How can we not be mental slaves? 52 years and counting

On this auspicious day in Jamaican history, we call on the Auspices to give us inspiration. Strange though it may seem, today’s Daily Observer editorial grabbed some of my morning walk thoughts, so read their take on our Independence, including our schizoid nature, which had been running through my head.

That tendency towards schizophrenia is a national condition. I like the Wikipedia definition: mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and inactivity.

With that framework in mind, let me reconfigure my thoughts. Jamaicans are not just schizoid, but also almost like the perfect economist: they are always looking from one hand to the other hand. We are not quite the perfect blend that was the brilliant economist, John Nash, but give us time:

Give a Jamaican a seemingly good situation and within moments he or she is likely to start seeing the bad side. Failing that, he or she is likely to start the process of spoiling. Truth is, though, we often have good reason for this skepticism. Look at a major event yesterday.

Yesterday, a long-awaited 19 km stretch of road was opened, officially, between Linstead and Moneague, by-passing a notorious potential hilly bottleneck at Mount Rosser, where heavy trucks slow down travel or block the road with accidents.

Being who we are, pomp and ceremony were part of the events. Word soon came out that a government MP for the area had been ‘sent away’ by the PM for inappropriate dress (jeans and polo shirt, we heard). Whooiiii! We get a chance to laud the road for a few minutes, then get on with the business of lambasting our politicians–one of our favourite sports.

Why the pomp? Isn’t the country nearly broke? What foolishness about a dress code for such an event. (The media house who started that story later retracted it…more lambasting due about our shoddy media standards.)

If our flag had red in it, I would understand…

The PM–a consummate politician–tried to make much of the moment.20140806-082302-30182029.jpgShe talked about the toll-free month of use being an Independence gift to the people. What? Aren’t we in hock to the Chinese Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC)? I read that we will be paying cash and giving 1200 acres of land adjacent to the by-pass to CHEC. As befits Jamaica, the details of the financial arrangement come clearer at the end of the process: press reports indicate the full route, which has two more sections to be built by 2016, will cost US$730 million, but CHEC will reimburse Jamaica for US$120 million paid to the previous French developers who couldn’t figure our how to stop the road sinking….What gift? When the tolls kick in next month, the gift will be a distant memory for those who hadn’t driven till then. What nonsense! It’s deferred payment. But, on the one hand, our politicians are quick to “feel” the people’s pain, but also quick to take credit for any gains. It won’t be lost on Jamaicans that the event’s supporting cast was dressed like Chinese ladies IN RED, NOT IN JAMAICAN COLOURS. Gift? Our Indepenence. Dress code? Don’t make my blood boil.

We hear the PM urging investors to take advantage of the opportunities the new road presents. We hear the people of Faith’s Pen may also get relocated to a rest stop so that the loss of traffic through Mount Rosser won’t cripple their economic outlook.

So, while some will try to get us to see the upsides of our Indpendnce, it’s not hard to believe that we’ve merely traded the slave manacles for colonial servitude for another form of economic bondage. I think I tend to be more positive in face of certain truths than many Jamaicans. But, I’m also not a blithering idiot. Yes, we will roll out renditions of songs celebrating our nationhood.

But, we have plenty of reasons to think like that archetypical economist. So much, yet so little. We are also clearly in our strait jackets, banging our heads against walls, and crying “Nurse!”

Happy Independence!

Emancipendence time

A fellow (female) blogger stole my sentiment this morning. This period between Emancipation Day (August 1) and Independence Day (August 6) is awkward. People really don’t want to slide from one holiday to another with a few days’ break; this time, the first holiday was on a Friday. Most people who can think want to straddle that to the next holiday on Wednesday, especially as schools are closed and many kids may be out with grandma or at camp. It’s good adult peace time.

But, I’m not convinced the media struggle at this time, as Jamaica is so full of foolishness that the slow summer months seem like the rest of the year.

It’s beyond fiction that a ‘man of unsound mind’ can disarm a police officer and then go in a shooting spree in the busiest part of the country. But, in Jamaica that’s what we had at the weekend. Only to find out that the gun was in a ‘non-standard’ holster. Was the budget busted so the officer had to go to a flea market for a replacement? Or, as a commentator said, the officer wanted to have a ‘cowboy’ holster? But, in the Jamaican way of ‘ah so we dweet’, where we do what we want, we should be grateful that the gun had real bullets. Though, maybe, a set of blanks would have helped.

I rarely read what passes for court reporting, but now and again a story catches my eye. Yesterday, I read of a man choking a woman to steal her cell phone. In his defence, the man said he just “took it from her”. The judge had little time for this nonsense and slapped the choker-non thief with six months in jail. Was that worse, though, than the man who fought a woman though her car window to steal a chain, then hide it between his toes in his shoe?

If I believe what I read and hear, then the world health authorities are getting to terror levels in their concerns about the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in recent days that the disease ‘is out of control’. But, in Jamaica, where all is cool and Irie, our Ministry of Health is going the extra step…not. They noted, proudly, that they are monitoring the WHO website. Are you serious? Better than playing Candy Crush, I guess. I hear the sound of deep snoring from behind the minister’s door…But, Jamaica has at least mastered the lingo of international boo-ha-ocracy: We are not yet in ‘the category of at risk countries’, but “we continue to ensure that our systems are strengthened so that we can have an effective response if the need arises”. Our “surveillance system has already been heightened”, we will be “sensitizing staff” and “monitoring of the situation.” Well, blah me down!

The spokeswoman said “public education is also an important feature of the Ministry’s strategy and stressed that there has been no change in the position of the Ministry as it relates to facilitating interviews and providing information through the media about any health related matter. As part of our communication plan, we will continue to partner with the media through interviews and other methods of disseminating information so that the public is kept informed and understand their part of the responsibility to deal with these types of diseases.” Hold on! Is this the same ministry that refused to give RJR interviews last week on this topic? Can’t be, right. 20140805-071203-25923807.jpgThe spokeswoman, Dr. Marion Bullock DuCasse is entitled Director, Emergency, Disaster Management and Special Services. Is that ‘DEADMESS’ in acronym speak?

Finally, we heard that the Minister of National Security–fittingly, at this time, Mr. Bunting–will be giving more beef to the fight against corruption by merging two agencies and having them called MOCA (the same acronym as one of the old agencies, which some find a bit confusing). I’ll give MOCA a bly for at least putting itself into the world of miner communication with a vengeance. It took to Twitter and Facebook to try to explain the new moves, thinking new followers, and being all social media-friendly.

Maybe, someone should look over the partition and tell those security officers who can be seen bundling a girl in a wheel chair into a police vehicle that evenhandedness and respect for citizens starts with understanding that we are all now watching carefully every move. Maybe, MOCA can do some outreach and explain how the modern world works. Don’t let the rest if JCF make mockery of crime fighting. In fact, fight less and deal with crime more.

Meantime, I’m going to take a slice of that wonderful new bun made by Morhers, specially for Independence.


Independence 2013: KISS Jamaica

Today, Jamaica celebrates its 51st anniversary of Independence.GrandGalaU20120806RB Although, born here and slightly older than the independent nation, I have never been here for Independence, so this will be a first. My 9 year-old gets to do something I haven’t ever done–go to the Grand Gala and Float Parade at the National Stadium. I hope it will be a thrilling and colorful spectacle and that she can come home and tell me excitedly what she saw and heard, and who and what she saw and heard. I will get the benefit of “improved coverage” on television.tj876-jamaica-50-grand-gala-48

A little local brouhaha has broken out about the government spending J$100 million (US$1 million) on the independence celebrations, not just the gala. I will ask those who go to the gala if they feel it was money well spent in the spirit of cultural education.

Many questions have been asked about what Jamaica has to show for over 50 years of independence, and recently, some have looked at how it has fared compared to Singapore–soon to be 48. Relative to Jamaica, Singapore made its life simple–it applied a lot of the KISS principle. Its ruling party kept political opposition in check–never losing an election. It kept tight rules in place over much of the nation’s life. Singapore started with very little land and very few people. Now it still has very little land, but many more people, and they are considerably richer than Jamaicans in financial terms. They are better educated that Jamaicans. They are more honest than Jamaicans. They produce more than Jamaicans, individually and collectively. But, are they better off than Jamaicans? I’ll think about that a little today.

If I ask myself “For what is Singapore known?” I struggle to come up with five things. I think of food–and Singapore noodles are not Singaporean, as far as I know. I think of rules, especially some seemingly strange ones, such as no chewing gum allowed, or some interesting applications of modesty (no nudity, or hugging in public without permission). I’d applaud the heavy fines for littering, though. I think of Lee Kwan Yew, credited as being the founder of modern Singapore: a clear thinker with a philosophy that was well-focused and consistently applied as a national leader. But, that’s not really a lot, and maybe Singapore, in good Asian fashion, prefers to be less-noticeable, and somewhat self-effacing, and is happy to be judged by what it has done and done. PM Lee made a pact with the people, when he assured them of good education, housing and health provisions, and in return they would give the country their hardest and best work.

That is not Jamaica or Jamaicans, whether it’s from our largely African heritage, years of slavery that needed to be unbound, the impact of too much rum and sun and sand and sea. We love fun and brashness. We love music and wild public display. We love to show off our bodies–though some really ought to stay covered up. We have super egos (“No one is better than me”). We’re happy to be considered inferior, because we believe we are superior, and we will try to show doubters they are wrong. We have a great landscape, from almost every position you care to look, especially from the air. We don’t have a lot of skyscrapers, thank God. We have a lot of bad people, who seem to have no conscience, but they are much fewer than the really good and thoughtful people.

I’ve visited Singapore, and I liked it. I stayed with English, Singaporean Chinese and Malay friends. It was only a week, but I saw a lot and experienced a lot, formally and informally. The food was truly fabulous. I’m sad that I have not been back. I could live there, for the order and cleanliness that surrounds everything, much like in Switzerland. But, give me Jamaica any day. I grew up accustomed to seeing goats on the roadside, and whenever I drive around nothing seems more normal than the simplicity of goats grazing wherever they may be in town or country. I hate litter, and stand gobsmacked when I see gullies strewn with styrofoam boxes and plastic bottles or other garbage. I laugh at the reckless bravado shown by young people hanging out of the back of a truck flying along a dusty road, and hope that they don’t come to any harm, but hanker for a lift up to get in there with them. I love the mayhem of a market or a busy street in Jamaica. Wares and wears for sale. What can you say when a man waves a pair of huge bloomers in the air and yells “Briefs and panties for sale!”? Stephen Stills had it right, “Love the one you’re with“.

That my be easier that trying to be what you’re not and perhaps feeling the need to adopt Stephen Covey’s principles.

So, today, with its tarnished self on stage, Jamaica can try to love itself for what it is, and give itself a big kiss. Who knows, this ugly frog may still turn out to be a handsome prince 🙂

Free to do what?

One lamentable aspect of modern Jamaica is the level of violent crime. Once dubbed the ‘murder capital of the world’, Jamaica, especially the Kingston corporate area, remains tightly associated with being killed violently. Murders have risen from about 80 a year just before Independence to over 1600 in recent years, from around 9 per 100,000 people in 1961-2, to 63 murders per 100,000 in 2009. That is a truly horrific development.

Yesterday was Emancipation Day, 2010-06-21-1.EmancipationParkKingstonJamaicaand it prompted some friends to comment on what Jamaica has to show for the long road travelled from slavery to freedom. Would our ancestors be standing agape that we were now using our freedom from the brutalities of slavery to brutalize each other, and to chop, stab, shoot, poison and strangle each other to death? To the extent that the growth in violence is related to other crimes, such as drug dealing or extortion or corruption, and may be ‘organized’, it requires a different response than if the violence is in some sense the outcome of disputes in simple domestic relations. Neither type is excusable, and both reflect a certain disregard for human life, but I don’t see them as being the same problems.

I am not a product of modern Jamaica, meaning I have little experience of living here since Independence. The Jamaica I remember is that of the 1950s. As a boy, I heard about crime, but cannot recall witnessing any. I knew there were criminals because I lived near the prison in downtown Kingston, and it was full of ‘bad men’. So, I have not had to see and live through the escalation in crime that has taken place over the past 50-plus years. I read and heard about it, but it did not really affect my daily life. I had to deal with living in other violent or crime-ridden places, but the nature and development of Jamaica’s crime problem did not appear to be the same as I experienced in London and Washington DC.

Crime is not new to this small island, but violent crimes on a daily basis were not the norm before Independence, and it stayed that way well into the early 1970s.Academic studies (using data from Economic and Social Survey of Jamaica) have divided the development of crime in Jamaica since Independence into three distinct phases: ‘The first phase (1962-1976) is marked by a predominance of property crimes and relatively low rates of violent crime. This is consistent with the traditional pattern of criminal offending seen during the colonial period. The second phase (1977-late 1980s) marks the turn to violent crime. While in 1974, 10 percent of all recorded crimes were violent, by 1984, 41 percent of all recorded crimes were violent. The third stage (roughly 1989 to the present) is characterized by two major developments: the rise of transnational organized crime and the development of a subculture of violence.’ Many will see the turning point in the mid-1970s as having its root in a disturbing alliance between criminals and politicians, involving guns and drugs. Would that our rulers could be so uncaring for our people? Some would see a horrible irony in the creation of new ‘slave masters’ amongst those whom the people had chosen as their representatives.

Few people in Jamaica remain untouched by crime and violence, and are rightly fearful that they may become victims. How Jamaica has developed in recent decades is testimony to that, with the ubiquitous presence of bars and grills on homes–veritable prisons in what people used to term their ‘castles’. In Kingston, we see the rise in gated communities. Across the country, we see the rapid growth in security companies, whose adverts now show proudly men armed seemingly for major military operations, almost as a minimum requirement for a safe and decent life. Sadly, they have supplanted the police force–whom few trust because of their proven culpability shown by the huge docket of unsolved crimes and their participation in crimes–as the persons to whom citizens turn if they are under threat.  People who live in upscale Kingston neighbourhoods state that they wont walk there any more because of the risk of attack, which may be small in reality, but is enough for them to perceive it as posing too big a risk. Fittingly and ironically, many prefer to walk in Emancipation Park in New Kingston. I also visit few homes that do not have at least one ‘bad’ dog in the yard, and three and four dogs are quite common: if their bites are as bad as their barking, then the burglar or intruder wont have an easy time. I see many homes with alarm systems. That’s modern Jamaican life. In the race of that, however, it seems that (legal) civilian gun ownership in Jamaica is relatively low–about 8 per 100,000 people, compared to 6 per 100,000 in the UK, 2 per 100,000 in Trinidad, and a whopping 100+ per 100,000 in the USA.

But, given the perceived risks of violent crimes, I see a good number of apparent residents walking the roads in upscale neighbourhoods each evening (as opposed to the many workers walking from those neighbourhoods to get home by taxis and buses). In general, the population has not been held captive by the risk of violent crime: people still go out at night and stay out late, though they may do this with a high degree of caution, and they may be choosing venue that seem to have better security (though this is hard to tell). I see people walking alone late at night, both women and men. (I have no idea how many do so with personal arms available to offer some self-protection.) People head out to clubs and parties into the wee hours of the morning. People will also attend mass events with apparent readiness, presumably with some trepidation, but they go anyway. Many people blithely walk along with cell phones, talking and texting, even though thefts of phones and related crimes are prevalent.

Life in poorer neighbourhoods is hard, and to the extent that many violent crimes happen in an around such areas makes it more likely that they will avoided, if possible, especially after dark. Many of these areas are not frequented casually during the daytime. I’ve not seen any signs that they carry any chic appeal, yet, and may be on the cusp of some transformation through the kind of gentrification common in some industrial countries. So, it’s still largely a case of “those poor people…”. Bad things happen to them and that’s the status quo; those who can, avoid those areas. I would be thought crazy if I suggested taking a stroll through the run down and delapidated structures that mark much of downtown Kingston (but, it’s on my ‘to do’ list :-)).

The daily news is littered with gory stories that reflect a wanton brutality that is all-too-common. Reports of missing persons are often tinged with the fear that someone has been abducted and will be found mutilated in bushes somewhere. The apparent randomness of some violent crime is a destabilising influence on many lives. Driving with locked car doors and windows is more the norm. You will find it hard to hide from the feeling that crime is everywhere. While, it may not be right to say that the high level of violent crime is accepted, it is more a part of everyday life than it should be. I was talking to a cousin about things her husband used to do, such as eat roast fish at the weekend with a friend, when she glibly stated “Dem kill him” to report that his friend was no longer around. I didn’t ask then who ‘they’ were, but therein lies a tale.

A well-argued analysis published in the Gleaner last year, by Bernard Headley (retired professor of criminology and professor emeritus (sociology) at the North-eastern Illinois University, Chicago, USA), looked at the rise in crime since Independence, putting much blame on the major changes in the society that resulted in fast population growth, rapid urbanisation and dramatic changes in the nature of economic growth (moving from mainly rural/small community and self-sufficient, to urban dwelling (including the development of large squatter communities) and industrial production). We may want to argue with his thesis, but we have to acknowledge the rise in violent crimes that has been associated with these developments. Rising economic and social inequalities have been linked to increasing poverty and deprivation, and with that, alienation or marginalization of large groups of society. That has been at the root of rising crime in many urban areas, not just in Jamaica.

Many groups and places in Jamaican society are now steeped in crime, often violent, and accept (unwillingly, but inevitably, one presumes) that as a part of their life. Unfortunately, many young people see that as part of their route to adulthood–mired in a culture of violent crimes. That has become part of a lifecycle that may be normal and has few natural opportunities to be broken.

The rapid increase in violent crimes reflects the breaking down of many important social foundations and relations (some will see negative developments in religious practices, family cohesion, and job opportunities as major culprits). Halting and reversing that trend requires the rebuilding of many such relations, which is a major task not least because it needs to undo things that have now become well-entrenched. It also means building or rebuilding trust in areas and between people that has been lost over many years and because of many real grievances (including seemingly brutal ‘justice’ meted out by the police). Institutions may help, and may be necessary to improve living conditions for large parts of the population, through housing, education, health and other social provisions (including those offering activities and opportunities for young people). Better employment opportunities will often be very important, but cannot be created ‘out of thin air’. They cannot be created in a sustained way by institutions, especially in the face of faltering economic activity.

But, even with good institutional involvement, ultimately, the changes will come down to personal willingness to do things differently. In that regard, a particular challenge will be to reduce or eliminate tolerance given to those known to be the main actors. Those who have much to gain from crime and tolerating it, will want to defend their gains as much as possible, and may see opportunities for more gains if others decide to withdraw. Crime really has to be made too costly, either in real financial terms or in terms of social and political disapproval. Fear of retribution (personal or institutional) may not be a trivial consideration for many people, and it is hard to see that declining if people cannot see the real prospect of being protected from retribution, whether by other institutions or other individuals. Trying to hide from crime wont really help, though it may ‘feel good’, whether it means curbing normal activity or declining certain civic duties (eg, acting as witnesses, jury service, etc.) Trying to thwart crime will mean being readier to act against than be a bystander, which will seem much riskier. But, it may take less action rather than less inaction.

As people lament the country’s economic condition, it remains a salutary reminder that violent crime has cost Jamaica very dearly in terms of economic growth in the past and potential growth opportunities as likely investors choose ‘safer’ locations.

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