Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: A tale of two cities?

In the early days of the enquiry, which began this week, some raw aspects of Jamaican–actually, Kingstonian–life are being scratched and the sore is quite painful.

One clear issue is that the language witnesses from of the inner city used is a far cry from the language of the professional classes who administer the proceedings. We have the rough, fast cadence of Patois, against the moderated tones of uptown standard English.

At its simplest, one has to ask if the comprehension of the two sides is zero or close to it. This gets bothersome when certain words do not seem to carry the same meaning.

We had instances today when a witness was asked if he was aware of certain developments. He reacted angrily, saying that wasn’t his business. While, I take awareness to just be about having some knowledge, it seemed that for the witness there was a deeper, sinister meaning, perhaps suggesting responsibility. Neither lawyers nor Commissioners latched on to this, today.

We have heard each day terms that are familiar on inner city streets, some of which are common across Jamaica, but rarely heard in formal settings. So, it was interesting to hear people referred to as ‘fish’ or ‘fishermen’, meaning they were homosexual men. We also had examples in reported speech of some common Jamaican bad words, allegedly uttered by soldiers and police officers.

I was fascinated by the animated description given today by a male witness, who mimicked a person shooting, plus all the noises (“Blam! Blam! Cheeng!”). Plus, he went though the actions associated with the various beatings he alleged soldiers meted out to him and his wife. She was ‘boxed’ into a flowers garden–she was slapped and fell long way away. His descriptions were so vivid, as he was reportedly beaten, then marched to another area, beaten again, etc.

We also had the wonderful contortions of Patois, where sometimes negatives (or words sounding negative) are used as positives, maybe. Several times the questioners had toast if it was can or cannot.

Several of the attorneys try to bridge the gap, hen it suits by lapsing into Patois or adding a term that seems to put them in the same footing: “Cmon, man…You is a big man…You want to eat a food…”

But, when a man was asked yesterday if he was a look out (for someone), that lapsed into laughter as the man said he was looking out for himself. He wasn’t looking out for anyone else. I got the impression that the dialogue went in parallel.

We have had a run around terms used for firearms, such as ‘Chiney K’, for AK-47 rifle.

Today, we heard the nuanced terms for where people live. We heard about ‘Yard’, ‘Big Yard’, ‘Tenement Yard’, ‘Big Piece a Land’ pan which nuff people live. I’m sure the witness was clear about the differences. To the degree that it may matter, was it as clear to the lawyers and Commissioners?

At times today, the speed of speech was too much for the recorders, the Commissioners claimed. Were they just unable to translate themselves fast enough? The Chief Commissioner is from Barbados, though married over 40 years to a Jamaican.

This may all really suggest a need for simultaneous translators. Will any of it matter when the level of distrust amongst the witness, Tivoli residents having to relive a harrowing episode, is so evidently high? Too early to say, but surely not to be ignored.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

2 thoughts on “Tivoli Commission of Enquiry: A tale of two cities?”

  1. I see no reason for translators. The attorneys can understand patois as well as any Jamaican, but they just choose to emphasize the “language gap” for their own purposes. In other words, they spend most of their time talking “down” to the witnesses. They are not stupid, it’s a way of making the witnesses uncomfortable, so that they overreact and then people laugh at them. I’ve seen this before in enquiries. I just hope that media houses such as TVJ (the main offender so far) desist from sensationalizing the event.The UNDP held an excellent workshop for media practitioners (many media houses did not bother to attend) which would have really helped them and filled in some gaps in their knowledge. Anyway… We press on…


    1. Emma, I agree that translators not really needed.

      I must say that most of the witnesses have made me want to laugh at the seeming numbheadedness of the lawyers, and by extension their clients, but I may be far from the average.


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