much as we can, and spend a little of what is left over to keep things ticking over.

We’re not dirt poor, but we have lots of characteristics of dirt poor countries. We have aspirations that are fine and we have shown those to the world with some of what we have constructed. We also show those aspirations in the way we house ourselves, if we have means or can get to borrow the means. We show them, too, in the kind of motor vehicles that we drive–shiny, new, foreign, often too large for our real needs, but hefty and able to deal with our rugged terrain. That rugged terrain is not all natural, though. Much of it is man-made. We have BMX tracks for roads, and our children get to have roller-coaster rides every day as we try to get them to and from school, and ourselves to and from places of work and elsewhere. None of that should bother us. When our cars are damaged, we just add the cost of repairs to another of the many expenses loaded onto us because we haven’t spent money we don’t have to do repairs to essential things that we have built. It’s simple. Get over it!

I have in my mind a kind of Jamaica that is really very different from what I see and experience now. (It’s not necessarily free of all those things I see around me now.) I think I know some of the things that are needed to move to there from here. I can imagine what people need to do and what they may need to spend to get some of it done.

I don’t know if anyone else sees what I see in the future. My view is one based on a hope for certain kinds of change. My view is also based on being able to live without certain kinds of social and economic pressures.

My biggest daily problem is not what will I eat. My biggest daily problem is not where should I go today to see if I can earn some money? My daily challenge does not include wondering if I can get from my house to anywhere else I want to go. My days do not involve wondering if someone will come to disconnect the illegal electricity supply that I have rigged up. My weeks do not involve hoping that the water I am stealing from the Water Commission is suddenly locked off. My nights do not involve wondering if those bangs were the sound of a car backfiring or the sound of guns firing. I don’t think about what my child is doing when I turn off the lights at night–she’s in bed asleep, not somewhere on the street. Those concerns, and more, are not there just for a small minority, but for a very sizeable portion of this country.

I can only speculate what vision someone has who lives behind a corrugated fence around a wooden shack near a gully strewn with old fridges, washing machines, black plastic bags and food boxes.

With viewpoints so different can we move together to create something that will be better for all of us?

We know our problem, but what are the solutions?

I try to help my 10 year-old with appreciating maths by telling her that it’s what life is all about. In maths, if you multiply two negatives, you get a number that is positive. However, life does not reflect maths in that case. Jamaica’s multitude of behavioural negatives leave us with a negative impression.

Yesterday, I touched on what I may call Jamaica’s ‘out of orderness’: we just relish setting ourselves up to fail. I have to admit that it’s something that frustrates and annoys me; I know that many other people are similarly affected. Are we all put off by it? I can’t say. But, economics tells me that the answer must be no. Jamaica has shown its revealed preference; it’s bought more of the out of orderness than less. So, we have the country that most people want. We have to live with what we tolerate.

But, what is to be done, if we really do not want this situation to continue?

The short answer many people will offer is more education about the costs or impact of what we are doing. Put into that bag the idea that people need to learn to behave differently.

In the corporate or bureaucratic world that relearning has to come through retraining. I will give examples of the better behaviour we want to see.

  • Understand that time is money, and that lateness is costly. (Being on time and staying on schedule should be the norms.)
  • Give the customer/client your full attention when they approach, or have the courtesy to ask the person to just wait a moment. (The anecdotes about staff continuing private conversations while customers wait are legion. So, too are the side conversations that go on while people are being served.)
  • Do not act in a surly manner. (People rarely go to an office to have a fight. If they have problems, they want solutions, not abrasive or aggressive reactions.)
  • Do not abuse what little authority you may have. (Stories of brutish behaviour by police officers are so common that you have to believe that it’s seen as part of our culture of policing that roughness is an essential part of how the job is done.)

At the least, changes such as these will create a different atmosphere to each interaction. Most people can handle the disappointment of not having their problems solve immediately if they have not been made to feel bad or wrong about raising it.

I know that such practices are easy to follow. When my daughter and I returned to Norman Manley International Airport on Sunday, we were faced with a female Immigration Officer who had long highlighted braids. She immediately complemented my daughter on her good looks. I asked, jokingly, whether that bordered on harassment. We struck up a conversation with her about this while she checked our passports. Her comments were about how she does not want people to touch her hair; nor does she want people to feel they can rub her stomach if she’s pregnant: that would be harassment, in her eyes. She stamped our passports, wished us a good day, and we hoped that she had the same. My daughter and I quickly made comments about how this interaction differed from that we received at another Caribbean island’s main airport. There, it was a major event to get more than “Passport?” Smiles were not offered to incoming passengers. Instructions were curt, and the parting greeting was usually in the mail. Remember, this is an island that thrives on tourism. The first interaction with locals if often not pleasant.

Our experience with this Immigration Officer is similar to what has happened each time we’ve entered Jamaica over the past seven or so months. Either, the airport recruits the nicest people who have come from homes where such pleasant behaviour is the norm, or they are trained to present themselves in such a manner. I tend to think it’s the latter. On arriving in Montego Bay, we had been treated as nicely, but there one may think that the bias is towards ‘welcoming visitors’ to our tourism capital. Kingston does not have that driving it’s reception. So, we have a good example in the public sector.

I know of others in large private sector organizations. I’ve been impressed with the staff in Scotiabank branches, some of whom even go that extra step to jazz up the atmosphere on a Friday with singing and dressing up. That does not remove problems, such as slow-moving lines, but customers tend to be more tolerant after some light-heartedness. Scotiabank may be using that as a ploy to cover its inefficiencies, but it may just be working 🙂

I am not the typical Jamaican, so I will not suggest that what I feel needs to be done will meet the approval of others. However, the changes that seem desirable are really quite small.

I have commented a lot about bad road use behaviour. How hard is it, nowadays, to buckle up the seat belts? Clearly, very hard. I stopped to let out a couple coming out of their driveway in a huge SUV/truck. As they approached me to pass in the other direction, I gestured to their belts, which were unbuckled, and said “Put it on, please,” The lady said they were going to, and they both did. The man was wearing a very large crucifix and I could not resist saying that I thought the Lord needed him to not head up to Heaven too soon. The moral of the story is that using safety belts is not second nature to many Jamaicans. It is also disturbing that this is the case as much (or even more) amongst those who we may say should know better. In the upscale, uptown parts of Kingston, the children of the middle- and upper-classes bounce around in gay abandon inside vehicles. Parents, are sometimes strapped in, but often are yapping on the phone at the same time. It’s the privilege of wealth? I’m stumped.

Each of us who feel that these problems are weighing us and the country down needs to take control of the change. Maybe, I’m more activist in my approaches, but my reaction is going to be to address each case I can. It’s not a crusade, but the start of a lot of conversations. It happened on the road. It also happened on the phone: I rang an insurance company yesterday to return a call. I was passed on to three different people before I got a good answer to why I had needed to call. I identified myself to the first responder and explained why I had called. Each person to whom I was forwarded asked me my name, or just said “Hello,”. None of them knew why I had called. I said at the end that this seemed inefficent, even rude. A friend suggested that it was perhaps a security ploy to ensure that I was who I said I was. I didn’t buy that. Nor did the last person on the other end of the phone, who agreed that it was not good business practice and that she would speak to other staff. I would like to think that happened, but was happy that my point was acknowledged.

But, there’s a long road to walk and it may be rocky and mostly uphill.

Heading home in traffic last night, a policeman was directing traffic near Devon House. He was stopping turns to the right onto Hope Road (normally allowed). One driver, wanting to turn right, was getting annoyed as the officer signalled she must turn left. She delayed her turn, gesturing to where she wanted to go. He continued pointing her to the right. She waved her arms out of the car, and held her head in her hands, then accelerated around the corner, as directed. Yes, she was frustrated and perhaps going to be a little later getting to whereever. The officer did not approach the car in any hostile manner; he did not appear to change his demeanour. He certainly did not set off to beat the driver. He did not have the opportunity to get warm and fuzzy with the lady driver, but tried to stay focused on his main task. No other drivers seemed bothered by his commands. Let’s give that policeman an A: he displayed most of the behaviour I noted above. Who’s next?

Why are we so out of order? Doing things well is a challenge

When we look at the social and economic problems that face Jamaica, so many of them stare us in the face–or are thrown into our faces. We do not need deep study to see them. We may need deep analysis to solve them. One of these problems is our inability to make things work as they should, and to live with unnecessary disorganization. This is made more frustrating when the persons involved are amongst the nation’s best and brightest. Some of the problem comes from a certain desire to just keep do things a certain way. We see the proximate results all the time, in little and large manner: garbage; bad driving; poor service; broken public appliances; unkempt surroundings; huge public deficit and heavy debt burden; failed businesses; shortages of goods; high unemployment. It’s a very long list. We are in tyrannical drive to make failure our friend.escher51

Last Saturday, a group of men and women were ready to start a well-publicized charity golf event at 10am. Most of us were at the venue at least two hours ahead of that time, to have some breakfast, warm up, register and socialize. The organizers and sponsors were in the process of setting up the publicity banners and the entertainment for later in the day. When some of us tried to register at around 8.45, we were told to come back ‘in a while’. No line had formed, then. When we came back, a line of about 25 persons was snaking its way towards a table with two men taking details and writing them down. The line soon split when we were told that those had not yet paid needed to go to another point to do that first. Of course, that process was slow: some wanted to pay by check, or credit card; some were paying for more than one person, etc. Eventually, all of that was done and we were ready to go.

Not so soon, hombré. Golf carts were lacking for what seemed like about a quarter of the participants. We tried to find who was handling the carts (notionally, the caddy master): the man was nowhere to be found. We saw that many carts already had clubs on, and deduced that those who ‘knew the ropes’ had captured the carts as soon as they arrived. Shouting, recriminations, excuses, etc. followed for the next 20 minutes: the entry fee had included cost of cart; hiring a caddy to carry bags would have been an extra expense.

We were well past 10am. A heavy shower came down and people took shelter. When the rain cleared, the organizers made their opening announcements, apologized for the ‘cart situation’ and said they would try to rectify it during the early part of play. At just after 11am, we scattered for the ‘shotgun’ start. My partner, a doctor who had recently returned to Jamaica, had arthritis problems, so really needed transport; I like walking. The caddy master, who had a good dose of haranguing, arranged for a young greens keeper to carry the doctor’s bag and we put what excess weight we could on the cart of our partnering pair. The caddy master put all of our bags on a maintenance cart and whisked us off to our start point.

Each of us playing in my group had spent part of our lives living and working outside Jamaica. We, and others railed (not marvelled, because that would be positive) that we were ‘stuck in this old way’. The doctor, angered, derided Jamaica as wanting to be forever stuck in the third world. We discussed what seemed to be wrong and possible easy solutions.

Problem: Too many players, too few carts: More people than expected had entered the tournament. (It should not have been apparent only at the time we were due to start. That was a great thing, as all the proceeds went to support a hospital.)

  • Solutions: Cater for that, by either adding from own resources or arranging support from others–there is at least one other golf course within one mile. (If one course cannot work with another, that goes to another problem about doing business. You want contented customers, not living with solvable problems.) If no extra supply were available, then arrangements needed to be made FOR EVERYONE BEFOREHAND to ensure that all who needed or wanted bags carried were given the means for that. Not letting people run helter-skelter trying to solve individual needs on the fly. (Don’t invite me to dinner, then tell me you don’t have enough plates.)

Problem: Registration and payment delays

  • Solutions: 1. Start it earlier. Make it clear that payment must be done at a different desk. 2. Registration could be done first and payment could be done after play. Every player has to submit a signed and attested card and it could be that no score would be valid unless proof of payment was shown. (Any player not paying would be clear as a non-paid registration.)

Problem: Informing players that play would start late. (People like to be kept informed so that they can plan their own activities, and it’s just courteous.)

  • Solutions: It’s too simple with a PA system already set up and everyone captive waiting to start. But, it takes a clear head and idea of how to organize formally. (Smiling wistfully and not doing anything doesn’t cut it. Communication seems to be a basic problem in many aspects of Jamaican daily life.)

Many keen observers of Jamaica have focused on another aspect of what can be seen as a certain indiscipline that seems to quickly pervade many things in our daily life. As Jamaicans will say, “Ah so we dweet!” (“That’s how we do it!”) I read two excellent pieces on that this morning: the most recent, by Dennis Chung, entitled Discipline and Development in Jamaica; another, entitled Indiscipline and the unravelling of the social fabric, from early in 2013 by Howard Gregory, The Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. Both focus in different ways on what that indiscipline is costing us in economic and social terms.

Clearly, many of us have internalized the costs of indiscipline and inefficiency. For instance, we allow more time to deal with habitual lateness. We just get on with what we need to do, DESPITE the inefficiency that we have to face. (Indeed, one of the problems we face is that, often, we still end up with good results but wonder if we had to go through the hoops to acheive them. We see the same behaviour displayed repeatedly–and many with know the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Even if we are not mad ourselves, we are often maddened by such behaviour.

The indiscipline and inefficiency hit the headlines in the form of avoidable disasters. Just last week, we heard of the avoidable death of a tourist killed by a jet ski. Problems had been identified and were supposedly address with restrictions on imports and a ‘clampdown’. But, clearly not enough was being done. Result? A needless death and then recriminations, then cries for solutions. As they say in many team sports: “Just do your job!” That would take us a long way.

We would also benefit from getting out of jobs people who are not doing them well. My friend should count for nothing if he is constantly making my life and that of my friends and associates difficult. Get in someone who can do it better.

Gandhi is credited with saying “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Dame Margaret Thatcher was pleased with Ministers who brought solutions not problems. However, I wonder how many of us have tried to effect change, rather than tolerate what does not work. I ask with no guess at an answer. My playing partners and I solved our immediate problem well, and enjoyed to getting to know each other–we’d never met before. I hope others did something similar. I will go next to attack the problem, closer to its source. Wish me well.

 

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly (February 2, 2014)

Good

We got to hear Jamaican PM, Portia Simpson-Miller talk to the local media, and thus ‘to the people’, in a series of short video clips circulated by The Observer. But, I missed the context of her seemingly poised answers. I thought the PM was being ingenious in her positioning of the local media as being rude and that she was prepared to talk, with her comment: “They say I don’t talk to the media. If you approach me properly, I’ll talk to you. But if you are going to be pushing up the microphone in my face, or if everybody is shouting at me at the same time, no.” I don’t see the evidence that the media act this way usually, but it’s the most recent image. Good political ploy? I await some media reaction.

Bad

An American tourist was killed by a jet ski, while swimming in Negril. Needless tragedy. Whatever, ‘clamp down’ was in place was not working. A temporary ban on ski jets use has been imposed. Some, particularly hoteliers and others in tourism, have called for a total ban. Others are concerned that another area of economic livelihood is in danger, albeit because operators have been lax, but also because government action has been trailing words…again.

Ugly

Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation went on another sweep of the streets to clear them of illegal vendors, smashing up the stalls of the offending persons. Yes, measures to get vendors to sell only in designated areas have failed for years. Something cannot be right about the whole process. Brute force is the answer?

Leaving on a jet plane. Are we there, yet?

Blame me! My little daughter is becoming a good observer of people and more. We were travelling through Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA, to its friends) yesterday. Airports are great for people-watching and seeing how people just mess up things. On the messing up, NMIA has the unfortunate distinction of being better known by its often misspelled name: check the entries under Normal Manley International Airport. As good an eggcorn as I need to read.

We like NMIA, though. It’s been upgraded recently, and we were enjoying its ‘deliverables’. We enjoy it, not least because it has the best food for travellers, coming from Jamaica’s own Island GrillIsland-Grill-Logo-700x352 chain: tasty, cheap, and filling are what most travellers want, and get there. We had come straight from school and were early for our departure, so she tucked into a fish sandwich combo with mango peach drink, and I ate a chicken fricassee yabba, regular, all for less than US$10 equivalent.

We had been waiting a while before we were allowed to board. As we stood at the head of the line, we read the large poster put up by the airport authority with ’20 interesting facts about Jamaica’. Interesting yes, but facts?
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Hmm. We noted that it had been put up when Usain Bolt had only 3 Olympic medals. We wondered if updating was not part of the budget. Shame, we thought. We noted that it mentioned the Manchester Golf Club as having the ‘oldest hotel in the western world. Eh? Shamer. They mean golf course. Who did the fact checking? I pointed out to my daughter the fact about ‘it’s inhabitants’: that should be ‘its’, Daddy. (School is paying off.) Shamest.

As we prepared to board the plane to Montego Bay (MoBay), my child noticed two women standing behind us. “They’re twins…Both have the same weave. They have on matching leggings and tops,” my daughter stated, confidently. Children spot people’s physical features and clothing quickly. I pointed out that they were not wearing the same type of suede shoes: “But, they’re both wearing boots,” she retorted, quickly. We wondered why they were going to MoBay. As we moved through the first check, one of the ladies said to the other at the top of the escalator “Mek sure yu ha one foot pon di step,”; her friend was clearly stepping into new territories. The ladies proceeded to the gate, ahead of us, then made a huge fuss about the lateness of the plane’s departure. We were still ahead of time, but it seemed that we would not take off on time. A mechanic explained that the plane had come from “Up deh…an a ‘hole ‘eap a snow an’ ice deh ’bout.” The plane had needed to be washed down after being de-iced. Did the ladies want to fly with the risk of not making it? It had also been fully cleaned: “De peeple dem eat an’ leave all a dem nas’iness. You don’t want dat!” The ladies seemed mollified. As we went to the airbridge, one of the ladies was pulled over for ‘secondary screening’: welcome to air travel. We passed them, then pretended to complain, too, and raised a few smiles as we strolled onto the plane.

When we got to MoBay, the two ladies followed us from Immigration to the baggage claim carousel. A man then asked them how they knew this was the right one. They told him they didn’t know, they’d just chosen one with some people standing around. Again, clearly newbee travellers. As the bags began to roll around the belt, and were being cleared, I saw one of the ladies haul a huge cloth suitcase off, then haul off another. Higglers (vendors), I thought. If you’re not familiar with Jamaica’s street or market traders, get a funny insight by watching clips for a play.

I speculated about what they had in the bags. I presumed they were headed to MoBay to take advantage of the many visitors there this weekend for the annual jazz and blues festival, which has been running since 1996, and draws much attention from Jamaican and foreign fans. It’s an expensive event, by Jamaican standards–cheapest ticket is US$50 (and it’s to be paid in US dollars). But, that should mean some deep-pocketed potential buyers. The informal market at work on the island: where there’s a crowd, look for opportunities to sell your wares.

My wife/my mother was in Mobay for a work event and staying at one of the fancy north coast hotels. The hotel staff greeted us at the airport and arranged our ‘transfer’ to the hotel. “Have I been here, before, Daddy?” my daughter asked, as we left the airport. I told her she had, but when she was much younger. “It looks familiar,” she said as we drove on a piece of road on which she’d never travelled. The van driver told us that the city was busy because of this week’s jazz and blues festival, and that some celebrities may be staying at our hotel. My daughter was really enjoying her latest taste of good living and we joked that the driver did not realise that he had ‘celebs’ in the van with him 🙂 She took it to heart by trying out her impersonation of Jamaica’s PM, Mrs. Portia Simpson-Miller, waving her hand in regal fashion and saying “My people…”, one of the PM’s signature phrases. I cracked up: it was pretty good. She kept on saying it as we reached the hotel, and were greeted by a bellman.

It had taken us just over 4 1/2 hours to get from her school to the hotel, by plane. I told my daughter that it would have taken about the same amount of time to have driven. But, we were not exhausted from the drive, which we could do another time when we had more days to play with. “No problem with tiredness on the drive: I’d have slept,” came the nonchalant reply. Therein, lies some of the fun of travelling a lot with children. We know how to make the time pass on journeys. Well, sometimes.