On Saturday, I spent the ride from Kingston to Montego Bay seated next to a Pastor. Honestly, this was a first in all of my years of travel.
A few days ago I had tried to explain to someone how multi-textured Muslims were. I’d spent nearly four years working and living in Guinea, west Africa, where Islam is the official religion for about 90-95 percent of the population. But, that branch of Islam is built on a deep base of animist beliefs. So, for example, it was customary for homes and offices to have a statue of the goddess Nimba facing the doorway, to ward off evil spirits.
The Goddess Nimba
As soon as I arrived in the country office that was to be my post for the next few years, my secretary had me out in the street markets looking for a ‘good’ Nimba. In fact, I would need two: one for my office, and another for my residence; but, I did not have that, yet. I found a nice dark carving and placed her carefully facing any guests who would visit. “Soyez le bienvenue en Guinée!”
By contrast, Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Indonesia did not have the same cultural base.
Guinea is more like Jamaica than Saudi Arabia. It was common to see bare-breasted women on the streets of any town. That was part of national culture, and if Mohamed didn’t like it, he could lump it. Women in short pants and riding motorbikes were also a common sight. Go to Riyadh or Tripoli, and those displays would put the sheikhs into a shaking fit or send them tripping.
Guinea’s major manufacturer is a brewery, and you have no problem getting an ice-cold bottle of Skol or Guiluxe in a bar, or a six-pack in a store. Go to Saudi Arabia or Libya and you may have grape juice. Cheers!
So, my mind was primed for things religious and cultural.
The Pastor and I were just getting to know each other. I declared my professional background. I asked him about his congregation. He had two, one in St. Thomas, one in Montego Bay. He was a Pentecostal. He said they were mainly young. That was in contrast to my Anglican parish church in Kingston, which was mainly middle-aged, at least. What else was notable, I asked. “Voodoo,” he said. ‘Science’, ‘Obeah’. He elaborated. His people believed in God, but they also believed in other supernatural forces. Obeah in Jamaica is well-known, and features much in the life country areas, more than in Kingston. But, given the regular and familial interactions between town and country, Obeah is well-known throughout the island.
I do not mess with Obeah and won’t talk about it much. I know people who think it’s powerful. I don’t understand it’s workings, but won’t diss it. I know Obeah yards. My mother was once threatened in our home in London by a woman tenant wielding a large kitchen knife who accused her of working Obeah on her. We eventually, disarmed the woman and she was taken away by the police.
It’s funny listening to some recent discussions in Jamaica, which have a Christian component to them. You’d think that black Jamaicans arrived in Jamaica from Africa as full-fledged Christians. My understanding is that we ‘got (biblical) religion’ only in the late-18th century. Our ancestors came to the Americas with their pre-existing beliefs, including Obeah, on which Christianity was perched. We still have many of those dominating our lives. Maybe, some people forget that rather quickly.
Evangelists feeling the spirit
We’re renowned waggonists. We lash out at some of those who’ve lived with their religious traditions for over 1000 years, and here we are, like reformed smokers or new teetotalers, preaching how wicked they are. We’re new kids on the block.
The Pastor told me more about his congregation. He was fully invested in helping them find directions in their lives. He did this with his weekly trips north, as well as his work in his St. Thomas and Kingston bases.
We moved on to talk about children. That was my fault. I had been keeping half an eye on the film showing on the Knutsford Express bus, Life of a king, staring Cuba Gooding. It was about how young people in a detention centre were helped to learn chess and its value in transforming lives. It was full of feel-good teaching moments. We got onto discipline and getting children to do the right things.
He asked for my views on what he did regarding spelling: if his child gets her 30 words right each week, he gave her a reward; she could choose. I told him that I did not think that bargains with children were good things for adults to make, because children have different value points and often take an offered deal only for the adult to then not like the outcome, want to change the deal, and then getting angry with the child who had accepted the offer. For instance, parents tell a child to “clean your room, or else”. The child wants to know or else, what. The parent then says “You’re grounded.” The child may be happy with that, especially if it had no desire to go out and was happy to be locked in the bedroom and left to get on with something like playing games or rearranging toys. Taken. The child does not clean the room. The adult sees this and is angry. “Didn’t I tell you to clean your room?” The child says he/she took the ‘or else’. Thanks. The adult did not get what he or she wanted. The child did. The adult is now frustrated or angry. Children often see things more simply than adults so can be happy with these sorts of negotiations.
But, his deal was not bad. I told him that I do not bargain with my child, but try to get her to see the right thing to do, and figure out how to get there. I have some strong positions, which my child knows. If she wants another position, she approaches her mother. I tell her, however, not to play us against each other. Many children do, successfully, because adults who have not agreed or agree but do not apply consistently, do not go back to each other and renegotiate. The economist in me sees this as an arbitrage situation, which children exploit: Dad wont, Mum will. “Mum!” The parents then get into a spat. The child observes and smiles, and waits for the next opportunity to get this situation going.
We found that our children were both at the recent swim meet for prep and primary aged children. We compared notes about how adults arranged the world of children. His religious training put his at an interesting perspective. Maybe, God would see it fit to help the adults. 🙂
We reached Falmouth, and while the driver loaded and unloaded, the film was paused. We both complained that we had not seen the end: the film was reaching an exciting climax, with the ghetto, one-time gangster, black youth, playing in a test tournament against a well-known, preppy-looking, white elite player. We wanted to see how that ended. We both agreed that if the ghetto youth lost, his life was now on a different and better path, already, and he was likely to stay on that. His coach (Eugene Brown, played by Gooding), had had his life transformed, having spent 18 years in jail on a bank robbery charge.
‘Eugene Brown’ plays his chess game in jail and would look to get youths to see its value
The film restarted as we continued towards Montego Bay. I wont spoil the ending.
As we arrived at the Montego Bay stop in town, we exchanged cards: though retired, I had found that networking in Jamaica works better if I have a card to exchange. I had found a young lady in town who designed and made business cards, amongst other things, and had some prepared. Funnily, I had collected them during the lunch break of the last prep-primary school swim meet. I noticed that his card mentioned everything he did, which including screen printing, though not that he was a Pastor. I smiled to myself. I stayed on the bus to the airport, where I was due to be met by a friend and then taken to watch her husband and my friend play in the national trials.
If you play golf, you think you see the hand of God, or some outside force often. You get those bounces that defy logic and keep your ball in play in better-than-expected positions. You could, of course, just see that as luck, which is in plentiful supply.
The name of some god is often invoked in Jamaica to support positions. I read with much interest a series of articles over the weekend, of which the most fascinating was that by Ian Boyne, whom his employer, The Gleaner, bills as a ‘veteran’ journalist. I always wonder why that is necessary; I think it’s to give a certain gravitas, especially when linked to his working for the Jamaica Information Service. His views are supposed to carry weight, after all of that. His piece had a catchy byline that included the three Bs: bible, bigotry and buggery. Fitting, to go with Boyne. It’s basic point was that for the current arguments against same-sex marriage and ‘normalisation of homosexuality’ must involve ‘destroying’ biblical arguments. It’s a very interesting piece, which I recommend. I’m not going to discuss it here. I just found myself going back over my weekend meetings with the evangelist pastor and his flock of voodoo-inspired Christian folk.
For many, in Jamaica, the debate going on around these subjects are rooted in biblical beliefs. That same set of beliefs guides other attitudes towards certain sexual behaviour in Jamaica. It’s always notable, however, how those same beliefs either get ignored or forgotten when other sexual or more general social behaviour is either discussed or enacted in Jamaica. Most people know that we are a bunch of hypocrites on this. What is perplexing, and I do not pretend to have come up with an explanation that holds for very long, is how we do that. The why is easy. But, the how is really complicated.
Jamaicans’ belief in the Christian god is strong. Their belief in other gods is strong, too, whether they are in the Abrahamic tradition or also from far back but out of many parts deep in African culture. Stronger? The god of the majority is not the god that rules the minds of the majority. One god of the minorities, Jah Rastafari, is very new on the scene, and has visited Jamaica, and has captured the minds of a minority who have ‘sold’ his teachings to the Jamaican majority and far further. Other gods are powerful. More powerful. I now wonder more which god is ruling the minds and hearts of Jamaicans.
I can see that I am not going to have an easy mental week. I was extremely tired heading into last week. Jamaica is mashing up my head, but it’s all in a good cause, I hope. For god’s sake, help me figure out how this country is really thinking.