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A friend and I were talking the other day and both hit upon something that has bothered me for years. When I first took a visit to uptown Kingston, several decades ago, I was struck by a shocking realisation: parts of Jamaica seemed like Apartheid South Africa. Don’t fall faint. Jamaica is not an equal society, and its inequalities show up in various ways.


Two men walking their bikes uphill

The first way they showed up to me, back then, was that in the mornings, hordes of people would trek up the slopes to homes on the hills, then make the reverse trip in the evenings.

The domestic helper is a familiar feature of Jamaican society: people with enough money pay others to come into their homes to cook, clean, look after children, provide some general security. It’s embedded in our culture to the extent that homes are built with ‘helper’s quarters’.cherry gardens (Now, my wife thinks these should be more spacious and generous, but I tried to explain that these are not built-in to provide deluxe accommodation, but a minimum, acceptable space to change, sleep, and maybe live. We know many people who pay a chuck of change for rental space that is not that generous.) Domestic work has saved many a family from falling apart, both on the workers’ and the employers’ side. It’s part of our social glue.

Ironically, yesterday, South African had its fifth national elections since the end of Apartheid; it was the first which included children born since the end in 1994.

Anyway, back to my South Africa story. When I first visited that country, it was after the end of Apartheid. The thing that stuck me the first morning I walked out of my hotel in Johannesburg was the trek of people towards the white suburbs in the morning and the reverse flow in the evenings. It was Kingston…with a difference.

Part of Soweto Township

Part of Soweto Township

The big difference was that, despite the end of the legal separation of race, the structure of society could not and had not changed that much. Many economic relationships were still preserved as they had been. So, blacks went to work for whites. (I’m sure that they were also working for other blacks or mixed race families, too.) Jamaica did not have the taint of its social relationships being based on a legal cutting between people of different colour, but income and position had created a similar outcome.

Many aspects of that separation are evident in everyday life in Jamaica. Workers walking to work are ivariably black, and going to homes where the skin tones are usually much lighter. Jamaicans know the lines that skin colour form. We can’t talk about it as race discrimination–it’s social separation based on colour, though. How much do uptowners really mix with those they employ? Not much. I was going to position the day workers geographically, but realised that would be dangerous, because Kingston is fluid. Those workers need not live in ghettos. They may live in the newer suburbs, like Portmore, or out-of-town, such as Spanish Town. The main thing is that they have to commute to homes, while the home owners commute from their homes to businesses in New Kingston or downtown. That’s an interesting bit of economic geography for another set of thoughts.

Domestic work is not something that carries shame in Jamaica. I would hazard a guess that many Jamaicans will claim a domestic worker as a mother or a grandmother (I certainly do)–inside the homes, they are universally women; men will do day work as gardeners/maintenance workers. (One of the odd things about my stint in west Africa was that domestic workers inside the home were invariably men.) That steady income, and stable setting has provided the base for many a better life. Enough money to pay for children to go to private schools, sometimes. More likely, enough to help finance study at university. Social mobility has come from such working relations; plus, some ‘bosses’ take care of their ‘staff’ by sponsoring them in different ways. Others squeeze every ounce out of them with barely a batted eyelid.

The physical and socio-economic comparison between Kingston and Johannesburg may carry over further, but I wont push the comparison. Jo’burg had Soweto as its area where the blacks lived and from where they trekked. As I just noted, Jamaica’s domestic workers are not settled in a clearly identifiable block.

We have mindsets that go with our socioeconomic structure; geographic positioning reinforces that. Jamaica is one former colony that is walking a very tricky path that led from its origins as a slave economy. Many trappings of slave-master relations still exist. Watch what happens when ‘managers’ upbraid ‘staff’ in Jamaica. The interdependence is not simple and homogeneous. It has its benign side, and its dark side. It has deliberate positioning of people into ‘convenient’ slots of ‘them’ and ‘us’, the latter being those who have money, power, influence. (I’m not going to tap into the commentary on TV characterisations of people who are vendors or live in ghettos that has been getting people exercised.)

Today is observation day; treatise and analysis day has to wait.