‘I Have Outlived My Penis’

Ralph Thompson on the Calabash stage

That’s the far-from-flaccid opening line of the poem Ralph Thompson performed on the open mike at the Calabash International Literary Festival, held two weekends ago in Treasure Beach. The calabash was full to the brim and running over with all sorts of literary delicacies. And some delightfully indelicate offerings as well.

Rigor mortis of the penis is not exactly the kind of stiffness the average Jamaican man advertises. Most men who can’t stand firmly on their third leg tend to cunningly conceal that fact. By the time the deceit is uncovered, it’s usually too late for the disappointed partner to withdraw strategically. Some pretense at resuscitation must be made, however futile.

But, of course, Ralph is no ordinary man. He’s a poet. And he’s licensed to form the fool. The poet often wears a mask and speaks out of both sides of the mouth. You can’t assume that he or she is speaking autobiographically. No self-respecting Jamaican man, poet or not, would publicly declare, especially in front of a huge audience, that he, personally, is suffering from penile failure. Fun is fun and joke is joke. A confession of that delicate nature would definitely be taking a limp joke too far.

No lead in the pencil

My suspicion that Ralph was putting us on was confirmed when one of his friends (who must remain nameless) gleefully told me that it was he who had given Ralph that potent opening line. That may be true. But Ralph turned the single sentence into a witty poem. His punchline was deadly: writing had become a substitute for sex. The penis as pencil – with or without lead! Retooling becomes high art.

Willie Nelson

As it turns out, the confession of the death of the member is a clear case of ‘thief from thief, Massa God laugh’. A quick Google search revealed that the joke is a Willie Nelson original:

My nookie days are over

My pilot light is out

What used to be my sex appeal

Is now my waterspout.

With a name like Willie, Nelson must have taken firm measures all his life to ensure that his namesake remained lively. But, alas, not all ends come good. So even if it’s only tongue in cheek, inevitably it’s time for true confession. All the same, Nelson’s willie cannot be taken at face value. Like Ralph’s, it seems to be just lying low, waiting to spring poetically to life.

‘Di world no level’

What’s good for the poet should be good for the DJ too. But ‘jackass seh di world no level’. And it’s true. Every ‘chune’ a DJ chants is interpreted as a literal statement of fact by dim-witted cynics. Unlike the poet, the DJ is not allowed to wear a mask and play roles. So Buju Banton sings a humorous song about sending a driver to ‘drop this arizona round a Albamarle’. And it becomes a true confession of the artiste’s involvement in drug trafficking!

Bruce Golding

Bruce Golding, the driver whose licence has now been revoked, chose to ride the ‘riddim’ of Buju’s hit. It became a very popular Jamaica Labour Party campaign song. Nobody in the party seemed to be bothered by the song’s ‘criminal’ message. Driver was taken for what it was: a clever song about the trade in ganja, a widely used recreational drug. Admittedly, for Rastafari, ganja is ‘creational’, infusing them with divine energy.

Peter Tosh, like many reggae artistes such as Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer who have been imprisoned for possession of ganja, made a lifelong plea for decriminalisation:

Doctors smoke it, nurses smoke it

Judges smoke it, even the lawyer too.

So you’ve got to legalise it,

And don’t criticise it

Legalise it, yeah, yeah,

And I will advertise it.


The high point of the Calabash festival for me was hearing Ronnie Kasrils reflect on his extremely risky work as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1960. In his memoir, Armed and Dangerous, published in 1993, he writes about what it meant for him, as a white South African, to participate in the freedom struggles of black people. He also wrote a biography of his wife, Eleanor, who shared his lifelong commitment to social justice. He called it The Unlikely Secret Agent.

Kasrils also talked about the role of reggae artistes like Peter Tosh in chanting down apartheid. We sometimes forget the global impact of our artistes who are often dismissed at home as mere criminals.

That’s precisely why Justine Henzell, who has inherited the film-making genes of her father, Perry, is producing a documentary for Jamaica 50 in which she includes coverage of reggae across the world, in the spirit of the iconic movie The Harder They Come.


It was the Jamaican High Commission in South Africa that put Justine in touch with the hugely popular selector, Admiral, whose African Storm sound system plays every Thursday in Soweto. He was invited to clash with a local Treasure Beach selector, Andrew, at Cala-Clash  which is always a big hit at the literary festival.  ‘Admiral mash up di place.’  The week after Calabash, he was a guest selector at Stone Love.

This really is a small world. Kwame Dawes went to a conference in South Africa where he met Ronnie Kasrils. He was completely absorbed by the life story of this remarkable man. When Ronnie heard of Kwame’s Jamaican roots, he told him that his son, Andy, had been invited to Jamaica for a literary festival.  It was Admiral. Kwame immediately invited Ronnie to come as well.

Andy Kasrils grew up in exile in London and discovered reggae through his Jamaican friends. In 1987, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the ANC liberation army ‘MK’ in Angola. On his return to South Africa, he started a dancehall show on the Voice of Soweto community radio and has not looked back. By the time I got around to buying Ronnie’s book on his wife, he’d left the festival. So I asked Admiral to sign it for me. He was most amused when I explained the meaning of our proverb, ‘If you can’t catch Kwaku, yu catch him shirt.’

Pricks of conscience/ Conscience a bite

Source: Associated Press

In this bilingual blog, Jamaica Woman Tongue, I translate into Jamaican the column I write each week in English for the Sunday Gleaner.  On the rare occasions that I write for the newspaper in Jamaican, I’ll translate the column into English.

Earlier this year, I wrote a column, “Reading and Writhing,” in which I focused on the difficulties many Jamaicans have reading Jamaican. I reproduce that column in this post.  I hope that by reading this blog regularly many Jamaicans will become literate in our mother tongue.

I plan to expose readers to the specialist writing system for the Jamaican language developed by the linguist Frederick Cassidy and refined by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, headed by Professor Hubert Devonish.

This week, for the Jamaican translation of the English text, I use what I call a ‘chaka-chaka’ writing system for the Jamaican language.  That compound word, ‘chaka-chaka’ comes from the Ewe language of Ghana – tsaka, meaning to mix, to be mixed.  The Dictionary of Jamaican English defines chaka-chaka as “disorderly, irregular.”

My chaka-chaka system is based on the disorderly ‘conventions’ of English spelling.  At first, some readers will find it easier to read than the specialist writing system.  Once you become familiar with the custom-made system, I bet you’ll change your mind.

Conscience a bite

Is long time now mi sight seh yu ha fi send pikni go a church regular fi gi dem protection gainst all kind a bogus religion dem mighta pick up when dem grow big.  Is like yu ha fi a vaccinate dem soul. Pikni weh no get injection naa go able fi put up resistance.  Dem a go end up a join all sort a spirit cult.  From dem a go ‘church’ – no matter which one – dem a go build up dem immune system.

If yu a lickle pikni, an big people tell yu Bible story bout good angel weh live inna heaven an bad angel weh live inna hell, yu naa go tink notn bout dem mek-up Hollywood flim dem weh a deal wid out-a-space creature.  From yu get yu injection, yu naa go see no flying saucer.  Yu naa go get no night vision.   Yu just cool wid yu regular church runnings.

Unfortunately, di vaccination fi yu body not so reliable like di one fi yu soul.  Last August, di Rastafari Millennium Council put on one symposium an mi learn someting weh surprise mi.  Some Rasta very sceptikle bout vaccination.  An dem feel seh govament a persecute dem.  Rasta pikni kyaan go a govament school if dem no vaccinate.

Rasta inna good company pon disya issue.  George Bernard Shaw, one Irishman weh write nuff play, im never mek fun fi talk im mind.  Im seh yu might as cheap aks a butcher if ital food have any use if yu a go aks a doctor if vaccination a good sinting.  Dis joke woulda sweet Rasta cau yu done know dem defen ital livity.

Yu see dis must-an-bound vaccination business.  It cause nuff contention.  Some people a gwaan like seh a di god truth seh vaccination a go save pikni from get sick.  But a nex set a people just doan sing dat deh Sankey.   Tek for instance Rick Rollins.  Im a one American weh kip up big fight gainst vaccination.  Im claims seh a di measle, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination mek im pikni turn bafan.

Same like Mr. Shaw, Mr. Rollins im come up wid a good piece a lyrics fi fight down di don gorgon dem.  Im seh if yu a go aks di public health authority fi investigate if vaccination have anyting fi do wid bafanism, den yu might as well aks di tobacco company dem fi investigate if smoking have anyting fi do wid lung cancer.

If it no go so . . .

Even di medical doctor dem a talk out bout vaccination. Dr. Robert Mendelsohn write two cantankerous book, Confessions of a Medical Heretic an How to Raise a Healthy Child . . . In Spite of Your Doctor. Im mek a point bout di money-making side a vaccination:  If a pikni-doctor shoulda talk out gainst vaccination an box bread outa a nex doctor mouth, it woulda come een like seh Father a admit seh di pope can mek mistake.

Facts is facts.  Di doctor dem gwaan like dem join Lodge.  An if yu not a member, yu naa no chat. Yu kyaan challenge di doctor dem.  Dem tek up fi one another.  If yu convince seh vaccination no good fi yu pikni, dem mek yu feel like seh yu no know weh yu a talk bout.   If yu seh, ‘if it no go so, it nearly go so,’ dem seh yu a eedyat. An di high an mighty doctor dem turn gainst any doubting Thomas weh raise question bout di effect a nuff vaccination, one top a one, pon di lickle baby dem.

Rasta no ha notn gainst immunisation.   Wat dem tink is dat di doctor dem shoulda put emphasis pon natural protection.  Rasta claims seh di evidence di deh fi support di argument dat breastfeeding gi protection gainst nuff disease all like meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus an polio.

A vaccination a di problem.  An when yu see weh di word come from, yu do understand di shituation.  A animal product use fi mek di vaccine dem. Vaccination come from Latin ‘vacca’.  Dat mean cow.   Yes.  Di fos vaccine develop from cowpox virus.

So a how Rasta get round di problem a must-an-bound vaccination?  Wa dem do is put dem pikni inna private school.  Dem deh school no so strict bout vaccination like di government school dem.  But dis no suit plenty parents cau dem just kyaan afford di big school fee.

Di Ganja Commission

Fifty year aback, University College of the West Indies (UCWI) did publish di Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Arthur Lewis, di principal, did send a letter to di Premier, Norman Manley.  Im warn im seh di movement large, an trouble dis a bubble.  Rasta problem supposen fi get priority treatment.

Since dem deh time, Rasta step up inna life.  Nobody naa call Rasta no cult.  Rasta a bonafide religion all over di world.  An whole heap a people who a no no Rasta tek up Rastafari consciousness an livity.  All like ital food. Ganja now, dat is anodder story.  By di way, mi wonder wa happen to di report from di Ganja Commission.  Mi hope it no wrap up inna ‘rizzla.’

To tell di truth, inna di 1960’s yu done know seh some suspish old people mighta well an did waan find one vaccine fi immunise dem pikni gainst Rasta.  All yu a hear a di dread lamention, ‘Guess who turn Rasta?’  And yu turn Rasta inna Jamaican, not English.  From yu start turn to Africa dat mean yu no civilise again.  Yu turn savage.  An from yu a locks, dat directly mean seh yu head an yu tongue knot up-knot up.

Inna dem ya time, dreadlocks a style an fashion. Yu coulda seet pon Zahra Redwood, Miss Jamaica Universe fi 2008.  She just royal.  She never come een high like Yendi Phillips inna di international competition.

But still for all, di whole a Jamaica proud a her.  She show di world seh her knotty head beautiful kyaan done:  inside an outside.

Ministry a Education shoulda gi priority treatment to di case a must-an-bound vaccination a Rasta pikni.  After all, pikni entitle to education, same like how govament a seh dem entitle to vaccination.  Rasta no suppose fi ha fi a choose between education an health fi dem pikni.  Dat deh wicked choice shoulda bite di whole a wi conscience.


















Pricks of Conscience

I’ve long come to the conclusion that regular injections of religion in early childhood provide excellent immunisation against spiritual infection in later life. Unprotected children become vulnerable adults who are easily seduced into joining all sorts of weird cults.  Going to ‘church’ – whatever the religion – builds up your immune system.

If you grow up with sacred stories about good and bad angels who live in heaven and hell respectively, you’re not likely to get carried away by fictional Hollywood films about extra-terrestrial beings. Religiously inoculated adults don’t tend to see flying saucers.  You’ve been saved from night visions by repeated injections of ‘ordinary’ faith.

Unfortunately, earthly vaccination is not always as reliable as the heavenly kind.  Last August, the Rastafari Millennium Council put on a symposium at which I learnt a startling fact.  Some Rastafari are quite sceptical about the presumed value of medical vaccination.  And they feel persecuted by inflexible government policies that prevent unvaccinated children from attending state-run schools.

Rastafari are in excellent company on this issue.  George Bernard Shaw, the irreverent Irish playwright, once declared, ‘As well consult a butcher on the value of vegetarianism as a doctor on the worth of vaccination.’  This witticism would certainly resonate with Rastafari for whom vegetarianism is a central principle of their ‘livity.’

Compulsory vaccination is quite a contentious matter. Although the practice of vaccination is now accepted as gospel, there are non-believers who question its power to save.  The American lobbyist Rick Rollins blames the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination for his son’s autism.

Like Shaw, Rollins uses a clever analogy to challenge received wisdom: ‘Asking the public health community to investigate the role of vaccines in the development of autism is like asking the tobacco industry to investigate the link between lung cancer and smoking.’

Conspiracy theorists

Even medical doctors offer their dissenting voices to the public debate on vaccination. Dr. Robert Mendelsohn is the author of two provocative books, Confessions of a Medical Heretic and How to Raise a Healthy Child . . . In Spite of Your Doctor. He highlights the tricky business of the economics of vaccination:  “For a pediatrician to attack what has become the ‘bread and butter’ of pediatric practice is equivalent to a priest’s denying the infallibility of the pope.”

Indeed, the medical profession is a lot like a Masonic Lodge.  It’s a secret society that excludes the uninitiated.  So doctors often close ranks against ordinary citizens who challenge the authority of the experts. Parents who have reservations about vaccinating their children are made to feel like conspiracy theorists.  Turncoat doctors who express doubt about the safety of giving numerous vaccinations in quick succession to young children are cast out of the fold.

Rastafari don’t object to immunisation on principle.  Instead, they believe that more emphasis should be placed on natural means.  They argue that there is good evidence to support the claim that breastfeeding provides protection against a range of diseases such as meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus and polio.

It’s vaccination that’s the problem.  The origin of the word confirms one of the major objections: the use of products derived from animals.   Vaccination comes from the Latin word ‘vacca’, meaning cow.   In fact, the first vaccine was developed from the cowpox virus.

So how do Rastafari get around the problem of compulsory vaccination?  One solution is enrolling children in private schools that tend to be less rigid about compliance than government institutions.  But this not a viable solution for many parents who simply cannot afford the high school fees.

The Ganja Commission

Half a century ago, the Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica was published by the University College of the West Indies (UCWI).  In a letter to the Premier, Norman Manley, the principal, Arthur Lewis, warned that “The movement is large, and in a state of great unrest.  Its problems require priority treatment.”

Since those days of ‘great unrest’, the Rastafari faith has gained respectability.  The mass movement is no longer dismissed as a cult but recognised globally as a religion.  Some Rastafari beliefs and cultural practices have become mainstream, particularly eating ‘ital’.  The ritual smoking of ganja has not.  Incidentally, I wonder what has become of the findings of the Ganja Commission.  I hope the report isn’t wrapped in a ‘rizzla.’

It is true that in the 1960’s suspicious parents might have wished for a vaccine to immunise their children against the seductions of Rastafari.  The dreaded lament, ‘Guess who turn Rasta?’ was a frequent cry.  And you became Rasta in Jamaican, not English.  Turning to Africa meant that you had turned away from civilisation to savagery.  Dreadlocks were a clear sign of knots in the head and the tongue.

These days, dreadlocks make a beautiful fashion statement, as was demonstrated with such elegance by Zahra Redwood, Miss Jamaica Universe 2008.  She didn’t do nearly as well as Yendi Phillips in the international competition but all of Jamaica is still very proud of her.  She showed the world the spectacular beauty of her knotty head:  inside and out.

Conscientious objection to vaccination ought to be given ‘priority treatment’ by the Ministry of Education.  After all, the right to education is as legitimate as the presumed right to vaccination.  Parents shouldn’t have to choose between the education and the health of their children.  That dilemma should prick our collective conscience.


Reading and Writhing

Most Jamaicans can’t easily read and write in our mother tongue.  Call it broken English, dialect, patois, patwa, Creole, Jamaican Creole or just plain Jamaican.  It doesn’t make a difference.  As the poet Mutabaruka puts it so wittily, ‘the language we talk, we can’t write; and the language we write, we can’t talk.’  Some of us just can’t face the Jamaican language on the page.

Two of my recent columns, written mostly in Jamaican, have provoked a fair bit of debate.  The subject, not just the language, upset some readers who seem to be quite prepared to forgive and forget the scandalous conduct of politicians.   They just want to ‘move on.’  Where to?  I fear that it may be to a state called ‘more of the same.’

For other readers, the language itself was very much the problem.  I’d composed a fictional prayer on behalf of the prime minister, ‘Dear God, is me, Bruce.’  I speculated that, in his moments of repentant anguish, the PM would pour out his heart to God in his mother tongue, not English.  And God would have to answer in Jamaican to prove that it’s a divine language.

An aggrieved reader responded on the Gleaner’s blog:  ‘Why write like this? I started reading and had to stop.  I speak Jamaican dialect anytime, anywhere so I don’t have a problem with it.  However, it’s not something I want to read in a Gleaner article.’  This reader obviously thinks that the Jamaican language has no business being written down; and certainly not in The Gleaner, a newspaper with pedigree, presumably, unlike that unmentionable, ‘hurry come up’ tabloid.

Incidentally, the word ‘pedigree’ has quite ordinary origins.  It comes from Middle French, ‘pie de grue,’ meaning ‘foot of the crane.’  The branches of the crane’s foot resemble the spreading lines of genealogical charts.  Like the Jamaican expression, ‘crab toe,’ which we use to describe illegible handwriting, the French ‘pedigree’ takes an image from nature to represent the markings of culture.

Corrupt language

I’ve corrected the spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors in the quotes from that dismissive reader cited above:  ‘Columnists should think about their audience when they are writing.  If Carolyn is trying to reach out to the ordinary Jamaicans, I know for sure they will not waste their time to read this as they will not be able to follow it. This is absolute rubbish. Your intellect should tell you that the Jamaican dialect\Patois is effective only when someone is listening to another person speaking it.  This article is suited for one of your university lectures or some other public forum where you are required to deliver a speech, definitely not The Gleaner.’

But all of that is simply not true.  Jamaican has long been a written language, as illustrated so beautifully in two books edited by the Jamaican linguists Jean D’Costa and Barbara Lalla.   Voices in Exile, published in 1989 by the University of Alabama Press, gives examples of written Jamaican from as early as the 18th century.  Language in Exile, which appeared a year later, is sub-titled Three Hundred Years of Jamaican Creole.  Quite a long time.

Furthermore, many so-called ‘ordinary Jamaicans’ actually take pleasure in reading and writing in their mother tongue, as we see on the internet.  It is the extraordinary Jamaicans who have trouble with the language.  About two decades ago, Morris Cargill wrote a contemptuous newspaper column entitled ‘Corruption of language is no cultural heritage.’  I decided to write a response using the ‘corrupt’ language.

Too often, we ‘defend’ Jamaican in English, playing right into the hands of those sceptics who assume that Jamaican is not a language of analytical thought.   I decided to use the specialist writing system for the Jamaican language developed by the linguist, Frederick Cassidy. Instead of using the notoriously irregular writing system of English, he designed a phonetic system.

Cargill, trained as a lawyer, claimed that he ‘couldn’t make head or tail of the maze of phonetics.’   Mr. Andrew Sewell, the postman in my neighbourhood, whose head was not in his tail, could certainly find his way through the ‘maze.’  It all depends on your politics.  Mr. Sewell is a Rastaman who is committed to learning, unlike many supposedly educated people who have no real interest in scholarship.

For Mr. Sewell, the Cassidy writing system confirms the fact that Jamaican is a language quite different from English:   ‘it full di space of our real African language.’  Better yet:  ‘it ful di spies af owa rial Afrikan langgwij.’  Mr. Sewell acknowledges the African pedigree of the Jamaican language.

In anguish and pain

So why is it that so many Jamaicans can’t read and write Jamaican?  The answer is quite easy.  Our school system has failed us.  Because we don’t take Jamaican seriously – it’s seen as a language of brawling entertainment – no effort is made to teach literacy in the mother tongue. Instead, many primary school children struggle to become literate in English, a language they don’t know: reading and writhing in anguish and pain.

The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led by Professor Hubert Devonish, has taken a giant step on the long journey to prove that bilingual primary school education makes sense.  The Unit has translated English textbooks into Jamaican and a select group of primary school students has been taught literacy in both Jamaican and English.

The Ministry of Education must now ensure that every single child is given the opportunity to talk and write in both English and Jamaican.  The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, signed by UNESCO, affirms that education in one’s mother tongue is a human right.  It’s high time we start taking language rights seriously in Jamaica. Chat bout.