Introducing our new Cabinet Ministers, Stephen Francis and Glen Mills?

Those who can and want to think about it, can find many positive lessons for Jamaica to take from its athletes’ performances during the just-ended World Championships in Beijing. I’m struck by the clear disconnection between the image of excellence–that reflects talent, hard work, perseverance, some intangibles like “rough neck heart”, that pride that comes from seeing fellows do well and having it inspire one’s own performance–and the often worse-than-mediocre performance of many things in Jamaica, including politicians. Much of this we think we can work on, and develop, for the collective good of the country. We also readily point out that our political leaders, for many years, have not been able or willing to tap into these attributes so that the shiny image of the athlete on the international stage replaces the rag-tag image of daily life that is all to common to Jamaicans.

A trite solution may be to turn the country over to the athletics coaches. However, we know that these men and women, have worked wonders in this field, often without much help or support but with dedication and willing students. Much as I’d love to see the kind of results Stephen Francis gets with our athletes replicated by him as a Minister of Industry, I wonder if he could get the investments to flow in so easily. Likewise, Glen Mills as our Minister of Foreign Affairs may draw Jamaica’s international standing to a level only dreamt of. But, then again, maybe they could do good jobs in either portfolio. What do they have that we want to see from a minister?

First, they seem to know what they’re doing, and produce desired results by getting those working with them to buy into what they’re doing. How often have we heard–in relation to them and other coaches–“I trust my coach to…”? When’s the last time you heard that about more than a few politicians?

Second, they don’t seem to have to deal with many things that detract from the jobs they have to do. I don’t know what kind of support staff they have, say with junior coaches, of if they really have to work solo with all their charges. I remember my track coach being responsible for all the athletes in our ‘stable’ and that hands-on time with him guiding sessions was essential.

Third, they seem to be able to mould raw talent into something refined. We know that Usain Bolt is a physical anomaly for short 100 metre sprints, but his obvious speed and talent have been harnessed in a way that has seen him master the shorter event and also maintain dominance in the preferred distance, 200 metres. He has a certain relaxed style on the outside, but obviously is a hard worker who trains to get himself physically and mentally ready for races, especially major championships. Likewise, Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce, in her diminutive frame does not seem so well suited to race the longer 200 metres sprint well, but opposite to Bolt, she’s harnessed her clear 100 metre speed and strengthened herself to master the 200. Both have shown what most sports people know, that hard work has to be the basis of any success, especially after injuries or other setbacks. Can any of our ministers point to their ability to get people working under, or with, them to work the living day lights out of themselves?

Fourth, neither seems particularly interested in public profiling. Admitted, that is part of the modern-day need of politics. But, there’s being seen in public and using public appearances to advance major issues. You can see, for instance, how differently our Minister of Justice uses his time in the public eye and how our Minister of Industry uses his. I can cite a handful of key policy measures that I have heard the former address in public, but struggle to recall one from the latter. Public platforms are not for showing off or doing nothing much; they need to be used strategically. Otherwise, get back to work and show us results.

More aspects of our athletics success can be drawn into other aspects of national life, but the thought that our political landscape could be much improved by having some of that energy and direction is perhaps more provocative.

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POSTSCRIPT

Reality strikes hard. Most of Jamaica would love to be able to strut with national pride on any international stage. It’s sobering to look at ordinary Jamaicans the day after our latest national successes. I see more people with clothes that obviously double as dishrags than I see people with clothes that look like they have been loved and caressed.

Our evident poverty doesn’t fly away with our crop of medals. Neither does our inability to structure our lives in betters ways. The selflessness of our relay teams is swamped by the selfishness that is part of daily life. Case in point: one person’s recklessness on the highway during rush hour results in one BMW being crushed and needing a tow, and a line of traffic from the junction with Spanish Town Road back to the junction with the road from Portmore. One person’s lack of consideration for others, puts almost everyone else at severe disadvantage. That’s a mindset that needs to change if anything else can change.

Who are the leggo beast? Search me!

I’m not going to get into a bag of words with Minister Thwaites about what his “leggo beast” comment about some schoolchildren meant; I think stern voices are already tackling him and have at it. I’ve written often that Jamaicans don’t really care about their children, despite what they often say: actions don’t fit the rhetoric. 

I happened to spend Saturday morning with some prime material for leggo beast status, some children that had already been cast away and were in the care of the State. They were mainly boys, and were due to play in a 6-a-side football tournament organized by New Kingston Rotaract Club and Jamaica National Foundation. Our venue was Maxfield Park Children’s Home. I had volunteered to referee the games.

The field was my first focus: referees have a duty for player safety. I cleared the obvious rocks, broken glass, and pieces of metal from the rock hard dirt area that had been marked as the pitch.  

A rock in a hard place
I checked the goals and ‘nets’, which were pieces of torn tarpaulin.  

Goals and nets, not FIFA approved
I looked at the housing to the side of the field and waved to the handful of children who were pressing their faces against the security bars by the windows and doorways. 

Maxfield Park Children’s Home
They were all smiles. Their situation made me reflect on the view that many have that children in children’s homes are some sort of delinquents–maybe ‘leggo beast’. The fact that they are in institutions puts them into the class of social misfits, in many minds.

I’d not been to such a home in Jamaica before, so I had no measure of how it fitted on the scale of facilities. I noted, as I drove into the complex, that a basic school was within the walls. The grounds were tidy, with the usual crop of Jamaican trash strewn around–scandal bags, plastic bottles, more pieces of broken glass. The grounds were largely green, though, as shrubs and bushes of no particular beauty were around the edges of the grounds.

A Coaster bus arrived with a load of children; then a smaller van came with some more children. Some Rotaract staff appeared and things started to buzz. Tents were already up, but needed to be moved to be closer to the football field. I helped move them. I got introduced to my contact and started to get a feel for how the matches would be played. 

I’d come dressed ‘for work’, wearing my now-dated standard referee shirt. But, my uniform would pass muster with FIFA. 

Dressed, to impress or not
 The ‘teams’ started to gather and it was clear that this was not a set of matches between clubs with deep pockets and many resources. 

When the rules were being read to the teams, we passed over the section about ‘dressed uniformly’. Let’s just say they had the common outfit of being dressed. FIFA rules mention appropriate footwear. I noticed that many of the boys were kicking around without shoes or socks. On those stony fields?!image

Once the games started, several went to the sidelines to get rid of their footwear. Bare foot is better! Hold that thought, when you think about what these children lack. 

The football was good quality. One team was mainly 10-13 year-olds, and small, and the other two teams fielded bigger boys. Skillful interplay in tight spaces was the norm. Control was excellent. Speed and physical prowess were well displayed. Confrontations were few: the rules mentioned disqualification for any such display. But, Jamaicans don’t follow rules? Hold that thought. 

The matches, played round-robin, were fast and exciting. The little boys came out the winners. I smiled about the volunteer who’d worried about the little boys against the bigger ones. The winners wanted to know if they’d get the trophy and medals. Would everyone get a medal, even if they hadn’t played? That was all that concerned them. I reassured them. They ogled the prizes like hot food.image

But, they had to wait till they’d eaten lunch–hot dogs or chicken, rice and pasta salad. 

While eating lunch, one of the bigger boys from a losing team came up to me. “Mr Referee, this thing not fair: the little boys packed up in front of the goal and we can’t score like that!” I looked at him and reminded him that most of the little ones were half his height. I also reminded him that two of them had taken solid shots full frontal to their heads in trying to block the goal. If they’d been bigger, they’d have taken them in the midriff. Who was suffering, again? He huffed and puffed. 

I left before the awards: it was the children’s event to enjoy. Music was blaring, as I left. Children were dancing ‘The Whip’ and ‘The Nae-nae’. Some had broken out into dance on the field midway through the matches. I wished that someone had caught that in pictures.

I’m not going to get deep and philosophical about what makes children good or bad citizens. Let’s just say that input and output are linked. I didn’t get to discuss with the home managers how life is. I learned that all of the children are in school. I know that when they reach 18 they have to leave the homes; no hanging onto their parents for a while longer. What of work? What of making their own lives, after? All things to consider. Nothing simple. From whatever age they entered the homes, it would be their shelter and haven. Who loves and guides? Who teaches them to not be ‘leggo beast’?

I never heard one curse word over 4 hours. I never saw anything thrown in anger. I never saw a child challenge an adult. I never saw an adult turn on a child in a hostile manner. If only I could say the same for behaviour I’ve seen in some schools. Mr. Minister, have you really understood how schools work in Jamaica? 

On another note, I’ll throw out a few other observations. 

Why did the home not have a vegetable garden? It would’ve been both instructive and beautifying. 

Why did I not see any bins for recycling? We want to teach our citizens about having a tidy country? What do we do to give such lessons? 

Why were children not spending the early morning painting the walls?

I saw girls carrying bundles of clothes to washing lines and pots to a kitchen area. Normal life going on in abnormal circumstances. Some simple lessons are clear.
 

Jamaican elections coming? Wake me when they’re done 

Jamaica is getting ready for elections. Nothing has been declared, officially, but positioning and posturing suggest that soon that will be changed. Legally, they are not nearly due, but the Westminster system doesn’t thrive on fixed dates, and the party in power has the privilege of choosing a date of its convenience. 

The ruling PNP have better chances of winning if the economy improves under the current IMF program. However, the electoral benefits of that are clouded by the fact that few people can point to experiencing better conditions under the program. 

The opposition JLP is busy playing in the sand pit and waiting for nurse to come in with pacifiers and a fresh set of diapers. They’ve done previously little to act convincingly like a government in waiting. “Miss, Everard just threw more mud at me!” I’m surprised our local cartoonists don’t depict them all in short pants. Betraying my years in England, they remind me of dark versions of The Bash Street Kids. 

What Jamaica’s oppoditionp party us like?
 
Officially, growth remains anaemic and with that people’s incomes and job prospects have shown little improvement, if any. Some government ministers have been doing cabaret turns as they sing and dance about the next great hope, the logistics hub. But, if ever there was a deflated balloon at a kid’s party, that was it. The recent farce over Krauck and Anchor says so much about how wrongheaded government has been in Jamaica: servings of vague promises, topped by flaky proposals, and drizzled with wisp of unfulfilled actions.

Prices are reported to be declining but many don’t see or feel this: utility and transport costs have risen for most people, and these largely unavoidable costs colour most perceptions. Food prices, too, are higher for most people. Drought over much of the past 24 months have hit local agricultural output. Exchange rate depreciation has pinched many pockets with its impact on the prices of imported goods. 

Economic indicators like net international reserves and the debt ratios are the stuff of yawns and shuffling to the fridge to pull another beer. So, crowing about their improvements is like telling people covered in bites and still aching from Chik-v symptoms that the mosquitoes seem to be biting less. “Oh, really?”

I’m struck by what seems like a self-evident truth about Jamaica. The population does not expect governments to deliver much by way of policies that will deliver economic improvements and meaningful social changes. These may happen, but often despite government policy rumblings. 

Administration missteps are part of the constant drudge of life. Poor public infrastructure burdened by inept actions to address evident weaknesses is more the norm. Our brightest and best are not leading the country politically. Rather, a sorry band of misfits spend months going little that could equate to advancing the public good.

What then is the political bargain that has been struck between elected political representatives and voters, given the low expectations? For many, there is no bargain: they took their chips and are not playing at the table of ‘vote for a numbskull’. That group contains s lot of the country’s better educated people. For others, the bargain is about ‘our turn to raid the larder’. That largely means dribbles of political favours flowing to selected communities. In the absence of a vibrant economy, you’ve few ways of getting gains-unless you indulge in crime. 

So, who’s buying new clothes to go to the next electoral dance? Fewer and fewer, we know, and dim and dumber, we know, too. And, if the true bargain is with the mass of undereducated and unemployable, what drive does that put behind and set of policy proposals? 

Jamaica meet Vancouver 

Some simple comparisons and contrasts.

Both are suffering severe drought. Vancouver makes public awareness of the problem a high priority. Water lock offs was the first news item we saw on national TV, plus some public shaming of those who seem to be ignoring restrictions on watering lawns. One town, we passed flagged that its medians and verges are watered by well water. Electronic notice boards flash that fire hazard risks are ‘extreme’: outdoor fires are banned.

Jamaicans have green and yellow in their national colours. Now, yellow dominates as most of the eastern and southern sides of the island are dry. Green is dominant in our northwest. That’s where Canada is turning more yellow.  

Bear Mountain golf course watered by manmade lakes and springs

 
Canada is in its second season, ‘construction’. Roads are being repaired from coast to coast. Vancouver Island is part of the country’s vacationland. Roads are busy and travelers try to move freely. But, besides roadworks, I’ve yet to meet a bad stretch of road. Potholes are part of Jamaican life. That’s how we do it? Enough already!  

North America still holds onto wood framed housing, we’ve fallen in love with concrete and breeze blocks. I’m no architect, but wonder why man-made beats natural in house building. We talk about sustainable development. 

Talk is cheap. I’m near a mountainside residential development entitled with ‘ecoasis’, seeming to blend nature with man’s needs on a grand scale. What have we tried to do that’s similar?
Canada has cheaper energy, say 8-16 cents a kilowatt hour; we have about 40 cents. If we think we can grow fast with that millstone, let me help tie that rock to your ankle and push you off the cliff of common sense. It’s access to oil, but also hydro power and signs that even with limited sunlight, wider use of solar.

Just food for thought.

Canada Dry

I’m now truly a victim of my own circumstances. Having ventured into writing for my own pleasure, I thought about honing the skill. I’m taking a course in non-fiction writing with the University of Iowa, online. Just my luck, though, that life goes its own way: I’ve missed every class so far, as my usually flat Sundays have become the ‘go to’ day, with travel, funeral and family visits taking the space. So, I’ve been in catch up mode. But, I’m traveling again. Will I tell my wife that we can’t move for two hours tomorrow because my class is due to start as we may need to get into a car? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’m honing my observation skills: it’s one of my assignments but one I love to do anyway.

The confines of an airplane are a great laboratory. Fill that plane with Jamaicans headed to Canada and it’s funner–as kids say.

The lady with the shaved head sides and back, with the bleached blonde straightened top knot just had to sit in my row, although directly next to someone else.

“That’s my seat…I have 12c,” she announced herself. The man looked up, puzzled. He looked at the markers and tried to decipher the image. He moved. “Thanks. Dem have dem lists and you muss sit in you right seat for take off. We can change later,” ‘Blondie’ said, to reassure. 

She started to tell the man about her family in ‘Meeseesaegah’, as she tried to switch up her expressions from raw Patois to something easier for Canadians to understand. She explained how her son’s car was a problem because “him have him pickney dem seat inna it”. I visualized her and her luggage squeezed in amidst the seats. 

Soon after take off, she pulled on her jacket to cover her head and catch some sleep. So much for changing seats.

Our flight had been delayed two hours and we were now due into Toronto close to midnight. 

I don’t go to Canada often, but have fond memories. It’s been much in my news these past months because it’s hosted tons of major sports events this summer. I was looking forward to the trip largely because a spell away from Jamaica’s searing heat was a blessing. I had to laugh as I watched the TV monitor and a news report about water lock off in Vancouver, where we should be headed in a few days. From frying pan to fire, it seems.  

But, that reality of a harsh summer would wait. Meantime I could just enjoy the modernity of the airport. I saw iPad City in the waiting areas.

Pearson Airport Totonto
But, I also had to endure a long wait for luggage. Was Jamaican drug issues bogging things down…again?

After an hour, we got our bags and found a taxi driven by a quiet Sikh gentleman. “Look! Golf Warehouse, Daddy!” my daughter yelled. My eyes were just closing. Golf could wait.

We got to enjoy empty city streets and wondered if the trams still ran. 

Rogers Cup tennis was due to start the next day: my wife could get an early dose of Serena without having to wait for the U.S. Open in New York, next month. 

She marveled at how the city had exploded since she had been at university here. I saw lots of glass.  

Totonto skyline
  The morning brought me close to home and took me far away in one sight: Scotiabank’s logo was right in front on me, looming as a spectacular skyscraper. 

An old school friend, who lives in Canada, sent me an early morning message hoping I looked forward to being on another island. He’s very witty and lives in the wilds of western Canada. 

I need to check the temperature outside. I smiled as I recalled my wife asking the cab driver to turn up the heat in the taxi, last night. Oh, Canada! What shall we make of your summer? 

Happy birthday, to me! But, let’s all celebrate Jamaica’s Independence

Fifty four years ago, in September, my parents decided to leave Jamaica, and try their luck with work in England. The following August, Jamaica gained its independence from Great Britain. Did we make such an impact on the minds of the British that they wanted to let us go on with our national lives ourselves? I think not, but it’s a fun thought. Two years ago, I had to come back to Jamaica, because my wife took a job here. That’s one of life’s ironic merrygorounds–and I have been on many. But, that circle isn’t my focus, today.

Martha Brae

Today, we are into the anniversary of that Independence.

Quite by coincidence, my in-laws are in the process of leaving to return to their Bahamian homes, after a week in Jamaica. For some of them, this was their first visit to this island; for others, it was an n-th trip. None had ever had an extensive tour of the island, especially its rural areas. So, I was glad to try to let them have that experiences, running the risk that they would find the journeys long and challenging. In the end, we touched all bar 2 of the 14 parishes, and saw much water that was not sea. We sampled mountains from on high and from the ground, and travelled the roads enjoying the lush vegetation that is all over the island, including Bamboo Avenue and Fern Gully, but also the rich bamboo clumps of the Blue Mountains.

Nassau is flat, and much less well adorned with vegetation and natural water, and is more like a drive through downtown and New Kingston, offering little by way of dense vegetation or changes in elevation.

Dunn’s River Falls graced by Bahamians

This morning, I took the first wave of departing visitors to the airport, at 4am. Oh, what a wonderful time of day that is! I’m a morning person, so getting up at 3.30 didn’t really bother me. I love dawn.

We left calmly and I decided at the last minute to drive via New Kingston, though I’d had in mind the route through Mountain View. My wife has that route on her ‘barred’ list, but I always love to go the simpler, straighter route. But, off we went towards Devon House. I had to laugh as we approached a police road block, and were asked to stop. “Everything all right?” asked the officer. I said we had no problems, and off we went.

Not surprisingly, we saw a good flow of cars to get those early morning flights to the USA. My wife’s brother, who’d spent most time in the past going off the beaten track in Jamaica, commented how nice it was to see the city at this time, with its lights marking its contours in ways that were more notable than during daytime. It was also good to see the contours from sea level, as opposed to on high, which we’d done at the weekend, during a drive to the Blue Mountains.

Blue Mountains view can challenge Bahamians

The family had sampled well: jerk food from Scotchies, fried fish and bammy from Whitehouse/Border, patties, ice cream from Devon House, Bridget’s sandals, Red Stripe in light and original form, ‘Grand Market’ on Hope Road, a trip to UWI, the vistas of the north coast seen from White Witch Golf Course,

Will the spirit of Annie Palmer create or crush that of Arnold Palmer at White Witch?

the thrills and spills of Dunn’s River Falls, and more.

Montego Bay, competing with Nassau beaches

That they should leave on our Independence Day is fitting. I’m never ashamed of what Jamaica has to offer: we are not a perfect country, by any stretch of the imagination. But, we are unique. (I’m almost tempted to use that awful ‘very unique’.) The past few days have seen a string of ideas under the theme #OnlyJamaicans, and they pointed out some of the things that we love and loathe, but make us what we are. I added that ‘OnlyJamaicans leave a pile of mangoes for you to enjoy on your trip away for a few days’, after we’d come home to find about 25 Hadens on a table, left by our gardener. The speed with which they were dived into could only be understood if watched in slow motion. Nom, nom!

But, that epitomized something important. What we have to offer is often cherished by others who don’t live here, with a relish that we can hardly understand.image

When we have to deal with explaining the problems that we have created, such as our crime and our faltering economy, we often look to make excuses. But, I think we can go further if we accept what we are, and work to correct that, knowing full well that those who don’t want change for the better are at least as strong as those who want to see things get better. As I’ve said, when one looks in the mirror, it’s easier to deal with the reflection if it is ourselves than if it is someone else.image

We can only change ourselves.

Senior’s Residence

A nice cameo view, that should warm CCRP members’ hearts

Jamaican Journal

Yesterday I visited a friend in a senior’s residence. It was exactly as you might imagine. Quiet except for the chatter of the staff and soft music flowing from somewhere. Several elderly people were slumped over and dozing off in armchairs. One man was guarding the entrance, a resident I presume. He would unbolt the door whenever anyone came through. He had a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his pocket to cool off his skin, he said.

The backyard was large and beautiful, with several mango and ackee trees. Clothing fluttered on a line and these chairs were lined up, waiting for people to enjoy the breeze, I assume. It was not as bad as I would have imagined, this place where people go to expire.

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All in the family

My in-laws are visiting Jamaica; that meant 15 people arriving in the airport in Kingston dressed in matching blue T-shirts with the family name on the sleeve and a large T on the front. While some politicians in Europe worry about ‘swarms’ of illegal immigrants breaching their borders, Jamaica puts on a friendly smile for this band of cousins coming from Nassau. 

My wife’s family, in all its forms, is very tight. That means when they move it’s like a big ship, not a dingy, and that’s a slow manoeuvre. 

That side I’ve known for years. What this reunion is unveiling is something unexpected. I’m always fascinated how people can live together for years and still have common habits that are unknown.

“I can’t buy three oranges!” said one sister, “They have to be even numbers, so I buy two packs of three.” I already know one sister well who cannot eat an orange unless it’s cut into four segments. “How else would you eat it?” I also know that grapefruit can only be eaten baked in the oven and sprinkled with sugar. Wow! ACDC central! But, I shouldn’t be shocked. I know a woman well who cannot abode buttons that have come off clothes.  That’s called Koumpounophobia.image

But, these things are part of getting to know each other better.

Cozying up is rarely smooth sailing. If I were a psychological expert I’d make the study of family dynamics my field.

One thing I note, coming from the special position of an only child, is how pecking order and roles shift, sometimes subtly and without contention. My in-laws have some great skills that are not all too obvious. One sister is a figures whiz and became an accountant and is ‘Miss Finance’. Another is the ‘Bargain Queen’, which is figurework to another degree: eight rolls of kitchen paper (1000 sheets) at $4.35 a roll is better than 6 rolls (850 sheets) at $4.15 a roll? Go! I love it when they go shopping. The myths whiz hates grocery shopping so the bargainer wins out, whatever. Then, there’s ‘The Manager’: I’ll be honest, I got scared when I heard about a spreadsheet of activities and even more afraid when I got it in an email attachment. No sooner had I read that I could play golf on Tuesday than a ‘revision’ arrived. That’s it! I wasn’t opening it: Tuesday works fine. 

But, woe betide you if you think you can ingenue what’ll be for dinner. While all of them have great palates, some have greater skills in buying, preparation, cooking, serving, table layout. If a robot were built with the combined skills I think it may have its arms spinning around in many directions as befits the varied preferences of more salt…less salt…Kosher salt..sea salt…garlic salt. Ok, we’ve got salt sorted out? Now, pepper: white pepper…black pepper…goat pepper…pepper flakes…seeds out…seeds in…pods broken…pod cut. Pepper done? His many other ingredients? Anyway, which recipe are we using? Mummy’s. Grandma’s? Aunt May’s? Delia Smith? Martha Stewart? “I’m vegan!” “Only organic!” “I see MSG…” Good time to call those nice people at Island Grill 😇

All of this is meant to be read in good humour. Holidays are meant to be fun and relaxing, but as we discover each Christmas or Thsnksgiving, thin veils of irritation often get exposed. So, I keep watching and listening. I say to my younger daughter to avoid being surprised by the obvious. If all of this is getting too much, then do the smart thing and find a quiet room. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the ride. 

I’ll pause at lunch time. Many went out early for sport activity. My wife and a brother-in-law went to play tennis. Her brother didn’t make it because he’d disappeared from his villa! Unknown to us, the AC had broken down and the Jamaican heat was just too much, so he and his wife had been rehoused in a part of the main hotel. I’d gone out with friend for some early morning golf. We got back when some had taken a quick dip in the pool after breakfast. But, lIke a holiday version of Goldilocks, people get accused of all sorts of domestic sins: “Someone with a wet bottom has been sitting here!” Your imagination can take you where it will how that observation went down.