We deh yah still! (We’re still here!)

An IMF team is on the island to assess economic progress through December 2013 and look at prospects for coming months. Some of the Jamaican financial officials whom I know commented casually in recent days that “everything is alright”. The official numbers seem set to pass the levels needed to satisfy the Fund. All’s well with the world. Well, yes and no. Jamaica’s economy is not on its knees, but it walks with a gait and with a bent back. It’s not striding confidently ahead and may yet find some rocks over which to stumble. But, apart from the official data, what do our eyes and ears tell us?

I cannot go anywhere in Jamaica without thinking about the state of the country–it’s economy and its social structure. I’m more struck to think when I get out of Kingston. Yesterday, I headed to Mandeville, in the hills of the parish of Manchester. It’s economic base has been based on bauxite industry activities and agriculture. In more recent times, the parish has gained from being an attractive location for returning residents. Coming back to Jamaica, often with foreign currency incomes, these people have been able to deal with harder economic times in Jamaica. They are not super-rich by any measure, but can enjoy a comfortable life. Some have found readjustment to Jamaican life a real challenge. Others have thrived on being able to get back to their national, if not really local, geographical roots. Of those, a good number try their hand at market gardening, planting and rearing enough to provide much of their daily fruit and vegetable needs, maybe with a little poultry rearing thrown in.

The parish is mainly rural and spread out. The decline in bauxite activity has taken its toll on the fortune of what is Jamaica’s third city (it’s a large town, really). A report last year noted that one of Mandeville’s former private schools, Belair High, was becoming government-funded, and begun to open itself to a wider market, in part because the fee-paying base has declined. Changes such as this are not easily seen by the occasional or casual visitor, but they are still real.

What appears more evident is the hustle and bustle of the town centre of Mandeville, or that of towns one passes on the road, such as Porus. At a glance, not much seems different from a year ago, but it seems less than in years before then. Taxis and Coaster minibuses ply their trade as usual, but I heard from some drivers that business is harder to find. People have no other options to get from settlements outside Mandeville to the centre, or from the parish to other places. Of course, the market for public transport is tough: taxis and buses will fill themselves with people and belongings and try to maximise fares from each journey. That, sometimes, means a tough time for the riders. I got an impression from people I know who use taxis a lot and a driver that the operators are fewer. (I’m frustrated that I cannot find figures to prove that.) I know, from press reports that the business has become more dangerous, with reports of attacks on drivers, and a recent report of a driver being allegedly beaten by police.

Crime has risen and that has begun to take its toll on business confidence, especially as several businesses and their owners have been targets for violent attacks. Police commentators talk about the area still being safe. Everything is relative: more crimes are reported than before, but fewer crimes occur than is say the more populous areas of St. Catherine and Kingston/St. Andrew.

I did not get to go outside Mandeville town centre yesterday, so I cannot say how things appeared in the field, so to speak. I did not go to the area near the normally bustling market, either. I still saw a good number of vendors on the road side, selling oatahite apples (in season)

Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite
Oatheite apple, a Jamaican favourite

, pineapples, yam (of which, I read there is a glut, and also in abundance at the Melrose Hill yam park, where I wanted to stop to grab some soup). As I pulled into the area, a flock of vendors waving roast yam and sweet potatoes rushed towards my car. “Buy one, nuh, sah!” I waved them off and focused on the lady with a large soup pot. I asked her how business was. “It’s up and down,” I heard. It’s on the busy main road that brings traffic from Kingston and east through to Montego Bay and west and south. During the week, the business will be the passing travellers, who, like me, are hungry and need a filling and easy meal to break their journeys. I reflected on the fact that it’s not an area where many tourists will reach–their loss (but that’s another story).

Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester
Soup seller, ladelling corn soup; Melrose Hill, Manchester

A few vehicles were parked and travellers were standing, enjoying what they had bought. I started drinking my soup, put down my corn for later, and headed back on the road; I wanted to get to Kingston before traffic got too heavy in the city.

Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park
Vendors at Melrose Hill, Manchester, yam park

Life lived abundantly would not be a bad phrase to apply to the parish, most of the time. As I noted, I did not get out of the town centre. I went to a supermarket to buy bottled water. I also went to a large pharmacy, to get school supplies for a geography project. Both were quiet; but a 10 am in the morning, that was not surprising. It was also a day on which a funeral was being held for a well-known son of the soil, and the car park to the church was jam-packed. I saw a lot of people also standing near the church. Not invited, but interested?

I also went to the post office, to try to help draw pension money for my father. However, the post office had no cash! This was a first for me. I don’t know how the government funds the agencies such as post offices, who are charged with paying benefits. I thought about the wasted journeys that had been made that day, with money and time spent for no purpose. For those, who needed to cash to do other things that day, tomorrow would have to be better. I thought of the simpler arrangements that exist in places like the USA or UK, where payment could be made through bank or even post office accounts, and then spending could be done with check or credit/debit cards or online. But, Jamaica is not there. I thought about lost productivity and lost production. Another brick in the inefficiency building.

We went to buy paint supplies. We checked prices at one hardware store, then found that they did not have the colour we needed for the exterior. We went to the next store, a few minutes away. We found all we needed. A reasonable number of customers were there for the mid-afternoon. Outside the store was a large armoured truck with a guard clutching a shotgun rifle (I think, not being an arms expert). Prices were a little higher than in the other store, but we were stuck because of choice. I asked if we got discounts for bulk or for being senior citizens. We were told to ask at the cashier’s desk: we got a 10 percent reduction.

Outside the first store, a man was selling cucumbers, two in a bag, but sold as a pound; they looked really nice and we bought two pounds. I asked why he didn’t sell them by number–they all looked about the same size. “I weigh them and know it’s right,” he replied. (It’s fairer to buyers to sell by weight, but without a scale, at time of sale, the question about true weight will always be there.) Outside the other store, another man was selling yam, but we did not need any; he backed off readily and looked for the next arrival. Typical of Jamaica, people freely try to sell things and make a little living. Where there are people passing, there be markets.

On the way home, we stopped to buy fruit from a lady on the roadside, just as we entered Clarendon, from Manchester–as planned. We know her well and she was pleased to see us. We bought ortaniques, bananas, sour sop (for juice),and limes; she gave us two papayas as brawta (a little extra). She lives in her roadside shop, and I looked through the opening behind the fruit, where she had her bed. The room looked to be about 9 feet square. I wondered what else was there besides a bed. She guarded us as we tried to cross the busy road, back to the car and gave us her blessing. Screenshot 2014-02-07 07.00.51

We made one last stop, also planned, near a bend in the road where the river passes. We’d seen in the past young boys with bags of janga (fresh water shrimps/crayfish). We wanted to make soup with them. As with the yam sellers, as soon as we stopped, three youth came running with their bags aloft. They were selling one pound bags, and we got two to be sure we had enough. We bought from a boy we’d seen before, but missed out on buying because we hadn’t known the sellers would be at that spot. Now, we were ready 🙂

The car was full inside and in the trunk. That’s how it’s supposed to be when you visit the country, we joked to each other. The land is very productive and we enjoy that when we see its riches on display. But, we only see the surface, and usually that is the result who hard work and struggles needed are hidden from us.

On the radio, the first report was about the struggles of pineapples farmers in St. Elizabeth (which borders Manchester), who are being blighted by disease, low prices, and bad roads that hamper getting produce to markets. Reality check.