The extraordinariness that is the Jamaican

One of the most insidious things I hear on a regular basis is that Jamaicans are unruly. The reality is that we are what we tolerate and Jamaicans generally tolerate a lot of things that they criticize, but without compelling people to abide by any set of rules, if indeed such rules exist and are well-known and accepted. So, in general, Jamaicans know well that they are allowed to get away with a whole series of behaviours, which in other countries never get displayed to any great extent. One reason we see them less elsewhere is that people know there are real and immediate penalty consequences. This is rarely the case in Jamaica.

To repeat and stress the point, Jamaicans act in a number of quite sensible and rational ways. What sometimes irks others is that Jamaicans do not conform to behaviour that others would wish them to. One of those sensible things is to find the shortest distance between two points, which we know is a straight line. So, go to our major E-W thoroughfare in and out of Kingston, Washington Boulevard, and you will see a series of overhead walkways, that are hardly used. Jamaicans prefer to cross at points that connect them more directly from where they are to where they wish to be. They discount the risks of accident, for convenience; they do not see the benefit of crossing safely if that means they must walk maybe a kilometre in two directions to get from A to B, which is only about 50 metres apart. That behaviour exposes also the poor planning and understanding of social needs by those who created the new urban space.

One of the tasks I had to do early in my career as a trasnsport economist was to predict how people would move if road patterns were changed; it was not often easy and took a lot of surveying to see what people did and what could reasonably be expected after the changes. We also had to build in a revisiting of the plans if people behaved differently. But, such flexibility is not aways easy to build in, and is not cost-free.

I have just been to and from Ocho Rios on the N-S highway and again saw how poor planning and understanding of social behaviour has left the impression that Jamaicans are unruly.

The N-S highway is meant for motorized vehicles. However, people who live in areas near the highway have begun to use the highway as if it were for their purposes to travel on foot. What is also extraordinary in a general sense but quite normal in Jamaica is the fact that the police seem to do nothing about this kind of behaviour; they carry on with their usual traffic duties on the highway, looking for speeding motorists and drivers operating recklessly. Pedestrians, even though they have no right to use the highway as a passage, are not their concern. When we criticize the police for not ensuring compliance with laws, this is but another example. Perhaps, the police view the people as they do stray livestock; animals are meant to be deterred by cattle grids and barbed wire, but people can easily get by these obstacles. I have yet to see any police activity shepherding pedestrians off the highway, whether they are workers on their way to do road works, or students, or farmers.

I have written many times before that the average Jamaican is quite rational. What the highway has done in many areas is to create a way through that is smooth, clear, and direct where none existed before so it is not surprising that people will find the highway now creates a more convenient way to move from one point to another.

Now, in many other countries there is a general social acceptance that motorized vehicles and people are kept apart. Not so in Jamaica, where pedestrians often walk in the roadway, not least because safe sidewalks do not exist. People are conditioned to intermingle with motor vehicles. Such things, however, expose poor public provision.

What is extraordinary is that the Jamaican State and bureaucracy are complicit in the seemingly unruly behaviour of many of Jamaica’s citizens. The complicity of Jamaica’s bureaucracy is sometimes accidental in the sense that planning has not anticipated the kind of behaviour that we see on the ground and consequently has no response to the new behaviour. The bureaucrats may have little information or little interest in changing the behaviour. In the case of the highway, for them, the completion of the road is the end of the task: the road is finished, motorists are using it; motorists are happy or unhappy at having to pay the tolls.

What we see the Jamaican pedestrian doing on the highway is not that different from what we see the pedestrian doing on other roads: the Jamaican pedestrian sees the need to move from one point to another in a direct line; for that reason when you drive along many Jamaican roads you see pedestrians walking directly across lanes of traffic to get from one side of the road to the other, not having much concern for what hazardous conflicts they may have with speeding cars.

Jamaican drivers, who are accustomed to this behaviour, know how to adjust their maneuvers to avoid hitting the pedestrian. (I’ve seen similar behaviour in Italy and Greece, where drivers are thought to be crazy.) I was with an Irish man who lives in Jamaica the other day and he was constantly concerned with the pedestrians were approaching the middle of the road in the direction of his vehicle, thinking that the pedestrian was going to continue walking. He became more anxious as the walkers came closer but the pedestrian had no intention of walking directly into the vehicle; the pedestrian was merely moving between two points in a straight line, and would pause for a decent gap to continue.

What we see on the roads we know is replicated in many other spheres of Jamaican life, in the sense that few people feel compelled to act according to some ‘rule books’ with which they clearly do not agree.

Where this is more unacceptable is where the participants have explicitly or implicitly agreed to the rules, eg, public servants working for an agency who bend rules to facilitate a range of corrupt practices: the recent revelations at the Firearms Licensing Authority is the latest, scary instance of this. But, we see it often with those who are meant to uphold laws–the police. Why else would we have police on murder, theft, embezzlement, extortion and other charges?

In a society where you cannot rely on the contracted public officials who are supposed to be upholders of the laws to uphold the laws, I cannot understand why you would have issues with citizens doing more or less what they please when they have not contracted with anyone to act otherwise.

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. :)