There are conflicting accounts of who actually murdered the nameless man who used to wipe windscreens for a living in Montego Bay. The first version of the story went like this: “A man who wipes windscreens was shot and killed at the intersection of Howard Cooke Boulevard and River Bay Road in Montego Bay, St. James this evening. He attempted to wipe the windscreen of a motorist, who refused, and he spat on the windscreen. After an argument, the man was shot in the head. The body remained on the road, and traffic built up along the thoroughfare”.
Then there’s the dub version: “the police say their preliminary investigation indicates that the man was shot by an assailant on foot near the traffic lights at the intersection of River Bay Road and Howard Cooke Boulevard. The shooter is said to have made his way from the River Bay Road Fishing Beach and shot the man then escaped on foot”.
The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who read at the Calabash lnternational Literary Festival last month, gave a much-publicised talk at Oxford in 2009, titled “The Danger of a Single Story”. She focused on the troubling question of whose version of ‘truth’ really counts. Drawing on the wisdom of her culture, she challenged her audience to think about the power dynamics that determine whose story becomes history.
This is how Chimamanda put it: “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali’. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
Next to nothing
In Jamaica today, the definitive story about that man who was murdered in MoBay is quite simple: he deserved his death. Whether it was the motorist or the pedestrian who killed him, it doesn’t really matter. In this instance, the two versions of the murder are, in fact, a single story. Dangerously so.
The truth is the dead man was seen as expendable. He was just one of that large number of anonymous, unemployed young men trying to make life and work out of next to nothing. And nothing is going to come of the case. Just like that other incredible story of the enraged BMW driver who killed the schoolboy who just happened to be in the taxi that ran into the bumper of the idolized X6.
It is only in pauperised societies like ours that wiping windscreens could actually be conceived as a job, however humiliating. All cars come with windscreen wipers. A purely mechanical function is transformed into a survival strategy for hundreds of young men in Montego Bay, Kingston and many other cities across the globe.
It’s not an easy job. As a human windscreen wiper, you are constantly abused by potential ‘clients’ who simply do not want the service you are offering. You end up in a constant battle with motorists who see you as the enemy. The red light is a dependable ally, trapping all but the most reckless drivers who routinely ‘bruck stop light’.
My strategy for dealing with the problem is to stay far from the intersection as I approach a red light. I crawl as slowly as I can, praying for the light to change. By the time the ‘yutes’ realise I’m stalling and rush to pounce on me, my prayer is usually answered and I ‘swips’ right past them.
I do understand the frustration of that motorist who didn’t want his windscreen wiped – or, more likely, smeared up with soapy water. But if the first version of the single story is to be believed, murder is an act that only a deranged person could contemplate, let alone bring himself to commit, in these circumstances.
It is unfathomable that a little spit could bring down such a deadly judgment. After all, the function of the windscreen is precisely to protect the motorist from fluids of all types, including spit. All you have to do to get rid of the unwelcome moisture is to turn on the ‘real-real’ wiper.
Of course, it’s not the spit but the diss that’s the cutting issue. How dare a mere wiper of windscreens think that he could show contempt for a motorist? He ought to know his place as a non-person. After all, he is nothing but a windscreen wiper – an inanimate object. For him to harbour feelings of superiority and, worse, to express them by spitting, is a clear sign of rising above his station in life. He must be cut down.
I think all applicants for gun licenses should undergo mandatory psychological testing. There must be some way to weed out the pathological types who have limited self-control and who will get into a murderous rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, there are lots of illegal firearms circulating in Jamaica and their owners (or renters) operate with total disdain for the system.
But I have a feeling that not even the most hard-hearted outlaw gunman would shoot a youth in his head because he spat on the windscreen of his car. This murder seems to be about rank class prejudice. We have to find a sustainable solution to the chronic problem of unemployed young men. As the poor get poorer, more and more youths will find themselves on the streets hustling to survive. Shooting them in the head is not an option in a supposedly civilised society.