More tea with that, vicar?

“Hello, I’m Fiona Gibbons from The Times of London. You’ve probably never heard of me. I’m honored to meet you Mr. Bolt. So, tell me what it’s like sitting in this sorry excuse for summer weather, watching your team mates compete in Scotland.”
“You’re right. Pretty dull, isn’t it?”
“So, you think the Scottish people are boring?”
“Huh?” (Bolt looks up at sky and thinks of Jamaican north coast, where he’s from.)
“How does Glasgow compare to London?”
“No comparison,”
“So, you think Glasgow is horrible?”
“What?” (Looks at Nike timepiece on his wrist.)
“Earlier this week you were asked your views about the Gaza situation. Any further thought?”

“Look, Vybz got a fair trial and Jamaica’s justice system seems to be working,”
“Huh?”
“You don’t know where Gaza is?”
“Huh?”
“Are we done?”

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Jamaica, where the sun sets in the east: Bitcoin, drag queens, voting rights

Jamaica showed off all of its frustrating peculiarities in the past few days.

One step forward: A company known as Kingston Open MRI was reported to have started using Bitcoin–a virtual currency–to facilitate “a cost-effective, easy method to pay” and taking advantage of free payment processing. I think an hip-hooray is in order for forward thinking, even if I have personal concerns about the long-term life of Bitcoin.

One step backward: Usain Bolt ‘stars’ in a recent commercial by Virgin Media. He portrays himself and several other characters, including a baby and a woman. Some people in Jamaica are frothing at the mouth about what he has done to mash-up the country’s image for masculinity by suggesting he’s not on the straight as an arrow line. If this is not real idiocy, then what is? The Jamaican inability to distinguish art from real life may be behind some of the more damaging foolishness that we get up to. Let me think of the many ‘stars’ who find it hasn’t hurt the semblance of their manhood by dressing in a dress: Wesley Snipes, Tyler Perry, Oliver Small, Eddie Murphy… I deliberately focused on black stars. Now, admitted these persons are called ‘actors’, so I imagine in the minds of some they are clearly acting. But an athlete doing it must be gay, right? Wrong! Take a look at the really stunning Charles Barkley. Hold back now, fellas! One of a long-line of clearly confused black, white or mulitcoloured athletes, who include known drag queens Oscar de la Hoya, Cam Newton and Leo Ferdinand.

Charles Barkley showing that he is all wo-man
Charles Barkley showing that he is all wo-man

Aieee! I guess that soon, someone will notice that Bolt dressed up as a baby and I cannot imagine what they will think he’s trying to be there.

Two steps backward: MP, Everald Warmington has not been known in recent times as a man who minces words. He is, however, someone whose words seem like they have gone through a mincer. His latest outbursts have really set tongues wagging. He said (my stresses):
“If you don’t vote; you don’t count. And at this stage if a person walk in the office and sey ‘Boss mi a Labourite’, and when I check the computer, you didn’t vote, I nah deal wid you. If you don’t vote; you don’t count and you can’t ask for Government benefits when you refuse to participate in the governance of your country.” 

I will let all the others who want to feast on the words. But, first, not voting is participating in your national governance: it can send a very clear message of the worthiness of those who have put themselves up for elected office. If I saw a dog and monkey on the ballot–and they have featured in some places–I’d hope that someone would not force me to vote for one or the other.

What is the MP doing checking the voting records to see who voted? I thought we had a secret ballot, so why would he want to violate that, if he’s so concerned about civic duty?

If an MP feels that he or she does not want to deal with those who did not cast a vote in the politician’s favor, I guess he or she has that right, but those who win ballots are supposed to address the interests of all their constituents. Yes, I know we love being partisan, and that politicians love being vindictive. Mr. Warmington went on to talk about the 48 percent (those who did not vote in the national election) in terms reminiscent of a failed US presidential candidate, Governor Romney. Very disturbing and disrespectful!

Many people will be quick to point out that even if persons did not vote, they have representation through their tax paying dollars, which so happen to pay the salary of elected officials. In case, it escaped Mr. Warmington, there is also a large part of the population who cannot vote, legally. Children and their guardians, whether they have voted, deserve the politicians’ ear.

It may happen today, but so far, Mr. Warmington’s party leader, Andrew Holness, has not voiced an opinion. Another member of the JLP, Daryl Vaz, did comment:

Vaz has argued that it is a right of Jamaicans to opt not to vote.

It is a constitutional right that they can exercise…The fact that they might not wish to exercise it because of what they perceive as the failure of politics and politicians should not disqualify persons from receiving genuine assistance.”

It’s not rocket science. But, if you are a war monger, Mr. Warmington, then I imagine none of that will strike a politician as relevant. When Jamaica has compulsory voting, I’d be happy to hear the comments made again. Till then, let those who want to vote vote; the others can do as they please and not feel they have no voice.

Take your marks

News media should always be on the look out for good metaphors. Today’s Gleaner ran a leader entitled ‘What policymakers might learn from athletics‘, and had a wonderful sentiment: ‘As a country in economic crisis and with deep social problems, Jamaica’s athletic power matters. It, in a sense, stands in vindication of our worth and as a metaphor for Jamaica’s possibilities.’ Fraser-Pryce_2642119b

Let me try to take the baton handed by the Gleaner and run with the metaphor a little. I’m going to say that Jamaica needs to think of itself like Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, who won the women’s 100 metres final a few days ago in the Moscow World Championships, rather than Usain Bolt. The lady is nicknamed ‘Pocket Rocket’ for the power that seems to come from her small frame; as Jamaicans say, “Little but tallawah”–small but strong, not to be underestimated. That is more Jamaica’s stature than being Boltian, which suggests that we are faster, bigger and stronger than most. But, Jamaica is Boltian in its characterUsain Bolt: tall, brash, light on its feet, engaging, maybe also a real ginal–the Anansi in all of us.

But, we need to watch out. Jamaica’s economy, or rather management of the Jamaican economy, is also like some of its best athletes–full of promise, yet faltering at key moments. I’ve met Asafa Powell and found him one of the nicest persons I ever met: physically almost perfect, yet gentle in that giant’s frame. I love what Asafa Powell has done for the status of Jamaican athletics–held the world record for 100 metres during 2005-8; he has more (nearly 100) legal sub-10 second times for that event than any athlete in the world. Despite his winning big international individual events (100m and 200m), such as during the IAAF World Athletics Finals, however, he has come up short when put to the biggest tests–Olympic Games and World Championships. But, not only did he ‘underperform’, he did it in ways that cast doubts on his psychological make up. In his own words (after losing to Tyson Gay in the 2007 World Championships–my emphases): “When Tyson came on and gave me a little bit of pressure I just panicked. When I saw I wasn’t in gold medal contention, I gave up in the middle of the race. I just stopped running.” He did not embody the name of his running club, MVP (Maximising Velocity and Power). Try and fail, but don’t give up! He has had injuries at crucial times. Finally, after not qualifying for the national team for the current World Championships, he has come under scrutiny after a failed drug test. He (and another, female, star athlete) did not follow MVP club protocols, and now the club coach has cast them aside, saying he’s “they are on their own“. Asafa represents the image of ‘not taking the chances that are given to you’.powell Asafa runs the risk of people not believing that he will deliver his best. Some would say that is Jamaica, too, after a series of IMF programs and a stream of promises regarding economic policy actions.

The image of Asafa losing a major final or pulling up lame, or wilting when put under pressure, eyes downcast, stands large in front of me. Asafa makes us suffer!

Jamaica also reminds me of the 400 metres runner: after trying to sprint hard for most of the distance, lactic acid builds up and the muscles begin to feel like lead weights in the legs. The arms pump and legs try to push, but it feels like you are running in wet cement. The feeling is worse, if others in the race are not so badly affected, and pass you in a way that makes it seem that you are going backwards. Kirani James suffered that way, it seems, as he faded badly in the 400m final this week. Shock! In truth, the flagging runners could not maintain their form while others did not drop off so drastically. When you run this race, you feel sick to your core at the end of the race. Spent. Drained. Never again. Till the next time.

Eventually, the athletic body’s basic strength cannot give any more and, on bended knees, it stays motionless: the Jamaican economy, with its potential to do many great things, has been stagnant and underperforming, according to official statistics. Anecdotes and what the eyes see, however, do not support that picture fully. The body has moved better than seemed plausible. Have drugs been injested and are they flowing through its veins to enhance its performance? That’s literally and figuratively very likely. It has had its cocktails of old-style, over-the-counter ‘performance enhancing drugs’ (IMF loans, World Bank loans, Inter American Development Bank loans, Caribbean Development Bank loans, bilateral grants). It has had ‘acupuncture’ too (Chinese investments). It has tried mysterious ‘herbal remedies’weed (supplied by many local ‘collie men’ and foreign dealers). It has rubbed itself with different oils (Ecuadorian, Mexican, Trinidadian, Venezuelan), all of them work a little, but still don’t give enough energy and flexibility; joints are still stiff. It’s tried some local solar treatments, but finds that it prefers to be bathed in oil. It’s performance could be improved if it made better use of the wind, but it often blows in the wrong direction. What to do?

An IMF team is due to arrive in Jamaica today to review economic data and government policy implementation under the latest arrangement. I found it quite ironic that yesterday it rained all day and into the night–a flash flood warning was issued. I couldn’t help but think of the comments attributed to Madame de Pompadour, official chief mistress of France’s Louis XV (15th), in the mid-1700s: ‘”Au reste, après nous, le déluge” (“Besides, after us, the deluge”). France had just come out 2nd in a devastating war, losing its American colonies to the British, its status diminished and virtually bankrupt.

Jamaica never had any empire, but it stood head and shoulders above other Caribbean countries and acted imperiously in 1961 when its people supported the idea of leaving the West Indies Federation. That led to the famous statement of Dr. Eric Williams, the then Premier of Trinidad and Tobago that, “One from ten leaves nought”. Jamaica then decided to stand up alone, for its independence from Britain, over 50 years ago, in 1962. Jamaica has since become bankrupt, in some senses, with its public debt now standing at an unsustainable level–150 percent to GDP–its status diminished.

But, once again, Jamaica has found herself qualified for a major event and a chance to get it right, to win the race that will vindicate its promise. She’s had lots of time to prepare and training went well. She has not reported any major injuries to hamper performance. The time on the warm-up track looks to have been well spent, and she is relaxed. The crowd waits patiently as she approaches the stadium and then heads to the blocks laid out for the start of the final race. She takes up position in the starting blocks. Eyes seem focused. Some sweat beads form on her brow, as anticipation builds and nerves start to jangle. She’s like Bolt, not known for her fast start, but knows that a good start is really important. Oh, if only she could be like Shelly-Ann, and blast out and be leading from the first stride. So, which performance will be we see? All hands are clasped in prayer, and voices can be heard whispering: “Don’t stumble out of the blocks. Don’t false start and end before the race begins. Hold your form till midway. Finish strongly through the tape.” The eyes of the people standing in Half Way Tree look up at the big screen. How will this race be run?Start

Jamaica started as a sprinter, then turned into a middle distance runner, and now, aged, it is trying its hand at the marathon. No matter what the event, to succeed in each takes a lot of hard work and dedication. Can Jamaica take on the Olympics motto of “faster, higher, stronger”? Or, has it adopted the Olympic creed, The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well“?

My eyes will be glued to how Jamaica performs in the IMF version of athletics over the next few days.

Branded

It’s always interesting to be ‘inside’ a news story. Jamaicans have been thrust into a very peculiar position for a very long time: they had an international image that seemed much bigger than their country’s physical and population size seemed to warrant. To use the boxing parlance, the country punched well over its weight. But, that would not have surprised many Jamaicans, who live with the notion that “Wi little but wi Tallawah”, meaning we are a small nation but with strong-willed people; we are determined and refuse to be restrained by boundaries. The world has had to accept that this nation regularly does ‘exceptional’ things. The corollary is that the country has had to accept that it’s in the spotlight much more than would seem normal.

The true meaning of words fascinates me. The phrase ‘brand Jamaica’ has been tossed around freely in recent weeks. The definition of ‘brand’ has several connotations, positive and negative, and Jamaica is tasting several of them:

  • quality or to designate ownership
  • characteristic or distinctive kind
  • a mark put on criminals with a hot iron
  • a mark of disgrace
So when the term is used, which definition is coming into play? It may, unwittingly, not be the one the user intended.
The notion of being a proud Jamaican is not new. It has been there for decades, but was perhaps more muted in international eyes before the country gained independence in 1962. It got a huge push during the 1970s with the international success of Bob Marley; his music helped make reggae acceptable and accessible to a very wide population. It was put to the test also in the 1970s, when Michael Manley became Prime Minister Michael_Manleyand implemented a series of social democratic policies, which started to pitch the country in a direction which some feared but others hailed, and ‘took on America’ in the process. His slogans, such as “Better must come” and “Giving power to the people”, struck a chord of fear or made people jubilant.
Jamaica’s image as a violent country took hold in the wake of Manley’s tenure, as guns and politics became more common a pairing than ‘guns and butter’ or ‘guns and roses’. That the tourism industry was able to flourish with that branding on it is worthy of some serious study. Crime didn’t go away, however, no matter how hard some tried, and Jamaica gained the dubious accolade of ‘murder capital of the world‘ in 2005. That’s one gold medal that would happily be dumped into the sea.
The image got a big international boost with the qualification of the national soccer team for the 1998 World Cup: The ‘Reggae Boyz’ even had the glory of beating Japan–no powerhouse, but no slouch, either. Jamaica began to regain its place as ‘the no problem state’.
The image got a mighty boost when Jamaican athletes did so well in the 2008 Olympics and was pushed further upwards with the continuation of that success at the 2012 Olympics.jamaica_olympics Phrases including words such as ‘dominance’ did not seem out-of-place in the athletics context, but would still have had a shock element, when you put the impact in the context of the barely 3 million national population. No doubt, that boost was fired by the performance of one man, Usain Bolt, but most would accept that he had a very able supporting cast and others are in the wings pushing to take the torch further. Older Jamaicans probably smiled as they remembered track exploits of old, and the names of Wint and McKenley, Quarrie and Miller, Merlene Ottey (still sprinting in her 50s at top-level for her new home, Slovenia!). For this, this would seem like business as usual–a tradition was being continued. The world started to take note of ‘Champs’. TV, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, radio, and any other media would be abuzz at the mere mention of Jamaican track stars. “Jamaica to the world!”
That notion of pride took a hefty lick as the drama unfolded in Tivoli Gardens in 2010 when the government tried to capture a well-known drug kingpin know as ‘Dudus’ (Christopher Coke), who had been indicted by the US in 2009. It seemed that all hell broke loose. Images of military-style operations and the horrific death toll in the neighbourhood filled TV screens worldwide. The then Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, had tried initially to block extradition, but eventually moved to acquiesce, and paid the ‘ultimate price’ for his judgement and decisions as he departed the stage no longer PM. Last year the world became more acquainted with the term ‘Dudus’ and learnt about Christopher Coke once he was sentenced by US courts. To be a proud Jamaican at that time was HARD.
But, the spotlight burns as well as shines. ‘Brand Jamaica’ is taking it on the chin again–to extend the boxing metaphor. This time, the vaunted heroes are facing the possibility of turning into villains as the dreaded ‘doping scandal’ looms over the heads of several of the top athletes, most noted of which are Veronica Campbell-Brown and Asafa Powell, both noted for their public humility as well as their running prowess. The chill could be sensed as people thought “No! Not them!”
When you are ‘one of the people’ you carry the fame and shame of the people. I remember travelling in the wake of the recent Olympic triumphs and the looks that sometimes came when people saw my Jamaican passport. “Bolt!” might have been all that an official said, but its implication was clear, sort of “Great to meet you, too”. I was shocked in the wake of the 2008 Games when I met someone (an American, I add) who had not heard about Usain Bolt, and that person was not a hermit. It helped remind me of perspective, and I gladly took the opportunity to do some quick tutoring about Jamaica: each one, teach one.
I don’t know how mature Jamaica has become, approaching 51 years of independent age. But, the public and media reaction in Jamaica to the shine being taken off the image tells me that the country has grown up. Yes, there are those who want to take a totally defensive ‘the world is against us’ attitude, but my sense is that most people believe that the doping incidents are isolated, possibly accidental or careless, but not systemic or systematic. Defensive arguments locally have had a lot of reasonableness about them. I have not seen many reports from abroad that are out to trash the country and its athletes: maybe, the world needs ‘Jack’ to be the good ‘giant killer’.
Did I mention Red Stripe or Appleton or Wray and Nephew? Did I mention ‘jerk’? What about Negril.and Blue Mountain coffee? Brands and branding.

It’s good that a nation has more to hold onto than one or very few dimensions of its character. We may not have many people, but those we have often do very well, and we’re not surprised. We are not a nation of saints, and our sins and sinners do not do us proud, but we will not be defined by them. We may not have much to offer the world but what we have we’ll gladly share and you’ll often find that it’s really very good.