What are good friends for?

Jamaicans say that good friends are better than pocket-money. I believe it. But, do most Jamaicans have and want good friends, or are they driven in search of other kinds of relationships? To me, that’s an important question any time, but more so as we wrestle with some clear cases of searches for unfriendly relationships: abuse, crimes against persons, and actions that generally disregard the needs of others are on what my eyes land. So, I see the rapist, child abuser, gangster, loud party-keeper, speeding taxi and minibus drivers, insolent or obdurate employee (and that includes the guardians of citizens in the form of the police, mainly, but the security forces overall); and others too many to mention as in the same bag. They all need behaviour correction to give others the space to do well, and stop trying to stop others doing well. It’s too complicated to go into why they do what they do, but that does not mean that it’s ignored.

I may not answer that question directly, but I am going to do a little bit of introspection, and it’s really to test myself and see how I stack up.

A friend, whom I met about a year ago, asked me this morning ‘How goes the month?’ I started answering by saying that I had lost two dear uncles in the past week. Loss of life is something that brings burdens that may last for a long time and I am barely in the process of grieving for them, yet. But, I am staying on the positive side that comes with change and plans for change. We moved house, recently, and the process of creating order and a pleasant living environment is very gratifying. I am not a perfectionist, so I know I can function with things partly done, so long as they are done properly. My ‘office’ has its desk, computer, printer, and accessories all in order. The surrounding space is a mix of boxes and books that are awaiting placement. Bedrooms have beds. We have all our clothes. Our kitchen is well-stocked, so we can cook and eat with relative ease, subject to not yet agreeing where everything will go, and how to flow through some spaces. The garden is full of fruit trees and some have already given gifts, and I was happy to share those Otaheite apples with a friend who lives about a mile away. I got in return some grapefruit and a pot of soup. Friends and pocket-money.

I added that I had fixed some summer travel with my teenage daughter to spend 10 days with long-standing friends in Europe, pass some time with cousins, and catch some former friends in London at the same time; some other friends will come from France to find me in London for a weekend. That’s really nice. Friends and pocket-money.

I’m trying to organize a ‘Thinkathon’ for this weekend, so that some people I know can get to meet me and each other and chew over whatever we feel like for a couple of hours, in the peace of my home somewhere–garden, most likely. I hope we get to know each other a little better and that our sharing of ideas will lead to some changes, because we are also action-oriented people. Friends and pocket-money.

Outside of people, I know, I have much faith in what I know is still a major part of every day life in Jamaica: mutual respect and a willingness to do the right thing. Examples at random from the weekend:

  • My saga with Flow and getting my mobile number ported was completed by the process being done partially, as promised by Digicel, on Friday evening and then finally on Saturday morning. I am good to go. During that process, I had chance to see how Jamaican people are patient in the face of seeming provocation and do not resort to loudness or violence. Thank you, Digicel staff at Loshushan.
  • My daughter is a competitive swimmer. Hydration is important for her. She asked me to get her some coconuts so that she could get that hydration and enjoy the jelly. I passed a man on the road selling coconuts on my way to Digicel on Saturday morning. I asked him to prepare 6 coconuts and I would pick them up on my way home. I got the price and went on my way. Forty minutes later, I got back to the stall. The man was not there, but my coconuts were and ready. I paid, went home and my daughter got a good drink, not long after she had done her early morning practice. I chopped the coconut and she devoured the thick jelly.
  • Sunday was a day full of rain and greyness, and I had no plans to go anywhere, except to get gas in case I needed to go to the country. I headed to Heroes Circle in the early afternoon, after my family got back from church and their impromptu lunch. They brought me a meal and I grabbed a bite before heading out. The young man at the gas station began pumping, then started to clean my windows (not standard practice, in Jamaica). We joked about how Sundays were quiet, but also that Jamaicans don’t like rain. We exchanged pleasantries and I headed home, but had to note the men working on the new perimeter fence to the park. Men doing heavy labour on Sunday is a rare sight in Jamaica. 

So, we have good will. That is well displayed, literally, all around us in the carefreeness of many aspects of our daily life. Look at the images I captured this morning.

Typical roadside vendor

Not a care in the world

This is the Jamaica where you expect to just go about your business.

But, how do we account for those who want to disturb all that and impose mayhem and the carnage that also now a part of daily life? 

A friend took issue with the seeming lack of coverage of a murder in Cherry Gardens a few days ago. I pointed out that coverage was plentiful, if one looked in other places: local papers, Indian papers (the man who died was an Indian citizen), India’s High Commissioner and Jamaica’s PM and senior Cabinet ministers made remarks about the incident, including about the safety of Indian nationals, that I saw on social media, and India’s foreign minister had also commented. My friend then changed his tune to say that it wasn’t on the front pages (whatever that means in the world of electronic publishing and social media). I presume he wanted to see a prominent reference to ‘uptown’ in the pages of murders. There’s a bizarre sentiment, for you, in the mould of ‘uptown lives matter’. But, I also thought that the essence of the murder was not such as to make it a crime of locality: people in the jewellery trade, as Rakesh Talreja was, are often targets of crime, for clear reasons. He could have been robbed anywhere between his work place and his home, depending on opportunity. But, that’s not to excuse the crime in any way.

Finally, I look back at the measures the PM announced to tackle crime. People have focused on ‘preventative detention’ and efforts to get taxis to remove tinted glass. I wont say much on either of these points. But, the latter exposed how unfriendly we have become. Put simply, the taxi drivers oppose being ordered to remove the tinting, in part with good reason–the law allows some level of tinting. So, the taximen have to decide if they should lose all tinting for the sake of safety or press to keep some tinting for the sake of protecting something the law allows. To me, it’s a question of the greater good versus the good of a few. I think that most people would go for the greater good. TOday, the taximen will discuss the issue with government. But, my beef with them is that, rather than deal with their many transgressions themselves (overcrowding, loud music, inconsiderate road use, speeding, breaking road rules, etc) they seek to defend a ‘right’ when it seems it may be lost. In other words, they do not really care for the rest of us but are focused narrowly on their own satisfaction. Taximen are not friends of Jamaica, it seems.

Their self-interested actions offer an uncomfortable lesson. How far can we go if we are only going to move if dragged?

 

United we stand, divided we fall. Jamaica is divided, so how can it prosper?

Imagine a group of people each given a rope connected to a horse that is stuck in a ditch. The idea is for all of them to pull at the same time, in the same direction to make getting the horse out more easily. If any one of the people pulls in a direction other than the rest, then the horse may still come out, but it wont happen as easily as if all pull in the same direction and at the same time. Depending on who pulls in a contrary fashion, in which direction, and for how long, we could get a situation where the horse stays stuck rather than moving out of the ditch. 

This image strikes me as fitting what I think is going on in Jamaica, at present, and has probably been going on for some time. The horse is Jamaica (in its many guises, as economy and society). The people are all of us citizens (and for the sake of simplicity, I will call ‘citizen’ anyone interested in the future of the country). Note, that I did not say the future well-being of the country, and I will make clear why, shortly. The ropes are anything that can literally take the country from where it is now to another state, and a better one than currently exists

As a country, it’s clear that we have several competing groups who want to tug the country in different directions. I’m not going to try to identify all of these groups–which is probably an impossible task because the groups could be as small as one person wanting to do his or her own thing. Think (with no slight intended) of a typical Jamaican country person wanting to live in the bush or the hills, far away from anyone else and content to farm his/her own piece of land, and feeling or actually being self-sufficient. In that sense, such people are not pulling against the rest of the country, but are not necessarily concerned to join in any ‘national’ efforts. 

The obvious competing forces that I can identify are:

  • Political factions. We can accept the division between the main political parties as sufficiently contentious in almost everything that each says and does. There is little meeting half way for partisans. The idea of consensus has not been accepted by any significant number of supporters on each side. So, for simplicity, we can say that each party wants to the take the country in a different direction–not necessarily opposite, but certainly not getting to any destination by essentially the same routes. Jamaica isnt unique in such divisions, and it’s ironic perhaps that the former colonial masters, the British, had a country long accustomed to such divisiveness, and it manifested itself in economic policies termed ‘stop-go’: whenever, national political control changed the direction of policies was almost reversed, looking to undo what the previous administration had done. Britain’s economy stalled badly as a result of such tensions.
  • Law-abiding vs law-breaking groups. I’ve written a few times, recently, about the fact that Jamaica is in a form of civil war in its struggle against some criminals. Some do not find this notion comfortable, but I think that it’s undeniable. Last week Prof. Herbert Gayle hit the civil war nail on the head, citing numbers, in his piece ‘Light On Violence | ‘We Are Killing Ourselves In Undeclared Civil War‘. Whether one accepts the civil war point or not, it’s clear that those who want to break laws are against those who want to follow the laws of the land. So, the issue is much broader than those surrounding the terrible levels of violent crimes in Jamaica, but extends to all the petty forms of rules violation that are a common part of Jamaican life. That is not to equate the gangland killer with the vendor who operates illegally, but there is an equvalence in the way that our society has been ready to turn a blind eye to many things that people will accept as wrong, yet continue to do

Those two groups alone cover a lot of what happens in Jamaica. They are very clearly part of many daily struggles, whether you are the gainer or loser in a bid for a government contract, or you are someone who has to choose between riding in a registered taxi or taking a ‘robot’ to school, work or play.

    The problem with this divisiveness is clear from the image I first painted. We have a Jamaica tussling with itself on a daily basis. We cannot fix most of our problems because we have a bigger mass of people willing to pull against their solution. If one assesses comments about things that need to change in Jamaica, many go to how the ‘little man’ needs to be protected. That ‘little man’ is often doing something illegal, whether it’s stealing electricity, living on land illegally, operating a business that is unregistered and not willing to come into the formal economic structure, or a range of other things that are common in this little island. 

    We have a deep-seated culture of silence, so few are prepared to ‘call out’ those who are wrong doers, yet are ready to suggest that they don’t approve of wrongdoing. We are also a society that has many layers of close connections, so ‘calling out’ someone often means choosing to support a wider social need over a personal bond. We see that played out often, including recently in the case of a pastor accused of sexual abuse/rape of a minor, and how the principal of a girl’s school could publicly come to his aid and the support of her dear “friend”, his wife, yet not see how she compromised her position as the head of that girl’s school. We have not heard the end of that aspect of the story, but we have seen that duplicity is apparent in many elements of what took place and what people say took place. 

    What has been dubbed the ‘fight against crime’ is hampered by this culture of silence–on both sides of the fight. We can understand the fear that exists in those living in areas controlled by criminals, who are known to be violent. We can understand, too, the sense of ‘brotherhood’ that may govern the illegal activities of police officers seeking to ‘solve’ crime problems with a little bit of ‘jungle justice’. 

    Economic progress is hampered, too, by this tussle. The struggle between building an economy that is more highly formalized instead of one that has a large informal element is real. So many Jamaicans thrive on the informal–the fruit seller at the traffic lights who provides the daily healthy snacks; the crab sellers at Heroes Circle; the seller of fruit and vegetables from the back of a vehicle; the ‘friend’ who eases the way through a problem (bureaucratic or technical). Many would not use the word ‘corrpution’, but most of us have hands supporting corrupt practices. Our major problem is that these practices keep the cost of living lower than it would otherwise be, so to overturn it means a heavier burden across many lives, and a burden that many may not be able to support. That’s a tough Gordian knot. There’s no easy solution. One of the things I have pointed to is how we can seem to make progress by increasing inefficiency: filling holes in road, which quickly reopen and get refilled, shows up as ‘growth'(equivalent to ‘better life’ and ‘richness’), while our lives have been made poorer by the persistence of fundamentally poor road conditions. Real corrpution may be behind the contracting of such work, but it’s also corrupt thinking that this style of working should continue. 

    I know how some of these problems can be solved, and I know that many others in decision-making positions also know how to address the problems. But, I am not surprised that the necessary actions dont get taken. Again, connectedness explains much inaction. But, we have to either accept that we may inch ahead instead of moving in leaps and bound, or agree that leaping head may involve some serious national ‘pain’, if we are to make the necessary changes. I am not bold enough to say glibly ‘Take the pain!’

    What I know from experience with countries that make dramatic shifts is that it doesn’t happen without that ‘national consensus’, which we do not have. 

    Moving experiences: Old wine in new skins

    As the process of making a new home proceeds, I’m still reflecting on whether it’s stressful or not. I went to a meeting/lunch this week with lots of women who had moved a lot during their lives, mainly as the trailing spouses of men who were furthering careers as diplomats or international companies. They had some stories to tell:

    • Kidnapping by rebels in Sierra Leone
    • Learning new languages and customs in Moldova; eating what’s grown and in-season
    • Dealing with racism in Russia (essentially, Russians regard most people from outside Russia as undesirable, and your colour may just add to the dislike, but isn’t essential)
    • Moving countries over 15 times
    • Hardships in Haiti
    • Living with a suitcase packed all the time, in case of need to evacuate.

    These are just a few of the instances that came to mind for people. Most were not that pleasant, so we tend to keep pushing the stress button. But, we know that’s only a part of the story. In my way, I will put out some of the other side.

    As I wade through boxes, I also wade through my life that may be partially forgotten or poorly remembered.

    • Letter from my late mother in Jamaica, sent to me in 1993 to America, where I’d been living for three years, including cuttings from local papers of sporting events. That’s a keeper, not least because the three stamps shown were each valued at J$1.10. As my daughter asked, that’s not J$110? 🙂
    • Reminders of my first visit to Moscow, in 1994: calendar cards, showing different images of Russian soldiers and fighters over the years. 
    • Greeting cards kept, for reasons that seem unclear, now. 
    • Russian 12 month entry visa, over 1993-4, which marked my stepping into the world of the just-fallen former Soviet Union. This gave my daughter a Snapchat moment as I read it.

    Life moves on and we change, so moving is one of those events that allow you to reset markers in life.

    Visual reminders are often of pleasant things, like notes from someone you’re courting. I, personally, don’t keep things that remind me of dark moments: they have their own specail place in my memory. Moving can, sometimes, help to erase those.

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