Arc of the covenant: Thoughts on a migratory path

Why did my parents choose the paths they did? After my mother decided to go to England to further her nursing career, why did my parents do what they did? My father could have stayed in Jamaica with me and kept on a nursing career path already underway. He could have taken me to my mother in England and left me with her (she had potentially good family support there). Long-distance relationships were, and still are, not uncommon amongst migrants, so too are families where children get left behind while parents seek work abroad. Splitting the household could have minimized risks and removed many uncertainties. I could have grown up as a ‘barrel child’. Their son could have moved along an educational path that, while not certain, was better known and understood. Instead, he was pitched into a new educational set-up, which he navigated better than many of his migrant peers and ended up well-positioned, as his parents had hoped. My parents opted to move into a world that often treated migrants as second-class citizens, especially in key areas like jobs and housing. What a huge risk!

At what point did any of these options get discussed or discarded? Of course, I can’t now pose those questions of my parents.

That the choices they made did not leave them on the floor of migrants’ fortunes over a period of 25 years is fascinating. They succeeded far more than they failed. For instance, they moved from renting small basement flats in London’s inner city to buying houses in the suburbs. That’s a good story to tell.

No way could they have foretold events that would leave them living comfortably as retirees in Jamaica, debt-free, pensions coming predictably from the UK, largely protected from exchange rate losses, not uncertainly from Jamaica in depreciated dollars.

Hindsight is 20-20, so I don’t know how much second guessing my parents did through their lives, but I know they were happy with the outcomes.


The world turned upside down

I spent several enjoyable hours reflecting on my father’s life while I was writing Remembrances for his funeral, and I managed to put together a piece that was part chronological, part about characteristics. Not surprisingly, at this time of year, when we tend to reflect, at least on the year past, I’ve kept reflecting on my father.

Funnily, I did that every morning beforehand, because I do about 10 minutes of yoga/stretching. My father was never an athlete, yet after his return to Jamaica in the mid-1980s he got into an active regime that involved him gardening/farming, but also walking a lot, mainly across the Manchester Golf Course, but also into the centre of Mandeville for aerobics and yoga classes. As I was arching my back, my teenage daughter walked in–early for her. In mid-stretch, I asked her if she could recall seeing her grandfather do headstands; she said no. I remember seeing him do them for the first time and being astonished with the ease of his movement. He suggested I try the pose. Well, I was never great at gymnastics, so was wary as I tried to flip myself up and over and get my legs to touch the wall, which was for guidance and support, as a beginner. After a few failed attempts, I was inverted. Then, he told me to stay there for a few minutes. What? He then told me to close my eyes and breathe gently. I’d be lying if I said I felt comfortable, but gradually I lost my sense of disorientation and relaxed. Daddy, then told me to come down slowly. I did and got into a conversation with him about the benefits of yoga.

I would never describe my father as a health nut, but during his retirement he focused more on his health and diet. He was a diabetic and decided to deal with that by controlling what he ate, a challenge for a man who loved to eat and to cook his favourite Jamaican dishes. Cooking on an open fire was one of his skills, and like many rural Jamaicans, could regulate heat without a thermometer.

Of the many changes I noticed during his time back in Jamaica was how he ate heartily but became trimmer-looking. Life in Jamaica is sweet, people often say, but that’s often reflected in a swelling waistline; I can attest.

My paternal grandmother and my parents taught me how to cook, but I can barely hold a candle to any of them. My gran could bake like a wizard, and would ply me almost daily with desserts she made, when she came to live with us in London: “Dem dont feed yu a school? Look how yu mawga!” she often said. 🙂 My mother taught me how to cook chicken, and I managed to get her to tell me recipes that I wrote in a book, so they can be added to heirlooms. But, my father was the king of seasoning food. I’d marvel at how he’d start seasoning a joint two days before roasting it, and his pot-roast pork makes my mouth water just thinking about it.

Despite all that, I can’t cook many Jamaican dishes, though my fried chicken is mean as is my take on fried dumplings and saltfish.

My Bahamian in-laws demand I cook this every visit. 👍🏾🇯🇲

So, bear with me if I get emotional sometimes over a meal; it’s probably full of great memories. I remember watching a documentary a couple of years ago about how some Asian cultures revere the memories of ancestors through meals, and there’s interesting research on links between food and memories.

So, in death there’s always meaning to life.

Barren fruit: a region plagued by killing, with Jamaica out front

The priest opened this Sunday’s church service with “Any day you wake up six feet above ground is a good day.” I’d say! It was a slip of the tongue, but had meaning. We usually value our own lives. But, that of others?

He chose as his sermon to stress the theme that life must ‘bear fruit’ (not in the simple sense of procreation, but in terms of being gainfulness) and that it should be done ‘with love’. As part of an instructional process, he elaborated on his theme and sought answers from the congregation about why these two things are often absent in their lives. Selfishness, concern about others’ views came out as reasons, but also fear of rejection. Those who have loved and lost can relate to that latter point. In my mind, I played with the notion of rejection on all sides.

I enjoyed Canon Scott’s sermon, not least for his trying to engage the congregation in a way that set him as no better than them: “I’m no saint!” He asked how many rejected the tenets of their faith as soon as they step out of the church. He knew it, personally, as he felt when people talked about him: his ears twitched. But, some people are just ‘disgusting’, often shown by utter ingratitude as when the woman whose flat tyre he and a friend changed just drove off without a word of thanks. Priestly Scott bit his lip, but his friend was ready to hurl a rock at the woman.

The idea of all-around rejection resurfaced when I read a detailed analysis of crime/murder in Jamaica, written by my good friend, Kevin O’Brien Chang, Cry, My Murderous Country. (Full declaration, Kevin and I have been friends for ages, and have many strongly argued discussions about Jamaican life, often over a long lunch in Mandeville, but also over the phone or by WhatsApp. I find him one of the island’s most perceptive commentators on things Jamaican, and his knowledge of our life and lifestyles are well documented in his books on music and the country. We both try to support our arguments with solid data, and he’s often pointed me to some fascinating trends.)

His basic pillar was Jamaica’s homicide stats are horrifying. The planet’s second most murderous country in 2017. Earth’s highest violent death rate for women. Almost 10 times as murderous as the world average. He went on to argue for a continuation of the State of Emergency, accepting that it is only short-term:

‘We all know the SOEs, in and of themselves, are not the complete solution. But they are indispensable to any realistic strategy along the lines of:

– Short term: Intelligently applied force to normalise matters, by taking the irredeemable out of circulation – namely SOEs.

– Medium term: Social intervention to redeem the redeemable.

– Long term: Ending our education apartheid by enabling inner-city access to decent education, including early childhood interventions.’

But we can continue the SOEs while working on these. How much longer should we keep SOEs in place? The first goal must be to get murders below the psychologically critical 1,000 mark. And if Jamaica’s murder rate can be reduced to Latin America’s average, homicides would go under 500 a year, about 1989 levels. Only then could we consider ourselves a ‘normally’ murderous country.’ (My emphases.)

This is one of the better arguments for not yet removing the SOE, because it’s not just about the time not being right, but putting a reasoned timeline on what would constitute the right triggers to remove SOEs. I say this to contrast to some of the arguments, including those offered by the PM in claiming that 20-25 “dangerous criminals” will be unleashed in St. James at the end of the state of emergency, which he raised during an interview on Nationwide radio. My first reaction to that claim was its total lack of reference to the inability of justice and security officials to do their jobs, properly, in building “water tight cases”. The underlying weaknesses in this reasoning were well spelled out yesterday by attorney Daniel Thwaites, State Of Incompetency:

‘You can’t have hundreds of persons detained on the basis that I may one day be able to come up with some evidence to support some charge against the person”.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects of these SOE is that it accustoms the police to act with impunity instead of doing good investigations and bringing cases with evidence. Is it any surprise, then, that arrests are down, arrests with evidence are down, and firearm and ammunition seizures are down?’ (My stress.)

I’ve had a different concern about the SOEs from early in their recent introduction. Mainly, once it appeared that they were ‘working’ in terms of murders declining, I wondered at the logic underlying their limited application elsewhere. No one should be surprised that those living in areas where murders are being reduced dramatically would want to hold onto what they see as the reason for that success. Naturally, others would like to benefit from similar reductions in their areas. So, if it was really a good solution I always wondered why and how the government chose to extend it. Clearly, the government did not have resources to make the SOE national–taking aside whether this was feasible, constitutionally. Moreover, as Thwaites stresses, the police seem at best no better at crime fighting and even with SOE astonishingly worse. Things like SOE clearly don’t help those supposedly doing crime fighting to be better at that job. Policy makers should be worried about that, not least because public confidence in the police will remain low in such circumstances.

The Bahamas, like many other countries in the Caribbean, has seen its crime rate, especially murders, rise in recent years, recording the world’s 11th highest homicide rate in 2017. In the past week I’ve heard about murders every day on the news, noting that it just had the third straight week of triple double homicides. The reports of these incidents haven’t given much context, but many of them are like those in Jamaica, mainly related to some other crimes (eg drug dealing) or domestic violence. Police Commissioner Ferguson said earlier this month: “These are disorganised persons who are going around, once they have a gun in their hand and want to make a couple dollars, they will go and they panic and things happen.” Asked if the double homicides are related or concern gang activity, he said officers see no connection among the matters yet. However, unlike Jamaica, Bahamians have seen significant declines in violent crimes in 2018 (eg murders down 27%) without any state of emergencies.

I listened during a car ride to a litany of horrific mass murders of members of families that have occurred in New Providence in recent decades; none seemed to have clear motives and the accused either denied the crime or claimed that he had been ‘told’ to do the crimes by ‘The Devil’. Domestic ‘disputes’ are a bane across many of our communities, though mass murders are rare.

We know from international experience that measures like SOEs aren’t often used to address crime trends. Why Jamaica has sought to rely on that makes interesting consideration.

We know that Latin America and the Caribbean has the dubious rank as the the world’s worst for violent crime (as Kevin O’Brien Chang notes and often gets highlighted in international media). We also know that violent crime is a major drag on national economic and social development.

Jamaica’s PM made an election campaign promise that a vote for him would mean that Jamaicans could sleep with their doors open. It was a ridiculous assertion, but in the euphoria of electoral politics, it’s not surprising that it flew high. That a country with its record of anemic growth stretching behind it like a bad odour since Independence, I often wonder why Jamaicans haven’t grasped how crime has impoverished them. They’ve tolerated for decades poor crime fighting from the police. Many have also preferred to quietly cooperate with criminals, enjoying many benefits from doing so, albeit at a heavy price in terms of risks to their lives. That tells a basic story of how government has failed to deliver ‘welfare’ to a large section of the people.

In the words of Canon Scott, Jamaican governments have not borne fruit and done little with love (of its people).

#Windrush reflections across the generations

I’m sure my parents didn’t think it, and I certainly didn’t: we are, apparently, part of the Windrush Generation. The fact that we migrated from Jamaica on a BOAC flight not on the Windrush seems irrelevant.

According to a BBC report, Windrush generation: Who are they and why are they facing problems?, ‘This is a reference to the ship MV Empire Windrush, which arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands, as a response to post-war labour shortages in the UK.’ The BBC also noted that there are now 500,000 people resident in the UK who were born in a Commonwealth country and arrived before 1971 – including the Windrush arrivals – according to estimates by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory. The influx ended with the 1971 Immigration Act, when Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given indefinite leave to remain.

The fact that my parents and I left England means that we were not ensured by immigration issues about our rights of abode in the UK. However, we did have issues.

When we left Jamaica in 1961 we were all UK citizens. After Jamaica’s Independence in 1962, we became Jamaicans, with a right to retain UK citizenship for a limited amount of time. Of course, as a 7 year old at the time of Independence, not of this registered with me. It never mattered to me until the 1980s.

I had travelled to England on my father’s UK passport. As I needed to travel to Europe during my time at grammar school, I went abroad on a British visitor‘s passport, which one obtained from a Post Office, and was valid for no more than a year. It was introduced in 1961 and good for travel in Western Europe.

It was a simplified document and I had several of these during my student years. It was discontinued in the mid-1990s.

At some stage, I obtained a Jamaican passport, as my parents had done, earlier. So, as I passed through life it did not occur to me that I was anything but a British-Jamaican citizen.

Fast forward. I was offered a job at the Bank of England, but at my final interview was asked if I was a British citizen. I said I thought so, recounting my history briefly. But, to be sure, I agreed to check with the Home Office, before finalizing the offer. I discovered that I could reregister as a British citizen, having lost this at Jamaica’s Independence. It was a simple process, and my central banking career could begin. That was in 1980.

I assumed my parents had already done this themselves. However, as I combed through my father’s papers, I came across the reregistration documents for him and my mother, and they are dated several years after mine.

What we’ve seen during 2018 is how some of these immigration issues have caught some migrants out, so that despite being in the UK for decades they found that they had problems proving their right of abode. To me, it’s an understandable situation which could have been resolved more easily with a different attitude toward immigrants. Decisions to destroy copies of landing records of some of these people are among the more disturbing and puzzling. Home Office processes led to some wrongful detentions and deportations of members of the Windrush generation, says a National Audit Office report. To say that the Home Office didn’t have a good understanding of what the rules implied for some migrants is an understatement.

British nationality laws are complicated and have become more so since the early-1970s. As the BBC noted in April: ‘In 1971 these people were told they could stay permanently but the government didn’t keep a full record of them. Some of these people didn’t apply for official paperwork like a UK passport.

In 2012 there was a change to immigration law and people were told they needed official documents to prove they could get things like free hospital treatment or benefits in this country.’

It’s quite understandable that many immigrants were ignorant of their true citizenship status. They could easily have confused time in country and involvement in many aspects of national life, or using travel documents that appeared to confer citizenship, or a host of other things as somehow conferring citizenship. People who travelled to the UK on their parents’ passports could understandably thought that they were British, after a life being raised in the UK, and might never have understood the need for a document to prove that.

All of my cousins in England were born there. They don’t have these citizenship issues facing them, thankfully.

Ironically, many Caribbean migrants never went to Britain with views of remaining permanently. But, things always change once you start moving around. Sadly, though, some of those Jamaicans who left England after different degrees of stay, especially long ones, haven’t found returning home a bed of roses, either.

It’s trite but true that life of often existence between a rock and a hard place.

Thinking about the ‘good old days’

I love the Christmas holidays! It’s the best time to get family together and for stories about families and friends to flow. It’s frankly more uplifting than focusing on the various political ‘circuses’ that are performing this season.

I’ve just been sharing some thoughts with a Jamaican cousin about younger members of our extended family in England with whom we’ve either lost touch or never knew. In the process, we reminisced briefly about some uncles, now dead, whom we both remember as ‘characters’ and funny, or involved in funny events.

Four of my mother’s brothers went to England in the late-1950s/early-1960s. I must have met all of them before, but my stronger and longer memories of them are after I went to England. They all lived in South London, and initially lived in a house owned by the oldest of them. I’ve been racking my brain, recently, how a farmer from St. Elizabeth could manage to own a huge house in London after only 4 years there and working for London Transport.

I visited the house in Brockley on one of my UK visits a few years ago and marvelled at how it and its neighbourhood had been transformed into gentrified luxury. In truth, it was getting back to its earlier status as a location for wealthy people. The current pictures from the same road confirm my recollections, especially the huge walled garden, in which I sometimes played with younger cousins, born in London. I have pictures from the early-1960s of my parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and me taken outside my uncle’s house, so know that my memories are clear.

As the historic link about Brockley notes, ‘In the 1950s and 1960s these houses provided accommodation for the recently arrived African-Caribbean population,‘ many of whom found work in nearby Deptford, to which I can attest. What puzzles me is the point made in the link: ‘In the period 1945–60s it was very difficult to get a bank loan to purchase a pre-1914-built property, hence the frequent subdivision of the larger older houses during this period.‘ My uncle owned the house and was landlord for his brothers and another cousin from St. Elizabeth. It’s possible that the money was pooled through some ‘partner’ system. I may have to trawl through some property records to get a handle on this ‘mystery’. Sadly, living family members who may be able to shed some light are dwindling.

The house story is an intriguing aside. My conversation about my uncles and their children was really about how we’d lost contact, if it was ever established. My father’s side of the family who are in England have a vibrant WhatsApp group going and it’s the go-to place for all family affairs. Maybe, we can use their presence in England to reach out to cousins on my mother’s side.

I know the other uncles moved out some time after their elder brother got married and started his family. One, I know, moved into a flat not far from New Cross, in south-east London. He came back to Jamaica in the late-1980s, after an accident in England, as a retiree. The home-owning uncle also returned to Jamaica and worked a while at Alpart.

We know that migrants tend to band together, at least in their early time abroad, but also, as stays extend, chance or other contacts occur. So, we’re going to do some ‘reaching’ into one side of the family to see if they can reach out to the other side in the UK.

What a death tells us about NIDS

Anyone who has been following my commentary over the last year or so will know that I am not a fan of the government’s plans for a national identity system (NIDS). However, many of my concerns are being deliberated by Jamaica’s Constitutional Court, so I’ll await their adjudication and see what follows. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I need to walk a very careful line on how and on what I make comments. I have been bemused and also distressed by some of the commentaries that suggest NIDS is some kind of panacea for many of the ills that exist in Jamaican life. I don’t have problems with claims that NIDS will smooth the path to digitizing Jamaica:

That’s a given. But, how NIDS works towards other objectives, including service delivery by both public and private sector, depends much on how other agencies choose to or can use it. For instance, if the Jamaica Constabulary doesn’t move from inefficient paper records, that are not easily integrated, to digital records or ways of verifying such digital records on the spot, certain potential gains from NIDS cannot be realized. Identify frauds, for instance, wont disappear, even if harder. It’s long been understood that criminals thrive, in part, because they are at least one-step ahead of law enforcers including being able to tap into human frailties to commit transgressions even if sworn to do otherwise.

As I have written in recent days, my father died in late-November, and was buried on December 11. He is no longer a living person, which is known and obvious to anyone who knew him. What needs to happen, now, is for institutions and people to learn of his death, and deal with that, accordingly. The problem with human society is that people and organizations need to know when we come into existence, when we change the nature of our existence, and when our existence ends. Documenting existence efficiently is what NIDS should be about, essentially. Documenting that across several countries or jurisdictions can be problematic, but is usually doable. Some countries have systems that do not pay much regard to the rest of the world; ironically, the USA is one such country: try enrolling for certain services in the USA and getting blocked by the fact that you don’t have a US address.

In most countries, births are recorded at the time they occur. If there is a delay in recording the birth then that creates scope for mistakes. Recording births properly is made easier if they occur within well-recognized institutions, but even then mistakes happen. If a birth occurs at home, say, then the accuracy of recording the event depends on the ability and education of those involved in the birth. Someone who is illiterate or unable to complete the report of it online, say, would not be able to record the birth accurately. That same problem can occur if you have institutions which are responsible for recording life events and the person providing information is either illiterate or in some sense ignorant how relevant systems operate. You can always have simple human error messing up the recording of events. For example, when paper records are being digitized any record missed could disappear from a system. One then has the awkward situation, say, of someone having a paper record of their original birth certificate but that record doesn’t exist in digital records. Strange, but true, according to a story a Bahamian in-law related this morning.

Some problems occur in a country like Jamaica, where English is supposed to be our official language but many people do not speak or write English very well. They rely on the spoken word and may utter words that sound correct but are not the correct words. So, in the case of someone giving information about the birth to an official, the person may say the name of the child but what they say may have no bearing on the real or desired name of the child. We know stories from the recent past, perhaps apocryphal, where a friend or relative was asked to record the birth of a child and when they were sent they were given a note with the child’s or children’s names and told that the name was pinned on them. When they arrive at an office for the registrar general, and were asked the name of the child, they said the child’s name was ‘Pinned on them’. Sounds ridiculous? I have at least one relative close to me whose name appears to be a written representation of what someone said but the name is really hard to understand given the origin of names as we know them. More common are the existence of other errors, such as date of birth. Again, I’m all too close to those errors within my family.

Jamaicans have lived with the consequences of these kind of birth records errors for decades. NIDS won’t remove existing errors. I struggle to see how they have made us highly criminalized or economically poor performers. So, reducing them is unlikely to result in major shifts in those kind of socioeconomic ratings.

According to everyone who knew my father from his childhood and told to me by father, he lived all his life with the wrong official birthday. His grandmother got the dates for him and another child confused. At his death, however, I was not in a position to correct that, and the records show that error to his grave, literally.

While information about dates of birth and death are only part of identifying who someone is, we know that they do not determine who someone is. NIDS, or any other system, needs other corroborating information to cement an identity. Biometric data can offer such corroboration, to a degree, though are not infallible. The challenges to such data systems are fully explored by US NGO The National Academy of Science. Specific concerns have been raised about use of biometrics in recently developed NIDS systems, eg India’s Aadhaar system.

My father has a trail of documentation that establishes who he was that is not only based on Jamaican records but supplemented by UK records (pre- and post-independence), and by the vagaries of diplomacy cemented in some international records based on his travel and need for visas. Most of that is paper-based, and any electronic records reproduce errors that exist in ‘source’ documents.

As I try to wind up my father’s life, these errors will be there for all time and only family memories will carry the truth.

Anyway, he’s been removed from the voters list (the Electoral Commission of Jamaica is on a drive to remove dead voters, launching the ‘Dead Elector Removal Exercise’ on November 28, which is aimed at clearing the voters’ list of persons who have died since 1998). His bank accounts will be closed, in due course. I’ll have to advise the Royal Mail to discontinue his pension payments. These changes rely on conscientious individuals to keep others informed, and in a timely manner. I think I have the essentials covered, but others could be unaware or unable to do the necessaries. Given the fallibility of systems and people operating them, I’ll be interested to see which institutions continue to seek him out after they’ve been informed of his death.

Exorcising demons? Do I have a book in me?

Friends have been urging me for some time to write a book, most likely a novel. My wife liked a recent post so much, she had me pencilled in for a Booker Prize 😂 I’ve started a few times to write something biographical because it’s often said that life experiences are the easiest to retell.

My father’s death triggered a number of thoughts about my retelling life stories, his mainly, at the moment.

Whenever I started on my own life I’d reach a blockage when I recalled parts of my father’s experience in the first few years of our time in England. For context, note that my parents left Jamaica in 1961, before Independence. I never heard my parents utter a bad word about the British or life under colonial rule. I don’t think they went to England expecting to find milk and honey. But, I am absolutely certain that they did not expect the barriers they found.

First, the fact that my father’s Jamaican qualification as a mental nurse, which he had gained under the British system, were not accepted in Britain was a great source of pain for my father. Instead of continuing his career he had to choose alternative work so that he could add to the family’s income. In Jamaica, he had reached the level of a senior mental nurse at Bellevue Hospital. But, in England he had to look for work, first with London Transport as a bus conductor and then later as a driver. He later became a driver and mail man for the Royal Mail, the Postal Service. Thereafter, he worked on administrative and organizational aspects of mail delivery.

As a young boy, I did not appreciate the sacrifice that my father had made so that we could continue a normal life in England. Later, when I discussed his time in England with my father, the pain he had gone through by having to give up his nursing career was always evident on his face. What sticks with me is his inability to understand how or why he was supposed to relearn a subject he felt he could teach. Also, I may never know why my mother’s Jamaican nursing qualifications were acceptable but my father’s were not.

The second barrier comes from my knowing that my father soon realized that he did not want to stay in England, but sadly was unable to find money to pay for his fare to return to Jamaica. I think this is the right telling of the story, as opposed to another possibility which was that my father might have lost face had he returned to Jamaica so soon after going to England.

A third barrier was my father’s relationship with the Masonic Lodge. What I recall is that he never found welcoming arms from The Brotherhood in England. I don’t know why that was, but know that he attended only a few meetings. As far as I know, he never associated with the Masons after his return to Jamaica. So, the vaunted ‘bonds of friendship, compassion, and brotherly love‘ seemed missing for a significant portion of my father’s life. Technically, the Masonic regalia should be returned to them, and that is something I may explore in the new year.

Growing up in England, our house always had medical books, many of which were my father’s, and it was always interesting that he would give my mother advice on medical matters as she developed her career as a young nurse. Early in my life, it was natural to accept the idea that I would enter the medical field; after all, anatomy and things to do with the body and mind were the literature that surrounded me more than anything else.

Thinking back over my father’s life before he returned to Jamaica in the mid-1980s, it’s a great shame that I have no photographs of him showing his working life. In fact, the only photograph I have of my father in Jamaica before 1961 is his passport picture. Nowadays, with the arrival of digital devices that can take pictures better than many of the old cameras, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of almost any moment and every moment we choose. My daughters are not short of photographs of their father, and of themselves with their father and their mothers. For that reason, it’s important to try to give an image of my father based on my memory, rather than any images that shows clearly who or what he was. From 1962 onwards, there are some pictures of my parents in England, mainly at social events. I became a keen photographer in my mid-teens so it’s surprising that I do not have pictures of my parents from the late 1960s onwards. The reality is that my photographic interest was in other people and places in England and when I traveled abroad, taking the typical tourist pictures of things that were really new to me. I took a lot of candid photographs with a school friend, who like me was interested in photography, and we spent many hours developing pictures in his dark room.

I’m urging family members to dig around to see if they have pictures lurking around, so I may get lucky and discover some pre-1960s snaps. I recall seeing some pictures, including my father with his beloved BSA 250 motorcycle, before he had an accident and broke his leg. I remember riding on it with my parents to Palisadoes and the drive-in movie theatre at Harbour. View. But after a lifetime of moving around, I’ve no idea who has them.

Money can’t buy happiness? But, it covers a lot for a funeral

Always look on the bright side of life. So sings Eric Idle in The Life of Brian:

So, the birds are coming home to roost, in the week after my father’s funeral, or the bills are landing hard and fast.

Today, the average North American traditional funeral costs between $7,000 and $10,000. This price range includes the services at the funeral home, burial in a cemetery, and the installation of a headstone,’ reports a blog named Parting. That’s in line with figures cited by SmartAsset, when discussing possible insurance coverage.

My Daddy’s funeral was relatively straight forward, and save for a headstone, the actual direct burial costs have come to less than US$7000, so far.

But, in Jamaica or other places where people like to celebrate deaths, we know there’s much more to account for.

Now, it was a great 9 night, as I noted last week; my cousin did us proud again, as she’d done for my mother, her aunt, in 2004. This wake event is a given in Jamaica, and I said to those I’d asked to arrange it that cost wasn’t my concern and I didn’t need to know the details other than date and time; just make it happen.

My St. Elizabeth cousin who prepared the food told me she catered for 100+, after being asked to cover 60. She and two helpers cooked mannish water, fried chicken and fish, curried goat, rice and peas. Everyone ate heartily on the Saturday before the funeral. But, left overs also helped feed several over the weekend and mannish water was saved to add to the family lunch planned for after the burial. Drinks from the wake left plenty of leftovers for that lunch and still plenty remains to help make a merry Christmas. That’s a good return for J$115k for food and J$77k for liquor and sodas; that’s about US$920 and $620, respectively. But, you can’t put a price on happiness.

The repast after the burial was held at the church hall, and the caterers prepared for 100 people. A rough head count at the church and gravesite indicated around 120-150 people. All who wanted to have a meal could, including family and friends for whom a special lunch was available at home. But, a good number of family and friends couldn’t resist a cup of mannish water right after the burial and then the curried goat, BBQ chicken, fried fish and other food smelt really and was right there…😂🤔Even after serving so many, left overs were there to supplement the lunch. The repast caterer charges came to J$100k, including some tables and chairs. Happiness! The greatest gift that I possess.

But, the church hall has been paid for, and my father was a parishioner so we got it half-price. Oh, the organist needs to be paid.

The family lunch was donated by a close friend who owns a restaurant chain. I’m so touched by that gesture that makes the much-loved Jamaican phrase ‘good friends are better than pocket money’ real. 🇯🇲😍 I’d estimated 35 for that lunch but asked for 50 to be covered, and appetites were hearty.

Some of our Caribbean neighbours gear up some aspects of funerals just like weddings. Imagine matching outfits for the family and you’re right on track. We know that professional mourners are also popular with some people. Neither of these things took my fancy.

You decide if your pocket can stretch to the Bahamian offering, which I’m told could be part of a typical US$20,000 funeral bill.

Money makes the world go around? Believe it!

Taking the sting out of death and memories of my father

My father died peacefully at home on November 27, 2018 and was buried on December 11, 2018. His funeral was a lovely event at Mandeville Parish Church.

I wrote the Remembrance for him, which was delivered by one of my cousins.

For most of his life, my father’s birthday was celebrated on April 13, but a few years ago I learned that he’d been born on March 24, 1929. This mixup is not uncommon in Jamaica, as I’ve noted before. His grandmother mixed up his date of birth with that of another child she was registering. So it was that my father could celebrate two birthdays later in life. Though he was officially 89 at his death, I now wonder if he imagined that he was perhaps 99.

An aunt who knows the date of birth story intimately, said to me as soon as she greeted me at the graveyard “You know your Daddy’s birthday was in March, right?” I assured her I did but had to respect the official records lest he drop into another bureaucratic abyss. She smiled.

We know that deaths and their related events are often the time when skeletons, aptly, come out of closets. As the days passed, I joked about meeting at the funeral siblings I’d never heard of: “Guess you don’t know me; I’m your older brother, Falcao.” So far, those surprises haven’t surfaced. My father’s will is simple, so let’s hope that nothing awkward surfaces before it goes to probate.

Of course, dealing with the death necessitates unearthing things of historical relevance. As I tried to piece together recollections of my father, I knew that memories of those who’d known him as a boy and before I could recall were either fading or gone for good. I am blessed, however, that the live-in caregiver, who’d been with him and my mother for about 17 years, had tapped my father’s memories often, partly as a means of keeping him engaged after his stroke in 2006, but also because she enjoyed the telling and retelling of the stories. Over that time, she’d found and kept at my request some essential memorabilia, most importantly for me, the boarding and other travel documents from when my father and I migrated from Jamaica in 1961. But, latterly, she’d located the certificate showing my father qualifying as a mental nurse, in 1955, the year I was born. We looked over them again this past weekend, when we had the ‘set-up’ or ‘9 night‘ for the funeral.

Funerals are also great times to reconnect and it was pleasing to see many of my father’s longtime friends in Mandeville, remembering that he only went to live there after returning to Jamaica in the mid-1980s. A lot of his generation have already died. I was also glad to meet again, after a longtime, relatives I’d not seen for a few years, especially my St. Elizabeth cousins. Sadly, those few relatives who live abroad but couldn’t travel missed out on that.

But, such gatherings also throw up some surprising connections.

Never in my wildest imagination would I think that a man whom I’ve befriended since coming back to Jamaica would turn out to be a former colleague of one of my father’s sisters, and they’d worked together at Cornwall Regional Hospital. Now, this man and I have found many parallels in our lives already: we both lived and worked in England for a long time, though he’d migrated as an adult; we’d both taken early retirement; were both golfers, though he’s much better than me; we both speak Russian, and he shares a birthday with my wife. I’m a firm believer that there are no coincidences and that you meet people for a reason.

Jamaica being what it is, I was less surprised that a Mobay cousin found a former school alumna who’s now my good friend, but was more surprised that they’d grown up in the same area. That my aunt, her mother, was featured in the preceding story was a bit mind boggling.

One of the unexpected people at the funeral was the mother of a Jamaican man I’d first met in Barbados when we lived there about a decade ago. We’d discovered later that she and my father knew each other and often sat close to each other during services at the parish church! Then, there was the Mandeville friend who discovered that, after knowing me for a decade, my father’s house was two streets away from where she’d grown up.

Honestly, I’ve never relished the prospect of having to deal with my parents’ funeral arrangements, having no siblings and understanding the social code that places this on the shoulders of the children. Thankfully, I had an uncle who seemed to love doing this and did it well. He’d taken care of things for my mother, his sister, while I was living in west Africa and just on my way back across the Atlantic. But, he died unexpectedly earlier this year.

I am motivated to write something extensive about those professionals who help steer those close to the bereaved through the necessary processes after death, but I think I’ll leave that a while. There were things that happened along the way that could have been handled better, but for a first time round, I don’t think I’m scarred by the experience.

Ultimately, though I coordinated many things, it was truly a family affair, with hands, minds and hearts working together well to keep things running smoothly.

On the day of the funeral, I got very concerned that my father’s sister who lives in St. Mary wasn’t present at the start of the service and I’d heard she and her church friends had set off in plenty of time to take the cross-country route via Brown’s Town. My relief at seeing her at the churchyard gravesite was immense. But, things like a timely journey are some of the imponderables that you just have to hope work out well. She told me in a long phone call yesterday about the saga of the journey, involving hiring a bus, then deciding to use cars, but finding that the cars had one less seat than needed. In Jamaica, where overloading vehicles is a sport? No, sah! So, back to getting a bus. Oh, boy! They made it, though, in time to hear the Remembrance.

My biggest fear was that, as we took the casket from the church to the grave, we would drop the body. Jamaicans know all too well duppy stories, including bodies rolling out of coffins. I didn’t want to be associated with any such stories. As we were directed to manoeuver the cast in the church, I got nervous. I’d placed myself at the head end, at the front, then we were told to rotate the coffin so we could wheel it forward, so I was still at the head end, but now at the back of the six pall bearers. I thought I should lead, but what I good thing I was at the back. The passage to the grave yard is narrow and a coffin is astonishingly heavy, so the six sometimes could all get a good grip and the weight shifted awkwardly. “Lord, please don’t let us drop him!” I thought as we negotiated graves and headstones down steps and a slope to my parents’ plot. Then, we were directed to set the coffin over the grave, stepping carefully onto planks on the side. “Lord, please don’t let any of us slip into the grave!” I now thought. But, we set the casket correctly on the runners and I, at least, breathed a huge sigh of relief. I imagine no one wants a dress rehearsal for a funeral, but maybe, there’s a way to learn these moments earlier in life. Much like having a primer on funerals much earlier in life. But, I guess, we learn by doing and through the sharing of traditions.

As I grew up, I learned that parents are supposed to be strong support for their children. Funerals are times when those roles can shift, though. My eldest had already shed many tears when I told her about her grandfather’s death: she’d spent many happy moments with my parents soon after they came back to Jamaica and she was, first a toddler and then able to walk and run. She’d been with him to pick oranges from his trees for her breakfast and I remember her surprise that, even in the heat of Jamaica, the insides of the oranges were cold. She’d spent many a mealtime on his knee and seen him in his element farming his garden or on trips up to yam hills. She’d managed to see him often as she grew up in the US, either there or here, including since I came back to Jamaica, up through this year. I tried to keep her comforted by sharing lots of memories, especially this past week after she arrived last Saturday.

My younger daughter didn’t have as close or long a relationship, though also spent many happy hours with her paternal grandfather, including when he visited us in The Bahamas, soon after my mother’s death in 2004, and again in Guinea in 2006, before he had a stroke, then in Barbados when he was in a wheelchair. Sadly, most of her memories are when my father was much less active. Since she’s had the benefit of living in Jamaica, though, she’s absorbed differently being ‘around’ her relatives, seeing and hearing feeling families more closely. She especially absorbed Jamaicans’ fascination with death and has a healthy fear of duppies. She may feel the loss more when she sees or thinks about the chickens and dogs at Daddy’s house. The girls have their separate journeys.

I haven’t yet dissolved into tears. I thought I would at the funeral, but thought my father looked so good in his casket that all I felt was joy. I know that certain hymns have my number and when the refrain of I am the bread of life is sung I’m usually swimming in tears by the second ‘And I will raise them up’. This time, I felt a little lump in my throat but my voice didn’t crack. Five full verses and I was ready to start my new career as an opera singer. When the moment comes that I feel tears ready to flow, they will fall, or if my throat becomes exceedingly dry I’ll search for a glass of water. This may happen at such an unexpected moment that no one will understand. Hopefully, he will.

Disjointed Jamaican government writ large? Living as extras in a bad road movie

Jamaican government disregard for significant blocks of citizens has been a sadly apparent theme in 2018. It’s been manifested, especially, during the spate of road improvements that are underway, mainly in the Kingston Corporate Area.

People who opine about how democracy is poorly served by those who don’t vote ignore the salient fact that elected officials do not appear to serve well the interests of many, which should be what they focus on, irrespective of who has voted. A cynic may add that some elected officials focus much goodwill mainly on those who voted for them.

But, the road improvements chaos that many experience daily shows in many forms how government seems incapable of singing from the same song sheet.

The previous PNP administration talked much about ‘joined-up government’, which was often evidently missing. The current JLP administration does not have that mantra, but has talked much about accountability, though it’s really barely discernible. Read what PM Holness said a few months ago that Public servants will be held accountable. Below, are some thoughts on aspects of poor outcomes for pedestrians during the road improvements.

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