Bombarding Tivoli Gardens and New Orleans

Last Tuesday’s Gleaner reported a “Tivoli Bombshell”. According to the testimony of an anonymous soldier, “two policemen, without provocation, fatally shot two unarmed young men while they were bound and seated in a detention area, before marching a third man to a nearby house.”

YoxHmd8JSNyjmTz3bKGs68_9Tum7jPGe23IBGIrngRhCZUYtpRdNAbjtsQIKaI5VsfmFdXQkBUfrKzi4a0g47o0JRO7QWEuX06eWQ1RMW57--dgLbMw2J8Q91rgBGXbwdBGwtEsA4RufF5LIVUUS5w=s0-d-e1-ftWhy is this a “bombshell”? There are two quite distinct symbolic meanings of this explosive word: first, “an overwhelming surprise or disappointment”. The second meaning is “a very attractive woman”. Makes sense. Attractive women are dangerous. They tend to make men explode. If this happens too quickly, it can really be an overwhelming surprise and a shattering disappointment.

The Gleaner’s Tivoli bombshell is definitely not a very attractive woman. And, by the way, Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, disguised as a woman, was certainly not a bombshell. It was a surprise that he was caught in the company of a man of the cloth. But as Michael Abrahams has so wickedly reminded us in his recent columns, God does move in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.

Fun and joke aside, is it an overwhelming surprise that unarmed young men were allegedly shot dead by the police without provocation? It happens all the time. Not only in Tivoli. Just think of the murder of black men by the police in the US. It’s truly an overwhelming disappointment that the lives of black men seem to have so little value.


soap-operaThen, I wonder if any anonymous policeman or woman is going to testify that he or she saw soldiers fatally shooting defenceless young men. Is the Enquiry going to turn into a soap opera about good soldier versus bad police? I suspect that both police and soldiers are equally guilty of unprovoked assault. Power breeds terror.

Of course, there was provoked assault as residents of Tivoli attacked members of the security of forces in defence of their community. But who provoked first? Where did it all begin? When politicians got in bed with drug lords? When politicians gave youths guns to defend garrisons? When the youths got smart and realised that they could cut out the politicians and run tings?

The Government is spending a lot of money on the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry. In these times of austerity, the budget is J$410.4 million. I wonder what the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank think about this expenditure. Will the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth ever come out? Or will it all be a terrible waste of money? But justice must appear to be done. Especially if it is not!


So what do Tivoli Gardens and New Orleans have in common? Just ask Dr Nadia Ellis, a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s a distinguished graduate of the University of the West Indies, Mona. Dr Ellis gave a brilliant keynote lecture at the conference, “Community Uprising: Katrina, Resilience, Resistance & Culture After 10 Years”, convened last month in New Orleans and hosted by the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies.

Dr Ellis’ lecture focused on the militarisation of both New Orleans and Tivoli Gardens after natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and manmade catastrophe (hunting Dudus). I wonder how many people still believe – if ever – that Dudus was in Tivoli waiting for the security forces to come looking for him. Was there much more at stake in the invasion of Tivoli than finding Dudus?

tivolia20100531wIn her summary of the lecture, Dr Ellis noted that, “In the wake of the disasters wrought by Katrina in 2005, security forces descended into the city creating a show of force that did little to aid those most affected by the storms. Indeed, cases of extra-judicial killing by the police were alleged and investigated. Five years later in May 2010, Jamaican security forces descended on the community of Tivoli Gardens in an attempt to apprehend a drug lord: 76 civilians were killed. In both these cases communities that were perceived from the outside as hyper-autonomous, culturally problematic, and politically unmanageable were subject to military-style incursion.”


Dr Ellis also highlighted the therapeutic function of music and dance in both New Orleans and Kingston. Like dancehall, New Orleans bounce music helps partygoers recover from the daily stresses of survival. The Katrina conference included a bounce concert by Frederick Ross whose stage name is Big Freedia Queen Diva. It was quite an event.

In a 2013 interview with OUT magazine, Big Freedia explained that “Whatever makes my fans comfortable—to be able to call me ‘he’ or ‘she,’—I’ll allow. I let them have the freedom to choose either one . . . . A lot of people just can’t accept the fact of calling a man ‘she.’ I totally understand that, and it’s never offensive to me, because I was born a man, my preferred pronoun is she—but it’s not a big thing to me.” That’s where the similarity to dancehall stops for sure.

I recently had an unsettling conversation with a bright young man from Trench Town. He said there’s no law and order downtown since Dudus was extradited. He thinks things were much better when the don was in charge. God help us if that’s true. And I don’t mean the temperamental God of the Old Testament.

Samson an di Liar Talk di Truth

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist phonetic system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.


Yes, a Samson an di liar. No Delilah. Dis a no di Bible story. A Jamaican reality mi a chat bout. Di play weh put on a Little Little Theatre. By di way, mi see seh mi fren Michael Abrahams a wind up nuff a unu wid im column dem bout Massa God an di Bible. Some a dem Bible story no pretty fi true. Massa God a God, so im do anyting im feel like.

stdas0277Look pon all poor Job. Di man a gwaan good-good a serve God. An di devil go to God an seh, “Boss, yu done know seh di ongle reason Job a serve yu a chruu im have life easy.” An hear wa God tell di devil: “Mi a gi yu power over Job. Do anyting yu waan do to im. But no bodder kill im.” Dat sweet di devil. Im mash up Job life. Im kill off Job pikni dem, im mek people thief all a Job cow an donkey an camel. Im sheep dem burn up. An wen Job hear, all im seh, “Massa God gi an Maasa God tek weh.”

Dat bex di devil. So im go back to Massa God. An God boast off pon im: ‘See mi tell yu seh Job naa diss mi!’ An di devil seh bet anyting if im sick bad im a go cuss yu. An God seh, ‘Gwaan, but no kill im.’ An Job get one piece a leprosy! Till all im wife tell im fi dis cuss God an dead. An im neva dweet. An wen God done enjoy imself a tek bet pon Job wid di devil, im dis gi back Job more pon top a wa im did have. No sa! Mi no kyah who bex. Dat a one wicked story.


Anyhow, back to Samson an di liar. Dat a one story weh Winston ‘Bello’ Bell did start fi write. Im a one actor turn parson, so im know bout Bible story. But fi im story no wicked lakka Job. Two man a live eena one bus shed eena New Kingston. Downtown crosses gone uptown! An di man dem act out dem life inna di play.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks an Ricky Rowe tek Bello story an devel it up. Hendricks a Samson. Im get dip from England chruu dem seh im set fire pon im owna house an kill off im wife an pikni. An Ricky Rowe a di liar, Earsring. Im did love fi bet lakka Massa God an devil. But im lose. Wife an house. An chruu Massa God neva tek no bet pon im, im no get back nutten. So im deh outa road. Samson a music teacher an im a write opera bout fi im life. An Earsring a DJ. Nuff talent. So im an Samson put together an mek up song an perform fi money right deh so inna di bus shed. Di play full a joke.


Yes, a Samson an di laiya. No Delilah. Dis a no di Baibl stuori. A Jamiekan riyaliti mi a chat bout. Di plie we put aan a Little Little Theatre. Bai di wie, mi si se mi fren Michael Abrahams a wain op nof a unu wid im kolom dem bout Maasa Gad an di Baibl. Som a dem Baibl stuori no priti fi chruu. Maasa Gad a Gad, so im du enting im fiil laik.

suffering_job-705x500Luk pan aal puor Job. Di man a gwaahn gud-gud a sorv Gad. An di devl go tu Gad an se, “Baas, yu don nuo se di ongl riizn Job a sorv yu a chruu im av laif iizi.” An ier wa Gad tel di devl: “Mi a gi yu powa uova Job. Du enting yu waahn du tu im. Bot no bada kil im.” Dat swiit di devl. Im mash op Job laif. Im kil aaf Job pikni dem, im mek piipl tiif aal a Job kou an dangki an kyamel. Im shiip dem bon op. An wen Job ier, aal im se, “Maasa Gad gi an Maasa Gad tek we.”

Dat beks di devl. So im go bak tu Maasa Gad. An Gad buos aaf pan im: ‘Si mi tel yu se Job naa dis mi!’ An di devl se bet enting if im sik bad im a go kos yu. An Gad se, ‘Gwaan, bot no kil im.’ An Job get wan piis a leprosi! Til aal im waif tel im fi dis kos Gad an ded. An im neva dwiit. An wen Gad don enjai imself a tek bet pan Job wid di devl, im dis gi bak Job muor pan tap a wa im did av. Nuo sa! Mi no kya uu beks. Dat a wan wikid stuori.


Eniou, bak to Samson an di laiya. Dat a wan stuori we Winston ‘Bello’ Bell did staat fi rait. Im a wan akta ton paasn, so im nuo bout Baibl stuori. Bot fi im stuori no wikid laka Job. Tuu man a liv iina wan bos shed iina New Kingston. Dountoun kraasiz gaahn optoun! An di man dem ak out dem laif ina di plie.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks an Ricky Rowe tek Bello stuori an divel it op. Hendricks a Samson. Im get dip fram Ingglan chruu dem se im set faiya pan im uona ous an kil aaf im waif an pikni. An Ricky Rowe a di laiya, Earsring. Im did lov fi bet laka Maasa Gad an devl. Bot im luuz. Waif an ous. An chruu Maasa Gad neva tek no bet pan im, im no get bak notn. So im de outa ruod.  Samson a myuuzik tiicha an im a rait opra bout fi im laif. An Earsring a DJ. Nof talent. So im an Samson put tugeda an mek op sang an pafaam fi moni rait de so ina di bos shed. Di plie ful a juok.


Yes, it’s Samson an di liar. Not Delilah. This is not the Bible story.  It’s Jamaican reality that I’m talking about. The play that was on at the Little Little Theatre. By di way, I see that my friend Michael Abrahams has been provoking a lot of you with his columns about God and the Bible. Some of those Bible stories are quite unappealing.   God is  God, so he does as he pleases.

Think about poor Job. He was doing alright just serving God. And the devil went to God and said, “Chief, you do know that the only reason Job is serving you is because he’s had an easy life.” And here’s what God told the devil: “I’ll give you power over Job. Do anything you want to him. But don’t kill him.” That really pleased the devil. And he made a complete mess of Job’s life. He killed Job’s children, and he allowed all of Job’s cows, donkeys and camels to be stolen.  His sheep were all burnt up. And when Job heard, all he said was, “God gives and God takes away”

That angered the devil. So he went back to God. And God was rather boastful: ‘See, I told you Job wouldn’t lose faith in me.’ And then the devil said ‘I bet you anything if he gets really sick he’s going to curse you’. And God said, ‘Go ahead, but don’t kill him.’ And Job was struck down with leprosy! So much so that even his wife told him to just curse God and die. But he didn’t. And when God finished enjoying himself at Job’s expense, taking bets with the devil, he gave back Job more than he’d had before.  No way! I don’t care who gets vexed. That’s a really wicked story.


Anyhow, back to Samson an di liar. That’s a story Winston ‘Bello’ Bell started to write. He’s an actor turned parson, so he knows about Bible stories. But his story isn’t as wicked as Job’s. Two men are living in a bus shed in New Kingston. Downtown troubles have gone uptown! And the men act out their lives in the play.

Tony ‘Paleface’ Hendricks and Ricky Rowe took Bello’s story and developed it. Hendricks is Samson. He got deported from England because he allegedly set his own house on fire and his wife and child burned to death.  And Ricky Rowe is di liar, Earsring. He loved to gamble like God and the devil. But he lost. Wife and house. And because God wasn’t betting on him, he lost everything. So he’s out on the street.Samson is a music teacher and he’s writing an opera about his life. And Earsring is a DJ. Lots of talent. So he and Samson join forces and compose songs that they perform for money right there in the bus shed. The play is very entertaining.

Chucking Poor People Out Of Kingston


Delroy Chuck

Last Sunday, The Gleaner published an article by Delroy Chuck, MP for North East St Andrew, in which he attempted to clarify his presentation on urban renewal made in Parliament on September 1. Denying that he was advocating “gentrification”, Chuck insisted that he “never suggested the replacement of poor people’s homes by middle-income and affluent residents.”

But Chuck’s defence raises more questions than it answers: “My proposal is for the Government to use the Housing Act or any necessary law to acquire large tracts of property, of at least five acres, in communities such as Vineyard Town, Allman Town, Rollington Town, Franklyn Town, Swallowfield, etc., and enter into joint-venture agreements with private developers to build affordable apartments and town houses in closed, gated and safe communities.”

These towns are not exactly downtown. They are uppish. Who will be able to afford the apartments and town houses in these new exclusive gated communities? The same people who sell off their old houses to the Government? Hardly likely. Mr Chuck hasn’t thought through the matter carefully enough.

Yet, he confidently asserts, “No doubt, the properties being acquired should be purchased at market value or even at more fair and reasonable prices to allow their owners to buy into homes elsewhere or, perhaps in time, into one of the homes being constructed in the newly developed areas.” How long is “in time”? And where, exactly, is “elsewhere”? Sounds a lot like never and nowhere.


Once upon a time, a very long time ago, downtown Kingston was very prosperous. The city was founded soon after the 1692 earthquake destroyed Port Royal. Located at the mouth of a magnificent harbour, Port Royal had long been a major logistics hub. Of course, when the wickedest city on earth was established in 1518, almost five centuries ago, that fancy term wasn’t in fashion.


Kingston Harbour around 1870

All the same, Port Royal and, later, Kingston were bustling trans-shipment centres. Goods moved through the harbour from Europe to North and South America. And raw materials went back. Enslaved people were transported from Africa and shipped to various destinations in the so-called New World! New to who? But that’s another story.

The British writer, Michael Scott, born in 1789, came to work as an estate manager in Jamaica in 1806. He wrote a novel, Tom Cringle’s Log, which gives a sweeping account of the grand scale of business generated by the port of Kingston: “. . . The whole of the trade of Terra Firma, from Porto Cavello down to Chagres, the greater part of the trade of the islands of Cuba and San Domingo, and even that of Lima and San Blas, and the other ports of the Pacific, carried on across the Isthmus of Darien, centred in Kingston . . . . .”

Even if there’s some fictional exaggeration in the novel, historians do confirm that Kingston was a major port, generating vast wealth. In the words of Tom Cringle, “The result of this princely traffic, more magnificent than that of Tyre, was a stream of gold and silver flowing into the Bank of England, to the extent of three millions of pounds sterling annually, in return for British manufactures . . . . ”

Cringle admits that this Kingston traffic bolstered the British economy, supplying the sinews of war to the government at home, and, besides the advantage of so large a mart [market], employing an immense amount of British tonnage, and many thousand seamen; and in numberless ways opening up new outlets to British enterprise and capital“. And some of us still feel that the demand for reparations is a big joke at our expense!


In 1907, a massive earthquake devastated Kingston. Rich people fled to the suburbs. Poor people remained. They had no choice. It’s the same old story. Environmental disaster highlights class divisions. As Buju Banton laments in “Untold Stories”:

“Who can afford to run will run

But what about those who can’t?

They will have to stay

Opportunity a scarce, scarce commodity

In these times I say”

Now and then! By the 1950s, the gap between those who could run and those who had to stay widened with the relocation of the commercial capital from old to New Kingston. Downtown Kingston was virtually abandoned by the wealthy. I wonder whose ‘bright’ idea it was to turn the Knutsford Park Race Track into an uptown ghetto, free of poor people.

To think that nobody then could see the value of rehabilitating Kingston, so beautifully situated on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world! In a more enlightened society, city planners would have ‘sighted’ a new Kingston in its original location. Instead, we took the easy way out: cut and run.


The Myrtle Bank Hotel

The days when downtown Kingston was the playground of the rich are long gone – just like the famous Myrtle Bank hotel. It’s mostly poor people who still live and work downtown. With a few stubborn corporate exceptions! The old city and its environs can be revitalised. But we have to carefully consider how it is to be done. We have to accommodate both the haves and the have-nots. It’s a complex issue. We can’t afford to just Chuck it.

Tek Di Obeah Offa St. Thomas!

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist phonetic system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.


51IMF01L6bL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_A long time now wi a call St Thomas ‘di obeah parish’. An obeah a no good sinting. Hear wa Dictionary of Jamaican English seh bout obeah: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” An ‘malignant’ no pretty. It come from one Latin word weh mean ‘malicious’. Keep up malice. Bad mind an grudgeful. So a dat wi tink bout all a di people dem from St Thomas?

By di way, a long time now Cambridge University Press put out dat deh Jamaican English dictionary. Inna 1967! An fi wi owna University of the West Indies Press buy di right fi sell it. From 2006. An all now, plenty a wi no know bout di dictionary. A fi who fa fault? Ministry of Education. Ministry suposen fi put dat deh book eena every school library eena di whole a Jamaica. Di pikni dem fi learn bout dem language.

Den di title a di dictionary a bait an switch. A no directly English it a deal wid. A fi wi Jamaican language. But dem deh time when Frederic Cassidy an Robert LePage did a write di dictionary, it did suit dem fi call fi wi language ‘Jamaican English’. Like seh fi wi language a one dialect a English. Wa dem did waan show a how wi change up English eena Jamaica.

But plenty a di word dem eena di dictionary a no English at all, at all. Tek, for instance, ‘obeah’. Dictionary of Jamaican English tell wi seh it come from ‘ubio’. Dat a Efik, wan African language. An a di said same bad meaning: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. Dat wicked fi true. But dat a no di whole a di story. Di odder side a obeah a myal. An a dat tek off di obeah. Same like how di blood a Jesus save from sin! Mi know seh plenty Christian naa go like hear dat. But a true.


So a how St Thomas turn eena di obeah parish? An no figet myal! After Emancipation, bout 10,000 African did come a Jamaica fi work. Same like di Indian an di Chiney people dem. An dem did go live a St Thomas. Dem did come from Central Africa an dem bring fi dem culture. An dem keep it up. All like kumina.

518R3CSPW3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis from Trinidad did teach a University of the West Indies, Mona, fi more than 30 year. She write one book, Central Africa In the Caribbean. An one a di subject she study a kumina. An she interview one kumina queen, Miss Queenie, bout myal. Hear wa Miss Queenie seh:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

So a di myal spirit deh pon St Thomas mek plenty a wi tink seh di parish backward. An wi naa see seh St Thomas a one pretty-pretty parish. So much development a gwaan a west. An wi naa look east. A time wi open wi yai an see di good-good myal spirit eena St Thomas.


A lang taim nou wi a kaal St Thomas ‘di uobiya parish’. An uobiya a no gud sinting. Ier wa Dictionary of Jamaican English se bout uobiya: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” An ‘malignant’ no priti. It kom fram wan Latin wod we miin ‘malicious’. Kip op malis. Bad main an grojful. So a dat wi tingk bout aal a di piipl dem fram St Thomas?

Bai di wie, a lang taim nou Cambridge University Press put out dat de Jamaican English dikshaneri. Ina 1967! An fi wi uona University of the West Indies Press bai di rait fi sel it. From 2006. An aal nou, plenti a wi no nuo bout di dikshaneri. A fi huu fa faalt? Ministry of Education. Ministry supuozen fi put dat de buk iina evri skuul laibri iina di uol a Jamieka. Di pikni dem fi laan bout dem langgwij.

Den di taikl a di dikshaneri a biet an swich. A no dairekli Ingglish it a diil wid. A fi wi Jamiekan langgwij. Bot dem de taim wen Frederic Cassidy an Robert LePage did a rait di dikshaneri, it did suut dem fi kaal fi wi langgwij ‘Jamaican English’. Laik se fi wi langgwij a wan daiyalek a Ingglish. Wa dem did waahn shuo a ou wi chienj op Ingglish iina Jamieka.

Bot plenti a di wod dem iina di dikshaneri a no Ingglish at aal, at aal. Tek, far instans, ‘uobiya’. Dictionary of Jamaican English tel wi se it kom fram ‘ubio’. Dat a Efik, wan Afrikan langgwij. An a di sed siem bad miinin: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. Dat wikid fi chruu. Bot dat a no di uol a di stuori. Di ada said a uobiya a maiyal. An a dat tek aaf di uobiya. Siem laik ou di blod a Jesus siev fram sin! Mi nuo se plenti Chrischan naa go laik ier dat. Bot a chruu.


So a ou St Thomas ton iina di uobiya parish? An no figet maiyal! Aafta Imansipieshan, bout ten tousan Afrikan did kom a Jamieka fi wok. Siem laik di Indiyan an di Chaini piipl dem. An dem did go liv a St Thomas. Dem did kom fram Sentral Afrika an dem bring fi dem kolcha. An dem kip it op. Aal laik kumina.

kuminab20060330STProfessor Maureen Warner-Lewis fram Chrinidad did tiich a University of the West Indies, Mona, fi muor dan torti ier. Shi rait wan buk, Central Africa In the Caribbean. An wan a di sobjek shi stodi a kumina. An shi intavyuu wan kumina kwiin, Miss Queenie, bout maiyal. Ier wa Miss Queenie se:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

So a di maiyal spirit de pan St Thomas mek plenti a wi tingk se di parish bakwod. An wi naa si se St Thomas a wan priti-priti parish. So moch divelopment a gwaahn a wes. An wi naa luk iis. A taim wi uopn wi yai an si di gud-gud maiyal spirit iina St Thomas.


For quite a long time, we’ve been calling St Thomas ‘the obeah parish’. And that’s no compliment. This is how the Dictionary of Jamaican English defines obeah: “The practice of malignant magic as widely known in Jamaica. Its origins are African.” And ‘malignant’ is no better. It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘malicious’. Keeping malice.  Envious and grudgeful. So that’s what we  think bout all of the people from St Thomas?

By the way, Cambridge University Press published that Jamaican English dictionary a long time ago. In 1967! And our own University of the West Indies Press bought the rights to republish it. From 2006. And even now, a lot of us don’t know about the dictionary. And whose fault is that? The Ministry of Education. The Ministry should put that book in every school library in all of Jamaica. Children need to learn bout their language.

Then the title of the dictionary is deceptive. It doesn’t focus on English. It’s actually the Jamaican language. But at the time that Frederic Cassidy and Robert LePage were writing the dictionary, it made sense to think of the language as ‘Jamaican English’. As if our language was a dialect of English. What they wanted to show is the way we’ve adapted English in Jamaica.

But a lot of the words in the dictionary aren’t English at all. Take, for instance, ‘obeah’. The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that it comes from ‘ubio’. That’s Efik, an African language. And it has the very same negative meaning: “a thing or mixture of things, put in the ground, as a charm to cause sickness or death”. That’s really evil. But that’s not the whole story. The other side of obeah is myal. That takes off the curse of obeah. Just as the blood of Jesus saves from sin! I know a lot of Christians won’t appreciate the comparison. But it’s valid.


So how did St Thomas become the obeah parish? And don’t forget myal! After Emancipation, about 10,000 African came to Jamaica to work. Just like the South Asians and the Chinese. And they settled in St Thomas. They came from Central Africa and brought their culture. And they preserved it. For example, kumina.

Professor Maureen Warner-Lewis, from Trinidad, taught at the University of the West Indies, Mona, for more than 30 years. She wrote a book, Central Africa In the Caribbean, and one of the subjects she covered was  kumina. She interviewed a kumina queen, Miss Queenie, about myal. Here’s what Miss Queenie said:

“Myal is de ting dey call a spirit where you’ head ‘pin roun’ an you drop an’ you ‘kin pupalick ‘pon you neck, you see? Dat a myal spirit. Dat a bongo myal spirit which all de hol’ African dem – de dead African dem dem come roun’ an’ dem lick you all a’ you’ headside an’ ride you ‘pon you’ neck an’ you drop. You see? Dat dere mean to say myal hol’ you now.”

[Myal is a spiritual thing. Your head spins and you fall to the ground and you do somersaults, you see? That’s the myal spirit.  The bongo myal spirit of the African ancestors who surround you and hit you in your head and ride you and you fall.  You see?
That means that myal holds you now]

So it’s the myal spirit that’s on St Thomas that makes a lot of us think that the parish is backward. And we’re not seeing that St Thomas is a beautiful parish. So much development is taking place to the west. And we’re not looking to the east. It’s time we open our eyes and see the positive myal spirit in St Thomas.

From Stony Gut To Big Gut


Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

August 12 was the 150th anniversary of Paul Bogle’s long march from Stony Gut to Spanish Town. Forty-five miles! Bogle led a delegation to King’s House, located then in the Old Capital. He wanted to meet with Governor Eyre to make his case on behalf of the suffering people of St Thomas. It was a mere 31 years after the declaration of Emancipation. And the legacy of enslavement was bitter.

Black people were free in theory. But, in fact, we were still imprisoned in the old, exploitative colonial system. Whites firmly held on to power, manipulating politics to suit themselves. Blacks could vote; but only if we could afford to pay the criminally high poll tax. In the 1864 elections, not even 2,000 of the 436,000 black people could afford to vote!

Nature also conspired against poor people. Cholera and smallpox ravaged Jamaica. In 1865, the effects of a two-year drought made matters worse. Work became scarce as several plantations went bankrupt. Economic prospects for black people were grim. There were rumours that we were going to be enslaved again.

I suppose Paul Bogle wished to discuss all of this with the governor. But Eyre refused to see him. He was a man with a very hard heart and too much power. Eyre’s father was a clergyman, which just goes to show that a religious upbringing is no guarantee of basic decency.

Eyre became governor of Jamaica in 1862 and seems to have had nothing but contempt for the ‘natives’. George William Gordon, a brown Jamaican who defended the rights of the black majority, enraged Eyre with his outspoken condemnation of the governor’s racist policies.


Before Bogle tried to meet with Eyre, a group of concerned citizens from St Ann had sent a letter to Queen Victoria, routed through the governor. They wanted to rent Crown lands at an affordable cost. Missis Queen sent a malicious response. Eyre gleefully made 50,000 copies, which he distributed far and wide. It was even read in church.

evil_smiley_face_round_stickers-ra5e82c3af3944768995f28c88eb804a7_v9waf_8byvr_324Here’s an excerpt: “… The prosperity of the Labouring Classes, as well as of all other classes, depends, in Jamaica, and in other Countries, upon their working for Wages, not uncertainly, or capriciously, but steadily and continuously, at the times when their labour is wanted, and for so long as it is wanted; and if they would use this industry, and thereby render the Plantations productive, they would enable the Planters to pay them higher Wages for the same hours of work than are received by the best Field Labourers in this country; and as the cost of the necessaries of life is much less in Jamaica than it is here, they would be enabled, by adding prudence to industry to lay by an ample provision for seasons of drought and dearth; and they may be assured, that it is from their own industry and prudence, in availing themselves of the means of prospering that are before them, and not from any such schemes as have been suggested to them, that they must look for an improvement in their condition; and that her Majesty will regard with interest and satisfaction their advancement through their own merits and efforts.”

In other words: Unu fi work out unu soul case fi next to nutten; an gwaan tek di lickle monkey money weh di planter dem a pay; so di planter dem can mek plenty money an gi unu back lickle bit. An unu fi band unu belly an save some a di lickle money fi when trouble tek unu; because tings inna Jamaica no cost so much like inna England; an stop bodder-bodder mi bout gi unu Crown land fi rent. An mi wi well glad fi see how unu a go mek it pon unu own.


Fast-forward to the 21st century and this sounds a lot like what Mme Christine Lagarde might say to Minister Peter Phillips if im was to lost im pass go aks her fi gi wi a ease up wid di whole heap a money wi owe IMF. Austerity is the name of the game.


Sir Patrick greets St. Thomas delegation. From left are Professor Neville Ying, Dorette Abrahams, Norma Brown-Bell, Loriann Peart-Roberts, and Mayor of Morant Bay Ludlow Mathison.

Paul Bogle died for the cause of black empowerment. So did George William Gordon. How many of our politicians today, whether PNP or JLP, would put their lives on the line for their constituency? How many would walk 45 miles to make a case on our behalf? How many of them could walk 45 miles? Or even 4.5 miles?

Quite a few of our politicians are so fat they just couldn’t make it. They are living high on the hog. Throw mi corn, mi no call no fowl. I think we should establish gut guidelines for politicians. Beyond a certain size, they would just lose the work. By the way, the gut in Stony Gut is not the same as big gut. The first is a narrow passage; the second is a huge channel.

On the anniversary of Bogle’s march, our present governor general, Sir Patrick Allen, met with a delegation from St Thomas. He couldn’t make up for Eyre’s wickedness in both failing to listen to Bogle’s appeal and brutally suppressing the Morant Bay Rebellion. But Sir Patrick did admit that the parish has long been neglected. Even now! And that took guts.

Emancipating Bedward From the Madhouse

A few years ago, contestants on TVJ’s Schools’ Challenge Quiz were asked to name a famous prophet from August Town. Their answer was ‘Sizzla’. These students should have known Alexander Bedward’s story. But, as Peter Tosh sang, “You can’t blame the youth.”

It’s the school system that’s to blame. In his song, Tosh mocks the way in which Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Pirate Hawkins and Pirate Morgan are portrayed in history books as heroes. He emphatically asserts, “All these great man were doing/ Robbing, raping, kidnapping and killing.”

Tosh overstates the case with that double meaning on ‘all’. That’s not all that all of them were doing. But Tosh was dramatically teaching an important lesson. We keep telling the youth stories of ‘great’ men whose deeds are actually criminal. Even worse, we fail to tell the youth stories of our home-grown heroes.

And, sometimes, the stories we do tell are so distorted that the heroism is completely lost. All that remains is a ghostly presence, a fleeting sense of grandeur. But none of the substance of the men and women whose vision of full freedom forced them to rebel against systems of oppression!


Alexander Bedward is a classic example of a haunting Jamaican hero. Depending on who is telling the story, he was either visionary or lunatic. Or both. Or much more! Take, for instance, the melodramatic account of Bedwardism given by the American Jesuit priest, Abraham Emerick, who was a missionary in Jamaica in the late 19th century:

“Its founder was a lunatic, named Bedward, who was suffering from religious monomania. He claimed that he had visions from God, and that the spirit of God had descended upon him and that in him the prophets were reincarnated, at one time Jonas, at another Moses, then John the Baptist. He declared that in a vision God had made known to him that the water of Hope River cleansed from diseases and sin.

home 3

Hope River

“It was rumoured that a sick woman was cured by partaking of this water. Belief in Bedward’s miraculous powers gradually grew until persons from all over the island came to get the healing waters from him and stories of wondrous cures by him were spread about. The craze grew until as many as twenty and thirty thousand Negroes used to gather every Wednesday morning along the riverbank at a place called August Town, on the Hope River.

“In the great throng were hundreds of the crippled, the deformed, lepers, the blind, consumptives and sufferers from every form of disease. At a few moments of nine, the so-called prophet would appear in flowing white robes, and with a wand in his hand, with elaborate and majestic ceremonies, he would bless the water, whereupon, these thousands of men, women and children of all ages would strip naked and jump into the water. An indescribable scene followed.”

It seems unlikely that Father Abraham Emerick would have been able to see any similarities between his own priesthood and that of Bedward. The words he uses to describe Bedward and his movement are ‘lunatic’, ‘monomania’, ‘rumour’, ‘craze’, ‘wand’. Bedward is a lunatic magician who waves his wand to attract equally crazy followers.


But all religions are ‘irrational’ to varying degrees. Dreams and visions are standard requirements. Miraculous powers come with the territory. Ask any successful televangelist. And divine haute couture is essential. No self-respecting religious leader wears ordinary clothes. Priestly garments must make a spectacular fashion statement. Flowing white robes are basic.

Bedward’s supposed lunacy cannot be measured by the religious revival he led. His Native Baptist church was normal as religions go. The real test of Bedward’s (in)sanity was that he believed in the power of black people to determine their fate.

Like many Caribbean migrants, Bedward went to Panama in 1883 to make a living. There, I believe, he became politically conscious. He returned to Jamaica in 1885 and worked on the Mona estate. In 1889, he became an elder in the Native Baptist church and, by October 1891, he gave up his job to become a full-time preacher.

The subtle account of Bedward’s life given on suggests that he was very much aware of the oppressive social and economic forces that were amassed against black Jamaicans: “Bedward assailed ministers and physicians as mercenaries for charging fees, and he prophesied the imminent end of the world. Jamaica’s privileged class feared Bedward’s heated sermons, and in 1895 the press and police framed him, accusing him of advocating insurrection.”



“The Prophet Bedward and his Church”

Though Bedward ended up in a lunatic asylum, he was perfectly lucid about racial politics in Jamaica. He’s alleged to have said, “There is a white wall and a black wall. And the white wall has been closing around the black wall: but now the black wall has become bigger than the white.”

The Jamaican elite could not tolerate a powerful leader with the huge following that Bedward attracted. His religious movement could easily have been transformed into a political force. He had to be stopped. So he was declared a lunatic.

On Emancipation Day, I visited the ruins of Bedward’s magnificent church for the unveiling of a storyboard about the site. That’s not enough. We have to teach the youth the whole story. In detail! We must emancipate Bedward from the lie of lunacy.

Those Backward Adventists

Backward-Forward-web-695x463As a born and bred Seventh-Day Adventist, I’m thoroughly ashamed of the church of my youth. To think that in the 21st century Adventists cannot agree that women are eligible for ordination as ministers! It’s completely incomprehensible in this day and age.

Admittedly, I’m no longer a member ‘in good and regular standing’, as they say. I go to church irregularly for weddings and funerals. As a child, I got enough church to last me for the rest of my life. I’m a post-Adventist but I do pay sceptical attention to what’s happening in the church: Let’s see what they’re up to now!

On some issues, the Adventist church is reasonably progressive. Education and health are top priorities. In many countries, it is the educational system that attracts members. At the elementary and secondary level, Adventist education is quite respectable. But, to be frank, at the tertiary level, it can be decidedly anti-intellectual. No questions asked.

Adventists confidently know ‘the truth’. And this is non-negotiable. If, as a young adult with an inquiring mind, you ask difficult questions, you get into trouble. Take, for instance, the problem of the ‘mission story’. Each Sabbath, we were told the story of someone from an ‘unenlightened’ culture who was dissatisfied with his or her religion.

That unhappy individual would explore other religions, seeking ‘the truth’. Inevitably, they would find it in the Adventist church. So I wondered aloud if Adventists shouldn’t also question their own religion and go searching for something better. That, of course, was a sacrilegious proposition. Adventists already had the truth so there was no point in looking further.


As a graduate student at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, I was fortunate to be offered a job at a Seventh-Day Adventist college. Those days, teaching jobs were scarce, particularly in the humanities. So I was tempted. But I wondered how I would manage in an intellectually conservative culture.

images-1I was reassured when the head of department conspiratorially told me that I didn’t need to wear anything ‘special’ for the interview. She’d anticipated that I would have been carefully considering the appropriate costume for my role as a prospective teacher at an Adventist college. As it turned out, she was pleased to have a new member of staff who had not been inbred at an Adventist institution.

But it was a challenge. One of my students from deep rural Maine refused to read fiction because it was a lie. Then there were Caribbean students from New York who had a hard time adjusting to rural life. They were happy to have a teacher who understood their culture. I once took some of them into the city to see The Harder They Come.

I was summoned by the Dean of Academic Affairs and reprimanded. It didn’t matter that I had screened the same movie on campus in a course on Caribbean culture. The issue was that students had gone to an ungodly place – a movie theatre. That was four decades ago. Things must have changed.


Gender politics is still very conservative in the Adventist church. True, women can now be ministers. But they can only be ‘commissioned’, not ‘ordained’. The distinction between commissioning and ordination is at the heart of the current debate in the church about the role of women.

It seems as if ordination requires a higher level of sanctity than mere commissioning. And women are, apparently, unable to achieve this level of holiness. Men are genetically disposed to piety, it would seem. But the evidence is disputable. I can recall whispered stories of late-night re-baptisms of ordained ministers who had fallen by the wayside.

Usually, it was a very attractive female member of the flock who magnetically drew the man of God from the path of righteousness. Of course, in some instances, the ordained minister actively put himself in the path of the attractive woman. And suffered the pleasurable consequences. Man is human and flesh is frail – especially when you have a substantial lot of it in your arms.

Seriously, though, the issue of ordaining women is not about the spiritual inferiority of women. It’s just another version of the age-old story of discrimination against women based purely on gender. But there’s a twist to the tale. North American Adventists are, in general, quite liberal about ordaining women. In fact, in 2012, church leaders in two regions voted in support of the proposal. This was seen as divisive.

Status-Quo-432x320It is Adventists in the global South who are most committed to keeping women in their place. In the Caribbean, even women believe that God does not sanction the ordination of female ministers. And young people are no less backward. A male student at a secular university quoted 1 Timothy 2:12 to make his case to me: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Adventist church started in the US. But the growth rate there is relatively slow. It is in the global South that the Adventist church continues to grow rapidly. So the vexing issue of the ordination of women will only be resolved when Adventists outside North America are good and ready. Until then, dedicated commissioned female ministers will simply have to submit to the status quo, whether or not it’s divinely ordained.