The problem of Jamaica’s urban public transport. Signs of a caring government?

This morning, I was headed toward Spanish Town. At about 7am, I was hailed by a man who recognised my car and wanted a ride to the place I was headed. I stopped and let him in. I asked him how long it took him to get from Spanish Town to where we met. He said he’d left home at about 5.30am. He explained that buses were hard to get because during the early morning rush hours toward Kingston, the buses are often full and getting a spot is hard. I could relate to that.

Crowded bus transports in Kingston
Crowded bus transport in Kingston

As I had been heading west, I had noticed–not for the first time–that the JUTC buses headed east into town were jammed pack. All I could see was buses with people standing, even pressed against the front windscreen. As I was about to stop for the passenger, I noticed a large JUTC bus and a smaller minibus in new JUTC colours stop to pick up some of the 30-40 people waiting at the junction of the Mandela Highway where I turned toward Caymanas Golf Course.

Once again, it’s useful to watch carefully what Jamaicans do. I’m a lucky citizen who does not need to use public transport in Jamaica to meet my basic needs. I had to do it in London and Washington DC, and I have never seen such travel conditions on a regular basis without people really taking a very vocal and physically unfriendly stance. Maybe, I have missed it, but when was the last time we heard about, read, or saw bus riders in open protest against bus operators? That is a completely open question.

I visualised one of these over-filled buses crashing and what the consequences would be. We know that JUTC has some hefty claims facing it from previous accidents.

JUTC bus on fire
JUTC bus on fire

We know that a spate of bus fires occurred last year. We know that people have made sport of throwing stones at JUTC buses, and just a few days ago firing shots. This is carnage waiting to happen. Is that the sign of a government that is really caring for its people. Words and deeds need to match.

It takes an amazing amount of tolerance to endure the kind of conditions I saw today and have seen often on Jamaican roads. I saw it in Conakry, Guinea, in west Africa.

Conakry traffic chaos
Conakry traffic chaos

That city was generally in total chaos during morning and afternoon rush hours, and even worse when the summer rains occurred. Bus riders in such situations are often crammed into small minibuses or taxis for maybe two or more hours every work day.

But, Guinea is one of the world’s poorest countries and they have been on the verge of bankruptcy for many years, and have suffered several coups during the past few years, and has real problems providing water and electricity to its population. Yes, there is a similarity, but that’s a convenient fact. Jamaica is a far better organized and functioning country, Yet, we have managed to screw a large part of what we deem to be our assets–workers and school children. Do we believe we are doing our best by our people?

Moving around rural areas and from those areas to and from Kingston remains another challenge. Makka juk everywhere fi true.


Trust in me. The bank tax fiasco was unnecessary but may offer lessons.

First, a declaration. I used to work for the IMF. Second, another declaration: I have no mandate to speak for the IMF, or any other multilateral agency. Third declaration: I probably think differently from most people on the island of Jamaica. Horray! for me, the independent thinker.

Dr. Peter Phillips, Jamaica’s finance minister is in a deep hole. He has a budget whose financing he thought he had closed, but has found that the seams of the jacket are bursting open to the tune of J$2.25 billion. He cannot borrow his way out of that hole. He cannot cut more spending fast enough, or without severe social consequences. He cannot get revenue from non-taxes fast enough, either. He can go after delinquent tax payers, but his likelihood of success is uncertain. He is better off trying to tax his way out of the hole. He came up with a simple and efficient tax, but few people really liked its implications, and its universality and efficiency are not sufficient reason for people to like it, at the present time. He may have to pull the proposal to tax bank withdrawals. I feel sorry for him, on the one hand, but on the other hand I have little sympathy. I know he’s a nice man, but that’s not at issue. The issue is how and why did this hole not get filled in properly? From my viewpoint–as a former IMF employee–I see several awful mistakes, which should not have occurred and which really should be avoided like the plague in the future.

Make unpleasant things seem necessary. The need for higher taxes was baked into the potato pudding a long while ago, if only we had looked carefully. The forecasts for fiscal year 2014/15 needed tax revenue to rise and therefore more tax revenues were coming, despite Dr. Phillips saying “no new taxes”. With few signals that the tax base was going to be expanded, that meant either higher tax rates, or new taxes. We saw a mixture of both: alcohol, for instance, got taxed more; bank withdrawals were going to be taxed anew. People do not like paying taxes; we all know that and the finance minister knows it and acknowledges it. So, if a new tax is to be imposed, try to get people to understand why and how:

  • No other route is available, at present.
  • The tax burden will fall on a sector that has capacity to handle it–the financial sector. (But, make sure that they do not pass it on to those already over burdened.)
  • The tax may not be a permanent feature. This is a risky argument to hand to people, unless Dr. Phillips is sure, but he could have said that, as the economy starts to grow again, the need for this tax should decline, or if it will be continued, it may be with the removal of other taxes.

Those reasons are not all, but they might have gone some way towards letting people understand the predicament that the government faced. Let’s not beat up any more about how we got into this pickle.

Get buy-in from those who are likely to ‘suffer’ most. When I heard the finance minister respond to a question at a press briefing after his budget speech, about whether he had spoken to the banks about the tax, I knew something very bad was unfolding. He said he’d met them “last Wednesday”; that was the day before the budget. He was not asked a follow-up question and he did not expand. I took that to mean that he had not discussed how the tax would apply with the agents who were due to bear it. Now, in most circumstances, this would be quite normal: he would not meet with smokers and drinkers about imposing taxes on cigarettes and booze. But, that’s because as the people consume the goods the tax would be applied and flow to the Treasury. With banks, however, in this case, a large volume of transactions may be involved and the government would need to know that the banks could levy the tax correctly and be collected and that the money would flow to the Treasury in the amounts expected. Banks have very good accounts, so tracking what is happening is easier than say for other companies and individuals. But, banks also have complicated systems and they need to be calibrated properly to get money flowing where it should. This aspect did not seem to have been broached. The banks confirmed that when they issued their statement against the bank tax and announced that they were working on an alternative. The securities dealers made the same point, and added that, logistically, they were not in a position to implement the tax in the time frame indicated by the minister. Both sets of institutions indicated that they would seek to pass the tax on, with some understandable logic. Not what the minister wanted to hear, I’m sure. Basically, the minister had not prepared his ground well, if at all. His seeds would fall on stony ground and never sprout. That’s a cardinal sin in policy-making.

Convince people that you understand what you are doing. Much policy is effective simply because people think that it is credible, and officials help carry that conviction by their ability to speak effectively and coherently about measures.

PM Portia Simpson-Miller, fronting finance minister, Dr. Peter Phillips, in her budget 2014/15 presentation
PM Portia Simpson-Miller, fronting finance minister, Dr. Peter Phillips, in her budget 2014/15 presentation

Here, we hit a snag as big as an iceberg at the bottom of Dunn’s River Falls. First, the minister could not handle some simple calculations about how the tax would be computed. He destroyed in a few seconds any sense that he was the man to handle the country’s finances, because he could not do the sums when he wanted to. Whoever briefed him did not give him a simple enough table from which he could read. He bumbled and looked bad, by making not one but several mistakes. Policy fail! Then, the PM, asked impromptu about the tax, used terms that suggested she had no real clue. The finance minister’s ‘thing’? It was clear that Mrs. Simpson-Miller was losing the plot fast and she scrambled for dry land by saying that the minister himself needed to explain better what the tax meant. Sorry, Madame PM, it was clear that you had not absorbed whatever briefing had been in ‘the thing’, even to pretend that you knew what ‘pain’ you were going to share with the people. Policy fail again! That was what you do when you want to define an unmitigated disaster. It is of the same kind as the Malaysian officials over the disappearance of flight MH370 and whether it was lost, found, off-track, on-track, the victim of terrorists, the victim of an errant crew, etc. People’s confidence in any word sagged, then plummeted. That is what is really damaging. The Jamaican population are looking at the prime officials who are supposed to steer the country through economic rapids and see that they cannot handle an oar and do not know how to sit in a canoe, and it is toppling over and they will drown and take passengers with them. 

Later this afternoon, the bank tax may be history, even if not forgotten, when Dr. Phillips wraps up the budget debate. What is important, however, is that the government has “listened”, as the PM said yesterday. But, of equal importance is that the government needs to speak to its people. It’s funny to me that the PM did not seem to understand that for many people the whole matter of questioning her official travel was not really to know from where she should have been sending postcards or bringing souvenirs, and exactly how much was spent. It was about having a conversation with people over whom you have stewardship. It is like a parent telling a child where he or she has been, or how the work day has passed, when coming home; it’s decent and courteous and enables the child to share some of the experience. You know how it is when you ask “How was your day?” and you get “Fine.” If the child asks “Well, what did you do?” and you reply “The usual,” that conversation has just headed off into the toilet.

I do not understand the resistance on the part of government officials. I think I know it’s cause, but I wont go there just now. Part of the problem, I suspect, comes from the tribal nature of Jamaican politics, which means that all questions get translated into “It’s the opposition, in some form, trying to get me.” It’s a bit of paranoia. It means that the population is not seen as a neutral audience, but factions. I can’t help there, except to say that leaders need to lead and see the nation as in need of guidance, not as objects of scorn or fear all the time.

If in some way, government officials get the message about what it means to be transparent and inclusive in policy making, then this bank tax fiasco will have some good outcomes.

Digging countries out of their economic dump is not easy, and it is much harder if the burden is not shared fully with those who really have to carry it. (The PM needs to stop saying she “feels” the people’s pain. People do not believe it, because if she did, she would not look and act as she does. It may seem trite, but people who are in real economic and social pain in Jamaica dress and act and deal with their days quite differently than she does.) Most people do not believe what politicians say, so politicians need to be extra vigilant in trying to convince people that they are saying the truth or making sense.

If the idea is to walk the course together, then let me suggest that the first thing the government does is to take the people in its hands and start to trust them with information and see how much easier it may be to work out problems.


Is it justice or just us? Give me flour to make dumplings.

I’m bothered by a perception that judges may be interested in justice, but do they give much regard to us? The so-called ‘Cuban light bulb case’ ended with a no-case decision by Senior Magistrate Pusey. It is not obligatory that judges give written reasons for their decisions, but in such a case it would seem helpful to all, not just those within the judicial system, to understand the judge’s reasoning. Law is based on much precedence, and I have a hard time understanding how decisions can be really useful if the thinking behind them is not shared.

Now, this case had a number of peculiarities, apart from the fact that one of the accused was a junior government minister. It included a number of legal disputes between the judge and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Since, the case, the DPP has made several public comments in the vein that she believed that “justice was not served”, and calling for a written argument to back the decision. None has come. I understand that it’s not normal legal protocol for judges to speak in public, and even more so concerning cases they have tried. So, my feeling that a series of surrogates were speaking for the judge has to be tempered by what the system allows.

The most recent comment speaking out for the judge, though not citing her of the case specifically, came from high court Justice Lloyd Hibbert in the Jamaica Observer on Sunday. He cautioned against ‘destructive criticism’, and wanted to see ‘constructive’ criticism. He agreed that judges were not above being criticised. But wanted that to be based on ‘facts and not conjecture’. That’s where I had to hold my breath. The facts are hard to wrestle with when a judge does not give the facts of his or her reasoning in a form for all to see; we are left to make conjecture. Help us Justice Hibbert: you can’t have it both ways. Judges may be uncomfortable with this being requested of them, but the world has moved on since the system was set in place.

In the Observer article, mention was also made of the Jamaica Bar Association president, Donovan Williams, agreeing with Justice Hibbert’s position, adding that “comments must be respectful”. He cautioned attorneys against “pandering to the ever-expanding media” with their comments.

Justice Lloyd Hibbert (left). DPP Paula Llewellyn (right), with the 'ever-expanding' media?
Justice Lloyd Hibbert (left). DPP Paula Llewellyn (right), with the ‘ever-expanding’ media?

I have no idea what that means. I would have been fine without ‘ever-expanding’. Perhaps, it means talking to the conventional media, like the press or TV or radio, but do not engage with social media. Don’t show your face on Facebook? Don’t be a twit on Twitter? I’m not sure.

Pander is a very interesting verb to use in this context, and I really do not know what is in Mr. Williams head. Maybe, it’s about too much talking, or too many appearances before cameras, or it’s both when it’s not appropriate: I heard some comments about trial attorneys speaking to the media while cases are still being heard (think back to the recent Adidja Palmer-‘Lizard’ Williams murder case). I’m not sure.

Where I am also getting stuck is that the judges seem to have a little trouble recognising, at least orally and clearly, those whom the system is set up to serve–we, the people. It’s all well and good following procedures and precedents, but what do we see at the output of all that? Like a tax that is necessary but that is badly presented, we feel resentment even if we may understand that there is some good intended. I wont speak about the details of any case, but know and sense that people need to see a system that works evenly. For too long, Jamaica’s justice system has appeared to be anything but even. We can look at the case outcomes and back that up with fact, and stop conjecture. Who gets accused? Who gets tried? Who gets convicted? Who serves terms? Who gets fined? Who gets bail? People see a system that is not fair to all the people.

Now, judges want to say that facts are needed but we wont give you any to help us? I may not be a legal beagle but I am not a dummy. You cannot make dumplings without flour and water. dumpling

Stick a pin

I need to put up some mental place holders for topics, ahead of a long road trip.

I don’t write according to requests, but someone suggested that I write about Jamaican sports organization. I don’t kno enough about the whole set up to just dive in, so will do a little exploration first. However, in the meantime, I’ll just lay down the marker that I think we’ve devoted too much time and resources to sports like cricket, which do not have the same international appeal as sports such as football, but which have easily transferable skills to sports such as baseball, that offer wide educational and business opportunities.

My other little hobby horse is about the judicial system in Jamaica. I am no lawyer, though I went to law school for one day. I’ve been following the fallout from the Cuban light bulb no-case decision. I have noticed a certain rallying around the senior magistrate by the judicial hierarchy against the views expressed by the DPP. I’m thinking about expression in a democracy. We have the four estates: legislature, judiciary, executive, and press. Each should be able to express views freely about the rest. But, is that really the case? Does the judiciary, in this case, want to insulate itself from criticism by other branches of society? Is there a broader issue about the administration of justice and whether the branches see eye to eye, and if the population sees eye to eye with the judiciary?

Time to hit the road.


The good, the bad, and the ugly (April 27): The ugly head of racism edition

Here I am in the US of A, and I have to feel lucky and happy that I only come to visit. I spoke to some of the Jamaicans with whom I’ve made a trip to Florida that we in Jamaica never seem to experience a kind of racism that exists all too often in the USA. I had not really been following certain developments when we had that discussion, but in the age of news flowing to us from everywhere all the time, I had to get a whiff of it soon. It stinks!

What is good about what I have read? Well, people who are its target and others want to deal with it quickly and openly.

What is bad and ugly–because I don’t want to make floral tomato designs trying to distinguish? All of it.

First, I got a hint of the uttering of Cliven Bundy.

Cliven Bundy
Cliven Bundy, an American wonder

He is described as a Nevada rancher. His basic argument is that “the Negro” was happier under slavery: “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?” [my emphasis]. He has defended himself by saying he ‘wondered’ and is ‘still wondering’. His thoughts have not found much support, including from several influential figures in the Republican Party. I’m not going to spend much time wondering. I’ll say “I hope not.” His juxtaposing the slave’s life with ‘modern’ life for black Americans is also interesting: as a group, the people are seen as a pure underclass–people living on welfare. The myth of all black people being poor and feckless goes on. That to me is the really heinous part. Whatever black people have managed to achieve in a country that worked its tail off to keep them deprived of many basic right is all dust because they are all still worthless poor ‘negroes’. A bunch of takers and no givers. Then to rub salt into the wounds, the words have come from a man who has been grazing his cattle on government land for which he should have paid and did not. God bless America!

Screenshot 2014-04-27 07.13.55
Ms. Stiviano sitting alongside Mr. Sterling. Moving along at a good clip? Someone’s passing his lemons?

Then, during the course of yesterday, I tried to stay up with the roller-coaster story that began with the uttering of the owner of the NBA basketball team, the LA Clippers, Donald Sterling, who allegedly went on a racist rant during an argument with girlfriend V. Stiviano. As reported by news hounds, TMZ: ‘Sterling expressed frustration that his girlfriend associated with “minorities” in public and said he didn’t approve of her posting pictures online via Instagram. The recording is unsurprisingly garnering plenty of attention. Some of Sterling’s comments centered around NBA legend Magic Johnson: “Don’t put him [Magic] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”‘

Well, ‘Magic’ reacted and said he wont be going to any more Clippers games while Sterling in the owner. Ya-boo! The NBA is now investigating and the Clippers are trying to do damage control, and issued a statement:“Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.” Also, “He feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him and apologizes to anyone who might have been hurt by them.” That’s just peachy from a man who lost a case to the Feds over his actions as a landlord, who discriminated against black families. I can’t even say ‘antithesis’ the way my jaw is trembling.

Clippers and other NBA players, with big profiles have reacted angrily, and there has been talk of boycott. The players’ union is taking a ‘strong’ position against the remarks. Magic Johnson has urged the Clippers to focus on playing and he will deal with Sterling. The Clippers, and their coach, Doc Rivers, must feel really good about themselves, as they proceed in the play-off, just underway. Most of the players, and the coach, are “minorities”. They just feel the love oozing from their owner?

When I went to bed last night, the story seemed to be morphing into many different things and I may need to see what bizarre twist it has taken, that are off from the racism track. The gist I read was that Ms. Stiviano wont cooperate with the NBA in its investigation. She’s a party in the divorce proceedings of Mr. Sterling, which allege that she tried to embezzle US$1.8 million from the ‘old man’. A twist may also involve her age at the time of her initial relationship with Mr. Sterling–she might have been a minor. All of this is curious, to say the least, and curiouser because Ms. Stiviano looks like a ‘minority’ person. So, I have to wonder (thanks, Mr. Bundy) if Mr. Sterling is just a senile old geezer. That would take away all the pain and suffering? Err, no.

Somewhere in the whole Donald Sterling story is the inexplicable fact that the Los Angeles NAACP chapter is scheduled to give Sterling a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ next week. Pass me the dictionary! What is the definition of ‘awkward’ and how many ‘p’s are in ‘stupid’? Let me stop here.


Representing: You are who you know you are

As I grew up I had to deal with several labels, and still do. I was born in Jamaica, but spent most of my life outside, mainly in England. I speak English with a flat British accent. In the eyes of many people who meet me that ‘makes’ me British. I usually get my hackles up straight away and retort “I’m Jamaican.”

Jamaicans know that the motto ‘Out of many, one people’ has true meaning, even though some of us may not like to deal with what that currently is. We know that colour is hardly what it’s about; neither is ethnic origin’ neither is gender. It’s really about your heart and your spirit. Jamaica has a lot of people who were not born there and embrace the country and its culture with fulsome love.

Children are often very good indicators of some basic truths. Parents will know that children ‘make friends’ easily; we also know that children love to belong–to someone or to something. Those of us who believe that children often stray if they do not have structure around them, tend to want our children close by (belonging to their family, say), or involved in clubs (belonging to other people and groups and organizations). We usually see the benefits of this early, but also know that the benefits can be long-lasting.

My daughter belongs to a swimming club in Jamaica; she joined soon after we arrived on the island last June. She started training with them and spent much of the summer ‘meeting new friends’. The club has two main training bases: one is about five minutes from our home and also across the street from a dear cousin of mine, who cooks to make eyes water; the other is at several sites in Kingston, each about 15-20 minutes drive from my daughter’s school. She chose to train with the multi-site group because it included her new friends; convenience was not in her considerations. I did not mind, because I also liked the group of kids and their parents. The two training groups blend when the club has meets, and they combine to be a real team.

Fast forward. The team is in Orlando, FL, to compete at a meet organized by a school in that area. The team has done this kind of thing before, and I imagine it was successful in many ways. This time, the team has reached out and included some swimmers from other clubs in Kingston. We’re all staying in a vacation resort complex, with rooms that are like little apartments, some adjoining. It’s all cozy and getting more so as we eat communal meals prepared by some of the parents. There’s nothing like having to wade through 20-30 people to get your food to make everyone friendly. The kids are bonding nicely and parents are getting to know each other better as we travel around and have to chaperone more than our own offspring. The competition started yesterday afternoon, for the older kids; the whole team gets into the water from this morning through Sunday afternoon. Wish us well.

But, that bonding is not my main focus. I was in a mall yesterday with the team and then at the poolside in the afternoon. My daughter–the ‘import’, let’s call her, was sporting a black flat bill cap with ‘JAMAICA’ on its front.


She had come to represent, and was doing so proudly. At the pool side, I noticed several of the kids wearing T-shirts that had some kind of Jamaica motif on them. As the races started and one of our team was in the water, one of the boys whom I’d thought was rather quiet jumped up and started clapping and yelling “Come on…We need to be really Jamaican here!” Several of the children jumped up and started to run along the side of the pool yelling too: “Go! Go!” The other spectators did not seem to be bothered by this. The children had done what they one had suggested: they showed who they are and from where they’d come. No boasting, just pride and pleasure.

Sport, especially at the higher levels, is really about getting to know yourself. You have to examine your ego, your strengths, your weakness; knowing how to control your emotions, your demeanour; balancing your life’s activities, especially the academics and the sporting. Many children come up short because they have physical skills but never master the emotional side of being a good athlete: they get extremely nervous when competing and cannot control those nerves well enough to perform at their best, so their solid training doesn’t translate into great performances. That can be a downward spiral, as poor performances leads to lack of confidence, which leads to more poor performance, etc., and can end with a child quitting. My karate coach once said he’d been told that a black belt was just a white belt (beginner) who never gave up. Great athletes develop way of coping that mean they never give up, sometimes even after all has been lost: “There’s no way that I lost that!”

Some child athletes get their strength and coping skills from their parents or coaches or both; some don’t get anything positive from either or both. They may get negatives from one and positives from another. It’s a complex chemistry. However, my experience is that positive parents tend to gravitate towards positive coaches or coaching, and the blend tends to be happy and accommodating and supportive OF THE ATHLETE, not the adults. I wont go into the vicarious living of adults through their children 🙂

When I watch, in my role as parent, I have a thin line to avoid crossing because I am also a coach, though not necessarily in this sport or of these children. I try to stay in my place. But, I am always on the look out for the signs that the emotional side of an athlete is fraying on ‘game day’. We all have nervousness; I was told it showed we cared. We have to harness it, though. Some have to throw up or suffer diarrhea, or break out in hives, or sweat profusely, or chatter incessantly. There are many signs. Some of the signs are well-known to the athlete and their peers; some are well-known to the parents and coaches; some are hidden. Some like to pretend: they fake fear of opponents as a way of putting themselves as underdogs and then doing well and seeming like ‘giant killers’–it’s an ego booster. Some like to brag: usually, they ‘can walk the walk and talk the talk’; they are winners par excellence. Some fear losing so badly that it can cripple them or they channel that into excelling (Nadal is one of the best modern examples). Some have to ‘get out of themselves’, doing seemingly goofy things and being a little extrovert–it’s diversion. Whatever, it is, it’s there.

Sometimes, however, the best way is to ‘drape yourself in the flag’, including showing your national colours however you can.

You are who you know you are
You are who you know you are

I’ve noticed that when given a chance, athletes will love to represent who they feel their nation is. “We are the best!” “Let’s show those [fill the gap with a nation] what we can do!” It seems normal, really, that you should try to draw strength from a collective, and often the best and biggest is your country. It need not be done with brashness, as is often the case now in international competitions. But, it is done. Humming your national anthem, if it is not played. Acting ‘like’ whatever your country represents. In this case, I was seeing lots of ‘let’s be Jamaican’. All pride, no shame. It was really inspiring. It was maybe too subtle to be offensive, even though it was noticeable. We are a small group set amongst other teams. Dare I say, once again, “We likkle but we tallawah!”






Bouncing on a springboard

I’m always fascinated what happens when I travel. Do the problems in my home country follow me, or do I become immersed in the issues of the place to where I’ve travelled? My home is on my back. Dr. Peter Phillips and his proposed bank tax is being discussed at the poolside while my daughter has early morning swim practice. The virtues of patois and its richness are giving myself and the other fathers and brothers plenty to chew on. We hope to chew on more when we see our kids finish in the pool, and enjoy what some of the mothers are preparing.

One of the coaches took to his room last night some cinnamon buns from the restaurant where we had a pizza buffet dinner; he had study to do and needed his extra food. This morning, I asked if he’d eaten the buns for breakfast. He looked at me as if I was mad. I understood. “You wan’ hol’ a plate o’ salt mackerel an’ bwoil banana,” He nodded. We travel and need our place holders in life to keep us together. Food is one of those. People who have not travelled may not understand how important ‘home cooking’ is. That’s why international teams travel with their kitchen staff; that also avoids some of the nasty tricks that unscrupulous hosts can try. Been there, suffered that.

Why am I in Orlando? It’s for a school swim meet. Some of our club’s swimmers are in Aruba, for the Carifta 2014 games, and doing very well. Their team mates who did not make the national team either because their performances are not yet up to standard, or are too young, still have to ‘work on their game’. I’ve written before about the value of sport for youth development. When you see a group of children working hard to better themselves, with good guidance and care from adults and each other, you have to wonder how social problems persist. But, some children do not get that guidance and care–simple.

So far, America’s problems have not featured in my thoughts. I have not watched any TV and not seen a local paper. I am still following the Budget discussions in Jamaica. Although, I did not hear Andrew Holness give his presentation yesterday, I followed it on Twitter and through his postings there and on Facebook. Social media are getting a good work out this week as a place for Jamaicans to have their big discussions. I have a view that better governance will come from this, once we get over the challenge of some public servants resisting demands for better information and more open discourse on subjects. We also see that the country has many voices that want to be heard and also people with heads that can think their way through issues, without immediately reverting to the tired and tiring jabs that come from partisan politics.


One of our group had problems with US Immigration at the airport: he’d lost his passport years ago and since that keeps featuring in the US’s security screening processes. He had to go through a four-hour wait in ‘secondary inspection’ yesterday afternoon–sounds like the meat packing business, and he says they made people feel like livestock. So our on-time arrival turned into a very late departure from the airport. By the time we got to our lodgings it was night, and by the time we checked in and ate a wonderful (I’m being ironic here, because we had eaten really wonderful food from Island Grill before we left) pizza buffet, it was very late. A quick trip to a dollar store for essentials like water, eggs, toothpaste, body wash, sunglasses that were marked ‘Made in China’, waffles and syrup, had all the kids excited

. We then played ‘chicken’ crossing the busy six-lane highway. “Dis is not Jumayka. Dem will run you down!” one boy said as he traipsed across the road and car headlights closed in. The children got to bed around 11pm, and some in my room did not get to sleep till way after midnight. Now, they are getting a refreshing work out, with a 7.30am start. Not ideal. But, the meet starts at 5pm today, and they need to be prepared. The team’s head coach told the children last night that when they returned to Jamaica and were met at the airport by reporters that they ought to be able to say proudly what they had done, rather than come with a string of excuses about a poor performance.

The day will have some good downtime for us all after breakfast. I suspect that many will to hit the malls; one is just across a busy highway from our hotel. I would like to play a little golf, and I understand that a course is just 10 minutes walk away.

How ironic. We’re listening to piped music at the pool side…and it’s reggae, and mento. Gwendolyn, pass the smelling salts! But, why should surprised when on our way from the airport I saw a bill board advertising Red Stripe.

Red Stripe billboard in Orlando, FL
Red Stripe billboard in Orlando, FL

Jamaica to the world!

Be careful what you wish for

Several days ago, I reacted to a column I read in The Gleaner by sending a response to the author and the newspaper’s editor. The author responded that he hoped the paper would publish my reply; I’ve not seen it, yet, and I am not worried about that. He has my views and that’s what’s really important. Just before the Easter holidays, I read another article, in The Observer, which had my hackles rising, so again I wrote to the author and the newspaper. Over the weekend, I heard from one of the paper’s editors that he was considering publishing my remarks as a column. We had a few exchanges and I sent a short biography and a picture–funnily, one I had just taken while relaxing ahead of tournament. Yesterday, my words and picture graced the pages of The Observer…and life has not been the same since.

I’ve had my views published before in the press, but a column is always seen as a bit more substantial and often leads to more reactions. Well, after my early morning excursion on the golf course with one of the ladies who’s both fun to play with and also just a hoot, I came back to bask in the glory of being a newspaper columnist. My older daughter had suggested earlier in the year that I do this and I had a plan in my head about how to go forward; I had even made a pitch to the papers. But, life is its own wheel of fortune, and I roll where it rolls.

I received some very nice comments. I had a publisher suggest that I do a book about my life experiences–it’s in my thoughts, already, but I cannot get the flow as I want, yet. I had another reader suggest that I write more about the mish-mash that is English–that’s tempting, and I do it in a way all the time; maybe, I need to see if I can ‘package’ it more clearly or better in some way.

However, exposure is not all about adulation and back-slapping; it comes with a fair amount of brickbats. I mentioned to my older daughter–an English and History graduate–how amazed I was at what people see in what is written, often way beyond ideas in the mind of the author. Sometimes, my reactions trigger something in the reader but I’m flabbergasted when that turns out to be some seemingly visceral reaction either to me or the object of my writing. I’m not going to share the comments, but suffice to say that some people get hold of the wrong end of the stick and then turn it into corn pudding. Otherwise, some people have to vent and I just happen to be in the way; they harbour some serious resentment about the writer of the piece that triggered my reply. So, much of my afternoon–once I had gotten the body rehydrated and refuelled–was spent reading and responding to comments.

In the current age, when we have so much access to each other’s views without face-to-face contact, it’s really a blessing.

Dennis the Menace (UK version)
Dennis the Menace and Gnasher (UK version). Is this my new image?

I was absolutely exhausted after a few hours of reading and thinking about comments, and then deciding how to respond. Of course, I’m not obliged to reply, but I like to do so if it helps me clear up some misunderstanding or a point needs expanding.

Well, it’s just 24 hours since I hit the streets, so to speak. I have not had a call to do a radio or TV interview about my ideas–yet.

I’ve a wry smile on my face. Much of the last seven days, though I wrote briefly about how Jamaicans speak, was consumed thinking and writing about how I think Jamaicans feel about something afoot in the economy. Finance Minister, Dr. Peter Phillips, has summoned all wrath of The Furies and they are still headed his way over his proposed ‘bank transaction tax’. There, too, my views got some airing, but not obviously attributable to me. Some of the possible ‘unforeseen consequences’ of the measure that I touched on got a response from the Minister during his press briefing on Tuesday, eg, he does not see people fleeing the formal banking system and heading towards barter. Interesting, though, the Jamaica Bankers’ Association seem to come out on my side. As reported in The Gleaner: ‘The levy may discourage some individuals and businesses from utilizing the formal banking system, which not only conflicts with the country’s aim to achieve greater financial inclusion, but encourages greater activity in the informal economy‘. Some people claim to be ‘dunces’ about things economics, so those of us who think we understand how economies work are duty bound to try to help others understand what may seem obvious to (some of) us.

Jamaica is blessed with a relatively free press, and I am glad that I can benefit from that in expressing myself to the public–subject to an editor’s approval. But, in the modern world, I don’t need such approval because I can publish and be damned, anyway. Here’s to healthy conversations about things that concern us all.

In a manner of speaking…

Jamaica Observer published my comments as a full-page column today, so I reproduce it below.


In a manner of speaking…

Dennis JONESWednesday, April 23, 2014

Screenshot 2014-04-23 11.13.59

I read Franklin Johnson’s recent column, ‘The politics of English literacy‘ very carefully. Let me be brief. He is not advocating that Jamaicans speak English. He wants us to speak a certain variant of English, i.e. ‘speak English with a top British accent (not cockney, jordie (sic) or scouse); they learn by rote from BBC radio’. There’s the rub. English is spoken in many different forms. Most Jamaicans speak it with a distinct accent, but we also speak it in another form that would be hard for other English speakers to understand straight away. But, that’s not unusual in English.

Let me cite my experience, I lived in England for 30 years and the United States of America for 20 and both places have English as their main language — as we do. But, when I travelled, I had great difficulty understanding, depending on where I was. In Britain, it took years to understand the way Geordies spoke (in England’s north-east), and they had many words and phrases that were their own. Likewise, Scousers, who lived over the border from Wales where I lived for a while. The Welsh and Scottish, too, as nations that have English as a base (though Welsh is also official in Wales), with their accents, made them almost impossible to understand, at first. Many will know the jokes about trying to understand a Scotsman. In the USA, I lived in the north-east and managed well there, but was totally at sea in the south, and Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama all had me floored.

So, for Jamaicans, our accent and form are just one of the many that have developed as English has spread. It’s ours, and we should own it. The ‘BBC English’ accent and phrasing — which is really the English of south-east England and The Queen, loosely — have given way on air to many regional variations, and no one need feel ashamed that they speak on the BBC with an accent or phrasing they grew up with.

What then of patois? Truth is, in many societies the language people learn at home or on the streets may be far from some ‘standard’ version that is written and understood as the language. We have gone a bit further because our way of speaking has taken on some clear forms that have passed through generations and it is largely understood across the whole island, though we too have our variations within Jamaica. ‘Country’ people speak patois differently from Kingstonians. Uptowners speak patois differently from so-called ghetto youths. If that’s what students come with when going to school it’s one of the challenges to get them to learn, absorb and use any standard form.

I migrated to England as a boy and went to school in Westminster, England, right by Buckingham Palace. I spoke patois at home with my parents and relatives. I first learnt to speak like the English children around me at school, and my cockney was as good as it got — I wuz one o’ de boyz. I went to a posh grammar school and learnt to speak English like The Queen — I became a proper gentleman. I switched often between the forms of spoken English I could master. I went to work in the USA and found that many Americans could not understand the flatter tones of my English, compared to their nasal lilt, and had problems with my choice of words and phrases. I won’t go into details that I used different words and spelt words differently. The pavement was where cars drove, not where people walked. That seems simple. Suffice it to say that I was most embarrassed when I asked for a rubber in a drug store and was given a condom. Enough said.

If you listen to Britons speak, they do not all sound like The Queen. Professional footballers are a good example of what often happens. Some of the modern ones have modified their speech, or try to do so, as they earn more and move up the social ladder — most of them coming from clear working-class backgrounds. They can live in ‘posh areas and send their children to private schools and want to integrate more easily in those worlds. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is a definite Scouser and that won’t change; but his accent has softened and his words have changed after years of TV interviews and much foreign travel — and maybe some voice coaching, and a good dose of social mobility. But, listen to some of the older British commentators, or a lot of players, and you hear the classic mash-up of their origins. “We wuz winnin’ ri’t. Me an’ Johnno ‘ad ’em easy like.” That’s not really so far from the mash-up that a patois speaker does to standard English.

We’re smaller than England, so our mash-up of the English language does not go as far and wide as what happens in England, with its bigger land area and much bigger population. Spoken language is living and changes with the ages. The best example of that is the way that a lot of London’s youth speak, having borrowed from their neighbours of Caribbean origin over the past half-century and more. Or the way that the child of Somali refugees living in Glasgow speaks just like the average Scot. Do we need to look at the video of Toronto’s mayor in a burger joint to understand what our way of speaking offers?

We have to understand that there will be those Jamaicans who can make the change from the way most people speak to some sort of standardised form — the lady on RJR, perhaps. They have benefited from education, travel, exposure to other forms, but maybe too were forced to change. I know that many — if not most — revert to their variant of patois once out of the public eye or the office, wherever demanded the ‘better’ speech. Sometimes, they can’t catch themselves. Remember PM Bruce Golding, notably speaking to a group of journalists in Montego Bay in 2008, telling the IOC President Jacques Rogge and critics of Usain Bolt and his deeds? He said: “Dem must tek weh demself.” Note his perfect use of his vernacular.

Not every Jamaican will need to stand on stage or be in a setting that requires them to modify how they speak so that more people may be able to understand. Like in England or the USA, not all will master the change. Those who can switch, will switch. I know it happens at the highest levels. In our banks, say, the English spoken at the counter is as Mr Johnston would like it much of the time, but listen when the people are sitting in the cafeteria having their lunch.

Somehow, the keepers of the mother tongue in England have managed to live with the fact that few speak The Queen’s English. Why are we going to be so extra and say we have to be different?

Mr Johnston may despise those who speak Geordie. I had a great friend at university who came from Newcastle, and he gave me a book on how to speak Geordie. It didn’t help me much when I had to sit with him and his family, but it made me think about our Patois. We have gone further with changing the language than those from England’s north-east, but the process is similar. Now, we have the Internet to help us to try to translate from Geordie to English. But, as one of those translators cite, if a Geordie said “Gan canny or we’ll dunsh summick,” will you understand that he means “Be careful or we will crash into something”?

Somehow, England still manages to stay afloat and life moves on.

I remember the German who told my Mancunian-born wife at the time that her city was pronounced ‘Men-chester’, not ‘Man-chester’. When I worked for the IMF, I had to suffer the ignominy of many non-native English speakers “correcting” my written English. Many times we could not agree; sometimes their understanding was superior to mine, and I always use a possessive before a gerund. But, I learned from the experience. The Seychelles has French, English and Creole as official languages and writes to the IMF in all three. Now, that’s awfully grown- up, don’t you think?

Jamaican-born Dennis Jones is a retired senior economist from the IMF. His last posting was resident representative in Guinea and Sierra Leone (2003-2007). He now resides in Jamaica. Send comments to:

Urban myths: the undisciplined Jamaican

I try to clear my head of things that bother me. Sometimes, mint tea helps; other times, I need to take a walk; again, other times, I need to burn up some serious energy or sing certain songs. Or, I write about the problems.

I’ve been bothered for a while by a set of claims about Jamaicans that I cannot see substantiated. One of these is that Jamaicans are undisciplined.

I’ve been to a lot of different countries and seen how people operate in daily life, sometimes during extreme economic or social conditions. So, I have been in countries that have had economic catastrophes, mainly when inflation is very fast and/or their currencies have gone into some kind of downward spiral. (Sorry, Jamaica. For all that the decline of the J$ has been constant over the past 16 months, it’s not in a spiral.) People start to panic, hoarding goods, trying buy goods as fast as they can before the value of money plummets. With that, normal behaviour gets frenetic. I once stayed in a hotel, where the currency was falling so fast the prices changed within the day. So, I left for meetings in the morning, and came back to find a new set of tariffs. That’s really scary.

I have been in countries going through social and political upheaval, such as civil war or attempts to overthrow governments by coups. In such circumstances, people behave in a range of undisciplined ways. For example, they loot shops, burn tyres in roads, stop people in vehicles and assault them, especially if they are part of the ‘opposition’. There is general mayhem, and with it the economy stops functioning because traders and producers get scared; consumers, too.

Jamaica is not in the league of those countries, for which I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Yes, we have bands of crazy criminals. Some of these are murderous. Some of them are gougers of money from our pockets by some sort of scamming operation. We see footage of teenagers doing what teenagers have been doing all the years I’ve lived and I’m nearly three score years. Now, the misdeeds are on film and circulated faster than you can pull up your knickers. We have people doing ‘extraordinary’ things that are in fact quite ordinary, wherever you have rules loosely applied. Yet, you have something else. You have order where disorder would be much easier.

Kingston has bus lanes, mainly along the highway going east-west. Along stretches of that highway are bus lanes in both directions. Whenever I drive along Washington Boulevard, no matter what the traffic conditions, or time of day, people are not usually driving in those lanes.

Bus lane to the left; left unused by ‘undisciplined’ Jamaican drivers

Why? Good question. There are no police monitoring them, as far as I have ever seen. There are no special barriers to stop vehicles other than buses crossing into the bus lanes. Jamaican drivers obey the regulation–and it’s not clear what the regulation is. The signs say ‘bus lane’, with no stated hours or application. So, Jamaicans do not drive in those lanes ever. During the long Easter weekend, I drove on that road in both directions, at dawn leaving town and at dusk on Sunday coming back. The lanes were empty. I’ve seen then during heavier traffic flows–the same, In London, or elsewhere, the lanes are really for peak hours to help traffic move workers and other commuters faster. Off-peak, the lanes are often open for other users. As I wrote, I don’t know what rules apply to the Kingston bus lanes.

Undisciplined people do not abide by vague strictures. Maybe, the trick has been to not specify a rule so people do know what to break. A psychologist can help me there.

The corollary to that bus lane behaviour is also associated with road use on an extension of the Boulevard heading west. JUTC has had an experiment running for about six months now, whereby it takes one lane of the westbound side and cordons it off for its buses coming east from the outskirts of Spanish Town.

Bus lane experiment on Mandela Highway: no attempt to circumvent by ‘undisciplined’ Jamaicans

The restrictions last from 6-8am on weekdays, more or less. That is monitored by some police and service personnel. It’s dangerous, because traffic going the right way in the wrong lane could lead to a major traffic accident. So, the incentive to try to use that bus lane to leave town is limited, but it’s still there. Why? There are long, clear stretches where it’s easy to see that no buses are coming. As traffic builds in the single lane leaving town, it’s tempting to just nip into the bus lane even for a little while to zip past the slow line of cars. Jamaicans love to do that ‘nipping and tucking in’ on most single lane roads. But, they just wait patiently on Mandela Highway. Even when I see the occasional official vehicle going west in the restricted lane it’s escorted by a police vehicle, and no one tries to follow, even at a distance, even though it’s unlikely that the police escort would stop to bother with this transgression.

Undisciplined people do not act this way.

The Jamaican driver is an interesting study in general good behaviour, if you take away the rampant nonsense of some taxi and minibus drivers–which is not surprising given how they make their living. Their behaviour is typical of many taxi drivers or drivers of private buses competing with public bus companies. There’s a long and violent history of such bad behaviour when road competition intensifies–even ‘bus wars‘, in some cases–as a result of dergegulation. Britain had famous cases in the 1920s, before road licensing restrictions were introduced, and again in the late 1980s-though mid-1990s, when deregulation was introduced. Unscrupulous behaviour was rampant, and some people got jail time for their misdeeds. It’s a money business with tight margins and ‘turf’ to protect.

The Jamaican driver (even in busy Kingston) is often relatively considerate when it comes to allowing traffic to flow from side roads onto a main road, and at lights when turns are desired, even if no priority is offered to the turning vehicles with a dedicated arrow. Trust me. I’ve seen how drivers in the US would do all in their power to stop people get from side roads. They would block junctions, too, so that turns are impossible. Blocking junctions was such a problem in the UK that they had to create ‘the box junction‘. When they were first introduced in the late-1960s, they were aimed to stop gridlock from blocked junctions. Drivers were not supposed to enter unless they could cross freely. People got to understand the system. But, still problems persisted, and the police have found it worthwhile setting up cameras to catch transgressors and make a pretty penny from that. In Jamaica, we can still get by with a policeman directing traffic to stop most being blocked. We get little bottlenecks, but not as much as you’d expect from a bunch of people who cannot abide rules.

box junction London

So, I say, “Wheel and come again”. Something else goes on in Jamaica and I would not call what I see undisciplined. Find me another term with which to work.

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