Jamaica going up in smoke

One day last month, there was a pestilence of smoke in my neighbourhood. It wasn’t an act of God. Just one of my selfish neighbours burning rubbish in his yard. And it certainly wasn’t enlightened self-interest. This is an intelligent man who must know that smoke can’t be good for his health.

Soon after I started to smell the nasty fumes, I got a call from his next-door neighbour asking if I’d gone for my walk. I told her I was just about to when I smelled the smoke. She asked me to come and see. That made no sense. When I looked out, I couldn’t believe the density of the smoke. And I was several houses away from the source!

I immediately locked up all my windows, hoping to keep out the ash that was sure to come. I eventually went on my walk after the smoke had cleared. Of course, the ill effects were lingering. There was still the acrid smell and God only knows what was in the air.

dont-let-lung-health-go-up-in-smoke-thumb.jpgBurning rubbish doesn’t make it go away. It just turns into deadly particles of disease that attack your lungs. Why is that so hard to understand? Why do we persist in believing that smoke is harmless? Respiratory problems are a very high price to pay for not getting rid of rubbish.


I was quite prepared to tackle my neighbour. But he wasn’t at home. Perhaps, he’d left before the fire was lit and I was falsely accusing him of negligence. If yu can’t ketch Kwaku, yu ketch im shut. In this case, it was the gardener. So I asked him why he had lit such a huge fire. He was burning out termites.

According to him, no other treatment was as effective as fire. Not true! Bleach and boric acid are a deadly combination. Believe it or not, a few days later, he was at it again. This time, it was a dead dog. Why couldn’t the dog have been buried instead of cremated?

Another morning, I confronted a gardener up the road who had set a big fire that was sending up clouds of smoke. When I asked him what he was burning, he said it was old clothes. I couldn’t believe it. So I asked why the clothes couldn’t have been put out in regular garbage. His response: “The lady don’t want nobody use her clothes do her nothing.” Words to that effect.

Mi couldn’t even get vex. Mi just had to laugh. As far as I know, that lady is a big Christian. But she was covering all her bases. Christian or not, she knew the power of obeah and was not taking any chances. She was just going to burn it out. Or at least the clothes!


I keep wondering if my inconsiderate neighbours don’t know that it is illegal to light fires in residential communities. It’s not just a courtesy to one’s neighbours not to smoke them out. It’s actually against the law.

The problem, of course, is that the law is not enforced. I’ve actually called the police station to report illegal fires. You can just imagine the response. With all the crimes the police have to deal with, you know illegal fires are very low on their list of priorities.

Sometimes it takes a near-disaster to cure some people of their very bad habit of setting fires. A gardener who works in my neigbourhood had the fright of his life when a fire he lit got out of control. He was sure the fire was going to burn down his employer’s house. He ran away, fearful that he would be arrested for destruction of property.

He was very lucky. The fire was put out in time. By then, he was very far from the scene of the crime. You can just imagine his relief when he found out that the house was still standing. And he’s never ever set another fire. He learnt his lesson the hard way.


We can’t continue with business as usual. We have to start a national campaign to educate Jamaicans about the dangers of setting fires here, there and everywhere. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is heroically doing what it can to bring the matter to public attention. But there’s only so much that one underfunded NGO can do.

It is the responsibility of the Government to come up with solutions to this persistent problem. In a press release issued last Monday, Diana McCaulay, CEO of JET, called on Prime Minister Andrew Holness to use all of the regulatory agencies to deal with the problem of extremely poor air quality across the island. Chief of these agencies is the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

According to its website, one of NEPA’s seven core functions is “environmental management”. This is defined as “Pollution prevention and control; pollution monitoring and assessment; Pollution incident investigation and reporting”. I wonder how much of this is actually done daily.


The Government absolutely must enforce the law against setting fires. Both domestic and industrial offenders must be systematically targeted. Until we start prosecuting lawbreakers for setting fires, nothing will change. Jamaica will just continue to go up in smoke. And not even obeah can save us.

Greek lessons for Andrew Holness

Our new prime minister needs to learn Greek very quickly. And it’s not just about language. Andrew Holness needs to take extra lessons from Alexis Tsipras, prime minister of Greece. He can learn a lot about how to keep election promises. Or not!

Tsipras came to power with a mandate to fight the austerity measures imposed on Greece by that rapacious three-headed monster, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and the European Central Bank (ECB). This was in January 2015.
Tsipras’  Syriza party declared that it would take the Greek people out of the wilderness of poverty into the promised land of prosperity. It was going to be an epic drama, worthy of Greek mythology.

But a January 26, 2015 BBC report on the Greek elections quoted the sceptical president of Germany’s Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, who cynically hoped that the new Greek Government would, “not make promises it cannot keep and the country cannot afford”.

Weidmann put goat mouth on Tsipras. By July 2015, the Greek prime minister was forced to accept new austerity measures in exchange for an €85 billion bailout. The terms were punishing: higher taxes; cuts to social services and reform of the pension system. This meant raising the retirement age and slashing pensions. The lenders also insisted that the energy market had to be liberalised.

462746814.jpgThe end result: no prosperity, pure poverty. Almost one-third of the 149 members of parliament in Syriza revolted, refusing to support Tsipras. It was a matter of principle. The party had won the January elections on an anti-austerity ticket. It was now bowing to the demands of international lenders. Tsipras was forced to resign.

A snap election was held in September and, again, the hopeful Greek people gave Tsipras their vote of confidence. But, by November, a general strike was called by trade unions in protest against impending austerity measures.  Remarkably, the government supported the strike against its own desperate agreements with the international lending agencies!


Unlike Syriza, the new JLP government has not declared war on those creditors who are holding a big stick over our heads. Andrew Holness has promised to honour the commitments made by the PNP in negotiations with the IMF. But, as in the case of Syriza, a promise is a comfort to a fool.

The former JLP government, under the doubtful guidance of the old and new Minister of Finance Audley Shaw, completely discredited Jamaica in their dealings with international lending agencies. Like common thieves, they took the money and ran.

What’s going to happen if the IMF decides that Jamaica simply cannot afford the JLP’s expensive election promises? Are we going to default on debt repayment again? Will the JLP confess that its tax-reduction package was nothing but a con job to secure votes?

Believe it or not, unemployed people are expecting to get $18,000 per month payback from Andrew, starting in April. That’s what happens when politicians make election promises in a language that is Greek to the majority of the people.


That English expression, “it’s Greek to me”, turns the mother tongue of the Greek people into an incomprehensible language. Even before it was used in English, there was a Latin version: Graecum est; non legitur. Literally, “Greek it is; not readable”. That’s what the monks in the Middle Ages used to write when they couldn’t figure out the meaning of the text they were copying.

Of course, for the Greeks, their language is not a puzzle. They learn it in the womb. It comes to them naturally. They do have to study the intricacies of the language as a subject in school. But Greek is their inheritance. It’s not a foreign language.


In  Jamaica, English is not the mother tongue of the majority of us. It’s a second language we learn in school. And it’s not taught efficiently. So many of us learn it imperfectly. That’s why some people didn’t understand the JLP promises made in English.

Take, for instance, this JLP ad. It’s voiced by a sweet-talking lady who sounds very reassuring: “We know you want to take better care of your families. As soon as we win government, we will remove income tax for everyone who earns $1.5 million per year or less, putting more money in your pockets. Vote for prosperity! Vote for the Jamaica Labour Party!”

28175-sweet_talkSuppose the nice lady had said,  “Wi done know seh unu waan look after unu family lickle better. When wi win election, same time wi go a do suppen fi unu. Not fi all a unu. A ongle fi who a work an get payslip. If unu a work fi 1.5 million dollar fi di year, or anything under dat, Govament nah go tek no income tax outa unu pay. Unu a go have nuff more money. Vote fi step up inna life! Vote fi JLP”!

Everybody would have understood the message. But, perhaps, that was not the point. Then in Audley Shaw’s version of the ad, he mixed up gross and net pay. Not a good sign.
So what a thing when the people who don’t have gross or net pay start to demand their $18,000 per month from Andrew! Hell an powder house! Dat wi learn di politician dem fi start talk to people inna fi wi language. And dat a no Greek to wi!

Ambushed by the prime minister

On Sunday February 7,  I was forced to send a hasty email to colleagues at the Barbados campus of the University of the West Indies. I had accepted the invitation of Dr Aaron Kamugisha to give the annual Kamau Brathwaite Lecture in Cultural Studies. The agreed date was February 25.



But Prime Minister Simpson Miller had just exercised her constitutional right to call an election any time she chooses. And I had every intention of exercising my own right to vote. Is a good thing I sent the email on Sunday night. Publicity for the lecture was going to be sent out on Monday morning. Luckily, we were able to postpone to March 3.

In the larger scheme of things, my change of plans to accommodate elections is a minor matter. But I’m sure there are far more problematic issues for people doing business in Jamaica. The deliberate uncertainty about the date of elections makes it difficult to plan efficiently.

Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not blaming the prime minister personally for this state of affairs. The real issue is our foolish system of governance. It gives too much power to the prime minister to arbitrarily determine when elections are called.


The date of elections should be fixed. No prime minister should be able to ambush the Opposition and the people of Jamaica with elections that come like a thief in night. The prime minister’s announcement last Sunday was clearly a surprise for the Opposition, even though they had been daring her to call elections.

Our Maroon ancestors perfected the art of the ambush. From their vantage point in the mountains, they were able to expertly attack British soldiers. Foolishly dressed in bright red uniforms, the arrogant soldiers were an easy target. The Jamaica Labour Party is certainly not as vulnerable as those British soldiers. Their green uniforms are good for camouflage in the bush.

andrew_holnessAll the same, the suddenness of the prime minister’s announcement of elections seems to have destabilised the Opposition. Andrew Holness is now crying foul. In Jamaica, politics is war. And, as proverbial wisdom cynically asserts, all is fair in love and war.

These days, we are much more sophisticated than we used to be. Instead of brutally attacking opponents with physical violence, we now use old and new media. The blows are still effective but there’s far less blood. This is definitely progress.


When I gleefully told a friend how happy I was that I would be able to vote, the surprising response was, “Does voting mean that much to you?” Of course, it does! I know the history of this country. There was a time when black people could not vote unless we owned substantial property.

The right to vote puts all of us on an equal footing, even if it’s only for one day. As Louise Bennett observes in her poem, Revelation:

Everybody got a vote, an

Every vote gwine swell de score;

Missa Issa, Missa Hanna

An de man wat sweep de store.

hqdefault-1Still for all, I completely understand the position of those non-voters who can’t be bothered to participate in the ritual of elections. For them, it’s a choice between worse and ‘worserer’. The Rastafari DJ Anthony B is the spokesman for a whole heap of Jamaicans who “nah vote again”.

Anthony B gives new meaning to the names of our political parties. PNP becomes “pains, needs an’ poverty”. JLP is “juicing di life of di ghetto pikni”. And NDM is “new destruction for you and me”. Fed up with deceitful politicians who promise what they don’t intend to deliver, many Jamaicans just ‘tek weh’ themselves out of politics.


Except for diehard Labourites and Comrades, rational Jamaicans do have moments of doubt when we wonder what is the point of voting. It’s the same old, same old: Politicians getting fatter and fatter, living high on the hog. I keep wondering if the men, especially, are not aware of the risk of diabetes that comes with overweight. And diabetes medication often causes erectile dysfunction. It comes down to a choice between sex and food.

b2d31fe6.jpgWhat keeps me voting is the certainty that my voice does matter. I decide which seems to be the lesser of the two evil parties, and I vote against the more evil one. Third parties don’t stand a chance in our either/or system. So that leaves the NDM out. One of these days, I’d like to able to vote for a party rather than against. I just don’t know when.

People who don’t vote like to think they’re superior to those foolish ones of us who still participate in the fraudulent system. There’s a kind of arrogant self-righteousness about not voting that can be very comforting. Me never vote fi dem. So no bodder come tell me nutten bout dem.

But non-voters do vote for ‘dem’ by default. You end up voting for whoever wins because you did not exercise your right to make a choice. If we don’t want to keep on being ambushed by politicians, we must insist on claiming the right to vote for a new system of governance. One that fixes the date of elections and takes absolute power out of the hands of the prime minister.

That Cowardly Leggo-Beast Apology

imagesPolitics is a beastly business. It’s very hard for most politicians to speak the truth and speak it ever, cost it what it will. Memory gems from primary school mean absolutely nothing to politicians, especially when national elections are around the corner. They don’t dare risk telling the truth and offending potential voters.

Deacon Thwaites, minister of education, is no exception. He’s bowed to public pressure and apologised for his vivid leggo-beast remark, made recently, to much applause, at the annual conference of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA). In an age of political correctness, it’s not politic to call things by their right name. These days, ‘labelling’ children is very, very bad, especially if they actually fit the profile.

Here are the minister’s exact words: “And, also, the second thing we have to do, members of the JTA – Ministry of Education takes on the challenge with you – it is time that your association, now gone past the the [sic] crucible of wage negotiations, join with us and whoever else in saying not angrily, but resolutely, to the society, ‘Look here! Manage your own children! Do not send leggo beasts to our school and expect us to make the difference’!”

Last Tuesday, Thwaites was adamant that there was “no need for leggo beast apology”. But the very next day, he changed his mind. This is how he put it in a statement issued by the ministry: “On reflection and having listened to all the comments, I would like, even at this late stage, to withdraw my use of the term ‘leggo beast’ to describe uncontrollable children spoken at last week’s JTA Conference.”


imagesOne of the influential comments came in a press release from Senator Johnson-Smith, opposition spokesperson on education and youth: “Parents who have troubled children need help, and the minister of education must recognise the role of the school system, his ministry and himself as key tools in the resocialisation of troubled children. Classifying children as ‘leggo beasts’ has no place in the conversation about the challenges facing the system and its solutions. This disrespectful and divisive epitaph must be withdrawn.”

Senator Johnson-Smith meant ‘epithet’, not ‘epitaph’. The leggo beasts are very much alive. That’s a relatively minor error. It’s the “parents who have troubled children” statement that is troubling. Leggo beasts are not born; they are made. Often by parental neglect! So parents don’t just happen to “have” troubled children. They are responsible. True, some of them don’t know how to parent and need help. But where can they get it?

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Holness, went even further, describing the leggo-beast remark as “reprehensible, disgraceful, unlawful and ignorant!” The “unlawful” charge seems to be based on the dishonest conclusion that Thwaites was telling parents not to send bad-behaving children to school. This is leggo-beast politics at its worst: wildly trying to score political points at the expense of the truth.

The minister of education was actually appealing to parents to give their children home training so that they could perform well in school. Thwaites said, “Manage your own children.” That’s a preventative measure to stop them from turning into leggo beasts. Schools can’t be expected to make up for what parents fail to do at home.


In his contradictory apology, Thwaites declares that, “Despite the difficulties, teachers must not label students.” But he, himself, does use the label ‘uncontrollable children’. The issue isn’t the label. It’s the language of the label. It’s ‘leggo beast’ that’s the real problem. So we’re back in the familiar territory of English versus Jamaican. The same old Sankey!

Check_The_ClassificationI would bet my last devalued dollar that if the minister had originally said “uncontrollable children”, rather than “leggo beasts”, even the Opposition would have joined the teachers in applauding his appeal. But he made the mistake of using a well-known Jamaican label that describes antisocial behaviour quite precisely.

The Dictionary of Jamaican English notes that ‘lego’ comes from ‘let-go’. The first meaning given is ‘Let-go, loose, disorderly, out of control’. Then it cites the phrase ‘lego-beast’. This is defined as ‘an animal or person without an owner or protector, that runs wild; anyone of loose morals’. Incidentally, this useful dictionary, published locally by the University of the West Indies Press, is on the e-Learning Jamaica Educational Materials platform and can be accessed for free by all secondary schools.

The first definition of ‘leggo beast’ accurately conveys Thwaites’ concern about the protective role of parents in preparing their children for school. But, he caved in: “The serious issue facing the society of weak parenting and inadequate community support to socialise so ma[n]y schoolchildren is likely to be overlooked by controversy over the appropriations [sic] of a phrase I used.”

I think Thwaites meant ‘appropriateness’, not ‘appropriations’. But as with ‘epitaph’ and ‘epithet’, this is a relatively minor matter. The bigger concern is truth versus controversy. The truth is, ‘leggo beast’ is a perfectly good translation of ‘uncontrollable children’.

Instead of avoiding controversy, Ronnie Thwaites should have courageously taken the opportunity to reflect on the function of our local language in public conversations about the educational system; and its use in schools! He knows the power of the language. Perhaps, the leggo beasts would be tamed by seeing themselves in the dictionary and knowing that their home language is on the curriculum.

John Crow, Jankro an Vulture

Two spelling systems are used for the Jamaican language below. The first, which I call ‘chaka-chaka’, is based on English spelling. The second, ‘prapa-prapa’, is the specialist system designed by the Jamaican linguist Frederic Cassidy. It has been updated by the Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona. After the two Jamaican versions, there’s an English translation.



Seet deh now! Language a one powerful sinting. Unu memba dem ya liriks wi did larn a primary school? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me.’ Pure lie! Nutten no go so. Throw-word a one big stick. An it lik hot. Wen yu a pikni, an dem odder one a throw word pon yu, yu ha fi a gwaan like seh it no bodder yu. Cau yu cyaan do better.

694But wen yu grow big, yu naa tek it. Yu ha fi defend yuself. So mi understand wa mek di Labourite dem bex an a carry on bad bout wa Peter Bunting seh: “Some in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership have been behaving like a set of John Crows, like vultures, gleefully reacting to every loss of life as an opportunity to gain political mileage.”

A di ‘John Crow’ bex dem. If Bunting did lef out di ‘John Crows’ an kip so-so ‘vultures’, di lik wuda never feel so hot. Trust mi! ‘Vulture’ no pretty. But inna fi wi culture, ‘John Crow’ worserer. All wen yu gi it di rightful sound inna fi wi language! Jangkro! No sah! It sound bad-bad.

So wa mek jangkro worserer than vulture? One a English an one a Jamaican. Vulture come outa book an jangkro down a dungle heap. Wi know vulture inna wi head; an wi feel jangkro inna wi heart. Fi wi language carry feelings. An a dat di language specialist dem mean wen dem seh Jamaican a fi wi heart language. It mek wi tek tings hard.


Still for all, if me was Andrew Holness, mi wudn waste no time pon ‘jangkro’. Dat bad an no so bad. A ‘political mileage’ mi wuda kick up gainst! Dat a one serious charge Bunting a mek. One big-big lik. Fi tink seh di JLP politician dem no cyah bout di whole heap a people weh a dead off? Murder top a murder! An a ongle vote dem a look, mek dem a bawl out? Dat bad – if a true. An mi no hear none a di Labourite dem a talk bout dat. All dem a stick pon a di jangkro throw word.

All eena Parliament, Desmond McKenzie im seh, “Once a John Crow, always a John Crow.” Wa dat good fa? A Bunting im a throw word pon? Dat a no how some a di PNP member dem tek it. Ascorden to Gleaner, dem laugh an seh, “Yuh seh so! Yuh seh so!” Dem a tek McKenzie mek poppy show. Dem a tell im seh cock mout kill cock. Mi no know if Bunting sorry fi true fi weh im seh. But it look like dem odder one inna fi im party no sorry to dat. Or dem wudn bodder seh nutten to McKenzie fi blaze up more fire.

Anyhow, mi tink seh Andrew Holness shuda condemn Bunting fi di ‘political mileage’ big lik. Opposition party supposen fi bawl out gainst govament wen tings naa run right. An if PNP did deh inna Opposition, dem wuda do di said same ting. Dem naa no argument. An if mi a jangkro, mi wuda well bex fi see how di politician dem a mix mi up inna fi dem nasty business.


Siit de nou! Langwij a wan powaful sinting. Unu memba dem ya liriks wi did laan a praimeri skuul? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me.’ Pyuur lai! Notn no go so. Chruo-wod a wan big stik. An it lik at. Wen yu a pikni, an dem ada wan a chruo wod pan yu, yu a fi a gwaahn laik se it no bada yu. Kaa yu kyaahn du beta.

Peter Bunting

Peter Bunting

Bot wen yu gruo big, yu naa tek it. Yu a fi difen yuself. So mi andastan wa mek di Liebarait dem beks an a kyari aan bad bout wa Peter Bunting se: “Some in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership have been behaving like a set of John Crows, like vultures, gleefully reacting to every loss of life as an opportunity to gain political mileage.”

A di ‘John Crow’ beks dem. If Bunting did lef out di ‘John Crows’ an kip suoso ‘vultures’, di lik wuda neva fiil so at. Chros mi! ‘Vulture’ no priti. Bot ina fi wi kolcha, ‘John Crow’ wosara. Aal wen yu gi it di raitful soun ina fi wi langwij! Jangkro! Nuo sa! It soun bad-bad.

So wa mek jangkro wosa dan vulture? Wan a Inglish an wan a Jamiekan. Vulture kom outa buk an jangkro dong a dongl iip. Wi nuo vulture ina wi ed; an wi fiil jangkro ina wi aat. Fi wi langwij kyari fiilinz. An a dat di langwij speshalis dem miin wen dem se Jamiekan a fi wi aat langwij. It mek wi tek tingz aad.


Stil far aal, if mii woz Andrew Holness, mi udn wies no taim pan ‘jangkro’. Dat bad an no so bad. A ‘political mileage’ mi uda kik op gens! Dat a wan siiryos chaaj Bunting a mek.  Wan big-big lik. Fi tink se di JLP palitishan dem no kya bout di uol iip a piipl we a ded aaf? Morda tap a morda! An a ongl vuot dem a luk mek dem a bawl out? Dat bad – if a chruu. An mi no ier non a di Liebarait dem a taak bout dat. Aal dem a stik pan a di jangkro chruo wod.

Aal iina Paaliment, Desmond McKenzie im se, “Once a John Crow, always a John Crow.” Wa dat gud fa? A Bunting im a chruo wod pan? Dat a no ou som a di PNP memba dem tek it. Azkaadn tu Gleaner, dem laaf an se, “Yuh seh so! Yuh seh so!” Dem a tek McKenzie mek papishuo.  Dem a tel im se kak mout kil kak. Mi no nuo if Bunting sari fi chruu fi we im se. Bot it luk laik dem ada wan ina fi im paati no sari tu dat. Ar dem udn bada se notn tu McKenzie fi bliez op muor faiya.

Eniou, mi tingk se Andrew Holness shuda kandem Bunting fi di ‘political mileage’ big lik. Opozishan paati supuozn fi baal out gens govament wen tingz naa ron rait. An if PNP did de ina Opozishan, dem uda du di sed siem ting. Dem naa no aagyument. An if mii a jangkro, mi uda wel beks fi si ou di palitishan dem a miks mi op iina fi dem naasi bizniz.


imagesThere you have it! Language is a powerful thing.  Do you remember this proverb we learnt in primary school? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me.’ A total lie!  It’s simply not true.  Hurling abuse can be very effective.  It hurts a lot. When you’re a child and someone says something hurtful, you have to act like it doesn’t bother you.   Because you can’t do better.

But when you’re an adult, you just won’t put up with it. You have to defend yourself. So I understand why Labourites are angry and are carrying on so much about what Peter Bunting said: “Some in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) leadership have been behaving like a set of John Crows, like vultures, gleefully reacting to every loss of life as an opportunity to gain political mileage.”

It’s the ‘John Crow’ that’s angered them. If Bunting had left out the ‘John Crows’ and kept only ‘vultures’, it wouldn’t have hit so hard. Believe me! ‘Vulture’ isn’t good. But in our culture, ‘John Crow’ is rather worse.  And especially the way it’s pronounced in our language!  Jangkro! No, man! It really sounds very bad.

So why is jangkro worse than vulture? One is English and the other is Jamaican. Vulture is very bookish an jangkro is just down at the garbage dump. Vulture is a kind of abstraction and jangkro we know intuitively. Our language evokes feelings. And that’s what the linguists mean when they say Jamaican is our heart language. It makes us take things to heart.


All the same, if I were Andrew Holness, I wouldn’t waste any time on ‘jangkro’. That’s bad and not so bad. It’s ‘political mileage’ I would protest against! That’s a very serious charge Bunting is making. A forceful attack. To think that JLP politicians don’t care about all of the people who are dying? So many murders! And it’s only because they are looking for votes why they’re speaking  out? That would be disgraceful – if it’s true. And I don’t hear any of the Labourites protesting about that. All they’re stuck on is the jangkro label.Peter

Even in Parliament, Desmond McKenzie said, “Once a John Crow, always a John Crow.” What was that about? Was he trying to get back at Bunting ? That’s  not how some of the PNP MPs took it. According to a Gleaner report, they burst out laughing and said, “You say so! You say so!” They were having fun at McKenzie’s expense.  They were saying that his own words condemn him. I don’t know if Bunting  is really sorry for what he said. But it seems as if his colleagues aren’t all that sorry. Or they wouldn’t bother to answer McKenzie and pour more oil on the fire.

Anyhow, I think Andrew Holness should condemn Bunting for that ‘political mileage’ attack. Opposition parties are supposed to protest against the government when things are not right. And if the PNP were in Opposition, they would do the very same  ting. So they have no case.  And if I were a john crow, I would be very annoyed at the way in which politicians are dragging me into their nasty affair.

Voting In English

Errol Miller

Professor Errol Miller, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), made an alarming statement in his broadcast to the nation last Wednesday. Speaking to election-day workers, the goodly professor issued guidelines that included the following: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. English is the official language of the country and election day is an official event and occasion.”

Who authorised Errol Miller to make this discriminatory pronouncement? Surely, there is no law that legislates the language of elections! Professor Miller’s ill-considered declaration appears to be nothing more (or less) than class prejudice – a vulgar attempt to impose standards of correctness arbitrarily.

Under pressure, Professor Miller came up with an intriguing argument in defence of the guideline: “What we have found in reviewing practice is that some people resented being addressed in the dialect to start off with because someone just looks at them and addresses them in the dialect and another person comes and they address them in English, they resented that, they charged people with speaking down to them, so we just said, ‘Give everybody the same treatment and we have done that in every election since’.”

Polling tent, Portmore

Since electors can enter the polling station only one at a time, I don’t how they would know who is being addressed in English and who in ‘dialect’. Electors could only know for sure how he/she is addressed.   Admittedly, in some instances, open air polling stations do, in fact, compromise the principle of privacy.  All the same, if resentment at being addressed in ‘dialect’ was the real reason for the guideline, this is what the professor should have said: “Use Standard English in addressing each elector. Don’t judge an individual’s competence in English based on how he/she looks.”

But, of course, that is not the whole story. When the professor goes on to say that English is the official language and election day an official event, he is actually affirming the absolute authority of English as the sole language of official communication. He does not allow any space for the official use of ‘dialect’. The mother tongue of the vast majority of Jamaicans has no place in the public sphere.

Living in the past

Quite frankly, I think Errol Miller is living in the past. There was a time when many Jamaicans were quite ashamed of speaking ‘dialect’. They had been taught that English was the exclusive language of upward social mobility and ‘dialect’ a sign of congenital inferiority. That’s the legacy of colonialism: mental slavery.

Louise Bennett

But, over time, attitudes have slowly changed. As a society, we have become more comfortable with accepting our own culture, including the language – not ‘dialect’ – that we have collectively created. Louise Bennett, Jamaica’s premier language activist, has helped us to acknowledge the value and power of our distinctive Jamaican language.

In several of her poems, Miss Lou does explore the anxiety about language that still afflicts some of us. In ‘No Lickle Twang’, a mother laments the fact that her son who spent all of six months in the United States has come back home without an accent:

“Bwoy, yuh no shame? Is so yuh come?

After yuh tan so long!

Not even lickle language, bwoy?

Not even lickle twang?”


The young man’s failings are measured against his sister’s remarkable success:

“An yuh sister what work ongle

One week wid Merican

She talk so nice now dat we have

De jooce fi understan.”

Miss Lou makes fun of the mother who doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she has a hard time understanding her daughter. All that matters is that the daughter ‘talk so nice’. Language is no longer a means of communication. It becomes a decoration that the speaker can brandish like jewellery.

Victory over Baby Bruce

Election day workers, Kingston

When I went to vote on Thursday, I made it my business to speak in Jamaican. And my election worker readily responded in the same language, completely ignoring Professor Miller’s guideline. The chairman of the ECJ seems to have assumed that no elector would ever come to the polling station wanting to speak a language other than English. He’s wrong.

Furthermore, the pernicious guideline is based on the assumption that all Jamaicans are competent in English. But this is not so. Professor Miller’s insistence on the use of English clearly discriminates against speakers of Jamaican. What the guideline should have said, if any thing, is ‘respond to electors in the language they use’. End of story. That’s common sense. Any intelligent election-day worker would know that. He/she doesn’t need an officious guideline.

Portia Simpson Miller

Professor Miller’s stubborn defence of his guideline betrays the same kind of arrogance at the core of the demeaning G2K ads that portrayed Portia Simpson Miller as a bumbling idiot. What G2K did not take into account is the fact that Sista P is a powerful symbol of what working-class people can achieve with determination and ‘whole heap’ of hard work. Every attack on Portia Simpson Miller was taken personally by working-class people who constitute the majority of voters.

And, as Sista P demonstrated so coolly in the ‘disappointing’ debate with Andrew Holness, she can, most certainly, hold her own where and when it matters. The debate was ‘anti-climactic’ only for those foolish people who expected Sista P to fall flat on her face. She beat Holness in the debate, and this was a clear sign of things to come. Despite all the mockery, Sista P led her party to a resounding victory over Baby Bruce.

Andrew Holness in defeat

Andrew Holness was just not ready for prime time. The main plank of his campaign was that he is young. But is that enough? He was supposed to be the fresh new face of the JLP. Baby Bruce tried to position himself “on the extreme periphery” of the Dudus-Manatt imbroglio. Nobody was fooled. Working-class Jamaicans may not be fully competent in English. But they can certainly spot a ‘samfie’ man in any language.

Andrew’s Fairy-Tale Election

Andrew Holness must be living in a fairy tale. He most certainly has a fairy godmother looking after him. I don’t think Andrew expected to be prime minister at the relatively tender age of 39. He must be pinching himself every day, wondering if it’s for real. All of the competitors for the top job selflessly stepped aside and he became the unanimous choice for leader of the Jamaica Labour Party. So, abracadabra! Andrew Holness was magically transformed into prime minister.

Not satisfied with just the seal of approval from his party, Holness has been anxious to get his own mandate from the Jamaican people. So he has fast-forwarded the general election. After two false starts, the date was finally revealed last week.

And it was all quite anticlimactic. Everybody had done the maths and realised that the earliest the election could have been held was December 28.  I suspect that when Holness announced that he was going to ‘call it’ before the end of the year, he hadn’t calculated that the best date would turn out to be December 29. In the exuberance of youth, he spoke without counting the cost. I wonder if he consulted any of the older, and presumably wiser, heads in his party to see what they thought would be the ideal date for the election.

Perhaps, those not-so-youthful contenders who were passed over for the job of party leader have decided to leave ‘di yute’ to his own devices: ‘Im want prime minister work; mek it breed him’. There are so many proverbs that speak to our prime minister’s apparent predicament: ‘New broom sweep clean; old broom know di corner. Cock mout kill cock. Wa sweet a mout, hot a belly. Craven choke puppy dog’.

I’m also wondering if Andrew’s fairy godmother warned him that at midnight on December 31, he’s going to be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, from a fresh prince to an old bullfrog. And no princess is going to want to kiss him and turn him back into a prince. That’s the best explanation I can give for our prime minister’s hasty decision to spring an election on us in the last week of December.

Politics and superstition don’t mix

Andrew Holness’ unshakeable conviction that it has to be this year is just as irrational as Portia Simpson Miller’s stubborn faith that the number 7 is what should have been used to determine the date of the 2007 election. In both instances, it is superstition, not reason, that is the basis of the calculation.

Portia and Peter

Sister P learned her lesson the hard way. She lost the election by dilly-dallying and flirting with the number 7, which figures prominently in many of the world’s major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. But politics, religion and superstition don’t mix. Sister P too-trustingly believed the predictions of a false prophet. She would have been much better off with a good obeahman. I suppose these days she needs neither. After all, she now has Peter Phillips on her side.

So why did Holness insist, in the first place, that he had to try to get his mandate before the end of the year? What difference would two weeks or a month have made? I suppose it’s the same reason we make New Year’s resolutions. We believe in the magic of a new beginning, however illusory. A new year is an opportunity to reform. We’re going to stop smoking, start dieting, stop getting into debt, start saving, stop stealing, etc.

Most New Year’s resolutions don’t last past the end of January. It’s the same old person doing the same old things. One day, from December 31 to January 1, really doesn’t make a difference. But our prime minister is naïve enough to believe in the temporary magic of the New Year. The Dudus, Manatt, JDIP, NWA and Trafigura scandals will all be miraculously erased from our collective memory. And Holness will get a clean slate on which to write his own legacy.

‘Im young; im wi learn’

Even if the prime minister could have admitted to himself that he’d miscalculated in setting the date of the election, he really couldn’t back down in public: ‘Big man no tek back chat.’ Despite the outcry against a general election in the week between Christmas and the New Year, the prime minister couldn’t find the courage to eat his words.

In his rush to try to get his mandate, Andrew Holness is trampling on Jamaican culture. Traditionally, the end-of-year holiday season is a sacred period of relaxation and merriment. It is not a time for politics. The historians Brian Moore and Michele Johnson confirm this in their chapter of the book Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage and Culture:

‘During slavery, celebrations began on Christmas Eve. All work ceased and the slaves set about gathering foodstuffs from their provision grounds and the markets. Planters also distributed food items such as meat, hams and wines to their slaves. Slave dances were held all night on 24 December, and early on Christmas morning bands of slaves would regale their masters with music and dance. Planters responded with gifts of clothing and money, and even opened their homes to entertain the slaves with food and drink. These festivities continued all day and night as well as the day after Christmas.’

And also long after slavery. Moore and Johnson report that, “For all practical purposes, the Christmas season in Jamaica in the later 19th and early 20th centuries could be considered to have extended roughly from mid-December to about the end of the first week of January.”

If our PM/minister of education knew his history, he would never have dared to ‘mash up’ the holidays with politics. But ‘im young; im wi learn.’