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).

How behaviour matters: Jamaican ambassadors are everywhere

I believe strongly that the things wrong with Jamaica are not that hard to fix, but they are hard to fix because they require all of us to see and understand how WE contribute to our own failings. By that, I mean a certain attention to detail in all that we do (and say and think). I’ll give a few examples, and they are relevant because we look at our neighbours and sometimes marvel at their quality of life that is supposedly better than ours. Now, on that point, it’s hard to be sure that everything is always rosier elsewhere, but we often get that impression, and it’s impressions that count a lot.

We set off on our annual Christmas journey to my wife’s homeland in Nassau yesterday, and had to deal with a few hiccups along the way, as is often the case with international travel. First, American Airlines had a hard time processing us at check-in, but that’s because we have a complicated family profile of nationalities and status. But, the Jamaican workers at the desk were exemplary in being calm, patient, courteous, and apologetic as it took almost an hour to get all of the checking in done. We had a lot of bags–Christmas presents from Jamaica, boosting exports :)–and fortunately our routing meant we did not have to collect them in Miami. So, my takeaway is a positive for the Jamaican worker. That view did not change much as we moved through the airport and headed to our flight. I had a slight reservation as the official who checks that people are eligible for the lounge called me back to verify my status. She had positioned herself to deal with the general flow of passengers, so forced me to have to back track to do this, when a few steps over on her part could mean that all flows of people must pass by her. It’s a small thing, but it isn’t done (I’ve been through this stop a lot), and someone must be giving instructions that are followed to this effect. So, only a little downward blip in perceived quality of Jamaican workers.

The lounge staff have a job to do of being gracious and they usually do this well. Plus to Jamaica. We were escorted to the gate, when called, but… The AA crew were not there, apparently due to a mix-up in getting from the hotel. We were told it would mean an hour delay. That’s a negative against US workers (so the great are less than ordinary in Jamaica–and it may be our water :)) So, off we traipsed back to the lounge. I took the opportunity to contact AA on Twitter about the snafu and they were quick to reply and assure me that all would be well and travel would continue smoothly. So, plus for US workers, and we are often asked to look at the way that US customer service puts the client first. Can we say the same about Jamaica? I think not, in general, and I don’t think I need to cite any or many examples

We got off within an hour and the flight was smooth. The transit in Miami is long, but as we had only hand luggage, we could get through quickly and did not risk missing our connection. But, once we’d had the chance to grab a bite, and headed off to our next gate, we hit another AA snafu. Imagine! The crew for our next flight were also a no-show. Sorry, AA, I had to get back to them and wonder what was going on. Again, quick apologies and and assurances, and yes we were off on time, despite that hold-up. So, the view that US quality service is there wasn’t shaken too much. Now, could we take lessons from that and pledge to Jamaicans that their interactions with local businesses would leave them feeling that they are valued customers? Let me leave the question open. 

When we landed in Nassau a band was playing as we entered the Immigration Hall. My wife–a good patriot–complimented her country on giving the arriving tourists some cheer. The snaking line did not get any shorter as we listened to ‘rake and scrape’, but I understood her point. However, being a contrarian, I replied that I wasn’t sure that the pandering mattered. She bridled at my reaction. Nothing new 🙂 Why did I say that? It became clearer once we got though Immigration. Pander means to gratify, and what I perceived was a sense of ‘giving them what they expected’, i.e. cheery island vibes as soon as they landed. Fine! But, what was the reality they had to face? In the baggage claim, suitcases were coming quite quickly and most of our bags were there when we got through Immigration. But, my golf bag was nowhere to be seen. I asked my wife to query an official who was beside her. She did not hear me, so I approached the man myself and sought to ask. He was in the process of ‘canoodling’ with someone he knew–a lady–and happy in the process. (Not untypical in our region.) Pardon my interruption! He then went into an elaborate explanation in well-modulated English and lots of long words about where oversized bags would be found. Problem? He hadn’t been much interested in problem-solving beforehand and there were no signs in the baggage area that pointed to such an area and it’s tucked way in the back of the baggage hall, behind ‘Baggage Services’. That’s a sort of Caribbean way of doing things, which is to forget that people from abroad need guidance to understand our ways. (We see it a lot in, say, how we determine what information to place on our roads as directions. Roads without signs. Houses without names or numbers. You know! Look for the mango tree and turn left past the rock. It’s improved a lot, but you know what I mean. Thankfully, Google Maps now works in Jamaica.) I got my bag and we were out in a flash. Then the pandering, already wearing thin, stopped completely. “Man, gotta get this f***ing thing moving, man!” I overheard, from a man in a nice suit and tie, looking like he was working for a limo service, as I walked through the phalanx of official meeters and greeters for hotels and businesses. So, the people working around the airport don’t see that ‘nice behaviour’ is part of the package they must present as this is often the first real contact visitors get. So, jolly music doesn’t compensate for the rude awakening one gets as soon as one sets foot amongst the ‘real people’. This is also a very Jamaican problem when people arrive at NMIA (I rarely go to Sangster). 

Now, we can argue about whether we are invested in tourism the same way The Bahamas is supposedly, but is that the point? To me, it’s about constant states of awareness. I’ve written before about how Jamaicans are not invested in tourism, and Kingston is certainly less so than, say, Montego Bay. But, it’s also a matter of whether each citizen sees him- or her-self as an ambassador, writ small. It’s hard for that to happen when you have people who are not necessarily versed in good manners, so to be civil is a new thing. I’m not going to criticize every Jamaican for being boorish. I’m just pointing out that it’s something to correct if we want to get from here to there (the land of #5in4). 

You may want to take issue with me, but many countries that are invested in tourism but as part of a bigger range of economic activities often display a civility that makes visitors wish to return. Generalizations are dangerous, but let me cite Germany, Switzerland and Norway as examples. I do not include the USA, because I see the same boorish traits that hamper us there: ‘please’ has been removed from the language as in ‘Passport!…Take off your belt!’ We Jamaicans still have a little of that civility left in certain settings: I recall last week how appalled a lady was as a teenager strolled past her at the swimming pool without a mere ‘Hello!’ The lady muttered “Damn rude!” I knew the girl and pointed out that she was American. “Aho!” We know what we’re dealing with.

This story isnt finished as we went to a little roadside cafe for some conch salad and conch fritters–like dipping your hands in Holy Water for a Bahamian. There, civility was on display with raw natural actions. The owner of the ‘shack’ was working his way through the head of his fried fish as we arrived. I looked up and he asked me why. I told him I was checking on the sign. He nodded. My wife looked around and he told his staff to serve us. They were just chilling and hanging with customers at the bar. Our orders were taken and we decided to move from the road side to the back, overlooking the harbour. It was calmer. A lone American was drinking a beer. His conch salad came and he started to enjoy it. Our food came and we did likewise, with our drinks (Sky Juice–gin, coconut water and condensed milk :)). My daughter and I noticed a little play going on with the American. A waitress came and lounged in front of him, like Salome, and started to talk to him. He said often and softly “I’m married…My wife is…” but ‘Salome’ pressed on. It was funny as it went on without my wife seemingly aware. Our server came to be paid and I asked her a few questions. As soon as she heard our accents, she modified her speech and started to say ‘…Sir’ and ‘…Madam’ after every sentence. We left about the same time as Mr. America. My daughter and I explained to Mummy what had been going on and why we were laughing.

My take away? I didnt get the impression that the visitor was offended, and he seemed to take it as ‘just how they are’. Interactions like this happen everywhere tourists frequent, because they are captive for a while and can be exploited in nice and less nice ways. We have some Caribbean ways that are charming and others that make one wonder. Not sure where to go with that episode, but I’ll ponder it.

But, my bottom line from just a few hours of travel is that we need to pay attention to what we do. How do we represent ourselves and what lasting memory will we leave with others? That’s a level of consciousness that may be hard when it seems that life is just one massive struggle after another. But, it’s a change in outlook that has to happen if we want to move from being a people of constant massive struggles.

Enjoy your Christmas! Eat and be merry and remember to leave each person you meet feeling better for having met you.


Sitting on a rock will give you piles?

I am not the giving up type. Months ago, I felt that one thing missing from life in Jamaica–and it is almost perfect, if your eyes are closed, and all you do is feel the warm breezes and smell the fresh fruit. Jamaica lacked an ability to have a good laugh at itself. Then, one of the major newspapers, not renowned for taking itself or anything lightly, started to poke its finger into the national eye. It unveiled two columnists who seemed to not give two hoots about offending most of the nation’s sacred cows. They started to take jabs at the best singer the island had produced since Millie. They took on the haughty icons of religion, though, I noticed that they did not make any allusions to how this body can get away with constant cross-dressing in a country that breaks out in hives when it sees its top male athlete dressed as a woman in a television ad. They did not seem to have any barriers, save the number of hours available in a day, in between performing Caesarian sections or writing another yet-to-be-hit play on Broadway. Dr. Michael Abrahams and Keiran King have been a breath of cool air in the otherwise always heated atmosphere of discourse in Jamaica.

Every time, I feel like taking a sardonic or satirical swipe at something in Jamaica, however, we hit upon a tragedy that makes be halt and hesitate, not wanting to seem in bad taste of insensitive. But, I think I just have to step into the cow pat and not worry too much about the squishy feeling that I may have in my toes; it may be a dry one, anyway.

So, where to start? I had to good fortune to leave Jamaica over the weekend. The price of that decision is that I now have no voice. That’s a problem in a country where people love to use the phone to call, at al times, and for all reasons. “You reach airport, yet?” No, I’m still in traffic. “You clear immigration, yet?” No, I am in the line and not supposed to be using my phone. That reminds me that Jamaicans are very obsessed with their phones and the new fangled features, such as WhatsApp and other messaging programmes. When I was getting off the plane in Kingston on my return on Sunday, a lady was standing stock still in the middle of the corridor heading to immigration. I asked her if she had a problem. “No. I just have to read the messages now, coz I can’t do that when I get up to the desk.” I understand the anxiety that doctors or politicians may feel after not being able to get messages for 90 minutes, and maybe the lady was on medicine or politics, but I had a feeling that she was just checking what Sherleen had been saying about Cavada and her new boyfriend Taquan.

Anyway, back to fleeing the island. I was amongst another band of ‘Caribbean’ brothers and sisters, in Nassau. The Bahamas are not in the Caribbean, but they are in our regional organization, CARICOM. Bahamians have had a long modern history of being invaded by other Caribbean nations: they had policemen, teachers and nurses come from Barbados to work; they had Jamaicans come to be domestic workers; they had Haitians fleeing poverty and natural disasters to work as gardeners and odd jobs men. They have a little love and a lot of dislike for many of those ‘West Indians’. But, they put most of that aside by being ultra fanatical when they were watching their athletes try to make it to first place in a bunch of running events, called the World Relays. They upped their self-love. A policeman met me in the stadium, and I was decked out in the bright gold, with flashes of green and black, that is the Jamaican flag’s colour. “Welcome to the best island on Earth,” he told me. I smiled, and gave him back a little sweetie: “When did Nassau become a suburb of Kingston?” I asked. He smiled and twirled his baton, as if he were ready to make an exchange with me, then raised himself to his full height of 6 feet 5. I took the message and walked up to my seat with my box of fired chicken wings and fries.

Being away gives me the chance to see what is usually up close from afar, but I also get to see how others see what is Jamaica. A lady I sat next to talked to me about “How Jamaicans are so violent”. I know she meant our horrific murder rate. But, she said that while her own island is in the grip of a chronic upsurge in murders. We block out all else, it seems. “But, you all have some great musicians, but why do you always have to sing about sex?” I didn’t have an immediate answer for that one, but I know that the local stations play a lot of Jamaican dancehall music, so I presume that the ‘sex’ sells. “Bey, your people can run fast.” I had to agree. Yohan ‘The Beast’ Blake had just blazed down the track, dubbed the fastest on the planet by Bahamian PM, Perry Christie (whom I had hope would shuffle for the IAAF offiicials while he begged for more years of hosting the relays). Blake anchored the 4×200 metres relay team to a new world record, eliminating a 20 year old record held by a team anchored by the grating Carl Lewis. He would get it in spades from Jamaicans moments after, as he has had little to say that was good or complimentary about Jamaican sprinters, and has often cast aspersions on them. “Whaddya say, now, Carlee? Na-na-na-na! Our record, ooh!” The conga line would soon start swaying.

So, the trip ‘a foreign’ was a good escape, seeing us at our best. The crowds were well behaved and the Jamaican massive was numberous. Our influence was greater than on the track. I went to get food and was pleased to see the longest line in front of a stall with a sign saying ‘Bellyful’: it was serving Jamaican food. Ackee and salt fish–named ‘cod’; boiled ‘food’ (which looked like green bananas and yam); and escobish fish.

Bellyfull of laughs, if nothing else
Bellyfull of laughs, if nothing else

What the…? Esco-what? I looked more carefully at the sign. They had ‘dumplin‘, too. I should have been grateful that they left it at that. But, I also saw the ultimate food insult: ‘peas n rice‘ Oh, my G….! No! Jamaicans cook and eat rice and peas; it’s cooked with red peas (kidney beans) and coconut milk. Bahamians eat peas and rice; it’s made with pigeon (gungo) peas and may have salt pork in it. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME! Changing the words around is not a trivial difference. A nuh di saym sinting nun at all. Cha! I need to talk to the Jamaican High Commissioner in The Bahamas.

Fortunately, my memories of The Bahamas is filled with episodes that are much less distressing that that at the food stall.

I got back to the island on Sunday afternoon. I had missed the traditional Labour Day holiday projects, and I looked around for signs of what had been done. New cross walks? Freshly painted police stations? Newly manicured roadway bushes? I didn’t see a dicky bird all the way from the airport to my uptown home. I checked the online papers. People had been wielding paint brushes, machetes, and brooms island-wide, but not that I could tell.

What had they really been doing? Well, a good amount of tracing and cussing of other people. PLEEEASE! One MP had decided to deride anyone of the opposing political strip with the adjective ‘dutty’. Well, that’s not nice, at the best of times. Name-calling is more than a bit childish, but when you are in the school playground that passes for Parliament, what else should we expect. The man is a trained mathematician, though. Come up with something a bit more creative, eh. How about ‘you lopsided Pythagoran’, or ‘you unsolved differential’? At least, pander to our intellects.

I’m sure everyone would have preferred an hour more of what the now-MP was saying in the video. You plus that, multiply this, minus the next one, and you gone clear. I know that when you put all that chalk on the blackboard, you must make it clean again. No one wants to work with a ‘dutty’ board.

Another of the ilk had decided that a funeral was the place to put forward a new platform: ‘Vigilante justice: where we cut only what is needed’. Well, the post of finance minister is not vacant, yet, but we know where to go if we need someone ready to wield the hatchet. I blinked. The world was still sinning around me. I don’t drink. It must be something in the air.

Both politicians have issued apologies, so that makes everything all right, and we can get back to some good fresh cussing, now that the air and slate have been cleared. That’s not how it works? You want admonition from their party leader and maybe sanctions from her or the local parties? What country you living in man? This is a democrassy. We cherish our freedom of speech. Bring on ‘the band of 12’.

I had left the island just after a massive crowd of 12 people had been parading with placards in protest at what they thought was an attack on freedom of speech. The mainstream media had given this credence with a saturation coverage that was mind-boggling: front page spread, extended interviews. This for a group who wanted to complain about the undue influence and power of a lobby of not-likeminded people. The fact that ganja seeps into the blood stream from many sources hit me. I could feel myself swooning again as I turned my head back to its proper position. The ‘protestors’ were due to mount another ‘massive’ display on Monday. I did not catch the news, but again, I saw the papers. The media really should get out more and tour the country. We are regaled with scenes of people wailing and thrashing themselves about in ‘ghettos’ over water leaks and police harassment and indiscriminate shutting off of electricity, and we know that thousands and affected, but the coverage of the ‘band of 12’ must take the biscuit for misuse of resources. Let them post a blog with pictures, rather than giving all that free airing on the back of the profits that the TV stations and newspapers should be making.

So, I am back to where I started. We need to step back more and take a good look at what and who we are. I am not into real self-mockery of the kind that say “I hate me, lousy Jamaican!” But, I know a buffoon when I see one. We need to laugh at the man who is always putting out his had for ‘a food’ only to withdraw it when food is offered because he really wants ‘a money’ to buy something else. We need to wonder how many policemen sitting in the shade of a tree does it take to catch one of the hundreds of speeding drivers going along the highway? Is that a radar gun or merely a prize from some flea market? Oh, it is more fun to just lean against the squad car and joke about the latest news from INDECOM?

I need a good belly laugh and I may have to just provide the material myself. I want more of Roger Clarke trying to convince me that cows will not be flying over the moon, which is the only way they can be stolen and not spotted. I need news of another project important to the nation, but about which no one has any details, yet, but ‘will be revealed soon’. I love Chinese food, but it also gives me heart burn.

Jamaica! Jamaica! Jamaica, we love you!


On your marks.

The inaugural IAAF World Relays, in Nassau, The Bahamas, has been my family’s point of focus since Friday. It was put on the calendar at Christmas and other important events have had to fall in line behind it. So, I missed the Jamaican National Amateur Golf Championships over the long holiday weekend. It would have been my first try, but I hope to get a chance next year. Move on. The weekend allowed the two sides of my life to coincide. Of course, my wife’s family was in full display. But, my Jamaican family got a good airing: one cousin was part of the Jamaican athletics delegation, and we hooked up with another cousin on the same side of our family, who’s been living in The Bahamas for about 20 years. Both sets met over an evening BBQ, which started late because of meetings for the Jamaican track team.

Major sporting events take a lot of organizing and it was nice to know that one of my wife’s family was behind much of the logistics of the IAAF event. Some if her friends were also involved in the daily running of the meet. I took a walk around yesterday, before the main raiders began, to take a look around the stadium. By chance, I bumped into my wife’s friend and she took me around the back room of the event. I explained to her that I try to understand what is going on. We looked at how sponsors’ guests were greeted and treated. We looked at the volunteers working. We checked how the volunteers were treated: they need food and water, and have parking issues, too. We looked at the local tv feed. I heard what the Junkanoo players were supposed to be doing, then we saw they were not doing that. Rather them, than this boy managing all of that. I rushed back to my seat just in time for the first main event.

I found myself sitting next to a very funny lady and her husband. We got into a banter because I was sporting my Jamaican colours. “You sure you’re in the right section?” Stuff like that. We moved past the friendly banter and talked a little about families. She was a sprinter back in the day; so was I. Her sons were also runners, now working. She told me her family name: that’s important for Bahamians, who link their names to the many ‘family islands’ and relish their connections to parts other than New Providence. She was ‘from Acklins’, she told me with a twist. I gradually understood what was that twist. As we talked more, it became clear that she was connected to my wife’s family, at least through a genealogical link to common friends. “Ask your mother in law if she knows Miss….?” she suggested. I did. She did. My new BFF smiled. She goaded me more. It was revealing. Her sons were friends of a younger member of my wife’s family. So, not went. My daughter and I had been given promotional tattoo stickers and I shared some with my new friend. I showed her how to apply it; she chose to out it on her arm. “I’ll never wash this arm again,” she said, “I can wash with one hand.” I quipped that this was a great opportunity for her husband to step up his game; the three of us rolled over laughing. She said she would put another tattoo on her other arm 😉 So. We went on.

The races were exciting.

Jamaican fans were in much evidence; many work and live in Nassau. They were there in clumps, including as part of their Bahamian households, if they were domestic workers. I had my whistle ready and was washing noise over the sea of Bahamians in which I sat. Day one had been stellar for Jamaica: a world record in the 4×200 meters relay, anchored by Yohan Blake, with no Usain Blake. ‘The Beast’ bared his really long nails for the photo opportunities. The team draped itself in the national flag. Jamaicans and Bahamians went wild. That’s how the night ended.

For day 2, the crowd expected more of the same. Jamaica’s prowess is renowned: “What do you put in that yellow yam? It’s organic?” I was asked, with some raised eyebrows. But, it was not to be coll runnings for the brethren and sistrin.

We made a total hash of the baton exchange in the fist leg of the 4×400 A final.

That’s the easiest handover, and it looked like simple lack of concentration. We were in lane 8, on the outside, and near the lead. Instead, baton on the ground, we were out of the race. The incoming runner held his head in his hands as his team mate tried to reduce what was now a gap of some 50 meters. I would not like to be in the team meeting later. I told people that Jamaica does not drop batons. We pull hamstrings. We run out of our box. But we pass the stick safely. The USA team has become notorious for relay foul-ups; they can keep that. Not us! The USA team win, which was their destiny. We could have come close. It’s history now that we were 8th.

The women’s 4×200 meters final was billed as the ‘Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce show’ by the announcer, Ato Bolden. I said to those around me that was a jinx. The women ran and the exchanges did not loom great, and the ‘Pocket Rocket’ trailed in third. Her gold and black hair, with red bow, looked lovely. The running? I mentioned that she’d been injured, recently. “No excuses!”was the cry around me. None given. USA won again. We would have had a stiff race with a stronger team, but no crying.

Last event of the night: the marquee event, the men’s 4×100. No Bolt, but Blake. No Asafa. But, the team had clocked 37.71 in the heats, for a world-leading time; Great Britain looked dangerous, with 37.93, winning their heat. No other team broke 38 seconds. We pulled lane 6. I did not like the vibes, after the less-than-inspired preceding relays. My palms were sweating. But, my whistle was ready. The start was faulty: France’s lead off man, wearing one black and one white knee-high socks, was injured, looked uneasy, seemed to step out of his blocks, he was shown the red card. Some Gallic arm waving followed, the event went on to the restart. Bang! We got an early lead and extended it with Weir on the second leg. The exchanges were safe; that’s all we needed. The baton went into Blake’s hand and he had a good lead, which he kept easily for the win in 37.77. Job done. Crowd went wild.image

We started to think about dealing with the exiting traffic. Rain started to fall softly. It soon became a downpour as we headed to the car. We sat and took our time, but I got bored and ‘turned Bahamian’, finding a dirt track parallel to the main road. We were past the jam in moments 🙂 We took my wife’s sister home, out west, grabbed a tub of peas soup, and headed back east to Paradise Island. We had our nightcaps.

All of our enjoyment had another side, of course. Economies like ours have developed depending on foreign visitors. The Bahamas has taken a lead, among the English-speaking Caribbean nations, with some prestige international events. PM Perry Christie baldly begged the IAAF to let his country have the event for more than another year; he knows the added revenue and activity, even for volunteers, is important. The hotels were packed over the weekend. It was a holiday in Jamaica, but also running into the US Memorial Day holiday, today. Visitors could stay a little longer. Teams came with more,this just runners. They were taken care of in their hotels, but they would be tempted to spend on duty-free items, on conch salads, on sky juice (gin, coconut water, and condensed milk), or just hang out, but think about coming back with friends.

I spoke with an American visitor in the breakfast line yesterday. He was in Nassau with his family, for the holiday weekend. He would not be playing golf here. But, he’d been here several times: repeat visitors are crucial. I touted Jamaica, with its great courses in the north coast. We exchanged card; I’d gladly host his in my country. We need his dollars, too.

The Bahamas has a better visitor package than Jamaica in that Nassau is compact and has great features, such as Atlantis. For visitors from America, a major benefit is that connections are many and varied. Returning, Customs is cleared in Nassau. Jamaica has its problem, not least of which is drug trafficking. The violent reputation of our people precedes us. Even Bahamians are leery of Jamaicans. We need to embrace that our good ‘brands’, such as our athletes, have to ward off our bad ‘brands’, like crime. One world record does not erase the chilling thought of a nation of murderers. We are all duty bound to work for our good brands and against the bad ones.

Bahamians are harsh on their own. The meet had started with a minor snafu: the microphone had delivered no sound when an IAAF official was making his speech. We could see his lips moving, but not a word heard. People waved their arms to get tech support. It came, eventually. Their athletes performed well and also messed up: baton drop by the women in the 4×400 heats, and the culprit did not seem rushed to pick it up and get moving again; another squad that was put together ‘last week’. They local crowd went berserk in the men’s 4×400 final. Their ace, Chris Brown, did not disappoint, and his 3rd leg brought the home team in leading. All were up, horns blaring, bells clanging. But, the USA clawed them back, and squeezed them into 2nd place. Initial disappointment. Eventual acceptance and joy.

The country will have a fillip for a few more days and other economic issues will slip from views a few more days. The financial weaknesses will come back: VAT is coming with little love, but it’s generated a hit song. That may be a first.

Jamaica will have to face its realities, too.

The other countries were not eclipsed, totally.

Kenya will go home with two world records and US$100,000. That’s not shabby. Little St. Kitts and Nevis ran out of its socks. All added to the thrills.

Those who did not qualify for the main finals got second chances in B finals. One such team, the Ukraine’s men’s 4×100 team, won the B event, and set a national record. I hope they take that back home with the excited joy they showed last night. Their country needs it.

I’m a great believer in sport as an important part of life balance. Playing it, of course, counts, but so too does watching. It releases stresses and lets emotions flow. Some take it too seriously. But, better to get passionate about something that be grey and flat.

The IAAF event was time out for many, but we need that to be able to thrash out our  life’s other issues.

Problems with the way we think

Earlier this week, my daughter and I were listening to the radio on our way to swimming practice. I was listening to Irie FM’s ‘The Art of War’, hosted by Mutabrauka. Muta is always prodding us to think about what we do and say. You don’t have to agree with his views or arguments, but be engaged and provoked. He mentioned how some Jamaicans have an odd logic. For instance, he noted how people will throw trash in the roads and say that’s the right thing to do, otherwise garbage collectors wont have work to do. Yes, the trasher has a point, but misses a point. Muta also said that Jamaicans wont walk to a crossing when the place to which they want to go is directly across street. True, and the way our society is physically laid out that has a lot of sense. You can’t fault the logic, but it poses problems for the rest of us that people think in such a way.

Get on your thinking cap. Does it fit well?
Get on your thinking cap. Does it fit well?

But, the odd thinking is not confined to Jamaica. A friend posted on Facebook the following account: ‘I met a lady yesterday in the bank who said she voted against the FNM referendum in 2002 to give Bahamian women the same rights as Bahamian men, and when the PLP bring it she will vote NO again! I was confused and could not understand why women continue to vote against their best interest. So I asked Why? She said “It’s not about my daughters, it’s my sons…this is the only place in the world my sons have an advantage over other men when it comes to employment for the high-paying jobs and I plan to keep it that way! My daughter marry some “high hot shot man” and he comes and take my son job from him….HELL NO!” The logic we use sometimes…..gets me everytime!’ Many commentators took the woman in the story to task about her lack of foresight, insight, etc. but, that’s how she sees the world.

In Jamaica, people often talk about ‘the system’ or ‘Babylon’ and how it oppresses. Some of what people use for reasons and reasoning come from interesting places in their physical and emotional lives. We know that people with eyes too close together are…

We know that religious conviction can lead some into ways of thinking that defy sense for many of us. I am not going to tackle any individual’s view on religion, but some of the thinking leaves me gasping, and it’s often more disturbing because the people concerned clearly do not hear or listen to the voices and opinions of others.

Muta was also interviewing a pastor, in relation to new efforts by the national bus company to improve service by imposing its already existing ban on people preaching on buses. The pastor argued that he was spreading the word of God and that those who did not want to hear it would suffer, etc. He also saw no problem with disturbing the peace of those who were on the bus for their journey. If they did not want to hear him preach, they could get off the bus and take another. Muta tried to get the preacher to see that as being unreasonable: people were not on the bus for sermons, but to try to get to work or home or play. Why should they have to use hard-earned and scarce money to avoid something they had not bargained for or demand? The pastor was unmoved.

I did some quick unscientific research, and searched Twitter using ‘Jamaican logic’ as my terms. I found the following:

‘Drink tea. Broke your leg? Drink tea. Just got HIV? Drink tea.’ Some joked about the naiveté of Jamaicans, for instance, with a meme that showed people lined up at a polling booth to vote for a TV show–not knowing that there are many different types of votes and places to make them. Funny, but…We get the point.

The logic is clearly not that just exercised by people who live cut off from the rest of society. I read a short story this morning about children growing up in Jamaica in the 1950s, and how they would hide in the bushes when they heard a car approaching. They had seen few cars, but were afraid that they would be kidnapped and taken away by pirates to be slaves. Oh, the mind of a child, we think.

Jamaica has a very colourful and voluble MP, Everald Warmington. He thinks in a very different way to many and has little hesitation in sharing his thoughts. He has just proposed that registered voters who fail to exercise their franchise be required to pay approximately $705 (US$7) eachback the national Treasury. There are 1.7 million people on the voters’ list. Only 52 per cent of the electorate voted in the last general election, which ‘cost’ $1.2 billion. “If you have 48 per cent stay-home-and-don’t-vote, you need to establish a system where that 48 per cent pay back to the Consolidated Fund the amount that it costs.” Mr. Warmington does not entertain the idea that in a democratic society not voting is a legitimate option at elections. He feels that whatever the choices available people should vote. Some have said that ‘write in’ votes could deal with people’s dislike of the options for candidates; in other words, spoil the ballot, but turn out and vote, anyway. Mr.Warmington also does not see that persons like himself may be the reason some do not vote. He may not see the logic that says people may actually not approve of the government spending money on electoral systems ahead of spending money on say health and education or sanitation. Some people feel that ‘bad’ politicians should also look to pay back the nation. The parties are engaged as I write.

My simple suggestion to Mr. Warmington would be a first step for Jamaica to change its voting system. Now, if one party gets 51% of the vote in every constituency it ends up with ALL of the seats, all of the representatives, even though the nation said there’s only a small margin more in favour of that party. The ‘winner takes all’ system is patently unfair and unrepresentative. Add to that, clear evidence that MPs are vindictive or favour their supporters rather than the opposition, and we have plenty to concern us. Maybe, we should move to proportional representation, where at least the balance of support is reflected. If we try something like that and the numbers who vote remain low, then we can think about what else is wrong. But, now, we have a broken system and also a set of candidates that clearly does not get much support from a large swathe of the nation. But, that’s just my crazy logic at work.

We have to accept that we do not all think alike. What we find odd in the way some think may not have much impact, if we feel that the views are limited. We have no way of really controlling how people process the world they experience and translate that into how they should react and live their lives. Those of us who have received well a lot of education may lament and hold our heads in our hands and wonder what to do with ‘these people’. We have to get on with them. We may be the ones who have gotten it wrong.


Happy Friday

Without a doubt, Jamaica is a country of dramatic contrasts. If I look back at my own writing this week, I can easily trace the things that have frustrated me, but even in that I can find much to like. Many days leave me with nothing but a head that is shaking in wonderment. But, many days also leave me with a warm feeling that comes from feeling so much pride for the people around me. How can that be?, I sometimes ask myself.

Today, my daughter’s school was hosting the latest leg of an inter-school sports festival. About six schools were involved, including one from The Bahamas.

The children were focused on playing tennis and football today. Some elementary children were in tennis, but most children who were playing football were middle and high schoolers. The event was due to kick off at 9, and as usual, was running late. Two schools were absent at the opening presentations. Ironically, one was just adjacent to our location; the other was really just 10 minutes away.

However, I was not getting into the logistics of how and why they were late. We sang the national anthems of the two countries–each being a very melodious and moving version. I really got a think feeling in my through as I sang the Jamaican anthem. Then the games were ready to start.

All of the school had been present for the opening, and children were encouraged to come back to watch matches where the host school was playing.

It was a mixed up day, but scholastic things were still in place. My role, though a football coach, was to help sell tickets for refreshments and food; otherwise, I could sit and watch the play.

Flags and sponsors’ hoardings were all over the school grounds and it looked like a big event was underway. As always, the hands behind the scenes had worked magic to get everything looking right: tents for vendors; tents for teams; tents for spectators.

Parents started to dribble in to watch their children; never a horde, but a decent number. Not everyone can or wants to take the time off during the day. Later, as afternoon came, more parents appeared–work was ending or near to that, so a natural opening had been created. The atmosphere was not wild but had animation. Nothing untoward seemed to be going on between the schools, some of whom could harbour serious rivalries.

It was hard to see what could possibly be wrong with the country they were in, or the people with whom they shared the island. Admittedly, these were people who had been well-educated and their children, who were also getting good educations and seeming to thrive at school. Not here a cohort of potential school drop-outs, coming from homes with parents who had been school drop-outs. These are fortunate Jamaicans; privileged in a sense, but the sources of their privilege were varied.

The foreign visitors were being hosted by families from the school. The overwhelming feeling was “It is great to be in Jamaica for four days”.

They know the crime statistics, but did not seem to have any issue with being here. Some wanted to see a cricket match, if possible–20 over Test matches are going on at Sabina Park. Jamaica was for these few hours a very happy place where everyone wanted to stay.

That is what I will hold for today, sometimes labelled ‘Happy Friday’. I will not twist my mind to search for the dark and nasty and violent. It will be there for me to rediscover tomorrow.

The Caribbean is different: regional theatre of the absurd (January 3, 2014)

Perry collage
PM Perry Christie, rush-shuffling with Valley Boys as Chinese Emperor, jump-shuffling in front of the Governor General, and just shuffling with Valley Boys, again.

The Bahamas have a PM, Perry Christie, who is an amiable man, but he pleases no one who does not like him. He put the likers and dislikers into a spin when he took to the Nassau streets over the Christmas season during the annual Junkanoo parades. He’s usually there in the front rows looking at his beloved Valley Boys, of which he is a founding member. But, Boxing Day 2013 saw a ‘new Perry’–the Junkanoo-rushing PM. He’s already made a dance popular–the Perry Shuffle–Now, he was treating the nation to this ‘dance’ in a major public event and on live television. That’s the good part.

The bad part, for those who want to make it so, was that his group’s theme was ‘From China to the Bahamas’. Well, if you don’t know, a bunch of Chinese money is flowing into Nassau as the Chinese invest (US$2.6 billion) in a new hotel resort, named Baha-Mar, due to open late-2014. Some Bahamians are running scared because they feel that the orientation of Mr. Christie’s policies are so eastern-looking, and the Chinese are so many and they are so few–they fear getting swamped. So, when Perry donned his make-up and shuffled as an Emperor, tongues started to lash him. Things weren’t helped when the new Chinese Ambassador took to the streets, too, and ‘rushed’ for a few minutes alongside the PM. (What were their Chinese whispers?)

Question came fast. Why rush with the biggest group? (They would eventually win the parade.) Why not go with a smaller group and be a more neutral presence? (Would it make sense for the PM to support another party in national elections?, I ask.) He couldn’t win, even though everyone knows that “Perry is for Valley”.

So, the PM then makes amends, or tries. There’s a second Junkanoo parade, on New Year’s Day. Perry’s group was this time portraying ‘The Great United States of America’. Well, Perry did not rush–he was a bit sore from his exploits the other day. He did, however, go out on the street when the group passed, hoisted an American flag, and shuffled for a few yards. He argued that his rushing had been to give inspiration to older people to show that age is no barrier to an active life: nice footwork.The plain truth is the man can’t help himself: just look at him high-stepping in front of the Governor General.

I can’t recall another instance of a national leader being so on-show in a national public festival. I’m not including German Chancellor Angela Merkel chugging beers at Oktoberfest.Merkel oktoberfest

Whatever people may feel about his political leadership style, they know that if Perry announces that there will soon be a Cabinet shuffle, they may well want to get seats to see if that means that the PM is going to get jiggy.

Front page news: Caribbean crime will be the death of us

Just a few hours ago, we were a year away. Today, hope starts anew with the first day of a new year. It’s an illusion that things are new, but let’s go with it.

Last night, as we were driving home, the radio was pumping a local song “Church out. Crab crawling.” Simply put, the need to focus on the serious matter of religious worship had to be cut short because it was time to feed. I took that as metaphor for many things in  the Caribbean region. We are often ready to drop dealing with serious issues for something fun. Crime is one such issue that may fall into that category.

The Bahamas, where I am now, is trailing by many hundred in the raw number of murders, but are on a trend that is truly frightening, leading (if that’s really the right verb) the region in murders per head of population. Last week–in the midst of Christmas–a horrible drive-by shooting occurred in a community named Fox Hill; four people were murdered. The country is appalled. The Prime Minister, Perry Christie, hastily called a cabinet meeting, after which he issued a statement with a ‘20 point plan‘ to tackle violent crime. It may be a good basis to deal with the problem, though I have my doubts.

My concern here, and in Jamaica–where the level of murders in above 1,000 a year–is that the only real measures that can address crime are broad changes in how our societies  work. More people involved in crime have to be convinced that killing, robbing, and terrorising their fellow citizens is insane. For people who live outside our geographical area it may be hard to understand what it’s like to be in fear of attack, not from foreign invaders, but by people around you. Most people in our islands have no understanding of how it is that mostly young men can be hellbent on taking each others’ live and the lives of those who make up the whole community. In Jamaica, reports show that nurses and other caregivers have now become targets for robberies and violence. Imagine, seeking to hurt and attack people who could be the very ones to help save the lives of the attacker. My mind cannot fathom it.

That sense of inability to understand is driving many to grasp for solutions that sound fine in terms of appearing to deal with the problem in a brutal way. The death penalty is one measure for which Bahamians are clamoring. People may accept that such a measure is not a complete deterrent, but it surely metes out punishment. For many people, that addresses many issues. “You kill our people? We are going to kill you,” satisfies many consciences. It’s in the eye for an eye mould.

If asked, many would condone the ‘extra judicial’ killing by police ‘in the line of their duties’. They want to be rid of those who are frightening everyone and perhaps likely to break in, maim, rob and kill.

The social solution is, of course, slow to resolve the problem. Even if hanging, or another death penalty is introduced, the society has to stem the processes that produce young people who see a future based on killing their neighbours. Where we have a major problem is that alternatives for young people are scant. In a society that has promoted money and wealth but not been able to give many the realistic option to even earn enough for a basic living, pressures to ‘get rich quick’ or ‘get it’ just build. That’s where the song comes back. We’re ready to move from serious consideration of problems to ‘eat’ quickly.

I discussed with a Bahamian friend over the weekend the problems that need to be addressed if crime is to be reduced, and it cannot happen if enough people are not committed to rooting out the problem. That means hurting themselves in many cases–communities living off the proceeds of crime will have to give that us and give up the people who bring in ill-gotten gains. His view, and mine, was that this ‘critical mass’ does not yet exist, especially about those in decision-making positions. Maybe, that’s because they are not too affected. If so, it will be interesting to see how the recent robbery at the home of the Deputy Prime Minister changes that sense of safety.

As the new year begins, the page on crime reduction and prevention needs to turn. It’s been well-thumbed and looks dog-eared. The Bahamas is emblematic of what the region is dealing with. Crime at the levels being seen can easily destroy what little economic base is working. Many enterprises have folded and stated that one of the reasons for that was crime. The Bahamas faces the real threat to its tourism that visitors will choose other destinations, and one major cruise line is on the brink of pulling out from the island. The impact of that on the livelihoods of the majority of the country would be devastating. Maybe the gap between those who are affected by crime and those who are not is large–remembering that much of the violent crime seems to be about ‘settling scores’, but innocent parties get caught up in squabbles between criminal elements.

The public presentations of ‘solutions’ to crime have been very focused on national issues and actions. I believe that the transnational base of much of the crime suggests that such approaches wont work for long. But, Caribbean political practices don’t tend to lean on collaboration. Our way or no way is common. Lacking, too, is the clear willingness to stand up and denounce criminals at all costs–and for some, that cost is real in terms of funding and being able to keep constituents contented.

Family valued

My wife’s family pride themselves on having something they think many of their compatriots have lost–close family ties. When Christmas rolls around each year, they get the chance to show well that they are closely knit. They try to organize several events for all the family who are around at this time of year. Many of the younger members are away studying, but come back to The Bahamas for Christmas. Those who live and work abroad, like my wife, ‘come home’ for Christmas–she has never spent Christmas any where besides Nassau. Those who live on New Providence are happy to have their usual numbers raised by the returning flock. Marriages have drawn in some extras. Children come onto the scene through marriages, and swell the numbers a little more each year; deaths in recent years have been few. Girlfriends, boyfriends–if they are serious contenders–get introduced, and there is a ‘vetting process’ that may ensure that they stay or never return. Fiancés and fiancées–those who have passed ‘the test’–come along too.

The Christmas season is a religious festival and church-going is an important part of that. The family want to go and be seen to have gone to church for all the major services during the season. You have to get used to be quizzed if you’ve not been to church for one of those services. The services are long, but the bonding is important. These islands are small and many people really do know each other and are proud of who they can call friends or family.

No snow to dash through, walking to the start of ‘dine and dash’

Meals together play a very important part in making the family glue. Dinner on Christmas Day is the main event. I did not do a head count, but I think about 100 people were at dinner this past Wednesday. The location is not that important–though the family has had a special venue for the past few years. It is held usually at the home of one of the family members. It’s not a pot luck, but all of the food is homemade. Over the years, various parts of the family have been assigned dishes to prepare–they become the keepers of certain secrets–and dinner brings all of those dishes together. All the traditional favourites are there–roast turkey, stuffing, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, baked beans (made from an old family recipe), cole slaw (Bahamians love their slaw); desserts–rum cake, fruit cake, other baked goods. Wines and soft drinks add to the festivities, but it’s not a carousing time. The family eats heartily, but commune well at the same time. Children are not served first; that privilege is for the seniors, who also have a special table set up for them.

That dinner is when many people can catch up on stories from the past year, but it’s also time just to mingle. Outsiders are not usually invited, but a few do get through the door, and are welcomed generously–their contribution, if any, will often be drinks. They are often amazed that so many people gather together for a meal. I’ve never seen the meal dissolve into a squabble, and that is not always the case with large family gatherings. The dinner can be the time for some ‘serious talking’: where I sat, all we discussed was the looming imposition of VAT, and my wife was getting it in the neck 🙂 I tucked into my meal and offered my words, but we never reached any resolution.

Other events that help reinforce the family are meant to draw together as many as possible. A ‘dine and dash’–progressive meal–is now a must: it nearly got cancelled this year, and that would have been a tragedy. We had it yesterday, and as usual, headed to five different homes, most of us in a bus and others coming in cars–just over 40 people came. Each of the designated ‘stops’ offers a course: drinks, soup, salad, main course, desserts. We arranged to start at 3pm, and in un-Caribbean fashion most people were ready to go then. A few had other ‘commitments’–Miami Dolphins were playing for their playoff spot and some of their diehard fans would have to miss a few courses and get picked up en route.

The ‘dash’ is often loads of fun. Those on the bus tell jokes and sing carols; children sit at the back and learn ‘from their grandma’s knees’, as she’s a good story-teller and knows all the Christmas carols. Her joke about ‘selling Bibles’ is an oldie but goodie and cracks us up every time, even though most of us know it. We should have made a video of one of the bus rides. I don’t know what the car riders do–solve the political problems, I’ve heard. We are not bad singers and like to ‘raise a tune’. A few of the carols end up as “la-la-la-la-la” but most of them we know well. The bus driver joins in if he can without turning us over. We pile into the bus as if we are headed off to the seaside, and trail off as if we are visiting a museum.

We enjoy our hosts’ offerings and find somewhere to sit or stand and are not fussed about that, except for the soup, which is a bit hot. At the end of each course, we launch ourselves into a couple of verses of The twelve days of Christmas–holding onto the “FIve golden rings” as well as any choir. We then pile back in and get on with more caroling. New Providence is small, but it’s still a journey to go from end to end. We start in the east, head west, then come back east. We end with dessert at the home of the cake-making family. Where else? We fill ourselves with trifle, coconut tarts and more cake, washing it down with tea and coffee, and our voices are raised for the final verses of The twelve days.

Natter, natter, yackety yacking. “All aboard!”

After giving thanks to the driver and the hosts, we’re free to go. This year, the dash seemed slower–“We’re not in any hurry” the main organizer said at one stage–and with a general designated driver, it’s the right approach. We finished at about 9pm this year, totally sung out.

During the family dinner, one of the husbands of a family ‘sister’ thanked the family for keeping together. No one cheered his words, not out of disrespect, but more because it was a thank you well understood and a sentiment deeply understood. No one said “the country has gone to the dogs and it’s all because they don’t have family like this”, but I know many believe that to be true.

Everyone touched by the family feels blessed to have had the experience and tries to hold onto it. We know that families are not all love and kisses. We should know that Christmastime can be when strains and stresses raise their heads and bit many. They don’t get much showing at the group events, though, and I’ll live with the illusion that they are also on vacation.

Economic hardships and health problems have meant that a few family events were dropped this year; I hope that they will resume next year. It’s costly to feed and water the hordes and the family has to address how to share costs. People also need to step up with their time and commitment to prepare things if others cannot this time or any other.

Tonight, the family will go bowling. It’s the only time most of us will set foot in a bowling alley all year. We are not a group of great bowlers–unless soup is in a bowl–but this is fun. Older folks don’t usually play, but love to watch the ‘younger ones’ having fun; occasionally, one of them may swing a ball and not end up being dragged along or slip on the floor. It’s not really about the score or bragging rights, though they may loom large for a few. The time and spirit together are what’s important.

Junkanoo rushing from itself?

I am not going to venture deep into the waters of Bahamian Junkanoo. JunkanooThat is a minefield best entered with enough protection to thwart all forms of attack.

It’s just about noon on Boxing Day (December 26). The first parade of the Christmas season has just come towards its end as far as a public spectacle is concerned. The last ‘A group’ has left the main show area, Bay Street and Rawson Square. The crowd has left the temporary bleacher stands faster than hot bread leaves shelves. The tired fans are rushing towards their beds. Many have been out watching this annual spectacle for the better part of 10 or more hours. That’s a long time for any event, let alone one that is put on hours after the main dinner of the year for most people, on Christmas Day, and after a night when many were in church way past midnight. My young daughter and her mother went gleefully from our lodgings at about 1.30am. They returned home at about 8am. My wife did not make it past the sofa and hit it with a thud. She’s still pole-axed. My daughter told me she slept during the parade. She’s hanging in there. I’d decided to give the live parade a pass this year.

In the recent past, I’ve not felt the same fun as in earlier years. The groups came out late. Gaps between groups were long. The performances did not compensate for the sense of frustration that I felt. Instead, I decided to try watching it on local TV. It was not bad. It started on time–3am, later than usual because of a risk of rain earlier and to give the groups a better chance to get their pieces in position. The first group always suffer, and Saxons did. But, I was impressed by the promptness and settled in for a good show. Then,  problems with the next major group emerged soon. Two hours after the parade had begun that second group was still not on the road. The ‘reasons’ started to trickle in. Maybe, BEC, the national electricity company had an outage, so the groups were having to work in the dark. Anyway, we were backing up. I forwarded myself to my bed at 5.30am.

Two hours later, I awoke and found that I’d missed only two of the remaining five major groups. The delays have become perennial.

For a change, as I was watching from home, I went online and sent out a stream of commentary about the events. I encouraged people to watch the broadcast online–it was good.

I found myself getting into the commentary, as the groups’ performances hit my ears and eyes. Most left me flat. Thankfully, the best was saved for last. The Valley Boys, often called ‘the premier group’ of Nassau’s Junkanoo, came out with a spectacular show, under the theme of ‘From China to The Bahamas’. It was a simple theme, that lent itself to a consistent approach: everything Chinese. Fabulous costumes, flouting reds and yellows. Black faces whitened to look Asiatic. Lanterns. Buddha. Chinese national flag. Ladies with fans. Wide-brimmed hats. Images of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon. A bonus was the Prime Minister, Perry Christie, a well-known avid Valley fan, out of the streets in FULL REGALIA, rushing, dressed as a Chinese Emperor. He even immortalized his dance, the ‘Perry Shuffle’. All in good fun.

Junkanoo is a national treasure or artistic and musical inventiveness and Bahamians are fiercely proud of it. But, it looks like it’s about to outlive its current form.

The major groups are now very large (around 1,000) persons. Many costumes are very large and heavy: that’s one reason why the prospect of rain and strong winds sent ripples of fear through the organizers. The delays seem to be a constant. What to do about the parade will be a topic of conversation, at least during the Christmas Season. Many acknowledged that the ‘fun groups’ (sometimes just a handful of people, having fun, especially with a few drinks) may need to be dropped, though they have the benefit of filling gaps when bigger groups are tardy. The ‘B groups’ are not really competitive with the larger ‘A groups’, which are larger and better funded. Even the A groups are not all equally blessed. Should new funding options be considered? Should a change of format and venue be considered? The National Stadium. The PM and some of his Cabinet aired that view when interviewed during the parade. Traditionalists may bridle at ‘taking Junkanoo away from its roots’. But, things change. One Bahamian friend, who was a traditionalist, but got bored and tired of the delays, and is convinced that a stadium style could work, having seen how Brazil’s carnival now works.

I can sense the fears of the traditionalists. I’ve seen the same process at work with things that have much longer and deeper roots, for instance, the relocation of a sports stadium that has been part of a community for decades. There’s a lot of emotion invested in the location of events. Just this week, we saw the last NFL game played at Candlestick Park–a ‘baby’, built in 1960. The English soccer team I support, Queens Park Rangers, are now going forward with plans for a new stadium. I grew up in the shadows of the current stadium; I can’t visualize home games being played anywhere else but at Loftus Road (the team’s home since 1917). All of my childhood football memories from the early-1960s–glories and despair–are enshrined in that place. I have a friend who’s apartment abutted Arsenal’s former home, Highbury Stadium, and remember her anguish at plans to build a new stadium after plans had been rejected to expand Highbury. She was not even a fan, but her life had been deeply touched by where she lived and what she experienced with the football stadium and its activities just outside her kitchen window. So, I know any word about changing Junkanoo wont be taken just so.

The Junkanoo format needs to change. The groups need to accept a different kind of discipline. Spectators wont keep putting up with the current situation. If they don’t then the event will die. I wont presume the discussion, but it needs to happen. Recent history suggests that the ‘conversation’ will be painful. Some say, “let the groups decide”. But, just because that’s how many things are in the Caribbean, those who really have the power to make decision, may decide and changes go ahead anyway, and then there will be recriminations about lack of consultation and betrayal of traditions, etc.

At least, The Bahamas have their Junkanoo as a vibrant part of their national life. Jamaica is barely holding on to its version of Junkanoo–more in keeping with the earlier base of the  festival: a holiday for slaves, with many trappings of African traditions and aspects of colonial experience mixed. A rump, not even matching the horse’s head that is part of the tradition. I’d get into a fight about trying to boost that tradition much sooner that mix it up with Bahamians about where they will hold their parade.