You, the people of Jamaica, what kind of country do most of you want?

I would be delighted to wake up and go out and see a transformed country. It does not have to be like Switzerland, or Washington DC, or Paris, or London, or Casablanca, or Lagos, or Singapore. But, it should be somewhere that I can look at proudly and say “That’s my homeland.” My standards may be high, but I’d like to think that the best of all I’ve seen in other countries could be right here on my doorstep. I have had the great misfortune of having been forced to travel to lots of countries to deal with the economic problems that countries fall into on a regular basis. I’ve also travelled for my own pleasures.

My standards may be high, but I’d like to think that the best of all I’ve seen in other countries could be right here on my doorstep. I have had the great misfortune of having been forced to travel to lots of countries to deal with the economic problems that countries fall into on a regular basis. I’ve also travelled for my own pleasures. I’ve seen countries drag themselves out of dire situations and make amazing progress in 10 years, and here we are, 50 plus years after Independence, still bumbling along. It won’t do!

I’d love to walk in open areas that were litter-free, with places to sit and flowers, shrubs and trees to look at and enjoy. Yes, I have parts of Hope Gardens or Devon House or Emancipation Park, but they fit the bill as rarities.

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Devon House, reminder of what one man’s effort led to and something many wished they could emulate

 

My streets in the capital should not need the visit of a foreign dignitary to signal the time to clean, and repair, and make good. That’s a blasted insult!

I’d love service that came with a smile and courtesy, not a snarl and rudeness as if I needed to feel sorry that I had a problem with the goods I’d bought or the service for which I’d paid. Why won’t you look me in the eyes when I explain, for the nth time why I am dissatisfied with what you have given me? Why do you think saying “Management told me to…” is any kind of answer to my question? Why is the height of your aspiration shoddiness? Why?

I’d love to see taxis that are driven by people who prided themselves on providing a clean, orderly, safe service for their riders. I’d love for other private providers of public transport to do the same. Why should the trips be like a visit to a night club, or a mad-dash roller-coaster ride? Why should I fear that the vehicle will end up as a mangled mess of metal? Why should I feel that the drivers don’t understand how they endanger lives with their recklessness? Why?

I’d love to see public buses moving with care and less speed, not careening along the roads like they are in Grand Prix races, articulating and weaving like giant caterpillars out of control. Why are all those people crushed into the buses, their bodies pressed together? One accident, many deaths waiting for the inevitable sorries and another stern warning? Why?

I’d love our culinary delights to be so well-known that they tripped off the tongue as readily as those from places most people don’t know. My mackerel rundown should be jockeying for attention with moules marinières; my jerk chicken should rise as high as jambalaya. Who calls escargots or hamburgers ‘ethnic food’? We say “no one is better than us”, yet we let our culture take second place, at best, and to what? I know the world has much to offer, but why are we content to offer the world so little, even when it’s oozing out of our veins? I was almost driven to tears when I read articles the other day asking if we had under used Usain Bolt’s legacy. Yes, we did and do!

When I visit a tourist ‘sight’ it should be a memorable event for its setting and service and the pleasure of the experience. I don’t want to remember the haggling with vendors, or the stench of the toilets (if there are any), or the awful road that I had to pass to get there. Why is the relic of our slave past hidden and disregarded? If we feel pain, let people see why and explain? If we feel shame, let us look closely and try to understand why that is. Why should I drive along our north coast seeing overgrown relics of sugar mills, as if they were nothing at all? My ancestors are enshrined there.

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Ashamed to embrace our past?

 

Our lives shouldn’t be a list of complaints, with the constant rider “That’s how it is.” If that’s how it is, it’s how we’ve let it become.

We shouldn’t read ridiculous-sounding reports of suspects handing themselves in to the police, but then escaping in handcuffs and leaving ‘breathless’ police officers in their wake. We should never read the next day (as I do, while writing this) that the suspect was found dead. We should never read of people dying in police lock-up. Never!

I shouldn’t have to shudder as I open a newspaper and read about another barbaric act of human destruction of other another human’s life. The mounting toll on those left behind to grieve! The waste of potential! The senselessness that is so often at the root.

When I was growing up in England, it was common to see people venting their anger. Often, it was by kicking a machine for not giving the goods paid for; it was almost a national sport, like football. We vent our frustrations by killing. Where did we learn that?

Our lives should not be marked by the landmarks of unfulfilled promises made by politicians to get our votes or to keep us docile. People should not have to live for decades without water, or a road safe to travel, or send their children to schools with only put latrines. That shouldn’t be where we are now. When we were slaves and readily abused by our masters, maybe that was life, but not in the time that we have been our own masters.

But, all of these things are so woven into the fabric of our national life that many have no idea that it can be any other way. In the same manner that Michael Lee-Chin explained that generations of Jamaicans only know of a low-growing, struggling economic landscape, with few job opportunities, if you don’t want to be a vendor or a taxi driver, many Jamaicans don’t know of a life without carnage and wasted blood on a daily basis. Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 6.13.14 AMTalk about Paradise Lost!

Much as I love Jamaica and believe that the vast majority of Jamaicans don’t want the life we now have as our daily existence, I’m at a loss to really understand why it’s become this way.

I have to look back to a place where I lived and work to get some understanding. When I was the IMF Resident Representative in Guinea, I saw much the same situation, minus the senseless violence. A country spoiled for natural riches. Its mineral deposits were immense: bauxite, gold, diamonds, iron. But, it was clear that Guinea did not manage to make any of that count for the benefit of most people. A country blessed with the source of some of Africa’s major rivers. Yet…

The country had some of the most stunning landscape you’d wish to see, but it had an airport that saw barely one flight a day. No one really wanted to go there.

The country had malaria (mosquitoes thrived in the natural heat and dampness), poor electricity supplies, poor water supplies, poor health facilities, and disjointed political arrangements, which meant that no sooner had the PM seemed to get into a good relationship with the IMF than the President would remove him and bring in a replacement. Similar fates often befell the finance minister or the central bank governor or the minister of mining. In fact, almost any post that had a handle on the main flows of money was a slippery slope. Yet, the population lived in a state of tolerance of all this in a way that was hard to fathom. I was almost as if they yearned to be no better. I was used to seeing minivans filled to bursting with people commuting to and from the capital, in sweltering heat or pouring rain during the long summer wet season, on journeys that often last two or more hours. Brutal! Yet, crime was hardly a problem. Amazing! Crime existed, but it was often pathetic, such as when someone stole the plastic chairs from outside my house. It had to be an ‘inside’ job. My house had a 24-hour security detail at the front; the rear faced the Atlantic Ocean, with a steep rocky wall leading up from the water. The thief was caught quickly and fired from the security company. Plastic chairs were money: social events in most areas were outdoor events and supplying chairs was good business.

I was used to seeing minivans filled to bursting with people commuting to and from the capital, in sweltering heat or pouring rain during the long summer wet season, on journeys that often lasted two or more hours. Brutal! Yet, crime was hardly a problem. Amazing! Crime existed, but it was often pathetic, such as when someone stole the plastic chairs from outside my house. It had to be an ‘inside’ job. My house had a 24-hour security detail at the front; the rear faced the Atlantic Ocean, with a steep rocky wall leading up from the water. The thief was caught quickly and fired from the security company. Plastic chairs were money: social events in most areas were outdoor events and supplying chairs was good business.

The country had some of the most stunning landscape and its rivers were the source of major waterways in Africa, yet none of that nature could be harnessed to the benefit of most people.  Yet, poverty was so widespread. The country had been the breadbasket of west Africa several decades before, but now it depended on imported rice. Fresh fruit and vegetables were plentiful all year round and I’ve never eaten pineapples do sweet. What a place to raise a child!

Yet, my youngest child is the way she is because she grew up free from fear, even if much around her was pure poverty. We were amongst the lucky ones. But, my friends who are Guineans say they are lucky, too. Must she now adjust to a world that seems ready to threaten her simply because she’s a girl? Many men think of women as property and prizes that are theirs for the taking? I can’t let that happen. No!

The national path had been set for Guinea when it decided to become independent from France, and its first president, Ahmed Sekou Touré said “We prefer poverty in liberty than riches in slavery.” So, it was!  They chose that path, and most people for most years took it.

Our national motto of ‘Out of many, one people’ can’t mean much to those who seek to dwindle our many with the chop of a machete or the trigger of a gun. It can’t matter much to those who seek to keep money for themselves and not pay for the things they owe: run off and make your money and then don’t pay your taxes. Make us all the poorer, while you sit in splendour. I’m not surprised most young Jamaicans want to leave, to go anywhere. What do they feel they are being offered? We make groaning noises about caring about children but it’s hard to find a country that abuses children so much and in so many ways.

Jamaica, did it choose a path, or has it stumbled into the brambles and now finds itself pricked every day, every way? Lost in a maze that we’ve built and to which we keep adding?

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