HAJ Building ‘Solutions’ On Sand

The policy makers at the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) clearly didn’t go to either Sunday or Sabbath school.  Or if they did, they weren’t there the week the other children were learning the chorus about wise and foolish builders:

The wise man built his house upon the rock

And the rain came tumbling down

And the floods went up

And the house on the rock stood firm.

The foolish man built his house upon the sand

And the rain came tumbling down

And the floods went up

And the house on the sand went ‘splash’!

This catchy children’s song is based on the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:24 (New Living Translation):  “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock”.  In this non-sexist translation, the ‘man’ of the King James Version, whether wise or foolish, becomes the gender-neutral ‘person’.  A very wise move.

The HAJ’s reckless policy of converting protected lands into house spots is a classic example of building on sand.  This practice is not at all sustainable.  It’s short-term thinking at its worst.  In fact, the ‘solutions’ the HAJ keeps fabricating to fix the housing shortage in the Kingston metropolitan area often create new problems. An excellent example is the ‘development’ of Long Mountain.  First it was the Long Mountain Country Club.  Now it’s the whole hillside down from the Country Club and right across from the Mona reservoir that’s at risk.

Long Mountain goes ‘splash’

Mona dam

A 2000 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Long Mountain Country Club clearly outlined the potential threats to the reservoir. There was the risk of an estimated 50% increase in surface runoff from the site.  The report warned that if the runoff got into the reservoir it could “negatively impact the water quality.”  The assessment also underscored the importance of protecting the four wells at the foot of Long Mountain which could be contaminated by the development.

Effects of soil erosion

The report documented the risk of soil erosion as a result of “removing vegetative cover to facilitate construction.”  It noted that “a build up of sediment reduces the capacity of the reservoir and could also clog pipes and drainage outlets, increasing the maintenance cost of the reservoir to the National Water Commission”.  The new development (Mona Estate, Section One) that is now being pushed by The Housing Agency of Jamaica was also the subject of that 2000 environmental impact assessment.

Again, the risk to the reservoir was highlighted:  “Additional storm water will be discharged into existing drainage channels to increase erosion on the lower slopes facing the reservoir, particularly where the extensively fractured and fragmented rock is loosely attached to the fine grain matrix and therefore, highly erodible.  From field observations, there are a number of drainage channels on the lower slope that are capable of carrying storm water laden with sediments directly into the reservoir during periods of high rainfall.”

Conflict of interest

P.J. Patterson

That warning about loose rocks running into the reservoir is a reminder that it’s not only sand that’s an unstable foundation for building.  Not all rock stands firm.  Despite all of the warnings in that 2000 EIA, both the Ministry of Housing and the developer, Robert Cartade, simply disregarded the report.  With the complicity of the Cabinet, led by former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, protected lands were degraded to make way for the Country Club.

As part of the application process for a permit for the proposed Mona Estate development, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) asked the Housing Agency of Jamaica (the developer) to commission and pay for a new Environmental Impact Assessment.  I do understand that the cost of the assessment must be borne by the applicant.  But, surely, it would be better for NEPA to manage the process rather than the developer.  This would avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest:  He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Howard Mitchell

This issue was highlighted at a meeting convened last Wednesday by the HAJ to present to the public the EIA prepared by EPN Consultants Ltd. In response to questions about the assessment, Barrington Brown, a civil engineer at EPN Consultants, referred more than once to the HAJ proposal in the first person:  ‘we’ and ‘our’ development. I suggested that this was a Freudian slip signifying collusion of the consultants with the HAJ.  I was rebuked by the self-important Chairman of the proceedings, Howard Mitchell, for speaking out of turn.  But it was worth it.

‘Wa gone bad a morning’

The Housing Agency of Jamaica is on a very slippery slope.  It appears to be operating on the ‘principle’ that ‘wa gone bad a morning cyaan come good a evening’. The latest EIA makes it absolutely clear that “the proposed development site is zoned for public open space in the 1966 Confirmed Kingston Development Order for Kingston while in the emerging Kingston and St. Andrew Development Order, 2008, the proposed zoning is public open space/conservation”.

But the two-faced assessment goes on to say that “there has been in the past a relaxation of the zoning restriction”.  So because there have been breaches in the past we should just keep on turning conservation areas into housing!  The HAJ insists that it’s only 20 acres that are to be captured this time and 200 acres will remain as public open space.

A promise is a comfort to a fool.  Soon it will be another 20 and another 20 until the whole of Long Mountain overlooking the reservoir will be one big ‘development’. Those of us who want to protect the environment for ourselves and future generations must appeal to Prime Minister Simpson Miller and her Cabinet to recapture the lands that were so carelessly given to the HAJ.  Or we will all drown when the rain comes tumbling down and the floods go up.

Cooking Up A Storm In The ‘Intellectual Ghetto’

Last Wednesday, CVM TV aired an intriguing documentary on the life of Wilmot Perkins.  The sinister title of the programme promised high drama: Unmasking ‘Motty.’  Presumably, Motty had been masquerading all along as everything but himself. The TV programme was, apparently, designed to blow the dead man’s cover.

Elaine Perkins

I did see a new side of Motty.  He was very much a self-made man.  The most memorable mental picture from the documentary is the room full of tools for the many trades Motty mastered.  According to his widow, Elaine, Motty had a passion for shaping his world with his own hands.  He built several houses from scratch, a challenge that would stump his less clever detractors.

As it turns out, all of us who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary unmasked ourselves to some degree.  Our view of Motty was defined by our own angle of approach.  D.K. Duncan was deadly.  He pulled no punches.  By contrast, P.J. Patterson was rather restrained.  Much attacked by Motty, P.J. was, nevertheless, quite gracious in his final judgment of the man.

I thought I’d behaved myself.  All the same, I ended up in trouble with Mrs. Perkins. In response to a question from the presenter, Andrew Cannon, about why the University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI) was constantly attacked by Motty, I offered this opinion:

Motty at St. Peter's College

“Well, I saw Motty as a man who didn’t get a chance to get the formal education that he wanted.  And I felt that having dropped out of ahm the seminary, and didn’t, you know he didn’t get the opportunity to go back to university, he ‘carried a little feelings’ against university-educated people.  He used to ‘throw word’ on the University of the West Indies – the intellectual ghetto.  And, you know, you don’t want to say is because he didn’t come to UWI; but he sounded like a lot of it was just ‘bad mind an grudgeful’”.

Elaine Perkins was not amused. Staunchly defending her husband’s contempt for the intellectual ghetto, this is what she had to say:  “Well if it produced her, it is indeed a ghetto.  He’s not wrong.  You know, why doesn’t she go and, you know, do some good work for her country.  She should do something worthwhile with herself.  Go and cook!”

Miss Hottas

And there I was thinking I was already cooking!  My students in the intellectual ghetto like to call me ‘Miss Hottas’.  I tell them I can’t leave all the hotness to them.  I have to keep ‘lickle fi miself’.  So I just laughed when I heard Elaine Perkins trying to relegate me to the kitchen in a most classist and un-feminist way.

But so many people have commented on what they saw as her deliberate rudeness, I felt obliged to become aggrieved.  I didn’t want to disappoint my defenders who were winding me up.  But before getting all hot and bothered, I thought I should ask Mrs. Perkins exactly what she meant by cooking.  Perhaps, she simply wanted me to have a nice diversion from intellectual work.

I called CVM TV and asked the producer of the show, Garfield Burford, to put me in touch with Mrs. Perkins. She told him she didn’t want to talk to me.  And I could write anything I felt like about her. Living with Motty must have its rewards.  You learn how not to give a damn.

So here’s how I deconstructed Mrs. Perkins’ off-the-cuff remark.  The ‘ghetto’ bit didn’t bother me.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘ghetto’ is an abbreviation of the Italian word  ‘borghetto’, meaning “the quarter in a city, chiefly in Italy, to which the Jews were restricted”.  True, the word implies discrimination.  But people who are culturally isolated often turn disadvantage into opportunity.  They are forced to become self-reliant and very creative.

Last Thursday, as I watched Kevin MacDonald’s magical documentary on Bob Marley, I kept thinking of just how many talented people have emerged from Trench Town!

That ghetto has certainly been a centre of intellectual ferment.  If the University of the West Indies could find a way to recharge and transmit the creative energies of Trench Town in its heyday, we’d definitely be cooking.

Flying past my nest

Elaine Perkins appears to have unmasked herself by sending me off to the kitchen.  Throughout the documentary, she tried to present a pretty image of Motty as a defender of poor people.  He was a heroic figure who wanted to see the underprivileged rise up to claim their rightful place in a truly democratic Jamaica.  And Mrs. Perkins’ seemed to share her husband’s love of the oppressed.

Caribbean Domestic Workers Network Launch

But her dismissive ‘go and cook’ comment could reasonably be interpreted as a sign of vexation that I had flown past my nest.  My branch of work clearly ought to be domestic service. Even so, are helpers not entitled to pass judgment on Motty? And how could I be bright enough to think I’m qualified to be a professor?  Only at a ghetto university.

For the sake of my supporters, I must defend myself against Mrs. Perkins’ charge that I’m good for nothing but cooking.  By the way, I’m a pretty good cook.  The problem I have with cooking is that the fruits of one’s labour are so quickly consumed.  You cook for half a day and it’s all over in a few minutes.

I know I’ve done ‘something worthwhile’ with myself for the three decades I’ve taught literature and popular culture at the University of the West Indies.  Just last week, at the final class for the semester on “Reggae Poetry”, I asked students what had they really learnt in the course.  One of them said, “I’ll never look at reggae the same way.”  Another said, “I didn’t know it was that deep”.  That’s good enough for me.  I’ll just keep on cooking.

National Adultery and Political Symbols

The light-headed person who came up with that provocative backdrop for the swearing-in ceremony last month of the Mayor of Montego Bay must have been under the influence:  liquor, hard drugs, politics, whatever.   He or she made a complete mockery of the national flag by blacking out the green.  This juvenile act proves that we have sunk to a new low in national politics.  Even the flag is no longer safe in the mindless colour war between orange and green fanatics.

In this particular skirmish the green party is completely innocent. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) had nothing to do with the protocol for the civic ceremony.  Blame must be placed fairly and squarely on the orange party. The People’s National Party (PNP) won the local government election and appears to have lost its head.   If the decision to decorate the civic centre with a no-green flag was taken without the knowledge of high-ranking orange officials, then the backdrop should have been immediately taken down before the start of the ceremony.

In this instance, silence definitely means consent.  By passively sitting through the ceremony, members of the orange party signalled their approval of the backdrop.  How could Mayor Glendon Harris lower himself to assume the vestments of office in front of a defaced flag?  His belated apology that ‘somebody messed up’ is simply not good enough.  That anonymous ‘somebody’ is actually the whole lot of them who proceeded with the ceremony as if the missing green was not really a grave issue.

The PNP’s apparent condoning of this vulgar display of colour prejudice, so to speak, is alarming.  It means that national symbols such as the flag have lost their power to help us rise above partisan political affiliation.  The national flag is now just like an orange or green tee shirt that party faithfuls wear to show their true political colours.

Or not.  ‘Licky-licky’ people will greedily take the tee shirts, phone cards, money and whatever other handouts are on offer from both the orange and green parties and then vote exactly as they please. They may not vote at all since some of these hangers-on are nothing but ‘waggonists’ who aren’t even registered.

‘Hardships there are’

The distasteful anti-green flag is forcing us to take a fresh look at the meaning of this national symbol.  We can no longer assume that as a society we all accept the grand idea that national pride is wrapped up in what is really just a piece of cloth. It seems as it we are quite prepared to cut up the cloth to suit our rather limited political agendas.

All the same, I must admit that I do have issues with the flag.  Mine are black not green.   The original colour symbolism of the flag is not pretty:  “Hardships there are but the land is green and the sun shineth”.  The black in the flag represents hardship.  This is not a good sign.

Fifty years ago, this colour code must have seemed quite appropriate.  Newly independent Jamaica was once a slave colony.  And the legacy lingers.  Over many generations, our people have, indeed, endured great hardship.  The elite in the society who haven’t suffered very much were the ones who took it upon themselves to create our national symbols.

I would bet my last devalued dollar that nobody consulted the masses of the people about what they thought the colours of the flag should symbolise; or what would be an appropriate national motto.  It was business as usual for the elite.  They simply mimicked their European colonisers.  For them, black was the colour of evil, death, ignorance, savagery etc. – the complete opposite of white, which meant goodness, life, knowledge, civilisation etc.

There was a little complication that the elite clearly did not take into account. The majority of the Jamaican people are black.  But not invisible.  How could the elite have failed to see this? Or, perhaps, they did and just didn’t give a damn. That’s how they came up with their colour-blind national motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’.  Jamaica in their eyes was not a predominantly black society; it was multiracial.  The black in the flag could not possibly symbolise the majority of the people.

Green and Black Power

Rex Nettleford

I thought the meaning of the black in the flag was changed in the 1990s as a result of the work of the committee that was set up to examine national symbols and national observances, chaired by Rex Nettleford.  The recommendation of the committee was that black should now symbolise ‘strength and resilience’.  The committee was not courageous enough to go all the way to the blackness of the people.

But on a 2009 Jamaica Information Service (JIS) webpage, ‘This is Jamaica’, the old meaning of black is very much in evidence.  Is the JIS webpage out of date?  Or have we gone back to the old symbolism? In the 21st century, we cannot afford to keep thinking that black is hardship. We cannot remain imprisoned in old models of identity.

And we simply cannot adulterate the meaning of the green in the flag. One of my favourite Reader’s Digest jokes goes like this:  Children learning the Ten Commandments in Bible school were given picture cards each week illustrating the law.  Many parents anxiously awaited the illustration for ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’.  They were relieved to see a farmer pouring water into a bucket of milk.  Adultery.  Adulteration.  Watering down.

 We cannot allow the green in the flag to be appropriated by the JLP and devalued by the PNP. It’s far more potent.  Green represents the fertility of the land; it symbolises the creativity of our people:  JLP, PNP and every other P.  Green is a promise of regeneration.  Green is the new black.

LIME In A Very Sour Pickle

Tony Rebel

BEFORE LISTENING to the lyrics of Potential Kidd’s song Yah So Nice, I assumed from the title that ‘yah’ meant Jamaica. I figured that the song was an echo of Tony Rebel’s big tune, Sweet Jamaica:

Help mi big up Jamaica

The land of wood and water

The system might no proper

But wi love the vibes, the food and the culture.

Woh, can’t you see

The beauty of this country?

Mi never know, a serious thing

Until mi reach a foreign.

Seh wat a nice place fi live

Sweet Jamdown

Di only problem is dollars nah run.

As it turns out, Potential Kidd’s ‘yah’ is located in another territory. It’s a land of wood and moist valleys and it lies at the intersection of a woman’s legs. Yah So Nice is actually all about sexual intercourse, particularly the DJ’s fixation on female genitalia. This is not a surprising theme in dancehall lyrics. But there are a few unusual images. Potential Kidd compares his sexual encounter to religious conversion: “A yah so nice, mi tink a God a save me”.

Especially on Easter Sunday, some saintly souls will surely consider those lines sacrilegious. But ecstasy, whether religious or sexual, is at core a form of rapture – being carried away out of the body. In fact, the English word rapture comes from the Latin raptura meaning ‘seizure, rape, kidnapping’. In English, the connotations of the word are not at all rapacious.

Potential Kidd seems to be caught in a state of perpetual amazement. Apparently, the inexperienced DJ is not accustomed to having intercourse – whether verbal or sexual – with women who are both physically attractive and literate:

Baby skin clean a dat amaze me

Wat a girl body right

A dat amaze me

She can read and write

A dat amaze me

Clean and dirty versions

Out of the blue come the truly amazing lyrics that have put LIME in a pickle for promoting ‘Yah So Nice’: “Before mi turn a b—-y man/Mi prefer turn a raper”. Did no one at LIME listen to these lyrics before selecting Potential Kidd and ‘Yah So Nice’ for an advertising campaign targeting high-school students? It is true that these offensive lines are edited out of the ‘clean’ version. But since the ‘dirty’ version is easily accessible on the Internet, the distinction between the two is purely academic.

To be fair to Potential Kidd, his statement shouldn’t be taken out of context as a straightforward promotion of rape. It is a hypothetical situation he imagines in which rape is conceived as the lesser of two evils. Socialised in Jamaica, he has been brought up to believe that homosexuality is the worst possible fate that could befall him. Even worse than becoming a ‘raper’. And we all know where that fear of homosexuality comes from: straight from the Old Testament. Potential Kidd’s choice of the word ‘turn’ suggests another kind of conversion, definitely not salvation by God. This ‘turn’ seems to be the possibility that a heterosexual man could be forced to take a turn to homosexuality in rapacious circumstances beyond his control.

Backward rape law

At a time when the rape of women and girls is such a grievous issue in Jamaica, Potential Kidd’s lyrics cannot be taken lightly. Any suggestion that rape is an option must be condemned. But we cannot forget that men are also potential victims. The World Health Organisation defines rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration – even if slight – of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object”.

Not surprisingly, Jamaican law does not acknowledge this all-inclusive definition of rape. Our rather backward position is that rape is frontal abuse. The Joint Select Committee that was established to consider amendments to the Offences Against the Person Act decided that the definition of rape should not be changed.

This is how the chairman of the committee, A. J. Nicholson, put it in an RJR report on February 14, 2007, posted on the UNIFEM website: “Leave rape as it is, leave it as is. Man and woman and only in a certain way. The penalty or penalties for the other offences are all going to be severe, so it wouldn’t matter of (sic) you call it fish and chips or bread and butter, whatever name you give to it”.  A.J. Nicholson’s use of innocuous food imagery to describe grave offences against the person is just as surprising as Potential Kidd’s disturbing language of rape.

Stuck with another monopoly

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Cable and Wireless enjoyed a monopoly in the Jamaican telecommunications market. The company didn’t need to resort to dancehall culture to sell its products. Potential customers were forced to beg and beseech to get telephone service. Then came the brave new world of cellphones. That market was also monopolised by Cable and Wireless. Customers had to pay an arm and a leg for cellphone service. Finally, the monopoly was broken with the arrival of Digicel.  

Cable and Wireless, now rebranded as LIME, is holding on to less and less market share. And so, the company is desperately grabbing on to any wire to save itself. It tried to hitch on to Mr Clifton Brown’s fleeting notoriety, but still ‘canna cross it’. And now Potential Kidd’s lyrics have turned out to be not so nice.

LIME’s best dancehall bet is Damian Marley, the company’s newest ambassador. The only potential issue with ‘Junior Gong’ is a chronic Rastafari preoccupation: in the words of his father, ‘Got to have kaya now’. That’s a small price to pay in the telecommunications war. And LIME really does need to win back some of the market. Or we’ll be stuck with another monopoly. And we’ll be right back to where we started: ‘hold down an tek weh’.

Is The GSAT A Ponzi Scheme?

GSAT survivors

LET’S FACE It. The Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) isn’t just about measuring the academic accomplishments of primary school students. The test is a clear sign of the failure of our educational system to make adequate provisions for all children to access high-quality secondary education.

A ministry of education paper, ‘What is the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT)?’, admits that there is a serious problem with ‘the system’: “One challenge faced by the process is the public perception that students are not ‘placed in a preferred school’. Upon examination of the system it becomes clear that the ministry’s ability to place students in their preferred schools is dependent on the number of places available in each school, as well as the number of students selecting that school.”

It was P.J. Patterson who famously defined Jamaican politics as “the fight for scarce benefits and political spoils carried on by hostile tribes which seem to be perpetually at war”. P.J.’s vivid imagery of war could just as easily be applied to our educational system. Last month, approximately 44,000 students took the GSAT. They are battling for 45,324 secondary school places.

Jamaica College

Those ‘objective’ figures suggest that there are more than enough places for all potential secondary school students. No scarce benefits. But there’s a not so subjective subtext that must be taken into account. Certain schools are ‘preferred’ precisely because parents know that some secondary schools are much better equipped than others. And most students will not get into their parents’ preferred school.

Hampton High School

After reading the GSAT paper on the ministry’s website, I called the Student Assessment Unit to get more data. The staff member to whom I spoke was very helpful. I learned that last year the first choice of approximately 19,000 of the 44,000 GSAT candidates was one of just 15 ‘preferred’ schools across the island.

On average, each of these schools can accept only about 500 grade-seven students each year, for a total of 7,500 places. If you can pass GSAT maths, you will quickly figure out that 11,500 disappointed applicants (about 60 per cent) failed to get into these ‘preferred’ schools.

Olympic GSAT training

In a culture of scarce benefits and educational spoils, it’s not just the academically fit who survive. There are other factors that determine performance. In the war for places in ‘good’ schools, the wealthy usually beat the poor. Preparing children to take the GSAT is quite an expensive business. And it is, in fact, a business for the many service providers.

Take, for instance, GoGSAT which outlines payment options on its website: “GoGSAT offers service at a Bronze, Silver and Premium service level”.  Like the Olympics. GoGSAT’s choice of names for the levels of its service cleverly acknowledges the fact that preparing for the GSAT is an extreme ‘sport’. It requires the discipline and endurance of an Ironman Triathlon athlete. Just ask any child (or parent) who has survived the rigorous training programme for the GSAT.

And GoGSAT’s fees are not cheap. At the top end of the scale, students can get personalised online tutorials for J$12,000.00 per month. The generic packages are, of course, cheaper. The rate for the one-month premium package is US$45.00. But it does get more economical the more months you take. For a year, it’s $US149.00. The basic/bronze service is actually free and quite helpful, as I’ve been told.

As early as grade one, students can start preparing for GSAT with the GoGSAT service. It seems as if most students cannot pass the GSAT by simply going to school. Extra lessons are compulsory. And if you can’t afford personalised, silver or premium extra lessons, ‘yu salt’. But why should a test of the achievement of grade six students be so difficult? Shouldn’t ‘achievement’ be the outcome of six years of teaching and learning in primary school? Apparently not.

If students are forced to take ‘extra lessons’ to pass the GSAT, something must be fundamentally wrong with the primary education programme. Or with the Grade Six Achievement Test! The failure of students to ‘achieve’ cannot be dismissed as simply a matter of individual ability, or the lack of it.

Selling illusions

I am indebted to one of my friends for the brilliant insight that the whole GSAT pretence of ‘achievement’ is really a Ponzi scheme. Ponzi schemes sell the illusion that everyone can get rich by ‘investing’ in a dubious enterprise. In the case of the GSAT, the Ministry of Education is selling the illusion that all students who achieve can get into ‘good’ secondary schools.

The people who get in on the Ponzi scheme early in the game do get back their money. But those at the very bottom of the predatory feeding chain don’t stand a chance. Poor people’s children at the lowest levels of the GSAT pyramid have a very hard time collecting any benefits and spoils from the system. Most of them leave school barely literate and completely unprepared for the job market.

Wealthy people who can afford to send their children to expensive prep schools and who can pay for Olympic GSAT training are at the top of the Ponzi scheme. They will certainly get excellent returns on the money they’ve invested. Even if their children don’t get the right scores for admission into ‘good’ schools, these well-connected parents can use their influence to manipulate the system.

It’s time to ‘mash up’ the Ponzi scheme. We should abolish the GSAT and assign places to secondary school purely by lottery. If by chance an Outer City Prep School student draws the bad card of an Inner City High School, that’s that. And if the luck goes the other way, so be it. The playing field would finally be level.