On a visit to the US some time ago, I got into quite an argument with a Jamaican who wants to come back home to live one of these days. This is a man who truly loves his homeland. One of the clearest signs of his passion for Jamaica is this truly spectacular garden sculpture on his front lawn.
It’s a map of the island, at least 10 metres long, with rivers and hills and valleys and signposts. The works! It’s a remarkable tribute to yard. I wonder what his neighbours think about this arrogant display of insular pride. Not that their opinion would matter to him. After all, it’s his yard. And his Jamaica!
So hear how the argument started. The gentleman of the house announces that he’s getting ready to send a gift of money to the Bustamante Hospital for Children. He’d solicited contributions from Jamaicans living in the US. Then he begins to ‘mouth’ one of his friends for not making a donation.
FOR THE CAUSE
He next turns to me and solicits my gift for the cause. I jokingly say that I live in Jamaica and that is contribution enough. Well, as the Trinidadian comedian Paul Keens-Douglas would ask rhetorically, “Who tell me say dat?” My man is not amused. He pours out his soul. Living in Jamaica is no sacrifice. He’s a college professor and most of his peers in Jamaica are living far better than him.
Then he says, “Just look at the size of the houses for lecturers on the campus of the University of the West Indies!” He obviously hasn’t been inside many of them. Most are quite run down. The university can barely afford the upkeep of its housing stock. I beg my upset host to please not start on UWI lecturers. Many of them are living in institutional housing because they can’t do better.
And, in any case, those ‘big’ houses were not built for the natives. They were designed to attract (white) expatriates in the early days of the university. It’s only the grace of God that has blackened the campus. And as the campus got blacker, the houses got smaller. The racial politics of housing is quite visible. The natives needed to learn to ‘small up’ themselves.
TAXED TO DEATH
So my host launches a new line of attack. Guess why house prices are so high in Jamaica? It’s because Jamaicans are trying to dig out the eye of returning residents. They have no conscience and are mercilessly exploiting ‘foreigners’. I should have just agreed with him. But I don’t. I argue that the exorbitant cost of housing has little to do with returning residents.
I suggest that it’s much more basic than that. Everybody is trying to gouge out everybody else’s eye. And that includes the Government, acting under the watchful eye of the International Monetary Fund. We are being taxed to death at every turn. Then I pointed out the fact that it’s only a few people who are really living big in Jamaica.
Not many people have legal incomes that can cover the cost of the palatial residences that are as huge as the egos of their occupants. People in the know can buy their houses cash. But most of us don’t want to know what those people know. So we continue to live as best as we can. In fact, it’s only poor people who still believe in mortgages.
ACKEE TREES IN FLORIDA
All the same, my frustrated professor does have a point. Most middle-class Jamaicans living abroad cannot hope to reproduce their lifestyle in Jamaica. This might seem absurd to those of us here who can barely make ends meet. But housing is, in fact, a major problem for some returning residents.
Owning a house in the US is no guarantee that you’ll be able to afford a replacement in Jamaica. Suppose your house in the US is worth $300,000.00. You foolishly sell it and come home. Can you find a comparable house for $35,000,000.00? You’ll be lucky to get a modest town house for that price in a ‘safe’ neighbourhood.
And just think of a basic commodity like a car. This is not a luxury in the US. If, as a returning resident, you decide to bring your car home, you suddenly discover that you are not wealthy enough to import it. Its value has increased by 54 per cent, the rate of duty. True, this is much better now than in the dreadful days of 100 per cent duty on cars under 3,000cc and 260 per cent duty on cars over. But still!
As a wannabe returning resident, you do the maths and you realise that you are not wealthy enough to ever live in Jamaica again. So you settle for the occasional visit. And you smile every time you remember that ackee trees are flourishing in Florida. Home is where you can afford to live.
And, to be honest, it sometimes grieves you to think that Jamaicans still expect you to keep on sending remittances that you can hardly afford. It is they who should be sending you money so you can save up to return home. But, at core, you are a true yardie in exile. So, no matter what, you will continue to do all you can for Jamaica. From a distance!