Land of the free (speech), home of the brave (display)

My Spanish golf buddy and I were driving through a tony part of Maryland yesterday and talking about cultural issues migrants face in the USA. As we sat at some traffic lights, we could see the bumper the car adjacent: it had a sticker ‘Guns save lives!’ We both thought this was not the kind of thing we’d see in Spain or Jamaica. Our political cultures are not comfortable with such forms of PDAs–political displays of aggression.

Funnily, in the evening, as I was strolling with friends after dinner, I noticed another such display. 

Clearly, the USA accepted such displays as part of their freedoms, yet other democratic places are more ready to hold back. 


The varnished truth

I guess it’s a human trait: we prefer to be seen in a good, rather than a bad, light. So, when we share information, we tend to put out what makes us look or seem better, rather than what may make us look bad. Photographers see this often when trying to take pictures of people, but have to wait because the person says or acts in a way that says ‘I want to look better’. I always prefer to take candid pictures, because I long ago accepted that life and its moments are not perfect. For that reason, I often take random pictures of things surrounding life and maybe have people in shots, but often for the context they give to visual moments. Truth is fact plus context. 

If you see many of my pictures, you know that I sometimes just have shots of people’s feet.  Weird? Not really. At any given moment, feet don’t pose. Even when people strike a pose, feet do much less, and often have to be there, unassuming, holding up the body and ignored. I like that. So, in those rare moments when you see gnarly feet poking out of some roughed up sandals, and look up and see a well-groomed person, you have to make the connection between the top image and what’s lower down. My daughter and I were out walking on Sunday, and on our way back to her apartment saw a young man walking with a bunch of flowers and some bags with what could have been presents. He was wearing a dark jacket and trousers, and an open-neck shirt. He stopped and looked around, seeming a little lost, then walked on. I noticed his feet were in what seemed like those plastic shoes with toes and some bright hooped socks. Nice fashion statement, I thought. 

Catching the unguarded moments are great.

I sometimes have the pleasure of spending time with young children, before they are consummate liers. Of course, there are ‘incidents’, but I have a few Dad-like ways of resolving them, including, not resolving them 🙂 When they come running to me to retell a story, I usually stop them to let them catch a breath, because I know the story will come out, but the run to get to me (first) takes its toll. Breathing controlled, I then say “Tell me what you did first, and then what happened later.” It’s funny how many ‘Shelly pushed me!’ stories turn out to be ‘I bit Shelly and she pushed me’ stories. Later in life, the biting part may be varnished a little with ‘I was playing about, and didn’t mean to bite, but Shelly’s hand came close to my mouth as it opened and next thing I know I’d bitten her.’

My point?

I have no problem admitting that I’m a skeptic. But, I think I am also compelled to see more than one side to a story, skeptic or not. As I noted to someone yesterday, as they lamented what they saw as hypocrisy, that trait is neither a deadly sin nor a crime. It’s also something that many people use to make a living, and I cited politicians amongst those who benefit greatly from being hypocrites. They may like to put it that they are ‘all things to all people’ or ‘flowing with the tide of public opinion’. I’m not going to fight them on that, today. 

If you watch a lot of sport, as I do (unashamedly), you’ll see what varnishing the truth is very often. Game in play, contestant does action that should benefit opponent, and immediate reaction is to make it seem that the benefit should be to him- or herself. Football is great for that: kick an opponent and feign that you have been hurt more. It’s an art form for some. Ball goes out of play off your touch? Claim it never touched you. And so on. I had lunch with an old friend, with whom I’d played a lot of football games. He was telling me about how his life had changed to accommodate problems in his family circumstances and how things he’d seen coming never registered with others. Denial? Not wanting to be hurt? Better to seem the victim? Whatever. We agreed that the facts never change, but the viewpoints do. We recalled a semi-final that we lost after leading, when the ball went out of play (by about a good foot) but play continued, and from that came a goal to send the match into extra-time, when we lost. 

The facts will never change: the play should have stopped. The player who continued may argue till kingdom come that he didn’t know the ball had gone out. The officials can argue that they were badly placed to see what happened. All of our defenders in the vicinity appealed immediately when the ball went out, stopped, and were then stumped as the ball went into the penalty area and went into the net. Protesters had to wait their turn to berate the referee in many languages. Some said things they will always regret. But, cheating or what seems like cheating is hard to bear. Losing is much easier to accept if it happens fair and square. Otherwise?

Sometimes, you have to accept that ‘looking bad’ in a situation is the best thing to do.

Tongue-tied or tongue-twisted?

If there’s one thing I love about travel, it’s the ability to be myself but become something else for many people. What on Earth are you talking about, man?

“Where’d you come from?” the lady asked me in the mega-department store. ‘From the airport,’ I replied. Not satisfied with that, she asked, “No! Where’d really come from?” I scratched my head, and said, ‘Well, I came from Miami.’ She pressed on: “But, you ain’t from here…America.” Right, she was. I didn’t yield. Then she came with the blast that many do: “You have a’ accent!” I giggled, and replied, ‘So do you, just different.’ She shook her head.

I know she was trying to pin me down as being more than just out of the immediate area. Americans are great when it comes to playing this game. They seem to have more problems than most figuring out accents from other places. Just a while ago, an oldish man asked me if I was from New Zealand. Now, that’s not a bad guess, given that my English is very English. But, how do I get mistaken for French?

I met a neighbour of my daughter’s yesterday, and as they talked, the lady asked me if I could guess where she came from. Her accent had a kind of east European/southern Mediterranean tinge, but sounded Latin, too. She was from Colombia/Chile. Her speaking English as at best a second language can pose many problems for a listener, because she could simply sound like her teacher or audio tape had taught her. When I spoke to her in Spanish, it was clearer that she was unlikely to be from Spain, based on what I had learned from my Colombian teacher. You get my point? It’s not easy to pin people down by how they speak.

When I tell people I come from Jamaica, I’m often met with variants of “You don’t sound Jamaican!” We know that they want us to sound rawer and less comprehensible, not maybe as hard to understand as many a dancehall or reggae artiste, but certainly not polished. I can’t tell them where on the spectrum to put me, but here’s a helpful guide:

Once in my life, I formed a men’s football team, called ‘Internatonales’; I chose that name because the players came from a wide range of countries–about 15, if I remember well. Our team working language on the field was English, but between groups of players it could be any of several mixes, including two or more at the same time, as many people were multilingual. Add to that, two players had come from Gallaudet, the DC university for the hard-of-hearing, so some of us also see sign language to better communicate with them. Refereeing our matches could be fun, especially when we needed to tell officials that some players could not hear the whistle. (It gave us some leeway, too, as we could argue that some players shouldn’t be treated too harshly because of their disabilities.) I played sweeper, not because it was my best position, but I could manage things better from the back and deal with almost everyone on the field evenly from there. Running and playing with that team taught me a lot about the importance of clear communications and also the dangers if things got misinterpreted. It also stressed the real value of learning other languages. Dare you to curse at us in what may seem an obscure language, like Serbian; chances were we’d have someone who understood. Those were fun times!

When I’m in a good mood, I often ask whether my speaking French or Russian would make me one of those nationalities. French many can handle, but Russian? You mad!

I’m due to have lunch with one of my old friends, who played on that team with me. He’s white Portuguese, born and raised in Mozambique. We worked together in the same organization for nearly 15 years. He speaks excellent Spanish, Italian and French. He speaks lovely broken English, and when he writes it’s even more broken. We’re due to meet in an Irish pub in America. Should be fun, if we break out the languages. 

America, America!

Don’t get me wrong: I am not about to burst into song. 

Being in the land of POTUS 45 (I have sworn not to utter the name of the current president–it’s personal), I must wonder what is going on. I arrived in what must be called ‘Little somewhere Latin America’ yesterday morning, and my brain was racing, as it always does when I get to Miami. All I heard was Spanish, and when I had a question to ask of the American Airlines bag handler, the only language he seemed to understand well was Spanish, not English. So, my first head spinner was ‘Why are the United States of America not listed as a bilingual country?’ Did those Americans who voted to ‘make America great again’ have Florida on their radar? Of course, the Spanish-English bilingual case makes sense in Florida, but not everywhere. It also could make sense in the Greater Washington (DC) area, but then, with the current tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that would not go down well, I think. Then again, given he has a great love for Mar a Lago…

Having negotiated the southern tip, I was in the vicinity of the Washington Monument and the Pentagon, doing a quick spot of shopping before heading out to my new lodgings for the next few days. I really needed to check on the status of my Costco account, and get my daughter onto it, as she lives within hailing distance of their stores. As I went through preliminary chit chat about the account, I muttered “Now that I’m here, I can use this card”, meaning it’s much easier to use US credit cards in the USA. One of the two black ladies helping me replied “Now, don’t go there!” I really had no idea where ‘there’ was, so I asked. I never got a clear answer, but I did manage to joke about a few things, including how ‘we’ were doing in the Land of Uncle Sam (if not Uncle Ben). All ended well: I got my card account renewed; my daughter was added to it; one of ladies told me how she had loved visiting Jamaica–Negril (‘Knee Grill’) and Montego (‘Mount Ego’) Bay. I thanked her deeply for having supported my people, and off we went to add to US GDP.

Costco is great, though it’s not an unmitigated bargain hunter’s paradise. As my eldest said, if you are single, the minimum quantities can sometimes overface you. But, she managed to buy wisely as she clutched two bottles of Malbec. I got things that some of my Jamaican family appreciate, like a few kilo+/2.5 pound tubs of mixed nuts and razors and/or blades in bulk. Have to figure out the weight for the return trip. Duty visit done, we could head to my child’s home, along the ‘freeway’, which is often clogged even on days when most people are not heading to work or school. Many have ‘high occupancy vehicle’ (HOV) lanes, to encourage ride-sharing, or express lanes to help those, who want to pay, speedily on their way. It’s a lot to undersand if you’re not local, and though I know the area, I was bemused by the plethora of information not he road about how to get there from her and what you had to pay.

She lives in a lovely apartment in an area that has expanded like topsy over the past 30-odd years, as various industries clustered towards the capital area, and it seemed to be more or less recession-free. This particular area has grown, too, as the Metro has extended and access by public transport has been improved, even though the area is surrounded by multi-lane freeways. Open fields are no more as condos and apartments and town houses spring up like mushrooms. But, the USA is good at manicuring its residential development, so it’s not a higgly-piggly mess of zinc and board, like in some places close to my heart, but nicely-laid-out areas, with paths and parking and signs and orderliness. Shopping malls and plazas sprung up alongside, and ‘village’ life has been recreated.

We did a quick tour of the adjacent area, which was much bigger than I thought, and got back to her parking garage. She met some ‘neighbours’ who recognized her back and we shared the elevator. (I often find American tourists some of the most obnoxious in Jamaica as they seem to now know the common courstesy of ‘greetings’ and what to do except shrink into the corner of the elevator or gaze straight ahead like zombies when ‘assaulted’ by a ‘Good morning’ or ‘Hello’.) But, enough of my prejudices. 

I’d been up since about 2.30am, as my flight was at 7, and having woken, I felt no urge to get back in bed and then find I was waking when I should have checked in. It was now about 4.30pm and I was just beginning to falter. My daughter plunked me into a sofa and offered me a cup of tea and a piece of bun and cheese. Yes! Jamaican Easter bun, with English cheese bought by her English grandfather, and a cuppa in a mug that had London buses. The child is truly culturally blended! That did for me: I was not inclined to move any further, and thoughts of going out for dinner receded as I sank deeper into the couch.

The air smelt different. My nose itched. The greater Washington area is renowned for triggering respiratory problems and I wondered if I was already falling victim. I drank my tea and my eyes felt heavy. I was ready to doze off and be ‘free at last’. With that thought hovering in my head, I wondered if I could get a ‘stand by’ ticket for the Museum of African American History. My daughter got a message from a friend offering free tickets to watch the Washington Nationals play baseball on Sunday afternoon. Nice idea, but all of that is for another day.

I wonder how many people who now live in the ‘land of the free, home of the brave’ hold dear the same thoughts of the place:

My country, ‘ tis of thee, 

Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; 

Land where my fathers died, 

Land of the pilgrims’ pride, 

From every mountainside let freedom ring!

My native country, thee, 

Land of the noble free, thy name I love; 

I love thy rocks and rills, 

Thy woods and templed hills; 

My heart with rapture thrills, like that above.

The informal economy: killing me softly with its love

I’ve often thought how many Jamaicans survive because of the informal economy. Working with little or no capital; little or no real costs; income that is not often visible to be taxed; operations without rules and regulations, etc. For many, especially those who have few marketable skills (including a good level of education), it’s the only route to survival. So, whether it’s a vendor stall, or selling steering wheel covers, or just hustling with whatever and wherever, it’s what puts bread on the table and food in the mouth for many. Without stereotyping all that is done informally, we know that such an environment has allowed those in a weak economy to do better than would otherwise be the case. So, for instance, the domestic worker who gets a few days work for cash and manages to see children through school and on to university poses a huge conundrum. Should we seek to curb her options and get her into the formal sector and all its constraints, knowing that doing so may be a hinderance to the good that her practices permit for her family?

Measuring economic activity is not just an exercise in getting things right, it’s also about making sure that policies can be directed at the best characterization of the realities of life.

Why am I thinking of this?

I’ve just made some batches of mango jam, that’s why!

One large mango tree is shedding about 20 mangoes a day and as much as I love eating them, it’s hard to keep up with that flow. Bring in the family to help eat. Still behind. Add mangoes donated. Solution? Preserve and protect. In my case, put them into a blend with water and lime juice and make jam. So, pots got boiling and I managed to make four batches, and turned out 15 jars (of different size). 

The benefit of production are that the volume of mangoes goes down dramatically: 15 jars take up barely one shelf in a fridge, while the equivalent of 4 large mangoes per jar would take up much more space.

Now, I have made the jam for fun, but friends soon got word and fun turned into gifts. Two friends have begged me to sell them some. I had not thought about becoming a mango vendor; maybe, next year.

But, my generosity has done what for Jamaica?

Well, nothing, apparently. GDP will not measure my activity at home, unless by some quirk I get caught in a household survey. My mangoes were free inputs, so no sales show up. I give away the output, so no payments are made, no revenue is generated and no income flows to me. I bought limes. I was given ginger. My use of water and gas will show up, as will the extra work of the fridge, so my utility bill will be a bit higher and STATIN may wonder about the utility consumption spike in June. Hi, guys! 🙂

Friends will send bearers to collect their gifts, so we may see some increase in GDP through service activities. I may exchange some jam for chutney, or other fruit, or some other item I want or need and someone has in abundance. Barter is alive and well. But, the big picture of all this is nowhere to be seen.

Jamaica is better off, if I can be so bold. My jam tastes good! Friends are having better breakfasts and lunches, as far as I can see.

But, our economy looks stagnant, as ever.

This scene is one that has been repeated for decades and is why Jamaica is a conundrum. Things may be booming in some clear social and economic senses, but never seen in any significant macroeconomic statistics.

Thoughts on Minister of Tourism’s comments about media reporting of crime

I did not hear Mr. Bartlett’s comments about media reporting of crime and its potential impact on Jamaica’s tourism, but read reports in The Gleaner and The Observer. The Gleaner reported: ‘”No one wants to wake up and see a front-page story in our newspapers stating, ‘Jamaica bleeds’,” Bartlett told delegates attending the 56th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel in New Kingston yesterday.’  The Minister argued that there needs to be a partnership between media and tourism, Bartlett warned that the news being put out has the potential to influence the choices of consumers. (As truisms, this one has little need for thought.) Clearly, the tourism sector is, and should be, concerned: “The threat of crime has the ability to erode ‘Destination Jamaica’ and cut off the tourism sector at the knees. We cannot allow this plague to continue to grow – new approaches must be explored with urgency,” JHTA President Omar Robinson told members during the AGM.

But, the Minister chiding the media for putting crime on the front page, ignores more than a few realities about crime as we see it unfolding in Jamaica. While we may not want to see the ‘Jamaica bleeds’ headlines, the truth is Jamaica is bleeding badly, and currently with little sign that this will be curbed. That’s the reality of those who live here, and if tourists get a sense of that, I see no problem. Realistically, many tourists do not get swayed by the news they see (if at all) plastered on local media. If anything, they get their impressions from friends and relatives who have visited previously, from their diplomatic representatives (jaundiced views and all) and from the reporting of their national media, which tend to focus on negative news, in part fed by what local media report, but also fed by their interests and other sources. Whether any of that sways tourist travel choices is a matter of guess-work. Many who travel to Jamaica, including to work rather than play, do so in blissful ignorance.

But, let me put the Minister’s concerns into perspective, because I happened to be in our tourism Mecca over the weekend.

I was in Montego Bay over the weekend, watching a marquee new event, with the PGA Latino America hosting a professional golf tournament in Jamaica for the first time in decades. The 144 players in the field were mainly from the USA, but represented 21 countries, including Jamaica. Let’s assume that each would have been affected by their brief experiences in Jamaica, and represented at least another tourist visit in the near future.

They stayed in hotels near to Cinnamon Hill/Rose Hall and enjoyed the hospitality in and around there, and the ‘face’ shown by the many Jamaicans who helped make the event a success–school children as volunteers, caddies, workers at the golf course and hotel, mainly.

Tourists, of all walks, deal with the realities they face
Young Jamaican school children gave many positive impressions of the island

However, even though they could not venture far from their hotels, they got a good taste of Jamaica, warts and all. They travelled from the airport, at the very least and saw real Jamaica for 10 km.

Of note, my oldest daughter was in Jamaica at the same time. Unlike the golfers, she’s been to Jamaica many times before, and has more than a little idea of what the island is like and has been like over several decades. She barely read a newspaper or watched or listened to local news stations. In that regard, she is like many a foreign visitor: local media isn’t the main source of news. But, her eyes and theirs saw much of Jamaica in a short time. What did they see?

They saw road blocks with policemen carrying semi-automatic rifles along the north coast highway and dressed in bullet-proof vests, looking into the trunks of stopped cars. It was not clear what they were searching for, but I suggested to my daughter that it was likely guns and drugs.  We presumed it was not to take selfies with the passing motorists. They saw tourists being ‘propositioned’ by locals at local eateries, not a crime, but an often unpleasant experience. They saw ‘kamikaze’ taxi drivers weaving at speed along the road, past the police station at Coral Gardens. They saw motorcyclists, often in sleeveless vests and without helmets racing along the road, some doing wheelies.

Now, is Mr. Bartlett going to suggest to the police that they should stop their crime fighting efforts on the highway near the airport, because tourists’ might get a bad message about local crime and their concerns trump our needs to address gun-running and drug trafficking? We can keep crime off the front page, but can it be kept off the streets? Maybe, the press put the emphasis on the wrong issue, but most should know that it’s the reality that needs to change not the reporting of it.

Is Mr. Bartlett going to discuss with taxi operators around Montego Bay that they should act like more-responsible road users, not least because they may kill a tourist? My wife drove up from Kingston on Saturday and her one comment was how she was terrified of the driving she encountered once she left the N-S highway. Guess what? Many tourists have to put up with this same careless approach to other people’s lives every time they set foot in Jamaica! We know our roads can be the scene of much mayhem, and we have recent cases of JUTA buses crashing and tourists being killed. (Tourists were suing Royal Caribbean Cruises earlier this year or not providing a safe excursion.)

Is Mr. Bartlett going to enter communities on the north coast and discuss with them the need to treat people they think are foreigners as nothing more than cash pots? Why should anyone visit a local eatery like Scotchies and have to deal with ‘You can leave a little something with me?’ from one of the counter servers?

Strangely, over the weekend, no one had consulted the weather, which tried to spoil things several times with lighting and heavy rain. Those natural events were as much reality as the crime that affects much of Jamaica, especially the Montego Bay Area. Is Mr. Bartlett going exhort a higher power to think about not spoiling the tourist experience in Jamaica?

I drove through downtown Montego Bay on Sunday morning to visit an aunt, and was again astonished how this potential gem of a city could have been made into somewhere to attract tourists, rather than the sort of place were locals and of course foreigners are less likely to tread. Illegal vendors lined the sidewalk, even under the signs say ‘No vending’.

An incidental photograph, in downtown Montego Bay, as I waited in traffic. Tourists don’t need headlines to make assessments.

No one could easily navigate the pathway. Who would want to come to Jamaica to have a taste of that, even on a quiet Sunday? We know the madness is multiplied many times during the workdays. If we want to massage the image of the country for the benefit of visitors, we can start with places daily encounters may occur.

When we lived in Barbados, we got the impression that the authorities there tried to massage crime reporting to lessen the negative impressions for tourists. However, crime was escalating and while tourists were often not the targets, when they were–as in the case of a Canadian woman attacked on a beach, who later died–it was foreign reporting of incidents that local media tried to play lightly that got the attention of foreign visitors. The matter quickly became a diplomatic incident and cost the Barbadian taxpayer as local police had to travel abroad to deal with the investigation.

If Mr. Bartlett wants to really see a partnership involving tourism, then I would suggest that he address many things in his direct portfolio that may give tourists cause for concern. I think he has plenty to focus on, rather than thinking that the local media is the source of things that may cast Jamaica in a bad light.

Admitted, we are not a large, mature country, but looking at them we can see that the reporting of realities is what gives them part of their strength. UK and French papers are not going to keep from their front pages the horrendous terrorist attacks that have occurred in their capitals, or news of escalating local crime. Both countries depend massively on foreign visitors. The reality is that tourists want to know how you deal with incidents, not that you try to suppress their reporting. That’s what keeps people calm and confident enough to want to visit, stay, and come again.

Literally speaking: some glaring examples 

Just to put my literacy concerns into context, just glance at how many of our informal businesses struggle (pictures taken this mooring, while waiting in traffic in Grants (or is it Grant’s?) Pen, and also how it seems to permeate higher levels. Don’t die laughing! 🙂 

What does ‘Egg’s’ mean, and who is he or she?
What unspecified part of Fry has been seasoned?
This infamous picture of the then ‘Primister’ and its other howlers has been immortalized

Literally, speaking–Redux: media professionals and teachers don’t help

When I wrote yesterday, I had in my mind the unacceptably high number of Jamaicans who had not benefitted from learning the fundamentals of the official language. My compassion was driven by what I see in play, daily. Many Jamaicans may not feel burdened, but are at a severe disadvantage within Jamaica and also compared with many abroad when it comes to bidding for jobs. That drag on employment prospects is at the front of my mind. Our high illiteracy is a major impediment to our raising labour productivity.

But, the problem of the general population is worsened by failings in places where we would not expect to see illiteracy or poor grammar on a regular basis–in the education sector and in the mainstream media. We expect teachers to know, and even if not majoring in English, we often assume skills in that area are higher than average; that may be an unfair assumption, however. Likewise, we expect the wordsmiths of our society to be also high on the pole of those who have mastered the official language. But, I find in Jamaica that those are wrong assumptions more often than I think is acceptable. Just look at what hit me at random today:

‘That, essentially, was what was expected to happen in Tivoli Gardens after to 2010 operation to route strongman and gang leader, Christopher Coke.’

That sentence is from today’s Editorial in The Gleaner. Can you spot the errors?

Let me help: ‘after to’ should read ‘after the’; ‘route’ (a course taken) should read ‘rout’ (retreat of defeated unit). 

Is it reasonable that a national media publication produced by people trained in communications should make such mistakes? Who is responsible for quality control? Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 5.35.54 AMIf the quality oversight is poor in the main part of the publication that expresses the paper’s opinions can we expect it to be higher elsewhere in the routine reporting?

I often utter a huge guffaw when various mainstream media practitioners try to argue about the higher quality of mainstream media professionals (often demeaning many who are in the world of newer communications, like bloggers, like me). My reaction is not pure defensiveness–and I do not see pure self-service on their part–but based on the rigour that I had to go through daily in my written and oral communication, and which formed how I always approach what I do. I have no supervisor, so have to rely on a tough attitude towards my own mistakes. I am no saint, but I’m far from a sinner in this area. So, I take great pleasure is find and pointing out the kind of error I saw this morning.

But my pleasure is muted. Those who do not know what is wrong will inevitably repeat that error. Admitted, it’s not realistic for a newspaper to be reprinted. In the world of electronic media, the digital version can be corrected, so The Gleaner online version, which I read earlier this morning could realistically be expected to be corrected later today. I pointed out the errors in the online comments; let’s see what happens.

I got a communication from school yesterday that was full of grammatical howlers; I see them often. But, as the school year comes to an end, I thought it would helpful to gently point out that I thought it reflected poorly on the school. They accepted my point, and pointed out some slips in their quality control. But, I don’t want my child using such communications as their guide, which they will because ‘Teacher knows best’ in the school arena.

If I seem pedantic in these concerns, fine. I have the luxury of being able to spot what’s wrong and also enough sad memories of what it can mean if one lets them go uncorrected.

Literally speaking, language will break us

Every day, in many ways, the same problem stares me in the face: Jamaican illiteracy. My concern with it isn’t just what it says about how poorly we have educated a huge portion of the population. It’s also what it implies for how well we can do things: call that efficiency, productivity, or some other term that tells you how we can be better than other people. Our inability to communicate well at a high level is a brake (not break) on our progress. When I see people sitting idly on street corners and think about how bad our unemployment levels and rates are, I also have to ask how will their situation change if the economy were to grow very fast and the demand for labour rise rapidly. More jobs are being created in the realm of information management than in the area of manual labour. These are not people who seem to be ready for training in new skills in the information sector; they can do merely simple tasks like ‘heavy lifting’ and ‘fetching and carrying’. If you cannot read and write, and process information and share it effectively, you are destined for a new scrap heap of long-term unemployment. (Our crime rates are one of the outcomes of people who CANNOT find work, even if they are WILLING to work.)

Funnily (as in oddly, not amusingly), technology has rendered more powerful many illiterate people because they can use keyboards to form letters and words they cannot form by hand and they can live in a world where the forms of expressions have become a bit elastic and less rigid. If I write IMHO, I do not need to know how to write ‘in my humble opinion’ and can cover my embarrassment of not know how to spell words like ‘humble’ and ‘opinion’.  They can communicate for and wide without encountering anyone who has to handle their communication. Such people can at least read, and have had writing made much less difficult. That’s a plus, but it cannot get through all situations.

I have been in enough situations where someone has asked me to fill out a form for them (often on a plane headed to the USA), or to read something (like tags on a key) so that they can proceed to do a simple task. When you have a bunch of keys but cannot distinguish the labels for which doors they open you are in deep trouble. But, these are common place problems. Expand that to people not being able to read and understand the labelling on almost every building. Scary!

Whatever official data may indicate, many Jamaicans cannot read and write English well. On the one hand, this is easy to understand: most Jamaicans don’t speak English; at best, it’s a second language. Patois, our national way of speaking, though based on English, is often not the same. In addition, it’s mainly oral and that’s where we start to have trouble, both orally and literally, if we try to write: our basic way of communicating isn’t well-codified. (I say well because in some other territories, where ‘creole languages’ like Patois is spoken, it is codified, as in the Seychelles, where it is taught in school and used in written form in formal communication.) So, we do not put a premium on spelling rules (even in Patois) or even writing.

There’s no point arguing about whether or not Patois is a language. The fact remains that it’s how most Jamaicans communicate. That’s well understood by business, who try to use it in basic marketing because it has much better chance of reaching a wider audience. The bottom line tun up!

But, let’s look at what we are facing, taking a simple example situation. A man is dealing with a bundle of things. A Jamaican may say “Is bungle him bungle it up.” (He bundled it up.) Now, a non-Jamaican would likely already be confused on hearing this, if he or she knew the two different words bungle (mess up) and bundle (collection of things). If an ordinary (non-literate) Jamaican had to write about the event, bungle would be written for bundle. Literate English speakers would read it and go down the wrong path, imagining a minor catastrophe instead of something uneventful. If a literate Jamaican saw the event and wrote about it, he/she would likely use the right word, bundle. (I say ‘likely’ because it’s well understood that people who are literate and well-educated may still mistake words, and English is full of words that either sound alike or nearly alike and sometimes trip people up. For example, the famous group of there, they’re, their.)

That was just an example to set the ball rolling. Amplify and multiply this situation across the country and you can get a real bundle of bungling as people try to describe what is going on and others try to understand what they are being told.

Though very much part of this whole problem, I am going to put to one side those many people who cannot read. They may be able to write, but have no real idea of the rules to apply so add confusion from the oral level to the written level that they cannot understand or fix. Just to give an example, I got a message about some work at my father’s house; it came with no punctuation. Problem one. It then used words wrongly, such as ‘fine’ for find. Thankfully, I know the context and can get past some of that. But, when I read ‘fix it is cheper so I tell him to fix cut out the bad part the part new…’ I stumbled and fell.

I leave out this group because, although they are important and help the country function, they need a special fix that may be too big a leap as it requires going all the way back to basic schooling, and seems less likely to happen than most other things. In this wonderous age of technology, I hope that an app can be developed that makes all of this inability to write correctly when you cannot read a problem of the distant past.

People like me make this language and communication problem worse. Why? I understand well and speak well, but I do not speak like most locals and use words in ways that are not familiar: I speak in standard English learned in England. My accent is flat. So, another simple example. I call someone and say “My name is Dennis Jones (pronounced ‘day-nis jon-es’).” I often get some reaction that suggests the name doesn’t register, and am asked to repeat. I do. Then the other person’s brain does its recomputation and comes back with you said ‘Den-ize Joe-nez?’ When I try to write the phonetic differences you get a sense of the differences between a Jamaican accent and a regular English accent. (So, I’m not even going into how my Patois renditions sound.) Again, extend this example into a day’s worth of communicating with people and you can see that patience will be running thin by day’s end, at least at my end. If I go on and start to talk about why I am calling, we get the problems multiplying and rippling far and wide. I try to make things easier by using simpler language, but that won’t matter if every syllable I use needs to be reformulated. My conversations in Jamaica, especially over the phone, can be amusing. 🙂

Now, I said that Patois was one part of the problem. The other is the simple fact that people did not learn or were not taught the right rules of English, and English is HARD. I am not going to give a course now, but warn that even the best-educated can get into fights about correct English and its usage. However, I will just trot out a few of the well-known trip wires from words that sound alike, but have completely different meanings (and I add a few where the Jamaican way of speaking makes for a similarity that may not exist elsewhere):

  • fear, fair, fare (both fair and fare have several meanings, too)
  • they’re, there, their
  • three, tree
  • hair, here
  • know, no
  • come, calm, comb
  • have, half, halve, of, off (I often see ‘I would of (have)‘, ‘prices half of (off)’.)
  • breath, breathe, breed

We have the problems that come from the use of punctuation, especially the apostrophe:

  • its, it’s (not its’)
  • theirs (not their’s), there’s, they’re his
  • his, he’s, hes (as opposed to ‘shes’)

I wont go on, because I think you see where I want to go.

These trip wires take as victims even our revered media houses, who daily offer more insights into poor teaching than seems acceptable.

For Jamaica, this problem is not at the margins of our lives, but deeply embedded into all of its fabric. Because we have so many forms of informal activity, we take for granted that rules are not going to bind. So, in this context, we find that signs and other evidence of formal existence may be literally hand-made and not subject to any kind of review of regulation:

‘Tree cuting‘ states the sign, proudly, with the words in black and 8 inches high on a white background. There’s no spell-checker in play. The rules about doubling consonants never known.

Sadly, the answer is not in what we teach, but how. It’s too sweeping to say that many of the teachers are not much better than those whom they seek to teach, but it’s clear that many teachers are not effective. Teaching, as a profession, cannot blame the students for the low levels of achievement; different ways have to be found to get the material better understood. If it’s one-size-fits-all, then less success is baked into the cake. Rote learning is still popular in Jamaica; it doesn’t work for many, especially once a student disengages. If we could get by without words and just exist with pictures and images, many more Jamaicans would flourish. But, the world isn’t set up that way.

Jamaica is very good at hailing its students who excel, while paying little attention to the masses who do poorly in our education system. Those poor performers become the core of our workforce, and so must matter to how well we do as an economy, driven by its lowest common denominator. I thought yesterday that more and more Jamaicans do not know what a steady job is, other than to be a roadside vendor or to hope that someone gives them casual work. That can’t be a strong basis on which to build a faster growing economy.

Time to get government out of the way? Too many Jamaicans have become disabled citizens

Jamaica has an awkward dependency on public sector provisions, as evidenced by solutions offered for its myriad problems, most of which start ‘if the government’. Sadly, MPs foster this notion that government is all-powerful and the source of all things significant in people’s lives every step of the way. This is a disabling, not enabling, environment; the anathema of what government ought to be about. A clear result of this cloying presence is that the private sector in all its forms (corporate, individual, or as NGOs) has become residual not a main driver in transforming society.

In economics, policy advisors are often concerned about the over-bearing impact of the government on some areas, especially in financial markets. So, economists talk about how government ‘crowds out’ other kinds of financial operators, especially when its financing needs are large, and markets are hard-pressed to do more than the ‘bidding’ of government, eg by buying government debt instead of private sector debt instruments.

In many areas, we see the government ‘sucking the air out’ of many actions where citizens ought to take the lead, with government setting a framework for action. 

This could make sense to many people, who see paying taxes as leading to a role for government in using that revenue. (For those who do not pay taxes, then government may well be the best means of getting much achieved, when one does not have many financial resources to use.) However, many also see government as wasteful of tax revenue so can be justifiably resentful of government spending to ‘solve’ problems. 

Government sometimes advises citizens to ‘take responsiblity’, but this is often a clear admission that government have failed to do much to resolve a problem and now wants to ‘pass the buck’.

It’s a funny symbiotic relationship: citizens are unaccustomed to acting in significant ways to develop solutions for the issues that  affect their lives, beyond invoking the help of nationally elected officials. (In many respects, national elected representatives have usurped the roles of municipal level officials.) They revert to government, or do nothing at all, calling for ‘justice’ or ‘action’ that they can effect themselves. 

This suits MPs, whose egos can be fed by the constant ‘needs’ that they satisfy. 

Add to this the partisanship and one can see the toxicity of the situation, because ‘government’ helps its own, and often ignores its opponents. 

Sadly, those Jamaicans who have grown up with the ‘nannying’ of government, especially in places where government matters, such as ‘garrison’ communities, know little else (beyond when ‘government’ is replaced by the heavy hand of criminal gangs.) These people remain wedded to the usefulness of representative politics, and are likely to vote for ‘people who will do things for them’.

Other Jamaicans, who do not really need government beyond its usual provision of public goods, such as utilities and items like security, have solidified their lessened need for government by withdrawing from representative politics. These groups have shown increasing self-suffiency in many of these areas, by moving away from public utilities, if possible, and also being major consumers of private ‘protective services’, instead of the police.

Jamaica’s ‘haves’ seem happy to need government less, up to a point. It’s ‘have nots’ often see little alternative. Two Jamaicas, again?

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