Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #11: Have faith! A brief look at religion on the road.

You get an interesting insight into faith when you travel and moreso if you stay in any country more than a few days.

Africa is almost split across its middle between the dominance of Islam (north) and Christianity (south); it has a close connection too with whether countries are francophone or anglophone but less so than the simple geographical split, as the linguistic layer cake later. That makes sense, given how Islam was spread by refugees from the Arab peninsula and then through Moor conquests coming down from the north.

However, many people in Africa have firm Animist beliefs–voodoo has its roots in Benin; worship of spirits is common. b, from Baga traditions) and her statue was placed facing the doorway for that purpose. (We’ve, since, always, had Nimba statues in our homes.)

You get to see Animism in the most surprising settings. Early during my posting in Guinea, I was invited to a football match, as a guest along with the British Ambassador, who was my neighbour. Neither of us had been in-country long. As a former player, I was fascinated to see a local match up close. The formalities all seemed normal, with my ambassador-neighbour doing the honours at the coin toss. Just when I thought the guests would leave the field and the teams get on with the game, someone brought a chicken to the centre, holding it aloft. After some chanting that I did not understand, the chicken’s neck was cut! Its blood was drained around the centre circle, then the man took it to the side. The field was new and had now been duly sanctified.

I’ve worked in both Islamic and Christian states, including Orthodox Christian Ethiopia. I loved living in Guinea; predominantly Muslim but also celebrating major Christian festivals, Easter and Christmas 🙂 Islam has had a long tradition of tolerating other religions. My secretary was a Catholic and all other staff were Muslims.

Seeing a world revolve around a weekend that starts on Friday and ends on Sunday was a big change only for coordination with my Washington or UK lives. The main prayers on Fridays shifts focus well. The reverence of Friday prayers was always evident by the glorious display of robes that day (boubous). My office closed at noon.

Living in a world where Ramadan and fasting drive lives is revealing. In my first year, I fasted the whole of Ramadan; it was tough. It was tougher than it needed to be because I didn’t know I could drink water, and I hadn’t learned that you should get up before dawn and load up on food 🙂 You don’t fool me twice! I cracked that the second year.

What Ramadan revealed was how the lower energy levels just drive down productivity; lassitude is just everywhere. I was lucky to break fast in the evenings (iftar) with friends and families, most days, which gave a much clearer meaning to what the prolonged fasting meant. The whole process is cleansing, physically and spiritually.

Guinea practised what I called ‘Islam light’. That was evidenced by the absence of extreme form of modest clothing throughout–long clothes were common forms of attire–to the extent that seeing bare-breasted women was commonplace.

Photo I took driving through Labé

Black Africans are generally not ashamed of their bodies.

Burqas and all black attire were seen to any large extent only in parts of the Fouta Djallon, amongst some fundamentalist elements of the Peuhl population. Yet, even in the heart of that community, you’d see things like motorcycle taxis where women were riders and men pillion passengers.

Most Christians only know of monogamy as a way of life, whether formally married or not; many have a hard time with the idea of polygamy, when a man with multiple female partners, simultaneously. Well, the Muslim marriage allows up to four wives; it doesn’t give the reverse polygamous rights, as if polyandry were accepted. It took a while to understand how that worked out, and I did not have any judgments, but noted that for some men it was about raising the odds on creating a family, eg by taking on some younger woman(en) to add to his marriage. The tenet is that each wife should be loved equally. I don’t know what the test or proof of that is; it’s understood, though that the husband can and will have his favourite. Guinea’s president during my time, Lansana Conté, had three wives, one of whom was a Christian. Let’s not delve into the less-know area of extra-marital arrangements when a man has several wives already. 🙂

We attended a Catholic church in Conakry for several years, as a way of introducing our young child to Christian workshop. For me, a Protestant, that was no simple journey of faith, but the priest was a wonderful man and the congregation, mainly people from Sierra Leone was truly joyous.

One of my best Guinean friends, now departed, El Hadj Sow (who was secretary-general in the ministry of finance), was an Imam of great repute, who hailed from the town of Dinguiraye, a holy city for African Muslims. He taught me what little I know about Islam and the Quran. I was fortunate to speed several weekends with him, his brothers and, his family, when they had the tradition of taking each meal at a different brothers house, from Friday through Sunday. It was very simple and open and I have great memories of Rhian wandering into the prayer area and kneeling to join the prayers, something she was accustomed to doing at home when our household staff had their prayers 🙂

I know many Muslims who have been to Mecca for the Hadj; many more than Christians I know who have made any pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The power of faith and religion was best brought home to me in places where it had been denied for years, the former Soviet Union. If nothing else marked regime change, it was people flocking freely to and in churches. Ironically, Soviet leaders had understood the power of Christian and other beliefs within Russia and the satellite states, and did little to damage the physical structures, such as churches or mosques, some of the most beautiful examples of which exist within that political regime.

Little can touch the beauty of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral, poised defiantly in. Red Square.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Medium term: Social intervention to redeem the redeemable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, be a man! Our national security needs that?

I think that people who put themselves up for public office deserve to be put under public scrutiny a lot. Jamaicans are not necessarily of the same mind, and with our often too-visible sense of deference, we give politicians a bligh/bly far too often. Apart from cartoonists, and newspaper editorials, it tends tobe that elected officials and nominated officials get the kid gloves treatment. Now, I have never desired being a politician and I rarely put myself up to be voted upon for positions, but I have done the latter–often warning people to beware what they wish for.

Now, of the many ministerial positions in Jamaica that seem to come with hardly any sympathy, Minister of National Security (MNS) is up there, maybe neck-and-neck with Finance Minister. But, with that in mind, you’d think that the post holder would do as much as possible to garner public support and sympathy, not create reasons to doubt and even to ridicule. However, in recent times, the MNS has done little of the former. So, the latest incarnation, Robert (‘Bobby’) Montague is in good company.

We should have been warned, when last October made the following somewhat astonishing remarks:

“I have been truly blessed and I cannot deny that I have been blessed. Many of us will prefer, and can, like experts, tell us what is wrong and we can complain and we can find fault; but I am blessed. I am specially chosen by my God to be here to confront what confronts Jamaica and I am confident that with the prayer of everyone, we will overcome…Many persons will tell you that we face serious times. But I don’t tell God how big my problems are, I tell my problems how great my God is.”

While Manchester United thought they had the ‘Chosen One’ (snagged after being discarded by Chelsea), Jamaica learned abruptly that the CO was on their soil.

Now, Mr. Montague could be excused his bit of hyperbole, speaking to Jamaica Christian Diaspora Conference, in St James. First, pols often lay it on thick for the diaspora. They lay it on thicker for relgious contexts. They also (need to) lay it on thick when in the so-called new murder capital parish of Jamaica.

But, Harold Wilson (former British PM, and a decent economist :)) once said “A week is a long time in politics.” Well, poor Mr. Montague has had to endure a few weeks in his post. So, fast forward to the start of this year. Far from being happy to fly under the cape ‘given’ to him by his Maker, he has turned to the dark side, to deal with what he had called the ‘murder index’. This time, he was addressing attendees at an interactive session with heads of security held at the Jamaica Conference Centre in downtown Kingston.

“Oonu goin run weh because we goin to pursue oonu. This minister no fraid a oonu, my uncle is a Obeah man.

So, no longer is the greatness of his God going to carry him along, but evoking the demonic spirits. He noted how many criminals carry New Testament Bibles in their back pockets and wear guard rings, which allegedly make them disappear from the police. OKAY! 

Now, a few people were not keen on this revelation–as practising Obeah is still illegal in Jamaica, and a few called for the arrest of the Minister’s uncle.

If people didn’t have doubts about the Minister’s capability in the post, they were beginning to wonder…just a bit, now. He was put on the spot by one of Jamaica’s ace radio current affairs host, Dionne Jackson-Miller (on January 25): “Are you out of your depth in this post?” Now, this was the moment to be statesman-like and moderate in the reply. Unless you are Mr. Montague: “Absolutely not! A St. Mary mi cum from!”

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Coming to a barm yard near you?

What that really means may be the subject of at least a few research studies.

This kind of utterance may be part of the new political vogue.

I wont mention the name of the new President of the USA, but our Bobby can trump anyone when it comes to comments he wishes he hadn’t said.

It’s perhaps fitting that today’s Jamaica Gleaner Editorial is titled What’s Next, Minister Montague? The following extracts summarize the newspaper’s concerns (my emphases):

The deployment of soldiers to boost crime-fighting efforts in western Jamaica has apparently flopped. Killings have continued in several communities. It is clear that traditional, predictive methods being followed by the security forces are not working to stem murders and other criminal activity.

So what’s next, National Security Minister Robert Montague? There has to be some smart, innovative moves to beat back this scourge.

Citizens across Jamaica are anxious to hear about the Government’s law-and-order initiatives. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has been in office for nearly a year, enough time to formulate a plan that will give comfort to those who are living in fear of becoming the next victim.

People are losing hope. Mothers are cowering behind their grilled doors not sure whether their daughters or sons will be returning home from school or church or whether they will find them dead in bushes somewhere. Entire communities are living under unofficial curfews as the culture of fear spreads.

It’s not a laughing matter, so why would the Minister set himself up to be a laughing-stock?

 

Holy roller, Batman?

Let’s try to keep it like the Sunday morning sand on the beach: light and fluffy.

Things that make you go hmmm.

An English priest was invited to preside over a Christening. Sure, he said. So, off he went, to the Caribbean, as the guest of one if the invited. Now, call me old-fashioned, if you like. I know that priests are not all white or all male, certainly not Anglicans. But, somethings I just dot see priests donut and feel that the actions of a man of the cloth. Grabbing a few glasses of Prosseco is one of those. In the circumstances, I’d not deny the young fellow a little taster after he’s wet the babe’s head, but when I saw the second glass go gloop, my eyebrows went pop.

Now, I’m not willfully irreverent, but is wanted my concerns addressed when I saw the lad appear at the party, after the Christening, and in a flash his dog collar popped and his short sleeved black shirt was only missing a disco ball over his head for him to audition for Saturday Night Fever. “Give me a sign that you’re the real deal,” I’d asked. Unlike Jesus, he wasn’t being asked for a miracle, but I figured that priests carried a licence or some proof of professional competence. Otherwise, any jack rabbit could walk in and read a few things pulled from the Internet. That seemed reasonable. Anyway, he just smiled and I was left to wonder. A lot of lawyers were at this shindig, so I know a few ears were tuned in, but lips disused sealed.

When the pan music hot hot, who was up there, hands in the air like you just don’t care? When Earth Wind and Fire were putting on their Fantasy, “…as onnnneeee…”? You got it. I rest my case. In the name of…

But, I asked the Oracle the question this morning. Catholic priests are supposed to have a photo ID, so I read. They used to just carry a letter from their Bishop, called a ‘Celebret’, for person who celebrates the Sacrements. Now, I heard the young man say that he was ‘celibate’, at which point a keen-earned 10 year-old asked “What that’s that mean?” Her nimble-footed mother told her it meant unmarried. Maybe, we’d misheard. Either way, my suspicions are as keen now as yesterday. As they’d say in Jamaica, “Bring me di bway!”
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For God’s sake!

On Saturday, I spent the ride from Kingston to Montego Bay seated next to a Pastor. Honestly, this was a first in all of my years of travel.

A few days ago I had tried to explain to someone how multi-textured Muslims were. I’d spent nearly four years working and living in Guinea, west Africa, where Islam is the official religion for about 90-95 percent of the population. But, that branch of Islam is built on a deep base of animist beliefs. So, for example, it was customary for homes and offices to have a statue of the goddess Nimba facing the doorway, to ward off evil spirits.

The Goddess Nimba
The Goddess Nimba

As soon as I arrived in the country office that was to be my post for the next few years, my secretary had me out in the street markets looking for a ‘good’ Nimba. In fact, I would need two: one for my office, and another for my residence; but, I did not have that, yet. I found a nice dark carving and placed her carefully facing any guests who would visit. “Soyez le bienvenue en Guinée!”

By contrast, Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, Libya, or Indonesia did not have the same cultural base.

Guinea is more like Jamaica than Saudi Arabia. It was common to see bare-breasted women on the streets of any town. That was part of national culture, and if Mohamed didn’t like it, he could lump it. Women in short pants and riding motorbikes were also a common sight. Go to Riyadh or Tripoli, and those displays would put the sheikhs into a shaking fit or send them tripping.

Guinea’s major manufacturer is a brewery, and you have no problem getting an ice-cold bottle of Skol or Guiluxe in a bar, or a six-pack in a store. Go to Saudi Arabia or Libya and you may have grape juice. Cheers!

So, my mind was primed for things religious and cultural.

The Pastor and I were just getting to know each other. I declared my professional background. I asked him about his congregation. He had two, one in St. Thomas, one in Montego Bay. He was a Pentecostal. He said they were mainly young. That was in contrast to my Anglican parish church in Kingston, which was mainly middle-aged, at least. What else was notable, I asked. “Voodoo,” he said. ‘Science’, ‘Obeah’. He elaborated. His people believed in God, but they also believed in other supernatural forces. Obeah in Jamaica is well-known, and features much in the life country areas, more than in Kingston. But, given the regular and familial interactions between town and country, Obeah is well-known throughout the island.

I do not mess with Obeah and won’t talk about it much. I know people who think it’s powerful. I don’t understand it’s workings, but won’t diss it. I know Obeah yards. My mother was once threatened in our home in London by a woman tenant wielding a large kitchen knife who accused her of working Obeah on her. We eventually, disarmed the woman and she was taken away by the police.

It’s funny listening to some recent discussions in Jamaica, which have a Christian component to them. You’d think that black Jamaicans arrived in Jamaica from Africa as full-fledged Christians. My understanding is that we ‘got (biblical) religion’ only in the late-18th century. Our ancestors came to the Americas with their pre-existing beliefs, including Obeah, on which Christianity was perched. We still have many of those dominating our lives. Maybe, some people forget that rather quickly.

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Evangelists feeling the spirit

We’re renowned waggonists. We lash out at some of those who’ve lived with their religious traditions for over 1000 years, and here we are, like reformed smokers or new teetotalers, preaching how wicked they are. We’re new kids on the block.

The Pastor told me more about his congregation. He was fully invested in helping them find directions in their lives. He did this with his weekly trips north, as well as his work in his St. Thomas and Kingston bases.

We moved on to talk about children. That was my fault. I had been keeping half an eye on the film showing on the Knutsford Express bus, Life of a kingstaring Cuba Gooding. It was about how young people in a detention centre were helped to learn chess and its value in transforming lives. It was full of feel-good teaching moments.  We got onto discipline and getting children to do the right things.

He asked for my views on what he did regarding spelling: if his child gets her 30 words right each week, he gave her a reward; she could choose. I told him that I did not think that bargains with children were good things for adults to make, because children have different value points and often take an offered deal only for the adult to then not like the outcome, want to change the deal, and then getting angry with the child who had accepted the offer. For instance, parents tell a child to “clean your room, or else”. The child wants to know or else, what. The parent then says “You’re grounded.” The child may be happy with that, especially if it had no desire to go out  and was happy to be locked in the bedroom and left to get on with something like playing games or rearranging toys. Taken. The child does not clean the room. The adult sees this and is angry. “Didn’t I tell you to clean your room?” The child says he/she took the ‘or else’. Thanks. The adult did not get what he or she wanted. The child did. The adult is now frustrated or angry. Children often see things more simply than adults so can be happy with these sorts of negotiations.

But, his deal was not bad. I told him that I do not bargain with my child, but try to get her to see the right thing to do, and figure out how to get there. I have some strong positions, which my child knows. If she wants another position, she approaches her mother. I tell her, however, not to play us against each other. Many children do, successfully, because adults who have not agreed or agree but do not apply consistently, do not go back to each other and renegotiate. The economist in me sees this as an arbitrage situation, which children exploit: Dad wont, Mum will. “Mum!” The parents then get into a spat. The child observes and smiles, and waits for the next opportunity to get this situation going.

We found that our children were both at the recent swim meet for prep and primary aged children. We compared notes about how adults arranged the world of children. His religious training put his at an interesting perspective. Maybe, God would see it fit to help the adults. 🙂

We reached Falmouth, and while the driver loaded and unloaded, the film was paused. We both complained that we had not seen the end: the film was reaching an exciting climax, with the ghetto, one-time gangster, black youth, playing in a test tournament against a well-known, preppy-looking, white elite player. We wanted to see how that ended. We both agreed that if the ghetto youth lost, his life was now on a different and better path, already, and he was likely to stay on that. His coach (Eugene Brown, played by Gooding), had had his life transformed, having spent 18 years in jail on a bank robbery charge.

'Eugene Brown' plays his chess game in jail and would look to get youths to see its value
‘Eugene Brown’ plays his chess game in jail and would look to get youths to see its value

The film restarted as we continued towards Montego Bay. I wont spoil the ending.

As we arrived at the Montego Bay stop in town, we exchanged cards: though retired, I had found that networking in Jamaica works better if I have a card to exchange. I had found a young lady in town who designed and made business cards, amongst other things, and had some prepared. Funnily, I had collected them during the lunch break of the last prep-primary school swim meet. I noticed that his card mentioned everything he did, which including screen printing, though not that he was a Pastor. I smiled to myself. I stayed on the bus to the airport, where I was due to be met by a friend and then taken to watch her husband and my friend play in the national trials.

If you play golf, you think you see the hand of God, or some outside force often. You get those bounces that defy logic and keep your ball in play in better-than-expected positions. You could, of course, just see that as luck, which is in plentiful supply.

The name of some god is often invoked in Jamaica to support positions. I read with much interest a series of articles over the weekend, of which the most fascinating was that by Ian Boyne, whom his employer, The Gleaner, bills as a ‘veteran’ journalist. I always wonder why that is necessary; I think it’s to give a certain gravitas, especially when linked to his working for the Jamaica Information Service. His views are supposed to carry weight, after all of that. His piece had a catchy byline that included the three Bs: bible, bigotry and buggery. Fitting, to go with Boyne. It’s basic point was that for the current arguments against same-sex marriage and ‘normalisation of homosexuality’ must involve ‘destroying’ biblical arguments. It’s a very interesting piece, which I recommend. I’m not going to discuss it here. I just found myself going back over my weekend meetings with the evangelist pastor and his flock of voodoo-inspired Christian folk.

For many, in Jamaica, the debate going on around these subjects are rooted in biblical beliefs. That same set of beliefs guides other attitudes towards certain sexual behaviour in Jamaica. It’s always notable, however, how those same beliefs either get ignored or forgotten when other sexual or more general social behaviour is either discussed or enacted in Jamaica. Most people know that we are a bunch of hypocrites on this. What is perplexing, and I do not pretend to have come up with an explanation that holds for very long, is how we do that. The why is easy. But, the how is really complicated.

Jamaicans’ belief in the Christian god is strong. Their belief in other gods is strong, too, whether they are in the Abrahamic tradition or also from far back but out of many parts deep in African culture. Stronger? The god of the majority is not the god that rules the minds of the majority. One god of the minorities, Jah Rastafari, is very new on the scene, and has visited Jamaica, and has captured the minds of a minority who have ‘sold’ his teachings to the Jamaican majority and far further. Other gods are powerful. More powerful. I now wonder more which god is ruling the minds and hearts of Jamaicans.

I can see that I am not going to have an easy mental week. I was extremely tired heading into last week. Jamaica is mashing up my head, but it’s all in a good cause, I hope. For god’s sake, help me figure out how this country is really thinking.

 

Awkward moments

This morning, I’m due to travel to Bahamaland. It’s for a good cause (I was going to add ‘very’, but read last week that it’s very overused, and have been avoiding it like the plague ever since). The inaugural IAAF World Relays, will get underway in Nassau. This has been on the family calendar since before Christmas. So, the fact that, in Jamaica, the National Amateur Golf Championships also take place over our Labour Day holiday weekend is like a bunker ahead of a ball: I don’t see it. Family harmony preserved on that point, I can move forward. How long the harmony lasts will be interesting to see: I am Jamaican; my wife is Bahamian. Awkward. Jamaicans will be representing in fullish fashion: Usain Bolt will not be running on the track (and I hope he wont be just profiling on some ad while his fellow runners are speeding along). So, the harmony thing may get strained. The Bahamians are capable of making some huge noise for a nation of so few. Those cow bells kaliking may drown out all other supporting sound. I hope the Jamaicans come with drums. I will be packing my whistle. I do not, and will not, own a vuvuzela. But, much as my mother-in-law says she loves me, I feel that the blindness of love may not last. I am taking out some insurance, though, and packing some sliced East Indian mango from a cousin’s house to sweeten Grandma’s mouth. Hope the Customs people don’t give any trouble with that.

Harmony may take a little bump, too, if I get to play some golf–something that has not happened before, despite often being a hair’s breath from one of the loveliest courses I know, on Paradise Island. This time, I have tried to make plans, but my hook-up is still not sure. But, I live in hope. My golf crazy cousin, has decided to make the trip to Nassau–I think he may be there in some official JAA’s capacity, but that’s not important. He may have locked in his playing, and I will have to remind him of our blood ties, even if I have to caddy for him. That wouldn’t be so bad, because I’d get paid. Anyway, wish me luck on that. I’ve packed some drop-dead golf clothes, which may see me deported unseemly publish display.

My daughter is still asleep, as I write, but is very excited to rejoin her cousins and friends (whom she proudly recognized last night, when pressed on why she was ready to go). The fact that Grandma is reported to be preparing peas soup for our arrival was not lost on my child. She has some serious Caribbean genes, and walks with her belly. I’m so proud of her.

We’ve a few boring errands to run before getting to the airport, including taking my car in for a service. I’ve visited the nice ATL service facility in New Kingston once already with this car. It was a mixed experience that left me lamenting this feature of life in Jamaica, and was a reminder of how human interaction can get unnecessarily cumbersome because of simple dishonesty and unwillingness to accept mistakes.

Yesterday was one of those days in public discourse that I like to witness. A controversy has been raging this week about the future of Professor Brendan Bain, ‘one of the Caribbean’s pioneers in clinical infectious disease practice and a leading medical authority on the HIV epidemic in the region’. He was dismissed earlier this week because of testimony he gave as an expert witness in a case in Belize. Professor Bain was director of the Regional Coordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network, and gave his testimony in 2012,on behalf of a group of churches that lobbied to retain Belize’s sodomy law. Various human and LGBT rights groups objected to this, mainly as a conflict of interest, but also on the use of disputed and outdated data.

I would not call what has gone on a ‘discussion’.

The matter of homosexuality does not lend itself to civil discourse for very long in Jamaica. (and in much of the Caribbean). The language used is often very telling. Gay rights groups are often positioned in a distant way with terms such as ‘they’. Also, reference is often made to their ‘strength’ and ‘power’–based on what, I have not yet understood. We also hear of ‘their agenda’. All of this makes it sound as if this particular lobby group has tactics and issues that make them extraordinary. Fear and loathing are rarely far from the surface, and many people who oppose such groups, latch on quickly to some pieces of religious argument to support their vehement opposition to what they often refer to as ‘abominable behaviour”.

A group of a dozen people mounted a picket outside UWI’s regional headquarters in Mona yesterday; that got a lot of airplay. I wish that every group of a dozen people is treated equally: I am looking forward to my time on the evening news when I get back. The way the media latched onto this yesterday was revealing. I’ve seen bigger groups making a fuss and yet never feature in a clip, let alone extensive interviews. What’s this talk about ‘power’ and ‘strength’ and ‘agendas’ all about? What are the facts? Awkward, again?

I’ve had a few conversations with Caribbean people about the Biblical support for their arguments, and what abominable behaviour means. They end up being noisy and confused, not least because parts of Biblical writings that do not go in support of the arguments opposing gay rights are conveniently pushed aside. Or, other abominable behaviour and sins are seen as…I’m not really sure what. Maybe, this is a turning point, and the next public announcement of sinning will bring forward a crowd, much bigger than 12 people, I hope, against murder, rape, or incest. Anyway, I will tread carefully around this minefield, within which one is likely to sense lightning bolts being hurled (an unintentional slide back to track and field).

Anyway, I don’t know what possessed me last night, but I decided that the vilification and half-arguments were getting a bit much, and I decided to engage in a few rebuttals. I ended up collecting a lot of red herrings and had enough to make one of Jamaica’s favourite dishes, Solomon Gundy, which is great on water crackers. A goodly number of these herrings were being cast by people often seen and read in the mainstream media, which I think give them ‘strength’ and ‘power’ to run with their ‘agendas’, but let’s not muddy the waters, with inconvenient truths, or even facts. Fact has become a great word to bandy around. ‘Facts are facts’, some people will holler. Really? is often my reply. I’ve lived long enough with people to know that facts are not often seen the same. So-called facts can often be denied. I’ve also been in a few situations where upholders of the law cited ‘facts’ in courts of law, which judges have then turned around and said were not supported by other facts, so were dismissed and rejected. What I see with my eyes may not be what you see. Likewise, with other experiences. Some facts are easy to understand and verify. How much money do I have in my pocket? We can check and agree that it’s none. But, other facts can get tricky to verify. When they involve what is called ‘data’, then fact is often a mixture of evidence and opinion. Take a look at Jamaica, and see which ‘facts’ about the country are shared by any, many, few, or none.

I heard what was quite a reasonable discussion last night on the topic of Professor Bain, during AllAngles, a current affairs discussion programme hosted by Dionne Jackson-Miller. She asked hard questions of UWI’s vice-chancellor, Nigel Harris. He gave what sounded like solid replies, and indicated that the decision was not the result of a brief consideration, but had been part of a long dialogue of several months. The panelists, from the Medical Association of Jamaica, and a spokesperson for human and gay rights groups, also discussed and answered questions well, including holding onto views that seemed clear and not biting on their being twisted.

I suspect that this was one of the less-heated discussion that was going on. But, so be it. I will no doubt see a lot of hyperbolic commentary today that makes it seem that all people’s rights of free expression are being trampled. I may not be in a position to argue back whether this same concern is partial or general, and ask if the rights of some other individuals to freely express themselves in Jamaica are not trampled by those same ‘defenders’. But, let me not get ahead of myself. I have no particular axe to grind in favour of any group, but I do have a liking for arguments that seem fair and make sense. Rightly or wrongly, I am not gripped by a certain fear that seems to pervade some of the arguments. I cannot tell if that is because of where I spent most of my life, or if it’s just something that I have never had. Some lifestyles are not my preference, but I know that they exist and are practised by others. I do not see that as threatening me or my lifestyle. Whatever moral arguments I may wish to use in favour of what I do, I can have thrown back at me.

It seems that Jamaicans throw a disproportionate amount of energy into opposing certain things, yet save that energy when it could oppose other things that are really more detrimental to all of our lives. Need I go back to last week’s topic of electricity theft? Should I touch on how we do not really care that much for our children?

I hear the sound of tiny feet overhead. How convenient.

 

 

The good, the bad, and the ugly (April 13, 2014)–The Thinking Jamaican Edition

Jamaica has some very sharp-witted people. We also have an inordinate number of those termed ‘not the brightest button on the jacket’. Some of our thinking is heavily constrained by certain moral and religious positions that make sense to some but little or no sense to others. We also have a bunch of people who, rather than fess up and acknowledge that they have done something really silly, will sit there and bluster and bluster and wait for the house to be blown over. The saddest part of that is it’s so awfully obvious. Add to it a bit of pomposity and you’ve got yourself the makings of a great interchange. Anyway, let’s have at it.

Good

I will single out JUTC (Jamaica Urban Transport Company) for a series of moves trying to make its segment of the public bus transport market a saner place. Most welcome were the quick measures to stop people throwing stones at buses. The series of attacks on JUTC buses is suspected to be by people thought to be opposed to the reformed sub-franchise bus system introduced by the JUTC on April 1, 2014. JUTC recorded 18 other incidents over two days which left damage estimated at J$2.5 million to a number of the company’s buses. The police have arrested a number of people in connection with the attacks. However, the Joint Coalition of Transport Operators has sought to distance itself from the series of attacks.

The new system for sub-franchise operators took effect on April 1. Under the reformed system sub-franchisees are now required to abide by a new set of regulations which include painting their buses yellow, wear uniforms with clearly displayed identification cards and have route numbers and franchise stickers displayed on the back and front of their vehicles. Order! Accountability! They are also required to pay a fee. According to the operating groups, the sub-franchise fees in some cases have increased from J$280,000 to $756,000. They have been warned that licences will be revoked if the requirements are not adhered to.

JUTC is also going to get heavier with its existing ban on preaching/evangelising on its buses.

It takes all sorts...
It takes all sorts…

It may make for a colourful journey (though I should say that as I’ve not had to deal with it, though recall experiences on the train that used to run across the island, and know it from similar activities in other cities). Jamaica does not have the lock on that. The logic of some pastors/evangelists is that they must spread the word of the Lord wherever and whenever they can. Some of them say we must listen or remove ourselves.

An already tense atmosphere in the process of travelling by bus may get more tense.

For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves
For Jamaicans, problems are often obvious and speak for themselves

Bad

Yesterday morning, I wrote about the strange way that Jamaicans think. I headed out to spend the day at the National Stadium complex, where my daughter was swimming in the Mayberry Investments Prep/Primary Schools Swim Meet. I go the complex each Thursday for my daughter’s swim training; I occasionally go there at the weekends for swim meets or sometimes for track and field events. A few things have struck me about the management of the complex, which is the responsibility of Independence Park Ltd, a government agency under the Office of the Prime Minister. IPL’s mission is ‘to manage the entities under its control as viable facilities ensuring that they are maintained at “world class” standards‘. I imagine that most patrons going to the complex don’t know that mission. I wont speak about the other places managed by IPL. But ‘world class standards’ are eluding them, if we’re talking about high standards.

On the many occasions that I have visited the complex over the past nine months, a few things have struck me.

The flow of people is poorly managed: Parking is provided at the complex, and available in three main areas, but I have never seen a sign indicating the parking areas. In somewhat typical Jamaican fashion, it seems that the notion is that if you’ve been before you’ll know where to go. Except that one area is ‘to the back’ of the Stadium near a community called ‘Nannyville’. Parking is for a fee, usually. I have never seen a posted fee structure. Instead, some ‘security personnel’ man the gates and inform parkers of the tariff. That’s a lot of interaction for each car, which tends to make things slower. It also invites negotiation of various forms: people who think they don’t have to pay (eg those in diplomatic vehicles); those who don’t want to pay; those who will pay but want something else, whether on offer or not. At least one guard spends a lot of time telling people that they cannot enter by the gate marked ‘Main Entrance’, to which many drivers flock, naturally.

When multiple events are being staged, such as yesterday with a major all-day swim meet and a major track event, the parking areas are designated for each event, except no one has bothered to make a sign to indicate that. Look, Jamaicans love to put up sign, and even in our sometimes bad English, it would be easy to write ‘UTech Classic Meet parking here’ or ‘Swim Meet parking via Nannyville entrance’. The result? Minor chaos yesterday morning–that, well before the track meet started at 4pm. People got angry as they found they had to turn away from entering near the main gates, or the front of the stadium, and circle around to Nannyville. Lines were forming at the front and the manoeuvering was getting harder as cars started to “bump up against each other” as one angry woman retold the tale. Probably, made worse because many visitors are not regulars at the complex. The guards seemed to lack a few basics in courtesy (and probably were met with similar by some), and “did not have any manners”, as the lady also retold. Lines to enter via Nannyville started to stretch back a long way: the gate had one guard, who in the absence of a sign that said anything other than ‘No entry’ on one side (closed) was having to handle each driver who had a simple query, “Where do I park?” I got there early and parked easily, but judging by announcements at the pool area for drivers to come to move their cars, which were blocking others, things got a bit tight.

I suggest that IPL review how a few excellent stadiums manage the people and car flows. I won’t tout the US, necessarily, but it’s close and has lots of venues of similar size and layout, albeit in a society that is much more car-oriented.

I don’t know how IPL interacts with other agencies and, therefore, which of these problems come from that interaction not working well. But, if that is part of the problem, I’d hope that the OPM would be able to knock heads together and get the matters sorted out. Funnily, for all the talk about Jamaicans and aggressiveness, there’s an amazingly high level of tolerance for the kind of nonsense that exists at the Stadium complex. That may be part of the problem: we know and accept “that’s how we do it”.

Ugly

Pride of place has to go to Northern Caribbean University (NCU, for its banning of a student for her part in a cheerleading routine that ‘deviated’ from what was approved (though NCU never vetted the whole routine so it’s not clear what deviation there was from something incomplete–head shaking already). For the record, the team was disqualified and then the summons process began. The proximate problem was that the female student, playing the part of a male groom on top of a wedding cake-simulated pyramid, apparently kissed the hand of the female ‘bride’. She was called to a meeting (I simplify the bureaucratic language), during which she was asked some questions about her personal life (for reasons NCU have deemed no one need know) and handed a two-week suspension from NCU; to this was added a two-year ban from all extra-curricular activities at NCU as a ‘probationary’ measure. Well, some lawyers have had a field day. NCU is a private Seventh Day Adventist institution, but accredited by the University of the West Indies, so has to be consistent with UWI’s overall philosophy, not a law totally unto itself. NCU has also not been as open and clear as it should be. We heard that the student did not show enough ‘remorse’ and that weighed on the punishment. She also attended the meeting with a tongue piercing and without her student ID. Good grief! You’d think someone would either have told her to go get the ID, or given her a ‘temporary pass’. Likewise, if the tongue thingy was so offensive, she could have been told to go to the washroom and remove it before the meeting began in earnest. Too simple? I guess, if you are after pound of flesh.

Many have talked about ‘natural justice’ and punishment fitting the ‘crime’. NCU have not explained why they punished just one of the cheerleading team, and the girl who was on the top, not her supporters. This was not a solo performance, after all. NCU said that another student called to the meeting did not attend. She has not been ‘found’ and hauled before the ‘bailiffs’. They said, when pressed during a television discussion, that investigation are ‘ongoing’, except that no one has been scheduled to any more meetings. All of this coming over a month after the incident. The other students may be ‘in hiding?’, or have run home? NCU surely know who they are. The performance has now featured in videos circulating on YouTube. (Some wags have said the ban should have been for the performance being long and boring.)

People are talking about rules and abiding by them. NCU haven’t actually said what rules were broken, but give the impression that we all know and agree that what happened was terrible (presumably alluding to same-sex relations) and needed to have a student put out of circulation for the rest of her university life, somehow on a probation that is not for review. Sha-Shana James, the student, said on CVM TV that she has no intention of returning to NCU. I wonder why? The school seems to have been a bit knee-jerky and got itself into a least one pickle after another. Take a look at the video of the routine. If the university is about ‘ethos’ etc, you have to wonder why they are getting students to perform cheerleading routines, and ones that start with hip-swinging routines. In this case, they seem to want their (wedding) cake and eat it, too. The amount of onscreen dancing by Charles Evans, who was speaking for NCU on CVM the other night was a little disquieting. NCU has seen only one culprit and have not really sought anyone else. That’s discrimination and they know it and seem to want to play it as something else. But, given that NCU upset some students late last year with  a new policy that makes the absence from the twice weekly chapel assembly punishable by expulsion from the institution, we have to understand that the place is strict. But, strictness and sense are not substitutes. The routine was a depiction, not real. The rationale that a man was too heavy to play the role himself seems reasonable. The troupe did not suddenly collapse in disgust as the final move was played out, suggesting at least tacit approval by all in the troupe. Anyway, enough head shaking.

If NCU has a problem with student’s sexual orientation, then be upfront about that and put it on the table. In that sense, the ‘performance’ is irrelevant. If it’s the performance that is a problem, then deal with the performers in a way that makes sense. Look, I for one wont judge NCU for being consistent in applying its rules, but don’t do this cherry picking and dissembling.

Read Orville Taylor’s take on the incidents. Read also Carolyn Cooper’s accounts of the incidents.

The heart beat of Caribbean Christmas: joy and pain

A Caribbean Christmas presents some problems that don’t exist everywhere.

Many people head to church on Christmas Eve, late at night, knowing that they are going to be up way past the time when Santa comes calling at their homes. They go to what’s called ‘midnight mass’, starting at 10.30 pm, with the service just getting going when Christmas Day starts. This is the season of ‘The Sermon to end all sermons’. The theme has to be big, and bring them all to the knees begging forgiveness before they head home to see what The Bearded One has dropped under the tree. “Slackness” was a familiar theme some years ago–girls in skirts up to their necks; boys in pants down around their ankles; rude people doing bad things and thinking that a day on their knees would atone; stealing; lying; sweethearting. Bring on the Seven Deadly Sins and let’s add a few.pieter_bruegel_the_elder-_the_seven_deadly_sins_or_the_seven_vices_-_avarice

Then, people head home in the deep of night, and have to wake up on Christmas morning to a houseful of screaming children.

“What did Santa bring?” Rip, tear, shred.

“Oooh!”

‘Yeah!”

“Is that all I get?”

“That’s not what I wanted?”

“I got that last year!”

The mixed feelings that are Christmas are beginning to show early in the day. Happiness is only a smile away from fearful rows.

“Why did they have to use so much incense? Think about the asthmatics.”

“It’s time you all cut down on these services. Tooooo looooong!”

“You leave our services alone. We’re the only godly ones left.”

“I blame it on the government.”

“At least we got a government now. Your lot, took all the money and left us all with nothing to show. Bunch o’ crooks.”

The families sit and eat a hearty breakfast and love each other long enough to not bite off each other’s ears. I always like Christmas breakfast. It’s seasonally traditional: ham and eggs; coconut bread; raisin bread; special Christmas brews of teas and coffees; sorrel. Some like a little liquor early. “Boy, bring me that rum!” Grandpa needs to be kept happy.

The energy used up opening gifts is not much but it goes fast if you’ve had little sleep. Tuck in!

Men often get saddled with chores soon after if not before.

“Honey, can you assemble the bike, Robbie got? You know, I’m no good with those instructions…”

Hours later, Honey is still looking for grommet A to fit onto spindle 2. Robbie has gone back to playing with the empty box in which a new train came.

“Dearest, the kids want to try out their new i-whatevers. Just set up the modem and router for them. I can’t figure out those electronic doohickeys.”

Hours later…

“I get three green lights, and I see the connection, but still no Internet…Am I connected at your end?”

The kids have gone outside to play with rocks and just broke the neighbour’s window.

“Sorry, Mr. McFarlane. Daddy will come to fix it in a minute. Merry Christmas!”

We’re not yet at noon and moods are beginning to fray. We have three hours to go till dinner with the family. How many people will be there? “I hear about a hundred.”

Time to head to beds and take a nap. The day is hard in the land of the baking midday sun. The cool breeze of the morning has already given way to a rising heat. “It’s so hot!” Soon, silence reigns. For a few hours, calm will prevail. Energies restored and ready for the real fray. The arguments over Christmas dinner can be fierce. In The Bahamas, a peculiar ritual starts to shape up as people pre-position themselves for the coming Junkanoo parade.

“Who’s going to win?”

“Only one group in it, man.” Saxons. Valley. One Family. Roots.

“What’s the best theme?”

“What song Sting got out this year?”

Why they start Junkanoo so late? [After midnight.]

“The weather’s looking inclement. Better put the parade back a few hours. Start at 3 in the morning. Makes sense.”

“Those judges. All of them crooked, eh. They’re going to rob us, again.”

“Ain’t crooked. You-all don’t have any music; can’t dance. When you start practice? Last night? Cha!”

Dinner hasn’t even been served yet and the ripples are beginning. Blood won’t flow and voice will only rise a few decibels. Blows won’t be struck, but tongues will lash. But, the focus shifts as the smells become stronger from the kitchen and the clatter of dishes and trays start to compete with the voices.

“Oooh! Look at the turkey! Wow! That ham has a glaze, eh!”

“Where’s the peas and rice? Macaroni coming?”

“Baked beans coming? I hope so.”

Let your meat stop your mouth!

Do you love your country?

By the time that I have finished writing this, my national pride may be overflowing, if Usain Bolt regains the title of World Champion in the 100 metres sprint; in Moscow it will be gushing if the other three Jamaicans who made it to the final take the other places 2nd to 4th. I would feel cock-a-hoop if the Jamaicans did the 1-4 places with anyone of the four winning. But, that prospect was not what inspired my title.

I was sitting in St. Andrew Parish Church this morning, st andrewlistening to the sermon–which was all about faith–and all I could think about was stew peas and rice.Cookbook-StewpeasforLlli I felt a little ashamed, at first, then my mind figured out what was going on.

Yesterday, on our way down the Blue Mountains, we stopped at Cafe Blue to grab a spot of lunch. The food there is always very good. We met some other diners–Jamaicans, of whom two men who had left in 1974 for the USA, but were visiting again, as they said they do often. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and we let out that we had moved recently to Jamaica–in my case, moving back. They exclaimed and asked why, given that things in Jamaica are so bad. I bristled, and asked directly why they were trashing their country. I never really got an answer. I imagined that they did not like the tendency that Jamaica was taking under Michael Manley’s first stint as PM, and fled, as many others did. I didn’t press them much, but I was really upset. I was more taken aback because they were in Jamaica enjoying some of the simple pleasures that the country offers: its natural beauty, the genuine warmth of its people, and its simple rural life–often exemplified by a range of tasty and filling meals. It was some of those meals that they were enjoying–beef soup with cow skin, followed by curry goat and rice. They loved every mouthful. Whatever faith they had lost, at least some seemed to have been restored.

They left and headed further up the mountains, to spend their time with a lady friend who is building a house near Newcastle. As they were leaving, an American couple entered the cafe. They looked a little uncertain, but the waitress and the departing diners encouraged them to try anything on the menu: “It’s all good!” Did they say that? I asked myself. Of course, they had. They really loved that aspect of the country.

Later in the afternoon, I went to visit some cousins. We were just happy to see a new baby boy, who was glad to be able to have some new hands hold him. My older cousin rushed into the house with some shopping bags and I helped her with them, so that she could rush off again to pay some bills. Her daughter, the new mother, started to breast feed her baby. “Pass me one patty,” she begged me. My daughter, quickly becoming Jamaicanized, went to the brown paper bag and pulled out one hot beef patty and placed it on a plate in front of the feeding mother. “Put it in the bag, for me, sweetie,” she asked my daughter, who thought she’d done the right, lady-like, thing of putting it on a plate. She learned fast that patties taste better when eaten out of the bag–at least, that’s so for we Jamaicans. We all tucked into a patty, and the feeding mother and my daughter didn’t hesitate to tackle another.

When my older cousin came back home, we sat and talked for a while. Eventually, she got onto how she had struggled to manage food costs in her home. Now that she’s retired and does all the cooking herself, she realises that she needs to buy less food and cooks more sensibly, taking account of the fact that she has no small children and that she and her husband are often happy to have left overs or get food out, if they are on the road. She turned her attention to me. “I know you must be missing Jamaican food,” she asserted. She then went on to tell me what she was planning to cook and how she would put some up for me: plantain porridge, fried fish, stew peas and rice with pigtail. Oh, be still my beating heart! I couldn’t wait for her call. In fact, I was ready to move in right then, so that I did not have to wait to get some great things to eat.

This all tied together nicely for me, and that’s what my mind helped me to do in church. The men we’d met had lost faith in Jamaica. They left and having left, they could only see how bad things were. Yet, here they were, back in Jamaica, lapping up what it offered, free as birds, happy as larks, yet not prepared to utter a positive word about that same place. A contradiction? Very much so, to me.

I’d had a somewhat disappointing meal at Strawberry Hill the day before. I had been told I was getting peas soup. My mind went back to a huge bowl of that, which I had eaten with immense pleasure the week before in Mandeville. It had dumplings, yam, sweet potato, and chicken foot spilling out of the bowl. My Strawberry Hill version was very faux: it was peas skin and smooth and no food. My little daughter wrinkled her nose up at it, and in her newly found phrasing whispered to me “It nah no food in it!” It did not work. We did not want this compromise dish: we were proudly expecting the real deal. The food manager explained that the dish was really ‘cream of peas soup’. I had a little shiver, but understood. The hotel was trying to ‘soften’ the dish to make it more appealing to a different audience. But, the problem was that in this country, we like the country things, and the country-style means ‘food’ (starches a plenty and all parts of an animal to make it taste better). That’s how many of our dishes are made. That’s what makes them what they are. That’s what we should hoist above our heads and say “A so wi do it!”

So, there, I have the circle closed. My faith in things Jamaican is often challenged. But, I get brought back to holding it strongly when I think of ‘country’. Country means the whole land, but it also means the people who live off the land, and the food we eat that reflects that so strongly. Children are off enjoying time ‘in country’, swimming in rivers, going to the fields, sitting with grandparents, cooking outside on coal pots, getting manish water, eating roast yam.

The big race has not yet been run. Bolt made renta yamyams2-300x202 famous after the 2008 Olympics when he credited eating it with giving him what he has to beat all comers in the sprints. That’s ‘country’ at its simplest. It makes you what you are.

What was so ironic about the meeting at the cafe was that the American visitors, both white, had just arrived from Miami. They were headed up the mountain to hike and find a place they had booked for bed and breakfast. The waitress told them how to find it: “Go up to Redlight and turn down the dirt road,” she’d said, checking both right and left hand to make sure she knew which way to turn. They were driving themselves. I told them that the road became narrower as they went higher. “Narrower?” asked the lady, “It’s already pretty narrow.” She looked concerned but I told her that it would be no real problem, but just to be aware. They both smiled. They had no qualms about the fact that they were going to have a wonderful time…in Jamaica, of all places. They had faith that they would get many wonderful experiences from this country which some of its native sons thought was ‘so bad’. Some contradictions, there? Not really.

My wife asked me yesterday if I would make a Jamaican breakfast this morning. I woke early, in part to watch live coverage of the World Championships. I did that and also prepared breakfast–saltfish and fried dumplings. We came back from church just in time to see the semis of the men’s 100 metres sprint. All went well. All four Jamaicans qualified for the final. All looked good for the country. We have put our faith in them and they have their faith, strong, and built on everything that this country has to offer. They did not flee, or leave to get better. They stayed in Jamaica and somehow became world beaters. Some contradictions, there? Not really.

Time to focus on “the greatest sprinter of all time”. What will be, will be. But, don’t lose faith in yourself or your country.

Jumayka, nuff prablem…but wi ‘appy tu rahtid…

I imagine that many people think of Jamaica as a happy and wonderful place. The images of smiling, laughing, dancing, singing, “Nuh prablem, man!” people attract foreign tourists. It would seem that these images are not wholly a myth. The UN commissioned Gallup to poll people and construct a World Happiness Report: Jamaica ranked 40th out 0f 156 countries, after the negative effects of corruption and lacklustre growth were discounted–not trivial impediments, but let’s leave that alone for the moment. Northern European countries took the top three spots (though given the high suicide rate usually associated with Finland, I find their 2nd position a bit suspect).happy

Is this high happiness something the country should exploit further? Those who try to market health and wellness tourism know that such environments may represent future boom areas. It could draw in more tourists, but also a particular breed of entrepreneurs. Look at the recent story of Randolph Cheeks, who returned to Jamaica, after studying and working abroad, to help with its development and who is ‘happy with his decision to return home,… he believes that Jamaica’s future lies in its ability to attract back and retain its human talent’. VW recently tried to exploit this happiness image in one of its adverts. “Chill, Winston!” could be a catchphrase for the ages.


But, being fair, consider Mark Wignall’s counter arguments that Jamaicans may be happy for the wrong reasons. The country has a litany of problems, and while my own philosophy is to see ‘problems’ as opportunities or challenges to be overcome, there’s no doubting the weight these put on people. I always thought, when I was working and living in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, that despite the beauty and natural richness of the land, life was often so hard that it just wore people down. Limited access to safe running water for many. Limited access to stable and regular electricity for many. A political regime that made many capricious decisions. Corruption in many walks of life. Growth that had been faltering for years. A plummeting exchange rate. Roads that sometimes turned into open pits, and which could be the scene of some horrific accidents. A growing sense of tension between ethnic groups (‘tribes’ in some senses). What Guineans suffer is not so different from what many experience in Jamaica, though I sense that government actions do not have anything resembling a similar level of capriciousness. But, Jamaicans do not seem worn down in any similar way, even though you’ll often hear “Mi a suffa!”

Income inequality in Jamaica is not much different from for many middle-income countries. Many Jamaicans have a quality of life that would be the envy of many people, with the generally great climate, abundant local foods and plenty more imported, whether raw or cooked, and a picturesque vista from almost anywhere on the island. I’m not trying to lack sensitivity for those whose plight is dire–of which there are too many, in shanty towns, gully communities, or just indigent on the road.1004097_10151574688934022_2029884106_n-1 Is the country too tolerant of beggars? No country or its citizens can feel happy with the kind of abject poverty that can sometimes be seen on a street in Kingston, whatever its cause. But, for what it’s worth and whatever the individual motivations, many Jamaicans are ready and willing to address such situations as they see best. They don’t seek to institutionalize such people. They often offer direct help, and that may be a few dollars in the hand, or some food, or some clothes, or the offer of some ‘work’–help. It may get rejected, which may seem surprising, but it’s a free country.

Many families remain close and support each other, whether with the help of remittances (in-cash or in-kind) from abroad or without. People still seem to have a great regard for rest and recreation: evenings and weekends can form important down time, and when chance comes to leave the city and head ‘to country’, it’s taken. Some anachronistic things seem in keeping with the slower pace: movies still have an intermission, when people go to get their drinks and snacks. Church and religion are important in the life balance for most people: after church in the morning comes family lunch, before or after a nap. This Sunday, we had friends and some family over for lunch in the mid-afternoon, and by about 7.30pm, the last guests were slowly leaving. Kids had played all the time, when they were not eating. Adults talked or just cooled out. We’d done the same the week before, but as guests not hosts.  Most business places are closed and roads are very quiet on Sundays.

Jamaica offers a good life to many–not the best, perhaps in terms of certain material things, but far from the worst for most things.