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I like to think that I am observant. I had a discussion yesterday about whether Jamaicans display compassion, in particular towards strangers and those in need. Put briefly, I said, I saw evidence of it each day. Someone else said “Frankly, I don’t see much of it in Jamaica… that is why our society is the way it is.” In response, I cited some random instances that I had witnessed the day before. My discussant was not convinced. We can both be right. I may see and she may not see. Maybe, for this week, I will go out and search for those random acts, which I think may be useful.

Several days ago, a newspaper reported on a disabled truck that was looted by residents in Mount Rosser.

Disabled truck in Mount Rosser, stripped of its contents and some tyres

Disabled truck in Mount Rosser, stripped of its contents and some tyres

According to the report, ‘By the time the driver could come to his senses, hoards of people descended on the truck and began stripping it of energy drinks, cornflakes and saltfish. When the police arrived on the scene, the truck was almost empty. The looters even removed two of the wheels and emptied the gas from the tank.’ Yesterday, Observer columnist, Mark Wignall, commented on the story, ‘we are, as a nation which ought to be seeking development of our people, facing doom instead’. He noted that we did not get to this point overnight and cited an incident in Kingston in the 1980s. He mentioned that there used to be two distinct Jamaicans–‘The ‘town’ people were more individualistic, while ‘country’ people were naturally prone to kindness and lending assistance to total strangers.’ I had made a similar point in my discussions. Now, Wignall argues, ‘the lines have become blurred and we have melded into worse than the worst’. He tried to retain hope: ‘I clutch at optimism because of the many unsung Jamaicans, many of whom in their quiet ways are giving us pause to see a small but shining light of the possibility of a better day.’ But, it does not last: ‘The reality which puts a brake on that optimism is, when these good people stand up for principle and doing what’s right, the numbers are stacked against them. The politics of the nation is stacked against them.’

I won’t argue against Mr. Wignall’s conclusions; they’re his. First, Mr. Wignall is like me: he sees good people (‘many unsung Jamaicans’ doing things in ‘their quiet ways’. That heartens me, because he’s been in the business of observing Jamaica much longer and more deeply than I have, and we’ve seen the same things. But, using his terms, are the numbers stacked against the good people? That I cannot answer, and it may not be possible to agree or disagree unless we go about counting. I am sure that I can find incidents of bad people to counter the incidents of good people.

Let me step sideways for a moment. When I was the IMF’s resident representative in Guinea, I remember many incidents of disabled or crashed trucks and even passengers killed in crashes being looted by citizens near the incident. My reaction was that this was an indication of the dire poverty that existed, but it was also something else that was about humans’ base instincts. Opportunity was there but was nothing without motive. I never understood what motivated the looting, especially in a society that appeared to have much respect for human life. Most people to whom I spoke were appalled.

But, we know that such incidents are quite widespread worldwide. Sometimes, they occur where a desperately poor population happens to be on the route used to convey much valued goods, often food–aid trucks are common victims, as are commercial food carriers. The operators may use various means to track their convoys and also have the truck secured with armed personnel. We know of places where bandits are operating, looking to rob, rather than loot. Good people turning bad? Were they really that good?

I’m not aware of a country that does not have instances of depraved behaviour. It may be more common in some than others. If I scan the news stream that is coming over my phone, I know I will be regaled with the latest stories of such acts. Voila! A Utah mother charged with the murder of her seven children as newborns, after bodies found in cardboard boxes in the garage of her former home. That’s not normal, and we dread such extremes. Ironically, Utah, home of the Mormon congregation, has a population of 2.9 million, about the same as Jamaica, though is vastly bigger in terms of area.

What triggered the looting in Jamaica? Life had become so desperate? Respect for others become so low? We can speculate. Maybe, someone should poll the residents of Mount Rosser. The problem we have is that, with Mount Rosser clearly in our minds, how would that weigh against something that was good?

The girl who was a good student, who did charity work, but fell foul of the school principal over her way of dressing, and was told to leave the school. Who then left her home to live with relatives far away, trying to earn some money. Who was sought by the school vice principal and urged to return so that she could at least get her graduation credits and qualify for university. Whose tuition had been paid for by friends for the past several years and is still being paid for. Who was somehow kept on track by a combination of good deeds by friends (not strangers, admitted).

I’m not going to demote that action because the girl was known to most of the persons who wanted to help. Giving assistance to complete strangers is one part of a spectrum of kindness; often, we can see a connection, if only in terms of passing or repeated acquaintance even if no direct close knowledge of people. The indigent man in the church graveyard, who’s there every week asking for money to buy food. Maybe, the verger knows his name, but maybe not. Do any of the parishioners? Does it count that I give him or someone else begging for food the soup and sandwich that was handed to me at the ‘fellowship morning’? I see those kind acts, and don’t want to implicate myself in the counting of good deeds.

We know of the windscreen washers on the streets. To some they are a major annoyance, to some they are just part of our urban scene. To some, money will never leave their hands, for others they will pay the $100 for the wash and give something else. I’m not getting into motivation, just acts.

Some see kindness often tinged with danger and mischief. Are people helping young girls and boys because they are sexual predators? Maybe, there are some. But, I can see the potential for an evil notion in everyone I meet, so I don’t know how far I can go if I cast that net over every action. It says something about my fears, not necessarily about the reality that is taking place. Why not see school teachers the same way? That would be awkward.

The economist in me sees the benefit of doing two things that seem to be opposites. One, is to try to catalogue for my own curiosity the random acts of kindness I see. The other, is to try to be structured about my ‘data collection’. I may be able to do both, by standing at the bus terminal at Half Way Tree and just monitoring what goes on for a few hours. My phone camera is often ready but I may have to do more stopping along the road to capture the events. Or, I will be doing some walking around. I may even have to ask some people why they did what I saw them do. I hope that no one takes offence, either at the pictures I may be taking or any questions I may pose.

Now, I’m in danger of tainting my own sample. I am going to head off for some dawn practice. I know I may see some workers at the junction of the main road who will beg for a ride. Sometimes, I give one if I recognize the face, but I also know of incidents where such acts of kindness were met with death. It’s a delicate balance between kindness and risk-taking.

The face of the world has gotten harder. Jamaica is no exception. Were we spoiled by thinking that our face was very soft in the past. All the stories of kindness were real and common. Did the good outnumber the bad? I remember stories of bad deeds being told when I was a young boy in the 1950s. Guns were fewer, knives and machetes were more common. People stole clothes from the line; that happens less today because people hang out clothes less. People stole chickens and fruit and vegetables. Praedial larceny is older than the country as an independent state. We’ve also had bad people around. The seed were there in the past. Were they growing but we did not notice? The 1970s might have been the turning point. Oh, what a decade! Have the bad seeds now grown into trees that outnumber the good plants? I’m going to close my eyes and visualize and say not yet.