Biting the hands that feed us: Jamaica still has to face its constant predicament

Farewell, Rio! We loved most of what you gave us. Jamaicans are mostly proud and elated that our athletes did so well, and gave the world images and memories that we are more than ready to share. Our Ambassador, Usain Bolt, carried our image high and wide and handsomely ‘to the world’. Every athlete, winner or not, deserves fulsome praise. Their dedication and sacrifices are things which most can barely imagine. Those who are young and just starting on their international journey have older and wiser and more-decorated heads and shoulders on which to stand, and from whom they can learn much. Sadly, whatever is in our DNA does not get transferred between us automatically, but has to moulded and nurtured.

Therein lies a problem that was evident before, during, and sadly remains after the Olympics festivities. Our country does not all see the same thing.

While many, both home and abroad, were fretting and hoping and praying for victories, or doing those things and wanting to avoid disasters, we had some, both home and abroad, who were just hoping for another chance to create havoc. While a few were looking to bring back a little pride and glory, some were looking to take away the few precious moments or things that others have. At it worst, those precious things and moments are lives.

Some of us, in moments of idealism, wish that during times like the Olympics, the negatives of life would just go on holiday, and let us all live in peace. But, bad things, like bad Karma, seem to just lie in wait, and strike at moments of maximum weakness. But, reality bites, and it bites the hands it shouldn’t at the most inopportune moments.

Over the years, I’ve wondered at the racial politics of the USA and blinked as I saw black people destroy their own neighbourhoods as their anger and frustration reached breaking point. Their anger and frustration had just cause, but was that the way to express it? Taking away the livelihoods of their neighbours and making their area poorer than it was already?

Some Jamaicans seem to do something similar. While many could not wait to get back to their armchairs, bars, verandahs, or wherever, to see the latest attempts at something great, we had reports of people shooting and burning in their neighbourhoods. Clearly, their anger and frustration were not things that could be changed or curbed by the distant image of compatriots running, jumping, diving, and swimming. They were not happy enough with that, and content to sit back and watch. They had to take destructive action against their own people. I’m not psychiatrist, but you cannot convince me that that is not a manifest sickness. But, why is it plaguing the body national?

In a simple and graphic way, a cartoon in one of today’s papers portrays a bitter reality.

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Metaphor of Jamaicans’ current economic struggles (Courtesy, Jamaica Observer)
The currency has been ‘battered’ for years, but its recent decline has many feeling more pain than ever before. It’s easy to accuse the IMF for laying that beating on this important symbol of national well-being. However, financial realities are that Jamaicans lived beyond their means for too long, and the cost of that has to be borne in one or several ways. One of them is currency depreciation; another is unemployment (now nearly 14 percent); another is a crippling debt burden, made harder to bear because the ‘investment’ of the funds was never good; another is a dripping decline in the amount and quality of public services. Each of these could take a week of explanation and discussion.

Another image that perhaps shows the problem well is one of the now iconic ones of Usain Bolt winning. In now customary fashion, he’s run his race, and reached his goal, but those in the event with him are struggling to make it. That can stand as a metaphor for many Jamaicans.

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Those in Bolt’s wake have worked at least as hard as him, but cannot match his success
Many have worked as hard as he did, but seem to get little for their efforts. For their efforts, they are forgotten, and the present and history has little or no place for them. Notions like that help go a little way towards understanding what some must feel.

Headlines like ‘One dead as West Kingston again erupts into violence‘ tell of a constant horror that is unchanged by what some of us take for a time of bliss. Messages from government agencies like the one below, tell us that some people’s lives are unmoved by advice or instruction, but compelled by something that has ‘death and destruction’ written all over it.Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 8.12.05 AM.png Seemingly wanton self-destruction goes on daily on our roads. Hit and run attacks, whether against police or other citizens, tell a story of cowardice and vindictiveness.

I guarantee that we will have a few days of somber reflection about how Jamaica and Jamaicans and those who have Jamaican lineage can do so many amazing things, like Dr. Michael Abrahams did today, with his ‘Jamaica…boom!‘ article. But, we will be hard pressed to touch the bitterness that some have in their hearts that transcend those amazing things.

We got a hint of that during the Games, when the amazing feat of Omar McLeod in winning the 110 metres hurdles, and the many unique features of that was not enough for someone to hold back their hatred of what they thought he might represent, as possibly a gay person. The company for whom the offensive man worked had to spend its valuable time apologising and trying to control the damage that was raging like a wild fire. In a similar incident with a British athlete, Tom Daley, a few days later, the author J.K. Rowling jumped to defend the athlete, on Twitter:Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 8.19.47 AM.png

When people are driven by hate, or stupidity, or spite, there are only a few ways to deal with it. Being silent isn’t one of them. We see, with social media, that people’s voice can be heard (for good and bad) quickly and loud, whoever, they are.

But, that national reflection will bring with it things that, though not meant to divide, may and will. If your town has been without water, electricity, flush latrines in schools, are you going to feel blessed with a new statue or a new name on the stadium?

Naturally, a nation will feel the need to honour those of its people who have brought honour. Already, ideas are swirling about how to do that. I can’t stop those thoughts, but I can imagine how some will feel if and when a new statue or a new museum or something else is created, and yet they still seem to have little or nothing. The world isn’t level, and those who feel or sense unevenness will usually react.

One of Jamaica’s major problems is to make those who have been and continue to be disconnected, feel and be connected. We can’t ship people off to Australia, like the British did once upon a time. We can’t create enclaves within the country where those who are not positive about the country can live with their negativity and not affect the rest of us, as some countries used to do with lepers or those whom society felt were unworthy.

These are angry people, who want something, and get upset for not getting it. These are people who see little value in their own lives (why else do you hurtle along at speed on a motorcycle without protection?). These are people who may represent other things that many others do not feel are part of their lives: how many of us are gangsters or scam artists?

Poverty and lack of resources, oddly, are the root of some of our current success. Bolt now lives in the tony Kingston/St. Andrew neighbourhood of Norbrook, but comes from the poor area of Sherwood Content, Trelawny; some call that place ‘primitive’. It’s part of a rags to riches story. Similarly, with Elaine Thompson, from the village of Banana Ground, Manchester. Same with Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, from the tough urban neighbourhood of Waterhouse. And so on.

Are we what we are on the track because of what we have to endure off it? PhD theses candidates can start exploring that, along with what is in our DNA (and that of the Caribbean and USA). Why is it, though, that poor areas in west Africa (supposedly where our roots are from, mainly) have not produced similar outcomes?

Struggle has long been seen as part of the road to glory. Football/soccer and basketball, for example, have understood and told this narrative in many countries many times.

But, we cannot fix the world. We have to fix ourselves.

Bolt did not come from a broken family and broken neighbourhood. He and many of our sports personalities found solid mentoring early and stuck with it. They might not have had much support from government, but people were important in carrying them along hard roads. That is a narrative that many Jamaicans understand.

But, beyond beginnings, we know that good opportunities must exist or be created to move people along. But, making that into reality is the challenge for us, for it to not just be about ‘the one’, but ‘the many’. That’s the true essence of our national motto–making the many feel as one. What happened for Abigail Cameron to rise from humble inner city life to getting a full US$250,ooo scholarship to Dartmouth University?

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Abigail, one who should be among many
We are proud of our athletes, and we need that pride to spread further and wider. It’s a big deal to achieve, and we need to understand how and when to do that, not just for those who mount podiums or stand at the top of classes, but for everyone who puts out maximum effort.

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KFC’s ‘Jamaica is a Big Deal’ advert could stand as a theme and metaphor well beyond the Olympics

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So true it’s funny (Courtesy, Jamaica Gleaner)
Our quick condemnation and readiness to speak of ‘failure’ when people do anything but place first is not a matter of which we should be proud.