I think the emotion that an overwhelming majority of Jamaicans have today is pride. In the world of world politics, it’s no little thing for the president of the United States to agree to visit your country, no matter for how short a time.
In the days leading up to the arrival of President Barack Obama, Jamaicans had plenty of reasons to feel resentful and sidelined. The zealous cleaning of the city’s image offended many, who know that the ‘grime’ of the place was not new, but had been tolerated and left untouched for years. Like any host, however, pride would not let that grime stay when an important visitor was expected. But, the question in many minds and expressed openly by many too, was ‘Why could this not be done for Jamaicans, rather than for the arrival of an US president?’ I suspect that question will not be touched by any politician with a hand in the decision. It may yet have a cost to them: elections are due not long from now. But, I suspect that it may not have much cost because Jamaicans tend to not be demanding of accountability from their politicians.
However, for a few days, we will see the ‘clean’ Kingston, with its fresh layers of tarmac, its streets free of homeless people, its crab vendors absent from Heroes Circle. That has a sad irony.
President Obama arrived in Kingston at about 7.30pm last night. His arrival was covered by all the TV news channels, taking their feed from the official output of the Jamaica Information Service (JIS) and Public Broadcasting Corporation of Jamaica (PBCJ). Excited reporters were among the bevy awaiting the landing of Air Force One; many of them reporting live on air and via Internet social media. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram were on fire.
One endearing feature of Jamaica and small countries like Jamaica is that people are not blasé about certain things. Excitement to see the president land was genuine and harked back to days when air travel was new or limited. If it were possible, I’m sure that people would have flocked to the airport to wave at the plane as it approached, or lined the roads to and from the airport to get a glimpse of ‘The Man’. As it was, a few were near the roundabout that leads from the highway to the Palisadoes Road, while most were glued to their televisions. I was listening on the radio and had the TV on.
Ironically, my wife had a longtime German friend arrive at the airport the same evening, and had been to collect her ahead of the president’s arrival. We were sitting down to dinner just as AF1 landed. “‘im reach!” I yelled, as pictures of the plane taxiing appeared. Out came the phone and a picture was taken to capture the moment he descend the stairs to the tarmac.
Our visitor, tired, and jet lagged, smiled as we explained what was happening. We sat outside to eat, while the TV continued to broadcast through an open patio door.
The officials awaiting the arrival also looked excited, none more than our PM, who is really a people person. She could not contain her joy, it seemed, as she hugged President Obama, like a grandmother wraps her arms around a grandson of whom she is proud.
Within minutes of his arrival in Jamaica, however, Barack Obama did what a really decent visitor does: he showed how grateful he was for the invitation, by doing something kind and personal. He visited the home of Bob Marley, on his way from the airport.
It put us in our place, ahead of him: we and what we represent was shown to be important to him. The pictures and words of the president gazing at memorabilia in the Bob Marley museum (“I still have all his albums”) will be part of the history of this iconic visit.
That showed what is part of the sad irony of the ‘sterilisation’ of Jamaica: the president wants to see and know the real Jamaica. In the same way that Jamaicans feel that he is an important part of the history of black people’s struggles, so he knows that Jamaica is part of that same history, although touching different points, and not necessarily doing so with the approval of the USA. It’s still a fact, though. Bob Marley’s role in those struggles is legendary.
The president is accompanied by two ‘daughters’ of the soil. First, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, representing Brooklyn, New York (whose mother, former City Council member Una S. T. Clarke, hailed from St. Elizabeth–like my maternal family :-)). Though born in the USA, Congresswoman Clarke has often let it be known how proud she is of her Jamaican heritage. She was right behind the president as he descended the stairs from AF1. Second, Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, whose grandparents came from Jamaica.
Today, the president will go about his official business, meeting Jamaican officials and politicians, and those from CARICOM, too. He will meet some representatives of young people at a forum organised at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. He may get to meet people in other ways during his working day. Many Jamaicans would just love to see him in the flesh. Many would love to touch him (‘Mi waan shake ‘im han'” one Jamaican man said on TV). We are tactile people, and we show our love and appreciation by touching those for whom we care.
We would love to see President Obama enjoy the food Jamaica has to offer: it’s an important feature of who we are. There would be near pandemonium if he just decided to stop and pick up some jerk food, or a cup of soup, or grab a patty, or take a piece of fried fish, or if he looked awestruck with his first taste of ackee and salt fish. Something of the real Jamaica needs to leave a mark on him. Not the sterilised Jamaica.
Many have spent the last few days taking out their frustration with government officials by making light humour be their outlet. Still, some, who could not believe what had been done, went to see for themselves the transformed places, such as Heroes Park now filled with gorgeous flowers.
Many of us could not resist joking about the goings on ahead of, and during, the president’s arrival. I tweeted ‘Jamaica bruk outta brukness for #obamainja We win Lotto? #SupremeVentures‘. It struck a number of people. Little did I know that the evening Lotto draw, which is never cancelled for anything, would be that evening.
The Internet allows people to react so fast in words and pictures, and it’s hard to keep up. I’ve loved the many memes, I’ve seen, most of which have been tasteful and funny.
I went to both of President Obama’s inaugurations. They were historic and I wanted to be close to those moments in history. I lived and worked in Washington DC, so could feel those moments in different ways, but also felt that differently because I was a migrant from Jamaica. My children can say they, too, were there, as we fought the bitter cold.
Now, chance brings President Obama to my country, and I am excited and proud of that, and blessed to be here when it happened. I won’t rush to see ‘The Beast’ drive past; I’ve seen it a few times pass me on Pennsylvania Avenue, or block my path on a journey somewhere else in Washington. I’m not excited to see the glimmer of AF1 or the shimmer of the Cadillac. But, I’m no ordinary Jamaican. They are extraordinary things. He is an extraordinary man. His visit makes Jamaica extraordinary. I know one company, which has that word in its ads will be glad to use it in association with the trip and beyond 🙂
We likkle but we tallawah comes up again, and you have to believe this is a special little island. Forward!