Too African to be human?

Reggae_Jamaika8For a small city, Kingston is quite cosmopolitan. And this has nothing to do with our deceitful national motto. That’s a whole other story about large-scale self-deception. Out of which many? Jamaica is a nation of African people with a minority of other racial groups.

And as for those black Jamaicans who don’t want to be African, Peter Tosh sets them straight:

“Don’t care where you come from,

As long as you’re a black man

You’re an African.”

So what’s cosmopolitan about Kingston? It’s all those cultural events every single week. And many are free. Our colleges and universities offer so much: public forums, film screenings, book launches, concerts, theatrical productions. And foreign embassies provide regular opportunities to explore other cultures.

The Alliance Francaise recently screened a brilliant documentary, Trop Noir Pour Etre Francaise?/Too Black To Be French? It’s framed as a question. But the implied answer is definitely affirmative. The filmmaker, Isabelle Boni-Claverie, was at the screening and generously answered questions.

trop-noire.pngIsabelle was born in Ivory Coast and at four months went to live in France. She returned at eight and had a hard time fitting in. Her classmates mocked her accent and decided that she was stuck up. She was too French to be Ivorian and too black to be French.

Isabelle’s 2015 documentary starts with her privileged family. She’s the granddaughter of Alphonse Boni, a distinguished jurist from Ivory Coast who became the first French magistrate of African origin. When Ivory Coast became independent, Boni was appointed as minister of justice and then president of the Supreme Court.

Isabelle’s grandmother, Rose Marie Frederique Galou, was a white law student from rural France. Her grandparents’ marriage in 1931 took place at midnight in complete privacy. In racist societies like France, class privilege cannot protect black people (and their white companions) from constant abuse.


Too Black To Be French? widens its perspective to include other voices reflecting on what it means to be black in France. The documentary was provoked by a rather stink remark made on national television in 2010 by the perfume maker Jean-Paul Guerlain. Talking about a new product, Guerlain casually said, “I worked like a nigger. I don’t know if niggers have always worked like that, but anyway.”

Demonstration-against-Jea-006Talk about adding insult to injury! Isabelle was enraged. She launched an Internet-based campaign against Guerlain and, along with other protestors, organised demonstrations outside Guerlain’s flagship store in Paris. But many nice and decent French people couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Working like a nigger was just a common expression. All the same, Guerlain was convicted in court for his racist insult and fined €6,000. Small change!

Two other films by Isabelle were screened in Kingston last weekend, thanks to David Morrison. Her 1998 short film, Le Genie d’Abou/Abu’s Genie, explores the issues of race and sexuality in a murderously disturbing way. Her 2004 film, Pour La Nuit /For The Night, beautifully shows how Muriel and Sam, total strangers, comfort each other the night before her mother’s funeral and his wedding.

Speaking of being cosmopolitan, for the last 15 years, David has been showcasing foreign films on Friday and Saturday nights, first at Redbones, then at the Liguanea Club. He’s now at an intimate venue, 3 Stanton Terrace. There’s no admission charge. David welcomes contributions to offset costs.


Last month, the Africa World Documentary Film Festival was held at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Twenty films were screened over three days. Admission was free. I was surprised that Ota Benga was not included. The curator of the festival, Professor Adeniyi Coker of the University of Missouri-St Louis, explained that since he co-directed the film with Jean Bodon, he didn’t think it appropriate to select his own work.

OtaBengaI understood his reservations, but I persuaded him that we needed to see the film. It was screened as a brawta to the festival. The film sensitively tells the traumatic story of Ota Benga, a man from the Congo, who was put on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Things got rather worse for him.

On Sunday, September 9, 1906, The New York Times published a story with the headline, “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”. The article did admit that “some Laugh Over His Antics, but Many Are Not Pleased’. It added, “‘Something about it I don’t like,’ was the way one man put it.” We don’t know who this man was. But he did have a conscience.

The next day, black clergymen met at Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church to strategise. That afternoon, they went to the zoo to see for themselves. They confronted the zoo’s founding director and curator, William Hornaday, who insisted that the exhibition was all in the interest of science! By the end of September, more than 220,000 visitors had viewed Ota Benga. The zoo had never made so much money so quickly.

national-museum-african-artProvocatively billed as “From Ota Benga to President Obama”, the film had its world premiere on November 1 at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. How much has changed over the last century? Just think of those demeaning cartoons of Michelle and Barack Obama as apes. The White House is certainly not the preferred cage in which diehard racists would like to see them.

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.