Literally, speaking–Redux: media professionals and teachers don’t help

When I wrote yesterday, I had in my mind the unacceptably high number of Jamaicans who had not benefitted from learning the fundamentals of the official language. My compassion was driven by what I see in play, daily. Many Jamaicans may not feel burdened, but are at a severe disadvantage within Jamaica and also compared with many abroad when it comes to bidding for jobs. That drag on employment prospects is at the front of my mind. Our high illiteracy is a major impediment to our raising labour productivity.

But, the problem of the general population is worsened by failings in places where we would not expect to see illiteracy or poor grammar on a regular basis–in the education sector and in the mainstream media. We expect teachers to know, and even if not majoring in English, we often assume skills in that area are higher than average; that may be an unfair assumption, however. Likewise, we expect the wordsmiths of our society to be also high on the pole of those who have mastered the official language. But, I find in Jamaica that those are wrong assumptions more often than I think is acceptable. Just look at what hit me at random today:

‘That, essentially, was what was expected to happen in Tivoli Gardens after to 2010 operation to route strongman and gang leader, Christopher Coke.’

That sentence is from today’s Editorial in The Gleaner. Can you spot the errors?

Let me help: ‘after to’ should read ‘after the’; ‘route’ (a course taken) should read ‘rout’ (retreat of defeated unit). 

Is it reasonable that a national media publication produced by people trained in communications should make such mistakes? Who is responsible for quality control? Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 5.35.54 AMIf the quality oversight is poor in the main part of the publication that expresses the paper’s opinions can we expect it to be higher elsewhere in the routine reporting?

I often utter a huge guffaw when various mainstream media practitioners try to argue about the higher quality of mainstream media professionals (often demeaning many who are in the world of newer communications, like bloggers, like me). My reaction is not pure defensiveness–and I do not see pure self-service on their part–but based on the rigour that I had to go through daily in my written and oral communication, and which formed how I always approach what I do. I have no supervisor, so have to rely on a tough attitude towards my own mistakes. I am no saint, but I’m far from a sinner in this area. So, I take great pleasure is find and pointing out the kind of error I saw this morning.

But my pleasure is muted. Those who do not know what is wrong will inevitably repeat that error. Admitted, it’s not realistic for a newspaper to be reprinted. In the world of electronic media, the digital version can be corrected, so The Gleaner online version, which I read earlier this morning could realistically be expected to be corrected later today. I pointed out the errors in the online comments; let’s see what happens.

I got a communication from school yesterday that was full of grammatical howlers; I see them often. But, as the school year comes to an end, I thought it would helpful to gently point out that I thought it reflected poorly on the school. They accepted my point, and pointed out some slips in their quality control. But, I don’t want my child using such communications as their guide, which they will because ‘Teacher knows best’ in the school arena.

If I seem pedantic in these concerns, fine. I have the luxury of being able to spot what’s wrong and also enough sad memories of what it can mean if one lets them go uncorrected.

Literally speaking,¬†language will break us

Every day, in many ways, the same problem stares me in the face: Jamaican illiteracy. My concern with it isn’t just what it says about how poorly we have educated a huge portion of the population. It’s also what it implies for how well we can do things: call that efficiency, productivity, or some other term that tells you how we can be better than other people. Our inability to communicate well at a high level is a brake (not break) on our progress. When I see people sitting idly on street corners and think about how bad our unemployment levels and rates are, I also have to ask how will their situation change if the economy were to grow very fast and the demand for labour rise rapidly. More jobs are being created in the realm of information management than in the area of manual labour. These are not people who seem to be ready for training in new skills in the information sector; they can do merely simple tasks like ‘heavy lifting’ and ‘fetching and carrying’. If you cannot read and write, and process information and share it effectively, you are destined for a new scrap heap of long-term unemployment. (Our crime rates are one of the outcomes of people who CANNOT find work, even if they are WILLING to work.)

Funnily (as in oddly, not amusingly), technology has rendered more powerful many illiterate people because they can use keyboards to form letters and words they cannot form by hand and they can live in a world where the forms of expressions have become a bit elastic and less rigid. If I write IMHO, I do not need to know how to write ‘in my humble opinion’ and can cover my embarrassment of not know how to spell words like ‘humble’ and ‘opinion’.  They can communicate for and wide without encountering anyone who has to handle their communication. Such people can at least read, and have had writing made much less difficult. That’s a plus, but it cannot get through all situations.

I have been in enough situations where someone has asked me to fill out a form for them (often on a plane headed to the USA), or to read something (like tags on a key) so that they can proceed to do a simple task. When you have a bunch of keys but cannot distinguish the labels for which doors they open you are in deep trouble. But, these are common place problems. Expand that to people not being able to read and understand the labelling on almost every building. Scary!

Whatever official data may indicate, many Jamaicans cannot read and write English well. On the one hand, this is easy to understand: most Jamaicans don’t speak English; at best, it’s a second language. Patois, our national way of speaking, though based on English, is often not the same. In addition, it’s mainly oral and that’s where we start to have trouble, both orally and literally, if we try to write: our basic way of communicating isn’t well-codified. (I say well because in some other territories, where ‘creole languages’ like Patois is spoken, it is codified, as in the Seychelles, where it is taught in school and used in written form in formal communication.) So, we do not put a premium on spelling rules (even in Patois) or even writing.

There’s no point arguing about whether or not Patois is a language. The fact remains that it’s how most Jamaicans communicate. That’s well understood by business, who try to use it in basic marketing because it has much better chance of reaching a wider audience. The bottom line tun up!

But, let’s look at what we are facing, taking a simple example situation. A man is dealing with a bundle of things. A Jamaican may say “Is bungle him bungle it up.” (He bundled it up.) Now, a non-Jamaican would likely already be confused on hearing this, if he or she knew the two different words bungle (mess up) and bundle (collection of things). If an ordinary (non-literate) Jamaican had to write about the event, bungle would be written for bundle. Literate English speakers would read it and go down the wrong path, imagining a minor catastrophe instead of something uneventful. If a literate Jamaican saw the event and wrote about it, he/she would likely use the right word, bundle. (I say ‘likely’ because it’s well understood that people who are literate and well-educated may still mistake words, and English is full of words that either sound alike or nearly alike and sometimes trip people up. For example, the famous group of there, they’re, their.)

That was just an example to set the ball rolling. Amplify and multiply this situation across the country and you can get a real bundle of bungling as people try to describe what is going on and others try to understand what they are being told.

Though very much part of this whole problem, I am going to put to one side those many people who cannot read. They may be able to write, but have no real idea of the rules to apply so add confusion from the oral level to the written level that they cannot understand or fix. Just to give an example, I got a message about some work at my father’s house; it came with no punctuation. Problem one. It then used words wrongly, such as ‘fine’ for find. Thankfully, I know the context and can get past some of that. But, when I read ‘fix it is cheper so I tell him to fix cut out the bad part the part new…’ I stumbled and fell.

I leave out this group because, although they are important and help the country function, they need a special fix that may be too big a leap as it requires going all the way back to basic schooling, and seems less likely to happen than most other things. In this wonderous age of technology, I hope that an app can be developed that makes all of this inability to write correctly when you cannot read a problem of the distant past.

People like me make this language and communication problem worse. Why? I understand well and speak well, but I do not speak like most locals and use words in ways that are not familiar: I speak in standard English learned in England. My accent is flat. So, another simple example. I call someone and say “My name is Dennis Jones (pronounced ‘day-nis jon-es’).” I often get some reaction that suggests the name doesn’t register, and am asked to repeat. I do. Then the other person’s brain does its recomputation and comes back with you said ‘Den-ize Joe-nez?’ When I try to write the phonetic differences you get a sense of the differences between a Jamaican accent and a regular English accent. (So, I’m not even going into how my Patois renditions sound.) Again, extend this example into a day’s worth of communicating with people and you can see that patience will be running thin by day’s end, at least at my end. If I go on and start to talk about why I am calling, we get the problems multiplying and rippling far and wide. I try to make things easier by using simpler language, but that won’t matter if every syllable I use needs to be reformulated. My conversations in Jamaica, especially over the phone, can be amusing. ūüôā

Now, I said that Patois was one part of the problem. The other is the simple fact that people did not learn or were not taught the right rules of English, and English is HARD. I am not going to give a course now, but warn that even the best-educated can get into fights about correct English and its usage. However, I will just trot out a few of the well-known trip wires from words that sound alike, but have completely different meanings (and I add a few where the Jamaican way of speaking makes for a similarity that may not exist elsewhere):

  • fear, fair, fare (both fair and fare have several meanings, too)
  • they’re, there, their
  • three, tree
  • hair, here
  • know, no
  • come, calm, comb
  • have, half, halve, of, off (I often see ‘I would of (have)‘, ‘prices half of (off)’.)
  • breath, breathe, breed

We have the problems that come from the use of punctuation, especially the apostrophe:

  • its, it’s (not its’)
  • theirs (not their’s), there’s, they’re his
  • his, he’s, hes (as opposed to ‘shes’)

I wont go on, because I think you see where I want to go.

These trip wires take as victims even our revered media houses, who daily offer more insights into poor teaching than seems acceptable.

For Jamaica, this problem is not at the margins of our lives, but deeply embedded into all of its fabric. Because we have so many forms of informal activity, we take for granted that rules are not going to bind. So, in this context, we find that signs and other evidence of formal existence may be literally hand-made and not subject to any kind of review of regulation:

‘Tree cuting‘ states the sign, proudly, with the words in black and 8 inches high on a white background. There’s no spell-checker in play. The rules about doubling consonants never known.

Sadly, the answer is not in what we teach, but how. It’s too sweeping to say that many of the teachers are not much better than those whom they seek to teach, but it’s clear that many teachers are not effective. Teaching, as a profession, cannot blame the students for the low levels of achievement; different ways have to be found to get the material better understood. If it’s one-size-fits-all, then less success is baked into the cake. Rote learning is still popular in Jamaica; it doesn’t work for many, especially once a student disengages. If we could get by without words and just exist with pictures and images, many more Jamaicans would flourish. But, the world isn’t set up that way.

Jamaica is very good at hailing its students who excel, while paying little attention to the masses who do poorly in our education system. Those poor performers become the core of our workforce, and so must matter to how well we do as an economy, driven by its lowest common denominator. I thought yesterday that more and more Jamaicans do not know what a steady job is, other than to be a roadside vendor or to hope that someone gives them casual work. That can’t be a strong basis on which to build a faster growing economy.

Can Jamaica stop being a ‘pothole’ (patch over problems) society?–‘As I See It’ Facebook Live chat

I spoke more fully on this topic and was able to expand some more on the basic ideas and examples. Watch and listen, at your leisure:

You can bank on me, but be patient

I spent too long in a bank, yesterday, doing a routine transaction. My daughter’s piano teacher wants her to take one of the music board exams. She wanted proof of payment by today, meaning a deposit voucher. So, I stood in line for over an hour to put $4000 or so into the board’s account. The line was about 40 people long when I joined it, and it stayed about that amount as people came and went.


When I joined three cashiers were working.

Some in the line began venting their frustration. A lady several places ahead grumbled about how the many other bank staff were doing nothing and could ease things by dealing with the line. She looked over to the customer service desk and complained how “there was no customer service”. I just happened to have been given clear advice from the person at that desk. “That’s nonsense,” I chimed in and explained why. The lady rolled on with her serial complaints. She was going to vent.

A man just in front of me started opining about how “we need to unite” and get the country moving in a better way. He chanted that two more cashiers would ease our waiting a lot. I began discussing with him the problems of slow cashiers and customers who love to talk about the world and their mothers. In the meantime, another cashier started to work. The line started to move a little faster.

I avoid going to banks. I pay every utility bill online. I use ATM to withdraw cash and now to make deposits. The limits on cash withdrawal from ATM force me to join the lines, occasionally, so that I can deal with some bigger cash transactions. Jamaica is heavily dependent on cash and I can’t change that singlehandedly. I try by using my debit/credit card a lot.

I’m not used to having to be in banks. But, most Jamaicans are. They spend hours there and I wondered about the lost man hours and productivity it caused. This is nothing new, but it seems in no hurry to change.

It’s chicken and egg. Many organizations are not set up to handle electronic payments. I recalled my long conversations with a hospital about how to settle bills other than by visiting it’s office or a bank. I felt like the archetypal alien. But, I got my way to work. Maybe, my refusal to schlep around helped.

My line was moving well and I was next to a large cardboard poster of a smiling bank employee, welcoming me and promising to serve me better.


I felt like putting my money into her hands and asking her to call me when all was done. It was an ironic assertion.

Some comments suggested that free WiFi would make waiting more bearable. One man was using his time to make his lotto picks. I noticed that some people were in line for others, mainly businesses, as places were exchanged. That made sense. Such is life. I would have liked tea and biscuits, milk no sugar and Digestives. Banks, please note.

Just like that, I was at the front. My “unity” man was already being served. He smiled at me. “You see, extra cashier made a difference,” he said with a smirk.

Over one hour had been spent in the company of my affable compatriots. I looked over at the section of the bank where senior citizens were seated, for their special services. They did not seem to have budged. Such is life.

You want it now? Let me check our procedures manual

Very little time for thinking today. But, Jamaica is rarely short of a few moments worth noting.

The golf camp is on for a week and its organizers want to give awards to the participating children. That’s the easy part. The coaches have come up with categories of activity to grade, and the kids will play tournaments on the last day.

So, yesterday, someone went to check a local sports store for possible awards–trophies, medals, and certificates. They got some pricing and arranged some tentative deals. Today, they went to place the orders. Oh, boy! They came back at midday to report on progress. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.

Well, the medals were only for display and would have to be ordered, taking two weeks to complete. Nah! The trophies could be available for a 9 piece deal. Well, we have 10 kids. I asked our reporters about the 10th. Only a deal on 9. I’m on the fringe of these arrangements, and happily pulled my cap over my eyes and slid away.

So, we have to revert to another plan. Last I heard was some items were going to be air-packed to us from Kingston.

I’ve nowhere to take this other than to the hall of fame of failed understanding in business.

Incompetence comes to mind. Am I being unkind?


Closed for business: Brazil 2014 and productivity

Conventional wisdom has it that productivity declines during World Cup tournaments. Judging by what we usually see, with people looking to take time off work legitimately or without permission, for part- or all-day, we think that much less work gets done and what is done is likely to be half-hearted. However, a contrary view exists, which argues that interest in watching World Cup matches makes people more focused on the work they have to do, complete tasks faster to avoid missing matches, and avoid other distractions so that time is available to do what is necessary and also watch matches.

I am very sympathetic to that latter view, as it conforms with how I arrange my time. I work backwards from game time and make sure that the essentials are done and that I can rock back and get crazy in peace (that is an unintended oxymoron). It is also important that others realise that interruptions that were created before and tolerated, are now less likely to be welcome. So, please do not call me during the match. Send messages by all means and expect replies once matches are over. Men are usually the ones who put down these limitations. I wondered aloud yesterday, during the opening match, whether we could find an app to help us. My wife’s nephew, who was watching with me, told me that an app existed that tracked the match schedules and sent reminders to listed persons to not send messages. Not quite what I had in mind, but workable. My wife called me when the match had about 15 minutes to run. Why? “What’s happening?” she asked. “The game’s on,” I replied. I hung up. She sent me a message. My phone was turned off. Focus, people, focus!

I am due to travel this weekend and had some commitments to shop for my school PTO. I decided that leaving it to Thursday was not a good idea because the opening match between Brazil and Croatia would be played. I decided to bring forward the shopping to Wednesday and leave Thursday free for inevitable little odds and ends. So, I hit PriceSmart just around 2pm and was done just after 3. I then dropped the items at my house and went to school to collect my daughter. I had just squeezed myself a little.

I remember this being the routine in London, when I worked there. It was not the same in Washington, even though a lot of employees were from football-mad countries, the general atmosphere in the USA was more subdued overall when it came to World Cup games. I was more likely to make a nice easy arrangement with a friend to watch games at his house, and he would often not bother with time shifting by arranging to take a big chunk of his leave to cover the early rounds of matches.

I was happy with how I had managed my time yesterday. When I got home with my daughter and her friend, whose mother had asked if I could take her home, I saw that the assembled household was ready for the match. I pulled up my own armchair. We settled in and let the screaming begin.

During the match, my mind flitted back and forth to this productivity argument. We are looking at the wrong thing. Measuring product and production, or income, or employment, is never a great way to assess how well people are doing. Economists love it and have sold it to politicians. What we should look at more is the concept of happiness. Surely, overall, the world was going to be happier over the next month. Yes, people would sulk and groan when their teams lost, but in general people had positive attitudes and better sense of well-being. Gross domestic happiness measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms.

Sticking with the happiness index seemed to make more sense to me. I would suggest that most decision makers take the same view and not stress about output and productivity over the coming 30 days. If they looked at the list of the world’s happiest and saddest places, they would also find that they are more content thinking of themselves as tending towards the Norways of the world (#1)

Norway is the world's happiest country
Norway is the world’s happiest country

than the Zimbabwes (#109) or Central African Republics (#10)

Zimbabwe ranks near the bottom in happiness
Zimbabwe ranks near the bottom in happiness

Traditionally, Jamaica is seen as one of the happier places (#40), and we should rock and think about getting that level up. Funnily, the government did a part to make that happen yesterday by agreeing to decriminalise the possession and smoking of ganja (marijuana). ganjaWhat impeccable timing! It is not a done deal and when the laws will actually change is unclear.

Brazil also has its place in our minds for happiness and living well. I’m happier pushing that line of propaganda for the next month. They won 3-1 against Croatia, by the way, after a scare early on.

Neymar! Scored the 2nd goal from a penalty kick
Neymar! Scored the 2nd goal from a penalty kick

New hero-to-be, Neymar, scored the first two goals, and relieved whatever headache was building after teammate, Marcelo, kicked the ball into his own net to give the Croats the lead.

I saw images of Jamaicans in bars and on the streets enjoying ‘their’ team’s win. We’re happy and we know, we’re clapping our hands.


Life gives your lemons? Make lemonade. But, will you squeeze them for me?

I was in one of my “don’t give me that rubbish” moods yesterday afternoon, and two people got the brunt of it. I was set off by a request from my high command to get photos of our daughter taken¬†for a visa application, lickety-split, when they could have been done over the weekend by the high command (when I was away from town). I was firing. I went to collect my daughter midway through her play date at a friend’s house, and headed to Barbican. While the photos were being processed, I went to a LIME store to pay my monthly phone bill.

It turned out that my bill had been settled. But, I took the opportunity to check on some information¬†I had been promised several weeks ago, relating to a previous month’s bill. My phone usage changes little: I don’t spend much time talking on it, but I am often using the data package, which has a high limit included in the tariff. So, my bill is really unchanged each month; I’m within my usage limits. But, a couple of months ago, my bill spiked, and went to double its normal amount. That alone made my non-existent hair stand up. It bristled more, when the next bill went back to normal levels. Alarm bells went off. I checked the accounts¬†online, and saw that I had exceeded my data package usage limits. Well, nothing much had changed. I had travelled but had switched off data roaming–a killer, if I ever met one. So, I asked LIME to give me the details of data usage, which I cannot see online. A manager told me that she would ‘investigate’ and get back to me.

Well, in the land-of-no-follow-through, I was a monkey on a pole waiting. I had no phone number for her so had waited for a return visit to check. This was it. A ‘representative’ got my “please do this now, and stop joshing” mood and went to a computer screen to look at my account. He saw what I had seen. Abnormal use. But, he had seen something else. “Your overage caused the spike,” he said, “We’ve had this problem with some other accounts.” Well, that was music to my ears. My suspicions were getting some support. Glitch. He told me that I would get an ‘adjustment’ for the excess usage and a refund of J$4007, once it was approved by a “second party”. He gave me his name and phone number. My daughter and I thanked him and went back to get her photographs. We got that done, and I took her back to happy land. I then headed to the hospital to check on my father, who’d had another emergency on Sunday while I had been on the north coast.

I walked toward the ward where he was lying. I met his caregiver, who had been following up on her own medical problem, and was standing outside the ward. I thought of her, and suggested I get her a chair to sit on: one was just a few feet away. She was with another lady and a hospital maintenance man. We all noticed that the plastic chair had its seat split by a corner. “Watch out, when you sit. You don’t want to cut yourself,” Mr. Maintenance told us. I asked him why it had not been fixed. He said it was not for him to do. Who told him to say that? I asked him if he could fix chairs. In typical Jamaican fashion, he did not answer the question but went on about who he would have to send it to and¬†what processes he would have to pass through. I asked him to give me a one word answer, yes or no. I knew when that came out of my mouth that I was simmering.

Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one
Not the actual broken chair, but a good enough image of one

I asked him again. Another long ramble. I tried a third time–I said he was being like Peter. We still never got one word. I tried once again. “No,” he said. Thanks. I asked if he knew someone who could fix chairs. He told me yes. I suggested he take the chair to be fixed. “Ah nuh so it go, here,” he then said. He went on about how he would have to fill in (work) orders, and get papers signed, etc. That was not his job. Oh, sweet mother of mercy. I had him in my sights now. “Not your job?” I asked. I asked if he was happier with the person sitting on the chair, cutting themselves, then having to be admitted to the hospital. He went on about how the chair should not have been there, because it was broken, and someone must have brought it there to sit on. Well, I knew where to go for our next astrophysicist. I took a breath. He added that someone would want to be paid for doing the job. That seemed odd in an institution full of paid employees. I did not presume that he meant that a bribe was needed, but maybe I was wrong.

I asked him if he had leaking pipes at his home. He told me “a little”. I asked him what he proposed to do. He said he was fixing them. I asked why he could not do the same with the chair. More of ‘the system’, blah-blah. I asked him why he could not treat things that were wrong at his work the same as those at home. “The home is mine, sir,” came the reply. So, we explored more. “This country is yours, too,” I told him, “Care for it the same way.” He went back to ‘the system’. I told him that I would take the chair and get it fixed and bring it back. “You can’t take it off the premises,” he told me. I said that was a different problem and I would be ready to deal with that. (If this chair was in the trunk of my car,¬†no one would see it and the hospital security do not do car checks on exit. Contrast that to the golf course I visited at the weekend, where I was put under good scrutiny: “We do it as routine, sir”, I had been told.) I gave my man a few more nuggets to consider.

In my eyes, the maintenance man¬†tolerated the broken chair and refused to do anything because he was afraid to have that responsibility for taking action. He was adamant that he was afraid of nothing, but ‘the system’ was hard to break.

More forms than substance
More forms than substance

Alright, I can understand the crippling numbness of a bureaucracy that may have him fill out forms in triplicate and make a report of how and where the chair was broken before anyone would life a screwdriver to mend it. Normally, however, someone would just do the right thing and fix the blessed chair. The same way that the man at the UWI pool had jerry-rigged a pulley lever to make the water fountain work, for want of the right part. He was still waiting for that after months, but swimmers needed water and the machine would give it, if the pulley worked. Bravo, for him. Boo, for UWI. But, back to the chair.

My basic point was that this lack of willingness to act on small fixes was pervasive. It was not apathy but the kind of paralysis one used to see in the Soviet Union, whose bureaucracy was like kudzu (see a recent article in The Guardian that suggest little has changed in Russia). Nothing would happen because there was no personal incentive for things to happen; the common good under communism was no driver of actions. The plan was in place and it would be fulfilled, even if nothing happened. Numbers would be created that made it appear that things had happened. No one got more rewards for doing more. No one suffered losses for doing less. In Russian, the way to reply if asked how things were going, is “Normal”. Don’t stand out. Don’t do what you are not told to do. The soviet system produced people who knew how to do everything but then put a huge premium on information, so it was better to hoard that. You never got a full answer, only information for the specific question. “Do you have the time?” Yes, would be the reply; no more. “What time is it, then?” might have followed. A good reply would be “Then? You mean now?” The process of extracting the information in droplets was part of the merry dance that kept people busy doing very little. If it came to that, we could spend weeks trying to get the answer to something that was stated on a piece of paper in front of someone, but would not be given unless and until the right questions had been asked. At its ultimate absurdity, people would even pretend not to be there so that they would not have to deal with more questions. I recall waiting with a team to see the finance minister in Moscow. “He’s travelling,” his secretary told us. We saw him through a glass partition walking into and out of his office. I guess that was travelling. We told her that we had seen him in the office. She denied that he was there. We waited and waited for hours. Then went back to our hotel and came back the next day for the same treatment. We got to see him on the third day. Our time had been lost. His time had not been wasted.

Jamaica had a spell when some elements of socialism was getting a foothold in the country, but we were never fully under such a system. Something else has been going on. It’s pan-Caribbean. It may be that the whole ‘jobs for people’ move to keep slots filled in the public sector, irrespective of people being able and willing to do work has a lot to do with it. Dead-end jobs. No thanks for jobs well done. Shoddy working conditions. Crummy pay. All of that and more may be playing out. But, the bottom line is that we have ended up disabling ourselves and our society. People may do things if they get some extra money for doing what they should do.

I get heartily annoyed when I drive along a stretch of Washington Boulevard. There’s a man at his ‘station’ by the stop lights. As the cars stop, he eases himself off the kerbside and goes to the windows to beg for money. He taps on the windows and puts out his hand. He wants a gift, no doubt about it. He does not plead. He is one of several I see at various points; he’s a bit better dressed than some. This is not about the problems that put people into desperate situations, and it’s not about whether someone can really do something that would warrant pay. It’s just the assumption of an entitlement and a willingness to prey on the good nature of any and all. I may be out of time and touch with the idea that if you offer to do something instead of just putting out your hand that would be a bit more respectful of those whose earned money you want to share. In that sense, I will never criticise the windscreen washers. They want money and are prepared to earn it. Our social safety net is not great so many can and do fall through the cracks. But, the system is also badly cracked and we do not seem ready in large enough numbers to put our fingers in the dykes. Rather, we let the leaks continue and eventually the dam will break.

I did not realise it at the time but I had seen two opposites at work. My LIME experience was in the end about how ‘the system’ can work, but maybe only in parts of the private sector. Problem seen. Problem analysed. Solution proposed (subject to ‘second party’ approval). MyUWI hospital experience showed that another world, maybe just the public sector, had ‘the system’ that was bereft of push to find solutions.

When we come down to it, our inability to be productive has been and is crippling. Not just for what it does to make our society function worse than it should do, but also in the mindset that is needed for people to endure and perpetuate it.bureaucracy_blogtownhall_com I told the maintenance man that he lived with a system that did not fix things because he lived with a system that did not fix things. No amount of saying that things don’t work differently would change that. He was called away by a student nurse to perform some task. He eventually came back to me and shook my hand and said “You’re absolutely right.”

I don’t need to know I am right, but I would like this country to see what is so simply wrong and get off its collective tush.

When I got home from hospital visiting and picking up daughter, I pointed out to my little one that the handrest¬†on the chair that is by a desktop computer had been fixed. I’d been annoyed that it had fallen off, and the two screws that held it in place were nowhere to be found. While hunting for something else that a¬†person who likes to touch people’s things had moved, I found two screws: one in a plastic cup containing a range of other gubbings, the other in a draw. I put the screws back into the handrest, and check that it was tight and not wobbling. I didn’t have to fill any forms and I don’t even use the chair myself much at all. But, that’s not the point of my motivation to fix the blessed thing. Like my man, I want my home to be right. I just want him to step past his own door frame and realise that outside is all his home, too.

All in a bray’s work: Jamaica as the land of kick me quick

I went to sleep thinking that I would write today about how Jamaica is sometimes a laughing-stock. Then, amongst the first things I read as I caught up with overnight events was about someone making a list of significant things that had happened locally (and internationally). That got me thinking about something else, at least first. I’ve noticed that Jamaica, while being the land of the nine-day wonder, is also the land of the shocking story that disappears without trace. I should, perhaps, make a list of startling stories that are reported by the mainstream media, which then never seem to reappear, at least that I notice. Of course, as one tries to recall them, they slip from memory.

I sometimes label Jamaica as the place where follow-through is some kind of mortal sin: if you were to do what you said you would, then you would burst into flames, so, it’s best to make promises and keep them empty by doing nothing to fulfill them. The problem with this is that our government has also bought into this as a way of doing business. Another blogger is very good and recalling what the current government promised in its election manifesto that has something landed in the land of no-follow-through: a place with barren rocks and the skeletons of politicians who promised Paradise and gave us a parking lot. I need to ask her to make more prominent this list of thing not done.

But, let me get back to my original thoughts–Jamaica as land of ‘kick me’ signs on its back. I wonder if Jamaica should ditch the humming-bird as our national animal or symbol and replace it with the braying jackass.

This could be our national symbol
This could be our national symbol

I read a few days ago that the jury foreman who alleged that another juror tried to bribe her during¬†a now-famous murder trial, has lost overseas the cell phone she used to tape the bribery conversation. I rolled over with a belly cramp. Why was this phone not impounded, or whatever the police term is? Was it not vital evidence that needed to be protected? I can now visualise the conversation involving the need to travel, and the need for the phone, and no one wanting to offer the jury foreman either a phone to borrow, or paying for a new phone. Of course, there would have been all the modern angst about pictures taken that had not been downloaded or posted on Facebook. Then, there were the other messages that had not yet been deleted. In fact, the phone could have had evidence of things that would embarrass the jury foreman, and if left in the hand of Jamaica’s police force, known for its exemplary care of material personal, especially if important to court proceedings, then “Aie Caramba!” would be a meek cry. Anyway, let’s remain comforted: ‘The prosecution says although the telephone was not available for disclosure to the defence, it is ready for trial as a CD containing the recorded evidence along with all other particulars were turned over to Cain’s legal team,’ ¬†and ‘in her letter to the prosecution, the jury foreman stressed that she will return to Jamaica if she is required to testify.’ Everything cris’. This is part of the same case where vital evidence was kept in ‘secure’ conditions that allowed someone to use a murder suspect’s phone while he was in custody. Right. The lady maybe knew she was right to keep the phone, but to lose it. Do I smell something burning on the stove?

We have a minster of agriculture, who whatever he tries or says, ends up being a bit of a laughing-stock. He recently promised us the way out of praedial larceny by giving us chips with our steaks. Well, he said he would issue DNA passports to cattle, so that they could be tracked easily whenever they headed to Fort Lauderdale for a bit of shopping.

Do you want the cow to smile or be serous for the picture?
Do you want the cow to smile or be serous for the picture? (Courtesy of The Gleaner.)

We have not heard a dickey bird about that being implemented. Meanwhile, my daughter and I see men climbing on people’s walls and pulling down their mangoes and breadfruit. Of course, you cannot give a DNA-anything to a tree and its fruit. We hear and read about more horrible stories of farmers being driven out off business because people walk off with their livestock or crops. I don’t know how the administration of these cattle passports, specifically, would work. I hope that it can be done online, rather than having the cattle sit patiently in ministry of agriculture’s offices waiting for interviews, photographs, and carrying two pieces of identification. “Would you like to see my udder side?” Blink fast.

The creature that is Jamaican administration is one of those that is not a rare species, but its local offspring has strange markings. Some of these are long and dark. About a year ago, I was in the process of getting a driver’s licence. When I was living in Maryland, USA, people would joke about visiting the Motor Vehicle Administration offices, fearing that a least a half day of work would be needed. Things often took a few hours, but with few exceptions, you left with what you needed. If not, it was simple to send back the missing administrative item and not need to make another visit. In Jamaica? Well, look here, child! I filled out a form and signed it. Then I had to fill out the form again and sign it. Then, a long time passed, like in fairy tales when princesses fall asleep and are awakened by a prince puckering in their faces. The form came back again, and I signed it again; it was a different-version of the form, but had all of my personal details there. Then again, and again. I still do not have a driver’s licence. I have gone way past the point of WTF is going on. Everytime I pass a police speed trap, I get ready with my false Indian accent to tell them to “Stop harassing me” and “Why do you people always target us”. The time it would take for the police officer to process that this person who looked like a regular black Jamaican was sounding like a native of Calcutta, would also be enough time for him to think ‘I want no piece of this, sah’ and let me go on my way.

I was in contact last week with Tax Administration Jamaica (TAJ) about ways to pay taxes that did not involve going to an office, something which I have done when younger and could stand in line for hours without searing pain in my knees. But, no more. TAJ advised me of the ways to use their Internet portal to get my taxes paid. I knew it already, but I was so pleased that I had sent a tweet to @JamaicaTax, and within minutes had my answer. They are modern and interactive as far as queries are concerned. Maybe, I should ask them what is going on with my licence.

Of course, the land of no-follow-through is also the ‘land of fashionably late’. I can understand to some degree when people come late to dinner or parties. The primping and tizzying of hair take time; then there are the shoes selections and de-selections and re-selections. But, I say to my young daughter “Don’t get fooled by the obvious.” I went to the north course for a golf tournament over the weekend. We normally have breakfast provided before the early start, scheduled for 7.30 am on this occasion. We had been denied breakfast by our hostess for the night because “They always give you breakfast at the golf course”. Well, we went bright and early to secure good parking–at 6am. We talked and did some early practice, then headed to get some breakfast. “Here, little breakfast!” People were sitting in the lounge area waiting…and waiting. Not a thing in sight. I asked a lady who served at the bar what was happening. I got back one of those stock Jamaican answers: “Is not me doing the brekfuss.” I did not want to say “Clearly!” I asked her if she knew who was and where it was. No, she did not know. Then, at about 7.20, a lady came with a tray of water melon. Men descended on her like flies on a cow pat. “Wait, please!” she cried. They let her put down the tray and resumed their landing. No plates or utensils were there, so hands went and pulled at what was seen. Then came trays of boiled yellow yam, some fish with broad beans, callaloo, and fried dumplings. Men descended again. “We have no plates!” ‘We need forks!” Both arrived. The frenzy started as people, now dizzy with hunger, clamoured for some of the life essentials. “I gave up certain, for uncertain,” said one of my Chinese-Jamaican golfing friends, as he told me what he had done. “My wife gave me a sandwich with sausage. She’s no fool,” said another friend. Our smiles came back as we felt the fuel tank filling and reaching full.

I did not want to ask what had happened to make this near-disaster¬†occur.¬†Of course, 7.30 start-not was now in play. Players fed. Time to get rolling with admin details and ‘To your carts!” It was just after 8; not bad, considering.

I was getting a ride on a cart with one of the team members who was not playing. “Who’s taking your team’s cooler? Your captain should designate someone,” one of the organizer/sponsor ladies asked. “Excuse me. What cooler?” She told me that refreshments were now in a cooler for each team to carry and distribute. I had made this suggesting during the last round, when drinks ran out and the ‘players with ticket only’ system clearly could not control the flow of drinks served by callow youths in the heat and sun. “Take a house point, Jones,” I heard in my head. I quickly took over the cart and went in search of my team captain. He had no clue what I was talking about, but accepted my offer to go back and sort out whatever was needed. I did, and was soon hauling–by cart–a cooler ladened with water and Gatorade. I went in search of our playing groups and made sure they had supplies for the next few hours. Simple, really. I then had enough of driving a cart and went back to walking and taking pictures. This was a case of someone taking a simple suggestion and running with it. I was shocked and wondered what kind of organization she worked with. Well, she was well-educated, had lived and studied abroad, and her boss was a ‘math whiz’ (which may not be true, but he clearly likes to use mathematics to solve problems). Bottom line: try something new to overcome something that is not working. That, dear reader, is not the Jamaican way.

What is the normal way was shown to me vividly by a request to drop someone into Ocho Rios town to try to get a bus to Kingston. Wherever I have lived, it was easy to find where to take buses: there were signs marked ‘bus stop’ or ‘bus stop next right’, etc. In Jamaica? You really want to ask? We recalled that the Knutsford Express interurban bus stopped at a jerk centre on the outskirts of Ochi. But, where to get a regular Coaster or maxi-taxi? We asked at a gas station. We were told to go back and turn at the second stop light. We did. Whoi! Bus stop land. Dozens of buses were parked with men hovering in the street like old sailor ready to ‘Shanghai’ passengers. “We goin’ to Half Way Tree!” “He lying! He nuh go a Half Way Tree…” My passenger was standing in a throng of at least six men all trying to push her towards their chariot of inspire and get a fare and full load, and head off. I took a picture, just in case she later called me to say that she was nowhere near Half Way Tree.

'This way, Miss. Half Way Tree..."
‘This way, Miss. Half Way Tree…”

I could not go to get her, but could at least help identify the lying son of a jackass. For my lady passenger to be shocked like me to see the huge bus park and no signs was telling. Well, we will know another time that it’s just across from the police station.

I’m still struggling to remember some of the cases that had been reported without trace. But, that may well be what is intended. We feign we care, but really we don’t give a yam.

But, we are truly the land of ‘that’s how we do it’ (or ‘ah so wi dweet’ in Patois), except that no doing it is what we do.


A little public Expo-sure

I often try to be engaging when faced with people ‘selling’ things. I am probably the person the Jehovah’s Witnesses wish they never meet when the knock on doors. I would have them in a long conversation, lasting perhaps hours, as I explored as many aspects of their activities. We’d need to get to know each other better, of course, so staying for tea and maybe a spot of lunch would be natural. So, when I visited Expo Jamaica yesterday afternoon.

Entrance to National Arena, with food court to the side

I started my buttering up before I went in. I reached the entrance gate and a man said “Where you band?” I told him I didn’t have one and he pointed me to a LIME van where I would spend J$600 to get my entrance wristband. A man from Jampro was also trying to help me, but then went totally into a trance. He was bitten by the ‘I must pay attention to this dignitary getting out of his car and ignore the person I was talking to’ bug. Once he’d flounced off and smoothed the three yard walk of Minister Pickersgill to the side gate, I tried to engage him again. “You were saying?” He’s lost the plot completely. I grinned and shook my head. Oh, what a little deference does to your life. I had my mission ahead. The ‘band’ man greeted me again, and told me “Good morning, again.” It was nearly 12.30pm, but I was glad for his attentiveness.

I was not surprised that I started chatting up all the vendors. I was probing, gently. First, I met all the ladies manning–is that an oxymoron?–the tables in the ‘hospitality village’, where hotels and tourist activities were being touted. I’m also a sucker for swag. Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain had a snazzy coffee mug that caught my eye. I told her, honestly, that I keep trying to take my daughter to the play park, as she says she wants to go, but each time she prefers to stay put. I was in Ocho Rios the day before and again, she’d opted to stay home hunkered down with her Ma. Admittedly, when I got home from Ochi and my little stop for fruit in Port Maria, my daughter was screaming her head off with two classmate in the pool and a soggy puppy was chasing a football the girls were tossing.

View of ground floor of Arena hall, crammed with booths

Well, the lady from Mystic Mountain tried to get my daughter’s interest by offering a 20 percent discount voucher and suggesting that I just take the child and say “Here we are!” (I later gave my daughter the mug and voucher and told her the story. She smiled.) I toured the other tables and had a few bits of useful information about some of the north coast hotels. A lady from Chukka Cove tempted me with a prize draw and got my info in exchange. I know that solicitous emails may soon be arriving. My daughter’s also interested in going there to ride horses, or so she’s said. I talked quickly to representatives from Bahia Principe, where I’d stayed already and liked, and Iberostar, where some friends always stay when playing golf tournaments near Montego Bay. Both are all-inclusive hotels and good value for couples and children.

I then tried to enter the exhibition hall, but was waylaid by a lady who told me to start upstairs and then come down, and by the way, stop at her company’s booth for a bag to carry the items I was collecting. Like that. Upstairs, I trotted and was ready to look around at an array of mainly commercial stands. but, I then bumped into some friends, and asked them what was worth seeing. “See it all, but there’s¬†more happening downstairs.

Jampro’s lounge, a little quiet, but pleasantly displayed

The flooring booth is nice, though.” I had no interest in flooring, so hugged my friend and wished her a great afternoon. Her husband was with her, and his shirt was soaked, and I wondered what he had bumped into. I would learn later what had happened. I moved on¬†to a booth womanned by¬†Scotiabank, which was on my list as they’d been making a big point of touting on Twitter their presence at the Expo. A nice young lady from Christiana branch told me about a few things that would be helpful and asked me to complete a survey–that’s one of the downsides of such events, but I understand the purpose. She pointed me to a Rasta sitting in the corner, manning a juicer. “Get some green juice!” she told me. I obeyed. The Rasta told me and anyone listening about the minerals we needed in our diets and how his juice, which as a blend of a long list including Irish Moss, flax-seed, seaweed and more was put lead in my pencil and an eraser on it too. I was impressed and sipped the juice, which had a little pique to it, from cayenne that was also included. Fortified, I headed on.

I saw a large crowd of people gathered ahead of me, and suspected that food was on offer. That’s always a pull at these events. The little samples help ward off some boredom and naturally saves some dollars that would otherwise be spent in the food court, which was actually outside the hall. Best Dressed Chicken had a stall in the corner.

Best Dressed Chicken hosting a nice little snackery

I knew that Chef Brian Lumley (of restaurant ‘689’ fame) was making occasional appearances, offering delights such as ‘gourmet hotdogs’. Not so, when I sidled up; two nice little chunks of fried chicken in a tasty sauce. I and the other patrons were in finger-licking mood and smiling after our bitefuls.

Another friend nabbed me as I was in mid-bite and told me to come to visit his stall; he’s into some industrial process. We talked a bit about Saturday’s trip to Ochi, which he’d done very early so that he could come back to supervise his stand. I moved on. I was surprised to see a stand for the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE). The lady at the table knew me, and greeted me with a lovely warm smile. “You want to buy some stocks, right,” she stated boldly. I told her I had no intention of dipping my toes into the stocks of any of the Jamaican companies, but would prefer to just let my pension fund’s decisions work for me. She laughed. I told her I was an economist, so should know the risks. We chatted a little then I asked her to tell me about the JSE. I was being ‘the foreign investor from Hell’, I told her.

Red Stripe giving drink to cool the thirsty patrons

She got a bit flustered but managed to give me some useful tips about the JSE and advice about brokers. The Ministry of Industry and Commerce was there, and a young man wanted to tell me about trade agreements, but also had interesting pamphlets about the logistics hub. He told me about some information seminars being run by the ministry and the Caribbean Maritime Institute and handed me a neat little Frequently Asked Questions sheet about the logistics hub. I asked him if Minister Pickersgill had passed by yet, but he had not. The young man told me that he’d a degree in International Relations and Spanish and that he was getting good opportunities to use his language skills. “Muy bien!” I told him and moved on to look at¬†Jampro’s¬†stand.

LogoStitch, colourful display of what many companies want to showcase their wares–shirts

Well, as a host of this event, their stand was very empty. The lady looked forlorn and spent time checking her phone. I didn’t have the heart to disturb her and continued on my way.

The rest of the booths did not really interest me, so I passed quickly and headed down to the ‘more happening’ place. I’d seen from above that it was a tighter space, made up of narrow paths with names like ‘Rum Road’ and ‘Reggae Crescent’. The punters were milling around all the stands and trying to weave a path. As I headed downstairs, a young man from LIME put his arm around my shoulder–a pretty risky action in Jamaica when you don’t know someone. He asked me if I wanted to take the ‘Value¬†Challenge’. He pinned a huge button on my shirt and told me breathlessly about how I’d get a one-minute call to show how LIME was much better value that the other people–Digicel.

Rainforest Seafoods’ marlin dipped was totally dug out, but tilapia chowder took its place

He pointed me toward one of his female associates. She gave me more information, but I quickly told her to save the spiel because I was a post-paid customer and her offer was not really of much interest. “Well, let’s make the calls, anyway!” she insisted, “Give me the numbers of contacts who have Digicel phones.” What? I told her that I never tried to figure out what carrier my contacts used; that seemed such a waste of time. I guess she knew I was a faux-Jamaican. Didn’t care! People here are well aware of the prefixes that show if you are LIME or Digicel. They are also adept at making a call and hanging up so that they did not have to pay the higher rates (or because they did not have credit to complete the call), and waiting for the called person to call back. Man, I did not have time for that. I remembered my drive to Ochi, the day before, when one of my passengers had gotten a call that was dropped “Why you call and hang up?” I began to understand another silly game that Jamaicans play.

Cabbages, yellow yam, bokchoi. Jamaican staples.

I was impressed at the cost difference from using LIME’s ‘2.99 anytime’ deal, about one-fifth of the Digicel charge, it seems. There’s quite a fued going on between the two companies. I noted inside the hall that Digicel did not have a booth at the Expo. LIME almost had pride of place in the middle of the hall. I had not seen them listed as the principal sponsor, but they were offering free wifi, so I imagine they were well vested in the show.

I ambled around and realised that, as upstairs, food and drink were being big draws. I went to the National Bakery¬†stand, prominent on a corner with an old break cart, jsut for display. “You need to offer the people some bun and cheese!” I suggested to the people manning the stand. A young boy and his mother came up moments later: “He’s looking for bun and cheese,” said the mother. I just looked that the employees. I got some insight into the bakery’s ‘The Bold Ones‘ programme, which aims at finding new entrepreneurs. I also heard about National’s environmental program, trying to use recyclable packaging, using biofuels in their vans. National also use their vehicles for social messaging, including a very vivid campaign against domestic violence. I felt quite positive, but wondered how many companies were trying hard to do more than just make their goods.

I then visited the Jamaica Producers stand, where they were handing out bags of St. Mary’s Chips, pieces of Tortuga rum cake and big cups of Jablum coffee, with syrup. I’d just driven through St. Mary the day before and noted that the chips maker had a factory outlet. I got details about that, for another time. I asked a very energetic young man about the policy of using imported bananas from Dominican Republic and he gave me the official answer in a natural, flowing way. We talked about hurricanes and how the selling of boxes of bananas was a great entrepreneurial opportunity. Apparently, anyone can start doing this, which is now a common sight on Kingston streets. You start off with two free boxes of bananas, after that you buy at wholesale mark down for resale. Some people make a venture of it by on-selling their bananas to others to sell. I did not get an answer about what sort of profit margins were involved. From the vendors seen on the streets, it’s enough to get buy. You get a nice green and yellow apron and it seems more likeable than washing car windscreens.

I wandered around the whole hall, sampling goods as I went and taking in all the colour and the noise.

Repping UWI Cave Hill School of Business

Jamaica is a place where companies love to show off their colours and logos and I was struck visually by the brightness of¬†LogoStitch‘s stand. I really wanted to have a chat there, as I’m fascinated by the branding of clothing that goes on in Jamaica, to a degree that seems much more than in most other countries.

Speaking of branding, I had gone to the Expo wearing a shirt from UWI Cave Hill School of Business. It was a deliberate ploy, in part to see if people would see me or see my shirt. The shirt won by a huge margin. I sound nothing like a Bajan, but had people asking about my accent. That made for a few laughs as I took people by the line and wriggled them along for a while.

Speaking of shorts. Remember the man with the wet shirt? Well, I understood now what had happened. The hall was very hot. Yes, there was air conditioning, but clearly not enough to keep you and all of the thousands with you, bundled together, in a state of coolness. My own shirt was now quite moist, and it showed off the effectiveness of my antiperspirants. I was not dripping wet, but I was in need of fresh air.

I took a look outside at the farmers market, where cabbages, yams, peppers, carrots, bananas, mangoes, bees, honey, and more were on display. That was a great change, and I a nice stroll around there, regretting that I had not brought a shopping bag.

Window washing is an option if you don’t want to sell bananas

Rainforest Seafoods were whipping up some tasty smoked marlin dip their chef told me, as I passed him in one of the corridors. I had to try that. But, when I reached the stand, the bowl was cleaned out. He came by and gave me a cup of tilapia chowder and I was impressed. Tasty and a little peppery. We talked about conch, which is my wife’s national dish, and we will have to get some recipes exchanged.

Wysinco¬†were doing their usual hydration effort, ‘selling’ bottles of WATA and CranWATA for Wysinco dollars.

I browsed around for a little while longer, and realised that I had spent nearly three hours being well entertained and informed.

Face painting was a bonus, for the few children who visited

As I was heading out, I stumbled across the¬†Kremi stand, where cups of ice cream were on offer to adults; children could get cones. That little piece of discrimination didn’t please me. I love cones ūüôā I had a bag full of leaflets and a few pencils and pens (which I usually hand off to kids when I can).

As I headed out, I met a group of Jampro staff, showing off their corporate logo, but…They were wearing aquamarine and yellow shirts. What? Those are the colours of The Bahamas. I pointed this out to one of the lady. Oops! Why on Earth would you lose sight of your national colours at a major event to promote national products? Why not a variation, as always, on the black, gold and green? Note to Jampro: KISS.

Jampro committee representatives. If I had not asked, I would have assumed this was a Bahamian delegation. A fail!

I wont let that detract from what seemed like a well-organised set up. Today’s papers are full of reports that suggest it was a success. Visitors exceeded the average 12,000-15,000 mark. The Jamaica Manufacturers Association and the Jamaica Exporters Association, the event organisers, are pleased. Five hundred buyers from 27 countries. Plenty of happy Jamaicans, too.

We’re not servile

I not a stickler for good service, but I do get irritated quickly by poor service, whoever delivers it.

Much of the discussion about Jamaica’s economic woes focuses on our evident lack of competitiveness. We saw it upfront and lamentably last week, when the national senior football team squeaked out a draw with Costa Rica in a World Cup Qualifier. Not many local fans went to the match, believing that the team had little chance of qualifying. I was on the road and listened to the commentary on radio. The broadcasters kept on saying how the team was not playing with any fire or sense of urgency and giving no sign that they wanted to win. Any other result would mean the death of our chances, realistically. The draw left us mathematically still able to make it. But, we did not compete well.

The hero for Jamaica, with his goal in added time was “Tuffy” Anderson. He is a battler. In his word he said afterwards that his style was to inflict pain on his opponents and let them know that he was ever present. He has a simple objective–to score goals. Man on a mission. Jamaica now loves “Tuffy”, another symbol of endeavour which we can admire.

Service quality is one of those measures people like to consider when talking about competitiveness, especially for countries that live off tourism or some other activity with a lot of personal contact. A long debate has raged in the Caribbean about whether former colonies, like Jamaica, have a hang up about serving, confusing service with servitude. Of course, the discussion gets complicated when most of the visitors are white and come from the UK or USA. It may not take much for a service worker to bridle and get angry when asked to do something and yell “I’m not a slave!” or “Slavery days done!” Let’s not worry about the ‘N’ word. We dread the ‘S’ word. The legacy of slavery is hard to shift, and it will take much for its bitterness to be drawn out of our blood. However, many Jamaicans love to serve. We have a society filled with people who have to make a living from getting customers to buy from them directly, and that won’t work if service is bad.

I was buying fruit at the weekend, but my regular lady was not at her stall. Yet, the stall was open and ready for my business. I bought and left. I’d been well served. I got what I wanted. Everything was nicely put into bags. My daughter got her jelly coconut and a straw and did not have to move from the back seat of the car. I was about to pay, but noted that the lady had totaled wrongly, too low; she rechecked but then decided to round down the total. Give her an A.

Street traders are usually careful to not offend customers. Often, competition is a mere few steps away. Poor value for money usually ends with fewer sales.

I also went to a pharmacy over the weekend. One of the staff asked me if I was “getting through” and finding what I needed. I told her I was okay. The pharmacist was very funny and helped us get what we needed, checking if we were happy with generic medicines or other brands. I checked with her about getting a senior citizen discount. She laughed, when she looked at me, but went to check. The price she’d quoted dropped like a rock after she came back. “They hadn’t put in the discount because your father’s age wasn’t on the prescription,” she said. I told her that I knew the store manager and would let him know how she and others had been very attentive. By chance, he called me the next morning. I passed on my compliments. He told me he was trying to focus on better customer service, so was pleased it seemed to be working. Give them A+.

On Monday, I had to act as a medical courier, trying to get some nutrition medication for my father, who’s in hospital. I ended up on a mini tour of West Kingston. In the process, I found myself doing battle with companies who would only take cash payments. I argued the case about risks; inefficiencies of their having to handle cash and then make bank deposits; how customers could be inconvenienced at point of sale even when they had ample funds on debit or credit cards. In the end, I made partial payment for one item, could not get another item until I had trekked over town to find a bank and withdraw a load of cash, returned to buy the second item and then went to complete the purchase of the first item. It took me about three hours to do that and a lot of driving around. With cards accepted, I would have been done in about an hour. Going to the bank added an hour to my task, and the time it took to get through in line was long, say 15 minutes. That’s costly, overall. Admitted, the sellers normally dealt with companies or hospitals, but to have no means to take other payments than cash seemed stuck in time. Give the bank a B. Give the pharmaceutical distributors a B-.

20130916-174219.jpgThese were just spontaneous examples of service delivery. Of course, the matter of service delivery is much broader and more complicated. However, I’ve been struck in recent months how few instances of irate customer reactions I’ve seen. I’ve had some very good experiences with companies, big and small, on the phone, and also in person: helpfulness has been very apparent. Good humour has also been quick to appear.

I mentioned to an aunt last week how I had been well treated when I was buying ice cream. She laughed and jabbed that the girls obviously liked me, meaning young men get treated well but older women didn’t get anything special. I couldn’t deny that. But, I know that older people get some extra care, even if it’s just the senior citizen area in the banks, with comfortable chairs, while others have to stand in line.

Our poor competitiveness shows up in the speed with which things get done. It’s slower and
part of that comes from a willingness to engage. Many more things only happen here if you see someone in person, and better if it’s the right person. But some engagement may be inappropriate. I can’t say if it’s too much, but when you overhear chatter about relatives or friends mixed with the business you may feel miffed. That’s part of being a small country. We also tend to be deliberate. It seems that it’s showing extra care, but it means more time. We’re often not too upset if things take time, but worth the wait. This all begs a question about whether this means we are worse at doing things than, say, Americans or Europeans or southeast Asians. Would we be getting much better service with more speed?

My gut feeling is that organizational systems need some serious overhaul. Inertia has dug itself in nicely in many activities. I loved the look on the manager’s face when I went through all the reasons why cash only seemed bad for business. “Thanks for your suggestion,” he’d said. Why do I feel that nothing will change there? Maybe, for the same reason I think he felt comfortable with his feet up talking to a woman in his office.