Doing the dirty deed: a Jamaican confessional

My wife’s coming to terms with the fact that I’m not the man she thought she’d married; this often happens in relationships. She had an inkling when we came to live in Jamaica, but now she’s confronting me with the facts….Do I need a moment to call Shaggy?Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 8.33.52 AM.png

The simple truth is that Jamaica hasn’t had decades of systematic recording of births. Part of the problem comes from not having universal bedside registration of births.

With the advent of the computer and the Internet, many details of births and deaths are easier to record, verify, search, and share. (While writing this, I was able to see details of one of my deceased grandparent’s life records online, and that source, running from 1880-1999, is rich.) That doesn’t mean, however, that such things occur automatically or instantaneously. Records have to be created, and that is done by humans, not by something transmitted by the body in question. Mistakes happen, even without macabre ‘baby-switching’ stories.

Our history, through slavery and Colonialism, has left us with a hotchpotch of records that are slowly getting into a kind of order. But, as many understand, we have a stock and flow problem. With the best will in the world, all new births get recorded quickly and correctly. Let’s assume no errors in the first records and no mistakes as records are recreated elsewhere. Let’s also assume that simple, but tragic mistakes do not happen at the outset, such as assigning names to wrong people. (Such things happen, and more advanced places, like the United Kingdom, have created ways to deal with that. Life there has changed a lot and things like needing to consider changes in gender are amongst their problems.) So, going forward, we have nice, clean, and accurate records. The flow part is set correctly. However…

We still have a stock of mistakes. Through no fault of their own, people get mistaken identities. In places like Jamaica, where literacy skills have been weak, this happened more than we like to know. So, we have many people whose names were never checked for spelling, and people did not think that this mattered much because ‘Biscuit’ is hard to spell and ‘Biskit’ sounds the same. But, that’s not bad if ‘Biskit’ lives with that spelling all of his/her life. If when that person goes somewhere and tells another person the name, and then creates a record that has ‘Biscuit’, then problems start to grow. In part, that’s my problem, but more on that, later.

Jamaica is littered with people whose names are wrong or maybe never recorded, formally. It’s also littered with people whose basic birth details, like dates, are wrong. No bedside registration. Auntie or Grandma goes to register the new-born. She has more than one child to register. She confuses the children, and registers them with the wrong birth dates, maybe even confusing the names. Problems created. My father is one such child, and we celebrated his birthday, happily in April, most of his life. Then–and I cannot recall why–he told us his birthday was in March. What?! He and his ‘cousin’ were registered with each other’s birthday. Happiness! (There’s another story about the ‘cousin’, but we leave that out there… Woe is me? :))

Because our laws never demanded the name of the father on a child’s birth certificate, and because having children out-of-wedlock has been the norm for decades, we also have a stream of children whose clear lineage is only through their mothers. That’s no real problem, except that we got stuck with Colonial conventions and practices regarding relationships, and with that of naming women and children.

Get married? Woman takes on surname of husband. Yes, we know it’s about property, but it’s the creator of many a problem. Most women didn’t seem to object moving from ‘Miss Franken’ to ‘Mrs Stein’. Children come along? Easy! Give them the surname of the father. His ‘lineage’ is preserved; the mother’s is erased. Come along modern-woman, now. She wants to preserve her life-long identity as herself. Imagine! She marries, but wants to keep her maiden name (quaint term) and carry, also, her husband’s name. Along comes the stream of double-barreled named women. So, our previous heroine can become Mrs. Franken-Stein. (Now, for obvious reasons, she may not like how that sounds, but let’s leave her with that dilemma.)

Again, children are created in this relationship, and they carry the name of…? Well, it depends. No fixed rules. They may all become ‘Baby Frankensteins’.

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 8.03.33 AM.png
All babies are cute, right?
Or, the parents may decide that Mummy has ‘done her thing’ and sanity is needed, so they agree to call the children ‘Baby Steins’. No real problem, till they have to go to school and register for class. Most people are conservative, and adopt things slowly. So, this Mr. Stein, Mrs. Franken-Stein, Baby Stein thing can throw some. But, let’s move on. Of course, modern woman could have hung on to her maiden name, then have the children adopt that, or the father’s name. I even know some couples, who did both, for different children. Where are they now? Hard to trace. But, humorous complications aside, you see what simple conventions can lead to.

Life can throw many curve balls at children, and the parents aren’t around to clear up the mess.

That’s where I come in, again. I have birth documents that show my name as ‘Denis’. But, all my life my parents spelt my name ‘Dennis’. Skipping along merrily, I was. I moved from Jamaica to England, and carried ‘Dennis’. I got passports from Jamaica and the UK, carrying ‘Dennis’. I got paid, married, earned pension rights, etc. the same way. I moved to the USA, and took on a new job, the same way. I needed a new Jamaican passport. Oh…my…goodness! The body-known-as-RGD tells me I am not me! Cut the story short. Despite one Jamaican government agency having accepted me as ‘Dennis’ and issuing me documents, the head-honcho in matters says ‘It cannot continue, thus!’ I get a nice computer-generated document called a birth certificate (the yellowing paper I had always thought was the certificate was merely the ‘registration paper’), in multiples, and it said ‘Denis’. I kicked and screamed, and as you know, that made no difference. So, new Jamaican passport comes for ‘Denis’. Life goes on, though, as ‘Dennis’. Fast forward.

I return to Jamaica. My registration with Foreign Affairs is done based on my wife being a diplomat and I am also an ‘expatriate’ in their eyes. Bring out the UK passport, and hello ‘Dennis’. But, I need those other life essentials in Jamaica, like a TRN, and that requires a Jamaican document, and hello ‘Denis’. Dont I know you? So, now, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are sitting in the room together, looking at each other, struggling for control. Everything I try to do in Jamaica, now, is driven by my TRN, and ‘Denis’ is getting the upper hand: driver’s licence, bank accounts, company registration, electoral registration… I was holding up, though. I should have taken to drink.

But, matters come to a head!

My dear wife goes to a conference in Montego Bay this summer with the nice people at RGD and the topic is ‘Caribbean Civil Registration and Identity Management‘. Our government is developing a National Identification System (NIDS), which is on track for full implementation by 2020. ‘NIDS will allow for the identification of Jamaicans and people ordinarily resident in the country, and will provide a comprehensive and secure structure to collect and store personal identity information’. All of this is wonderful and sensible, and helps deal with the many forms of identity fraud that Jamaicans (and others) love to play, at home and abroad. (Did I hear you mention overstaying in the USA?). I can’t wait for this and the removal of dead people from the voters’ lists.

But, now my wife is exercised and I have to do the deed. Not talking about Don Anderson and his polls. I have to get my name sorted out by deed poll. The process seems simple, and I am told it is quick and painless, once I have a JP sign a few pictures. But, I’ve been fooled by such assurances in the past. image1.JPG I see a few trips are needed to get more JP signatures and pay stamp duty.

RGD have not endeared itself to me, as I sent them an email weeks ago, making a basic query and have yet to get a reply. Will I find the office covered in cobwebs and bats flying around the parapets, when I get there?Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 8.57.24 AM.png ‘Anybody home?’

Anyway, such things have to be done by many people, and even the famous know that. Good thing my name isn’t Michael Caine.

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. :)