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I’m a firm believer that one of the reasons why Jamaica is ‘stuck’ is because of our inability to adjust properly to a recent massive loss of human talent. Mass emigration, to the UK and North America, from the late 1950s, robbed us of people and their abilities. But, in that process, we also lost much of the fibre that binds a society together well: the continuity that is created through the exchange of messages between generations. We did not suffer from the skewed process of human casualty in war, by losing many productive men; we lost both men and women in their productive years.

Humans are not like many other animals, who can embed messages in their genes and pass them on naturally. We have to demonstrate and repeat messages to each other, through oral communication and from physical examples. In a simplified sense, we lost not only several generations of people, but the social links that they provided. I could characterise that by asking ‘What did it mean to have ‘barrel children’, raised by relatives and friends rather than parents?’

Many would say that the loss of people was compensated for by what those migrants were able to do by sending back a steady and substantial flow of remittances and goods that meant possibly allowing a better life for those who were left behind and became grateful recipients. But, I would argue that those financial and material flows, valuable though they have been and continue to be, could never be substitutes for the physical and social presence of the people who left. Think of it like the difference between a close relative coming to a birthday party as opposed to their sending a ‘regrets’ message and a gift token: the party may be great but the absence of ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’ or ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ and their words and deeds isn’t replaced by the gift token and what it can buy.

Many would also argue that, because some (a minority) of those migrants returned, the loss to the country was not total. I would agree with that, but say that, like when you miss any event or come into it late, that never puts you in the same position as if you had been present all the time. Parents understand what it is to hear of the child’s performance rather than to witness it, first hand.

Some would say that those returnees bring back valuable experience that can then be shared with those who never travelled. I would agree with that, but also add that it’s a mixed bag. We know anecdotally that may returnees have a hard time readjusting to life in Jamaica, in terms of actual living conditions, and their expectations of life in Jamaica compared with life in the developed country. That’s one reason why many people are concerned now for the few who come back to Jamaica under duress, as deportees.

I cannot generalise and say whether that adjustment is harder for someone who spent many formative years in Jamaica before leaving, living a long time abroad, and then return (like my parents), whether the time spent abroad was deemed a good or bad experience, than it is for someone who spent early childhood in Jamaica, grew up abroad (living a happy or miserable life), and then returned to Jamaica many decades later (like myself). Or whether either of those situations compares to those who were not born in Jamaica, but were born abroad, and come to Jamaica to grow up, or later in their life to work, etc. They and other possible circumstances are all different.

So, in my mind, Jamaica stands like a donut–a wonderful looking and mouth-watering thing but with a hole in its middle. No amount of playing with that cake ever gets that hole filled.

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A metaphor for a nation?

What I know is that the threads of the society cannot be as well knotted as if it had never had to deal with that massive movement of people. The impact must be dramatic for us, losing say 1 million or more out of a total that is around 2-3 million. That proportionate impact must be dramatic. It is made more dramatic by the fact that a subtantial part of the later flow has been of some 3/4 to 4/5 of our graduates. We lost productive bodies, but very damagingly also lost productive minds. 

It’s true that many groups of people have thrived over the centuries because of similar mass emigration and we can marvel at refugees who fled their homelands and made their lives into wonderful examples of human resilience. But, we can always wonder how their homelands would have been if they had not had to endure their movement, whether because that was caused by repression or war or some other natural or human calamity. We know that many of our emigrants have done, and continue to do, well abroad. But, we have to wonder how those countries that lost masses of Jewish people because of pogroms, or Somalia, that lost masses as a result of war, or Uganda, that lost many talented people because of its leader’s xenophobia, would have fared without losing a good chuck of its talent.

Jamaica has had to live with the destabilising effect of its mass migration. Like a genie that gets out of the bottle, it’s too late to put the top back on. I think that successive governments and generations of Jamaicans have never really understood or dealt with that. That may explain why we have a hard time building a nation that is more consensual than one that is divided, even if we argue that the divisions were manufactured for the political benefits of a few. Jamaica sits closer to the end of societies that are anarchistic (with lots of people who want to act independently and not follow the guidance of ‘government’) than those which are closer knit in their thinking (and tend to follow the lead of their government).

That anarchistic strain has been more detrimental for us than it has been in other societies. It’s something that is at the root of the success of many societies–it contains the energy of innovativeness. It’s been detrimental because it’s gotten its ‘satisfaction’ through delving in things that are ultimately more self-destructive, like criminal activity, than nation building, like inventing new ways of benefiting each other.

But, don’t let me run too far beyond what I can reasonably argue.

Can we fill the gap that is the middle of the donut?