When I’ve thought in recent days how to try to fix some of the problems I see in Jamaica, I came back to a familiar stumbling block. The image I have for Jamaica’s future may not be shared by many.
Take aside the fact that I may have an image of a country where many things happen smoothly, in an environment that is largely clean and litter-free.
Ignore that I foresee a time when time means something important to everyone.
Put away the notion that we would not feel that a free-for-all was possible any and everywhere, and that many would not need to opt for that because they had plenty of good job opportunities, or good options, generally.
I’m not sure why my image of Jamaica keeps coming back to a Caribbean version of Switzerland. It may be that I like the Alps, and living in the shadows of the Blue Mountains in Kingston my mind can make the switch more easily.
Whatever vision political leaders have put forward to the Jamaican people, they have not painted a picture of a Jamaica that is really very different from what we had and what we have now. No doubt, north coast hotel developments have changed dramatically the coastline. Yes, Highway 2000 has changed dramatically the road landscape between Kingston and May Pen. The newly remodelled Norman Manley International Airport is a showpiece, matched by a newly paved road along Palisadoes, with its huge rocks protecting us from sea surges. The mining and industrial complexes in St. Elizabeth and Ewarton light up the sky in a spectacular way.
Whatever they promoted, did we really expect to see Jamaican streets largely empty because most of our people were working feverishly in offices or factories, tilling farmland, reeling in fish, studying in classrooms, or doing things in homes that were truly welcoming to those who had to spend the days productively outside? Or did we still see street corners with young men playing dominoes, drinking beer, talking, sitting with hands in jaws, appearing to have nothing to do?
Did we see a country that did not have men pushing hand carts, each one a unique design of natural woods, and cast-off tyres?
Did we see a land where cars were not idle on the roadside, with men running to or from them with petrol cans, and passengers waiting patiently for their return so that they could continue their journeys. Did we visualise that the 5-seater car in which passengers sat would be a comfortable waiting area for all nine of them and their bags?
Recent discussions about how Jamaica could learn lessons from, and follow, Singapore have at their base something similar to my visualization of Jamaica as a Caribbean Switzerland. Both are pristine-looking countries, where order reigns, where tidiness rules, where rules rule. They are places where garbage cascading along the roads when there has been heavy rain is not a usual sight. They are place where when someone says “I will come soon” it means that they WILL come soon. Could that ever be Jamaica? If the country were to change what would it have to give up?
It’s hard, maybe impossible, to visualize a Jamaica that does not have goats running along the sidewalks of commercial and residential districts, chomping away at the unkempt grass and weeds that line the road. Those goats serve a purpose by trimming when the public purse and personnel are not there to do so, and when the private entrepreneur who could make work from doing so has not yet seen the ‘market’ opportunity. Those same goats max out by noshing on whatever garbage Jamaicans have thrown from car windows of dropped casually as they walked. Jamaica’s gone backwards. I remember years ago, when pigs were there, snout by horn, with goats. Where are they now? We’re told that that country has a glut of pork, so where are the street pigs?
Who can see a Jamaica where roadside vendors, with their rickety shacks, and colourful displays of fruit, vegetables, briefs, panties, Dutch pots, tyre rims, and other life-essentials do not form the scenery for every journey on this island?
Who could imagine taking a road trip and not seeing the cookshops, the soup pots, the oil drums converted into barbeques, the bammy and fried fish offered on plates, bags of pepper ‘shwims’ [shrimps], cashew, roots drinks, and more?
All of those things I love about Jamaica. But, am I to believe that they are also part of what is wrong with the country? Could we move to another state and keep all or most of that texture that has been what makes life here the pleasure that it is?
Do we look forward to a Jamaica where road users keep to their side of the road at all times? Why should I be surprised to see a motorcyclist, without helmet, carrying two small children (without helmets) on the petrol tank of his bike, headed toward me in traffic, on my side of the road? Where did I think I was that this would not be a near-daily happening? Life’s hard and people do what they need to do! Get over it!
Do I want a Jamaica where taxis and private bus operators do not mistake the roads for speedway circuits? What kind of country would it be if those same public transporters did not just stop in the road when it seemed right for them, oblivious of anyone or anything else on the roads at the time?
I love to see the bodies pressed together in the large city buses in Kingston, with their faces looking from the windows wondering how long it would be before they got near to home.
What about a Jamaica where every time I stop at a traffic light I do not have a flock of young men spraying soapy liquid onto my car windscreen, and scraping it off to leave a sparkling, clear glass through which I can see the long line of cars waiting ahead? The Jamaica that does not have nearby that same youth, an old woman, with crooked teeth and bent back pressing her hand against my window, with gnarled fingers hoping to clutch just a few increasingly worthless dollars?
The country that we have is one that has less than it needs to live the way that it does. People in fancy suits talk about the fiscal deficit–we’ve spent more than we earned. We were not broke because of that. We borrowed some money to tide us over. But, we were never really able to pay the money back. So, now, we earn as much as we can and pay back as much as we can, and spend a little of what is left over to keep things ticking over.
We’re not dirt poor, but we have lots of characteristics of dirt poor countries. We have aspirations that are fine and we have shown those to the world with some of what we have constructed. We also show those aspirations in the way we house ourselves, if we have means or can get to borrow the means. We show them, too, in the kind of motor vehicles that we drive–shiny, new, foreign, often too large for our real needs, but hefty and able to deal with our rugged terrain. That rugged terrain is not all natural, though. Much of it is man-made. We have BMX tracks for roads, and our children get to have roller-coaster rides every day as we try to get them to and from school, and ourselves to and from places of work and elsewhere. None of that should bother us. When our cars are damaged, we just add the cost of repairs to another of the many expenses loaded onto us because we haven’t spent money we don’t have to do repairs to essential things that we have built. It’s simple. Get over it!
I have in my mind a kind of Jamaica that is really very different from what I see and experience now. (It’s not necessarily free of all those things I see around me now.) I think I know some of the things that are needed to move to there from here. I can imagine what people need to do and what they may need to spend to get some of it done.
I don’t know if anyone else sees what I see in the future. My view is one based on a hope for certain kinds of change. My view is also based on being able to live without certain kinds of social and economic pressures.
My biggest daily problem is not what will I eat. My biggest daily problem is not where should I go today to see if I can earn some money? My daily challenge does not include wondering if I can get from my house to anywhere else I want to go. My days do not involve wondering if someone will come to disconnect the illegal electricity supply that I have rigged up. My weeks do not involve hoping that the water I am stealing from the Water Commission is suddenly locked off. My nights do not involve wondering if those bangs were the sound of a car backfiring or the sound of guns firing. I don’t think about what my child is doing when I turn off the lights at night–she’s in bed asleep, not somewhere on the street. Those concerns, and more, are not there just for a small minority, but for a very sizeable portion of this country.
I can only speculate what vision someone has who lives behind a corrugated fence around a wooden shack near a gully strewn with old fridges, washing machines, black plastic bags and food boxes.
With viewpoints so different can we move together to create something that will be better for all of us?