Time to ban Styrofoam containers

12657408_1548330095477145_2094982700033069835_oLast month, I took part in a cleanup of the beach along the Palisadoes strip. There were about 50 of us and we collected 60 huge bags of garbage in just about two hours. We left the toilet and microwave oven that someone had deposited on the beach. What kind of person would do a thing like that?

I was really surprised at the amount of Styrofoam littering the beach. There were clean white plates that looked as if they had recently blown away before use. And then there was a whole heap of dirty Styrofoam that must have been left ages ago. A total mess.

Styrofoam is the brand name of a petroleum-based plastic that does not biodegrade. It breaks apart into bits and pieces that keep getting smaller and smaller until they turn to dust. But Styrofoam doesn’t disappear. It lingers on and on for centuries! That’s no exaggeration. You just can’t get rid of it.

So-called ‘disposable’ Styrofoam food and drink containers are not actually disposable. They are disposable only because they are thrown away after a single use. What a waste! Just think how many Styrofoam containers we dash weh every single day in Jamaica. And where do they go? To the dump, taking up valuable space.

Masses of Styrofoam containers also get away into the sea. Fish eat the Styrofoam. And we end up eating the fish. We might as well gobble down the Styrofoam container along with the food. Because the Styrofoam is already in the food chain!


I keep thinking of the good old days of the ‘shut pan’. Or ‘shet’ pan. The Dictionary of Jamaican English describes it this way: “A vessel of tin or other thin metal, cylindrical, with a cover having a flange that usually fits inside the upper edge and makes a tight closure; the cover frequently has a small fixed handle. The shut pan is chiefly used to carry food.”


Note chiefly! The Dictionary states that the shut pan was also used to catch duppies. Seriously! Talking of which, mi nearly dead wid laugh the night I went to see Patrick Brown’s ‘Duppy Whisperer’ at Centerstage. It was a benefit performance for my friend Scarlette Beharie, a vibrant theatre practitioner fighting Stage Four cancer. Scarlette made a brief appearance and told us to enjoy the show despite the serious cause. And we certainly did.

Before the play started, I got into a little situation with the mother of young woman whose hairstyle was blocking my view of the stage. She had natural hair, swept up and out into a huge ball. It was like an Afro on steroids. I gently told her that her inconsiderate hairstyle really wasn’t appropriate for the theatre, especially our makeshift venues that are not purpose-built.

The rows are all on the same level instead of being graded. And the seats are not staggered. You look directly into the ‘head back’ of the person in front of you, rather than to the side. The mother was unimpressed by my frankness and told me I was against her daughter’s hair because it was natural! I was lucky to be able to switch seats.


The shut pan for food, not duppies, was an excellent idea. It was certainly not disposable. There was no constant waste of containers. The pans had compartments stacked on top of each other that allowed food items to be kept separate. I’m not sure how these shut pans came to Jamaica. It may have been via India where they are known as tiffin boxes.

bombay-tiffin-250x250The old-time shut pan is no longer in fashion. But there are new models all over on websites like Amazon. Instead of buying cooked meals served in Styrofoam, why can’t we carry our own reusable food containers to takeaway restaurants?

Another option is to replace Styrofoam with biodegradable containers made from materials like sugar cane, wheat and corn. These are much more expensive than the cheap plastic products. But the cheapest almost always turns out to be the dearest.

There was a local company that used to manufacture truly disposable containers, facilitated by a government subsidy on imported materials. But the subsidy was cut and the cost of making the ecofriendly products was just too high. And that was the end of that.


The Palisadoes cleanup was organised by the Japan International Corporate Agency (JICA), in partnership with the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and the ‘Nuh Dutty Up Jamaica’ campaign. Cleverly billed as ‘Garbie Walkie’, the cleanup combined exercise and public service. We had a lot of fun.

As I was leaving the beach, I heard a woman say, “I don’t want to use Styrofoam ever again!” She admitted that she couldn’t say she absolutely wouldn’t. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice. Supermarkets pack fruits and vegetables in Styrofoam containers. But if enough of us decide we’re not going to buy products packed in Styrofoam, things will change. Consumers do have power.

NDUJ_logo_AW-01And as for the campaign to stop duttying up Jamaica! It’s an uphill battle to persuade some people that garbage is everybody’s business. They think that when they fling rubbish out of a bus or car, it’s no longer their problem. They are so short-sighted. That’s how you end up with a toilet on the beach. Pure crap!

Raping Virgin Territory

jamaica“Hold down an tek weh.” That’s exactly what it is. Protected lands on Long Mountain that, by law, should remain virgin territory for the benefit of all Jamaicans, for generations to come, have been captured and are about to be deflowered by the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ).

The Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) and the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) are mandated to protect conservation lands. Instead of carrying out their mission honourably, it would appear that the NRCA and NEPA have ganged up and held down the virgin so that the HAJ can have its way, back and front. It’s an all-too-familiar scenario.

images-1According to a report published in The Gleaner on Thursday, May 23, the HAJ “posted an environmental bond, valued at between $30 million and $40 million, as part of the preconditions” in order to get a permit for further ‘development’ on Long Mountain. Of course, no environmental bond would be needed if there was [sic] no threat of environmental degradation.

I refuse to use the antiquated subjunctive ‘were’ for ‘was’. I am in no mood for grammatical niceties. The environmental problems with ‘development’ on Long Mountain are decidedly not hypothetical. They are very real. All of the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for the area have clearly identified the risks. It’s not a case of ‘if’ there are going to be problems. And it’s definitely not future tense; it’s present.


images-3Just ask the leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, and his wife Juliet who are building what appears to be a fortress in Beverly Hills. They seem to know something that the rest of us don’t: Armageddon must be nigh. In the recent rains, an avalanche of stones from their property rolled downhill, propelled by the flood waters spewing from the Long Mountain Country Club into Beverly Hills and the Pines of Karachi.

Instead of feeding the aquifer, rainwater from the housing scheme runs off the hill and goes to waste, damaging roads along the way. This specific problem was forecast in the EIA for the country club that was done in 2000. But the unwelcome findings were simply ignored. And now there’s the threat of a new ‘development’ that will only compound existing environmental dangers.

12945495986xm08TThe $30m-$40m bond will, I suspect, prove completely inadequate to fix the environmental damage the new scheme will cause. It’s like those television ads promising cures for all sorts ailments. When you hear the side effects of the miracle drugs, including death, you wonder if you’re not better off with the original disease. In the case of Long Mountain, it’s even worse. The fertile land is healthy. It should be left exactly as it is. There’s no need to manufacture an environmental problem in order to try to solve it.

Furthermore, this new development below the country club is even closer to the Mona Reservoir. The 2000 EIA for both the country club and the additional 30 acres or so that are now up for grabs predicted that “[a]dditional storm water will be discharged into existing drainage channels to increase erosion on the lower slopes facing the reservoir … . 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.”


Mona Reservoir and Long Mountain

The EIA also warned that if a sewage line from the proposed development is broken, gravity will feed the waste directly into the reservoir. Even worse, the lift station for the new development is to be located right across from the reservoir. In the event of an earthquake or even a burst pipe, sewage is likely to flow freely into the reservoir. And sewage from the country club has already been flowing freely into some homes in the Pines of Karachi.


images-7The Gleaner story on the HAJ permit reports that “[t]he subdivision, which should initially have seen the development of 54 residential lots on just over 29 acres of land, came under public scrutiny more than two years ago after its upscale neighbours – the Pines of Karachi and Beverly Hills – raised concerns over how it would impact them”. That’s not the whole story. And it’s not a class issue: ‘upscale’ versus ‘downscale’. I expect that the potential investors in the new development are quite ‘upscale ‘.

The impact of ‘backlash’ development on existing communities is, indeed, an understandable concern. For example, as far as I can tell, no new access roads are going to be built for the proposed development. This will increase traffic congestion, especially since one of the access roads on the approved plan for the Long Mountain Country Club was never built. How the developer got away with it, I don’t know. In any case, Pines of Karachi and Beverly Hills have been forced to accommodate additional traffic that would have used the missing road.

images-6The much bigger picture is protecting the environment. The most recent EIA, commissioned by the HAJ, admits 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 observes 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!

images-8All is not lost. There is still one last wall of defence against the encroaching development: The Cabinet. That’s where the final decision will be taken. I hope Prime Minister Simpson Miller and her Cabinet will find the courage to halt the ravaging of Long Mountain. It all started with another PNP administration. They need to make amends. “Wat gone bad a-morning can come good a-evening.”

Changing Dirty Diapers On Earth Day

images-1Last Monday was Earth Day, and one of the big issues environmentalists took up is the foul problem of disposable diapers. We really do have to go back to the good old days of reusable cloth diapers. Remember those bright white nappies on the clothes line, fluttering in the breeze? We’ve given up on them and progressed to throwaway diapers. Sometimes, what looks like progress is pure backwardness.

Washing dirty diapers is not a pretty job, especially if you have to do it by hand. Women usually end up doing the smelly work. Men have a nasty way of getting out of unpleasant domestic duties. But when you see the statistics about the environmental impact of disposable diapers, you quickly realise that recycling diapers is the smart thing to do.

Cloth-diapers11According to an Earth Day special on YouTube, the average baby spends two and a half years in diapers, using four or more each day. This amounts to approximately 3,796 diapers per baby. If you take into account the prospect of ‘once a man, twice a child’, you also have to add adult diapers at the other end of the cycle.

It takes about half a pint of crude oil to make the plastic lining in each disposable diaper. That comes to 1,898 pints of oil and 715lb of plastic per child. The pulp of four and a half trees is needed to make the soft inner padding for two and a half years’ worth of disposable diapers. Eighteen billion disposable diapers are added to US landfills each year, and they take 500 years to biodegrade.


toilet-paper noThen there’s the cost. Reusable diapers are so much cheaper than disposables. And with the IMF breathing down our neck, we might soon have to dispose of even toilet paper. There are so many substandard brands on the market, we might as well stick to personal washcloths, the pedigree of which we can be sure about.

Seriously, though, in many cultures across the globe, water is used instead of toilet paper. It’s seen as much more sanitary. All the same, I don’t think Jamaicans are ready to give up toilet paper. But we certainly know how to ‘tun wi han mek fashion’. We’ve learnt to ‘upcycle’ newspaper, refashioning it as toilet paper. And since a lot of newsprint can quite easily be mistaken for you know what, this seems perfectly appropriate. Incidentally, newspaper with lots of coloured ink is not as good for the bum as classic black and white. Be observant.

In the brilliant documentary Songs of Redemption, set in the General Penitentiary, one of the inmates shows how newspaper is converted into a toilet. You squat, do your thing, and wrap it all up. This disturbing, yet hopeful film was part of the Africa World Documentary Film Festival at the University of the West Indies, which ended on Sunday.  More than 20 films were shown over 4 days and admission was free.  The festival will be back next year, thanks to the University of Missiouri, Saint Louis.


coal_w304Another devastating environmental issue is deforestation. No, this is not another warning about the proposed ‘development’ on Long Mountain. I hope sanity has prevailed over greed and those protected lands will remain undisturbed. The burning issue is charcoal. Why are we cutting down our forests to make charcoal for export? It would be bad enough for our own consumption. Why are we selling our children’s future to foreigners? Soon, Jamaica will be the land of dead wood and no water.

Then there’s the threat of mining in Cockpit Country, the heartland of Jamaica. It’s not over. A prospecting licence for an area that includes Accompong has not yet been revoked. There’s also the tricky business of defining the boundaries of Cockpit Country. It’s a vast expanse of land, about 500 square miles. If the ‘experts’ have their way, a relatively small area will be defined as ‘Cockpit Country’. This will make it quite easy to actually mine in Cockpit Country under the guise that this isn’t Cockpit Country, after all.

And as for our beaches! They are now disposable, just like dirty diapers. In Negril, morass has been drained, seagrass has been dug out, mangroves have been destroyed and sand has been eroded – all in the name of progress. We are now trying to ‘glue’ the sand back together with ShoreLock, an imported product. It’s a perverse cycle: cut down the trees and export coal; destroy the beaches and import artificial sand.


The environmental problems are also out at sea. Jamaica is one of the most overfished countries in the Caribbean. Proverbial wisdom comfortingly claims, “Massa God fish can’t done.” But this is one proverb we have to take with much more than a grain of salt. The Jamaican fishing industry is, in fact, ‘done-ing’ because we haven’t done enough to conserve our fishing grounds.

Dr. Esther Figueroa

Dr. Esther Figueroa

My friend, Dr Esther Figueroa, has made several compelling documentary films on environmental issues in Jamaica. They should be used in schools. I won’t say like Vybz Kartel’s book. Incidentally, there were 75 comments in response to that column, and I would bet my last sprat that not even five of those readers who questioned my sanity have read the book.

Dr Figueroa’s troubling films Massa God Fish Can Done andProtecting Pedro focus on fishery conservation. She’s also done an engaging film, Cockpit Country is Our Home, in which the flora and fauna of this magnificent place assume human form and talk about their endangered habitat. Esther also did an unsettling documentary on the ruination of Falmouth: wetlands dumped up, mangroves destroyed and the coral reef systematically smashed to make way for cruise ships. All of these videos and more are on YouTube, as you will see below.

Earth Day can’t be reduced to a solitary day of reflection on our ecosystem. Every single day should be earth (and sea) day. Deforestation, overfishing, sand erosion, pollution of rivers, destruction of mangroves and coral reefs, mining on protected lands – these must all become our everyday concerns. Environmental issues are not easily disposable. Like wasteful diapers, they don’t just simply biodegrade.

NEPA Selling Off Jamaica’s Future

The ‘P’ in NEPA certainly does not stand for ‘Protection’.  It’s ‘Planning’.  And it looks as if the National Environment and Planning Agency is planning to let the Housing Agency of Jamaica (HAJ) sell off as much protected land as ‘developers’ want.   NEPA doesn’t seem to know that protecting the environment should actually be high on its agenda.

On Tuesday, October 2, NEPA called a meeting at the HAJ to advise that it has approved plans to chop down the whole hillside from the Long Mountain Country Club all the way down to the Pines of Karachi – for house lots.  The tag line of the HAJ is “Building Jamaica.  One Community at a time”.  In the case of Long Mountain, it’s more like, “Tearing down Jamaica.  One hillside at a time”.

Long Mountain Country Club

The Long Mountain Country Club should never have been approved.  But greed often takes precedence over commonsense.  The 2000 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project identified grave risks.  The potential threat to the Mona reservoir was foremost.

An estimated 50% increase in surface runoff from the site was likely.  If this runoff got into the reservoir it could “negatively impact the water quality.”  The four wells at the foot of Long Mountain could also be contaminated as a direct result of the development.

Mona reservoir

The report documented the risk of soil erosion as a result of “removing vegetative cover to facilitate construction.”  It advised 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”.

Despite all 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 public lands were captured for the private Country Club.


 ‘Wa gone bad a morning’

The proposal that has now been approved by NEPA 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 . . . .  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.”

Long Mountain

Apparently unconvinced by that damning 2000 EIA, NEPA insisted that the HAJ commission a new environmental impact assessment.  The latest EIA concedes 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 observes 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!  Both NEPA and the HAJ are promising that it’s only 20 acres that are to be sacrificed 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’.

Both NEPA and the Housing Agency of Jamaica are on a very slippery slope.  They appear to be operating on the ‘principle’ that ‘wa gone bad a morning cyaan come good a evening’.  But is this really so?  Why can’t we stop the erosion of protected lands?  Why should the water supply of Kingston be put at risk?  So that fifty-eight lots can be sold to selfish people who simply must build their dream house on what is supposed to be public lands?

Stinking development

NEPA has stipulated conditions to be met before the HAJ can proceed with selling the lots.  The malfunctioning sewerage system at the Pines of Karachi must be fixed once and for all.   It was sewage from the Long Mountain Country Club that caused the problems further down line:  stinking development.

But at a meeting last year with citizens concerned about the impact of the new development on surrounding communities, the HAJ admitted that it needed the money from the sale of the lots to fix the sewerage system at the Pines of Karachi.  So how is this going to work?  Create a problem and fix it by creating another problem?  And who is going to enforce compliance?  NEPA?

The fifty-eight lots are all on a slope.  So if a sewage line from the site is broken, gravity will feed the waste directly into the reservoir.  Even worse, the lift station for the development is to be located right across from the reservoir.  In the event of an earthquake or even a burst pipe, sewage is likely to flow freely into the reservoir. Is this what we want?

There is also the issue of traffic congestion.  No new access roads are going to be built for the development.  Instead, dead-end roads in Beverly Hills are going to be turned into thoroughfares.  How can this be fair to residents who for over fifty years have lived in relative peace and safety?

Beverly Hills has already been forced to bear the burden of increased traffic from the Long Mountain Country Club.  Montclair Drive used to be a dead-end road.  The developer of the Country Club asked that the road to be temporarily opened up to facilitate construction.  Cartade drew a pretty picture of how the restored cul-de-sac would look:  a beautiful cut-stone wall would be the centrepiece.

  More than a decade later, there is no wall.  And the second access road on the plan for the Country Club has not been built. Residents of Beverly Hills have been hitting their head against the proverbial wall trying to enforce compliance. It looks like only Prime Minister Simpson-Miller and her Cabinet can save Long Mountain from this new wave of backlash development.  Or, God forbid, natural disaster!

Independence ‘Pin of Pride’ Made in China

ImageOnce upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway.  The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality.  Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.

Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world.  These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market.  And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home.  Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.

China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people.  Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour.  The social cost is often rather high.  It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.

Fake Memories

Image     One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’.  Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough.  Even photographs are not enough.  You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had!  I guess.

Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit.  Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.

Image      It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists.   The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out!  91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.

True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”.  The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs.  That’s the trouble with being a global language.  The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please.  And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal.  Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.

Showcasing nationalism?

Image       Jamaica is in excellent company.  You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia.  You can stay right at home.  I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica.  I’d be very happy to be proven wrong.  But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China.  I checked with the distributor.

The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.

The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.

It really does sound very good.  Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride?  Did it have to be a pin from China?  And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot.  It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.

There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica!  Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica?  Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years?  What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?

‘Might as cheap’

All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’.  It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago.  The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”.  I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.

A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park.  Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence.  I urge everyone to go and have a look.  It’s something to be really proud of.

To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good.  And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them.  At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear.  In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins.  I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.

But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride.  The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’.  They will be laughing all the way to the bank.  In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of!  And that’s rather shameful. ,

Squandering Resources On Reggae Poetry

In response to last week’s post,  ‘Passive resistance at UWI, Mona’, which was also was published in the Jamaica Gleaner, a disdainful reader who goes by the name of ‘Pauline Principle’ took a rather unprincipled position: “I am shocked that in these hard times, scarce resources are being squandered on a reggae poetry class that will bring zero value to the job market. UWI needs to review their courses before they become irrelevant. Those who want a reggae poetry class should be allowed to do this at a community centre or at an evening course but not with the aid of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Ms Principle does not appear to understand the principle that knowledge of one’s own history and culture has intrinsic value. And she seems to conceive the job market in rather limited terms. It’s singular, not plural. The diversity of opportunities in the creative/cultural industries completely escapes her. Ms Principle clearly has a very old-fashioned view of culture. It’s something you do as a hobby. Culture couldn’t possibly be serious business.

Five years ago, the Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, introduced an undergraduate degree programme in entertainment and cultural enterprise management (ECEM). It was the brainchild of Kam-Au Amen, the very first graduate in cultural studies at UWI. As coordinator of the Reggae Studies Unit, I negotiated for institutional support to get the programme approved.

The ECEM degree is now the second most popular one in the Faculty of Humanities and Education, right behind Media and Communication. Unlike Ms Principle, enterprising students know that they can design jobs for themselves in the creative/cultural industries. They don’t have to sit and wait to see what the job market may or may not throw their way.

Humanities serve no purpose?

It’s feedback like Ms Principle’s that makes me wonder if I should really be spending time and energy week after week writing this column. Instead, I could be working on another book (on reggae) that would be appreciated by those of us who value intellectual enquiry in the humanities. All the same, I have to admit that supportive readers usually take up the fight against my detractors with great passion. I don’t have to get into the fray.

‘Jacandood’ made an excellent point: “Pauline, I am wondering why you choose to undermine the value of the Reggae Poetry class. I bet you don’t feel the same way about Shakespeare being taught at the university.” ‘Jacandood’ knows that courses in the humanities, such as music and art, are usually required in many undergraduate degree programmes. As he put it, “The purpose of tertiary education is to mould rounded individuals.”

Carlton Reynolds, who thoroughly enjoys abusing me, couldn’t resist counter-attacking ‘Jacandood’: “These ‘humanities’ are reserved for people who want to make up credits … usually serves no other purpose … you dare to compare Shakespeare to those reggae lyricists! If Prof is using the reggae lyrics to teach how not to write, then that would be a good thing!”

All I could do was laugh. If only Mr Reynolds knew! Shakespeare, in his time, would not have been on the curriculum of any self-respecting university in England. Latin, not English, was the language of instruction. Shakespeare’s plays were not written for academics but for fun. Full of sex and violence, the plays had mass appeal; just like the lyrics of our dancehall DJs. Translated into modern English, the ‘vulgar’ language of many of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t make it past the censors at our Broadcasting Commission.

9781578063208Contempt for our own culture is at the root of our collective failure to engage in serious academic work on reggae. Most of the influential books on reggae have been written by non-Jamaicans. The author of one of the textbooks for my Reggae Poetry course is Swami Anand Prahlad, a professor of English at the University of Missouri. It’s calledReggae Wisdom: Proverbs in Jamaican Music.

Don’t be fooled by his name as I was. Professor Prahlad is African-American. His great-grandmother was among the first generation of freeborn blacks. He fell in love with the proverbs he was taught as a child. Eventually, he found his way to Jamaican culture. Making connections across the African diaspora is a recurring theme in his scholarly work.

Journey to Jah

Liberty Hall, Kingston

Most of the films and documentaries on reggae and dancehall are also produced by non-Jamaicans. They see value where we don’t. Last Thursday, Liberty Hall hosted a panel discussion for a feature documentary, Journey to Jah, by two German filmmakers, Noël Dernesch and Moritz Springer. The main speakers were the German reggae singer Gentleman; the Italian reggae singer Alborosie, who made sure to tell the lively audience that he has a Jamaican passport; and Terry Lynn, a brilliant poet and techno reggae singer from Waterhouse, who has made it big in Europe.

Each artiste told an arresting story of how they crossed cultural borders to find their creative inspiration. For me, the most powerful speaker was Terry Lynn. Rejecting the role of sex symbol, she made the decision early in her career to not be trapped in stereotypes. Even though she loves dancehall, she didn’t want to be stuck on the same ‘riddim’ every aspiring DJ has to ride. So she liberated herself to explore the techno scene. The title track of her first album, Kingstonlogic, is a brilliant take on Daft Punk’s Technologic.

All the same, things are picking up for ‘local’ writing on reggae. The Calabash International Literary Festival is on next weekend, branded Jubilation! 50. It’s still a secret if the festival is back for good. The opening session on Friday night, ‘Music is My Passion’, features four authors of books on reggae. Two are Jamaican, one has Jamaican roots, the other is an adopted Jamaican. Reggae scholarship is coming back home.


Passive Resistance At UWI, Mona

Three days after the student protest at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over the administration’s firm response to the non-payment of fees, I had a most unsettling experience in the examination room for my Reggae Poetry course. University regulations require examiners to be present for the first half-hour of every exam, just in case any clarification is needed about the paper.

After about 20 minutes or so, it struck me that one of the brightest students in the class was missing. I walked up and down the rows of candidates more than once to make sure. I even disturbed one of her friends to ask if he knew where she was. Given the large number of exams that have to be scheduled, there are inevitable timetable clashes. So provisions are made for students to take a clashing exam at another time and venue under special supervision. But, as far as he knew, she should have been there.

I hurriedly phoned her. She was such a good student, I knew that even if she came late to the exam, she could pass it. She didn’t answer, so I left a voicemail message. Two days later, she emailed to say that she had come to the venue but wasn’t allowed to sit the exam because of registration issues. In response, I asked what, exactly, was her story. She didn’t seem to be the kind of student who would not make appropriate arrangements to pay fees. She came to class regularly, did her coursework assignments and was all set to earn an ‘A’ grade.

I haven’t heard back from from her. Of course, she owes me no explanation. But I did leave another voicemail message because I was quite concerned. I wondered if she was too embarrassed to let me know that she had been plain delinquent. Or had been hoping for a miracle.Despite the hard line I took last week in condemnation of those unconscionable protesters who stopped their classmates from taking their exams, I do have reservations about the policy to stop students from sitting exams. My missing student sealed the case.

A moral dilemma

As soon as I heard about the protest, I called the office of the campus principal. I wanted to know why the option of withholding exam results was not seen as a better solution to the problem of non-payment of fees. It seemed simple enough. Students could not register for the next academic year, or graduate, if they owed fees. But if they were prevented from taking exams, they, obviously, couldn’t pass them. A whole semester’s effort would be wasted.

As it turns out, for the last two years the university administration had, in fact, leniently allowed students in arrears to take exams and their grades had been withheld – officially. But sympathetic lecturers had been sabotaging the system by releasing grades to the students. Armed with the knowledge that they had passed their courses, students managed to manipulate the system and re-register. There seems to be widespread passive resistance to the official policy. And this is understandable.

Academic failure should not be the inevitable consequence of economic disadvantage. It becomes a moral dilemma, not just a cut-and-dried financial issue. Many UWI students are, in fact, quite poor and are struggling to come up with the basics of survival. True, many of them have expensive cellphones. But very few of them have credit. That’s a very elusive commodity. In fact, ‘credit’ seems to be purely virtual. I often overhear conversations that start like this, ‘Anybody have any credit?’ Yes, ‘have’. Most students speak Jamaican outside the classroom. The usual response to the credit question is a big laugh. Or someone will admit to having $20 or so.

With my ‘faas’ self, I often ask students how come they have expensive phones and claim they can’t afford to buy books. They always say it’s a gift. So I persist. Why can’t you ask your benefactor to buy books instead? They look at me as if I’m crazy. Books instead of a cellphone? A student actually told me that she’d lost her phone and her “whole life mash up”. So I’ve come to accept the fact that no self-respecting young person can live without a cellphone. It’s the not-quite-adult equivalent of a baby’s pacifier. Seriously, though, students do take lecture notes on their phones and search the Internet for assignments. So the cellphone is not just an expensive indulgence; it’s an academic tool.

UWI cheaper than prep schools

There is a small minority of students at Mona who are relatively wealthy. I suppose these are the students who would have gone to college in the US in better times: before Olint became Cash Minus. Given the high cost of tuition in the US if you don’t manage to earn a scholarship, UWI is a big bargain. Here, in many cases, undergraduates are taught by full professors, not graduate students. Even in brand-name US universities, most of the undergraduate teaching is done by graduate students.

In comparison to US tuition fees in excess of $40,000 per year, UWI tuition fees of approximately US$2,000 per year are quite affordable for some middle-class families. Much cheaper than your typical upscale prep school. But for the vast majority of UWI students, US$2,000 might as well be US$40,000. It ‘s still out of reach. And most students don’t want to take a student loan. As I understand it, the loan becomes repayable within three months of graduation, whether or not the borrower gets a job. So students would rather ‘batter-batter’ than get caught in what they see as the student-loan trap.

I routinely give nutrition lessons in my literature classes, warning students that they can’t function on dry biscuits. And I’ve taken to keeping sweeties in my office. It’s not real food, but the students appreciate the gesture. I once got a very ‘sweet’ joke in class. One of my students confessed that she’d been rummaging in her bag and unexpectedly came up with one of the sweeties. As she put it, “It was like heaven.” The whole class laughed, and some of them admitted that they’d had the same experience.

Fun and joke aside, funding tertiary education in Jamaica today is no laughing matter. Sensitive to the complex social issues, the UWI administration is giving debarred students the opportunity to take exams in the summer semester. This is a welcome stopgap measure. But the contentious problem posed by large numbers of students perennially in arrears is not going to disappear overnight. New, long-term solutions have to be crafted. Otherwise, as a society, we’ll be forced to concede that our underfunded public education system simply cannot earn a passing grade – from GSAT all the way to the top.