Jamaicans Abroad Too Poor To Come Home?

On a visit to the US some time ago, I got into quite an argument with a Jamaican who wants to come back home to live one of these days. This is a man who truly loves his homeland. One of the clearest signs of his passion for Jamaica is this truly spectacular garden sculpture on his front lawn.

bustamante-children-hospital-kingston-jamaicaIt’s a map of the island, at least 10 metres long, with rivers and hills and valleys and signposts. The works! It’s a remarkable tribute to yard. I wonder what his neighbours think about this arrogant display of insular pride. Not that their opinion would matter to him. After all, it’s his yard. And his Jamaica!

So hear how the argument started. The gentleman of the house announces that he’s getting ready to send a gift of money to the Bustamante Hospital for Children. He’d solicited contributions from Jamaicans living in the US. Then he begins to ‘mouth’ one of his friends for not making a donation.

FOR THE CAUSE

He next turns to me and solicits my gift for the cause. I jokingly say that I live in Jamaica and that is contribution enough. Well, as the Trinidadian comedian Paul Keens-Douglas would ask rhetorically, “Who tell me say dat?” My man is not amused. He pours out his soul. Living in Jamaica is no sacrifice. He’s a college professor and most of his peers in Jamaica are living far better than him.

Then he says, “Just look at the size of the houses for lecturers on the campus of the University of the West Indies!” He obviously hasn’t been inside many of them. Most are quite run down. The university can barely afford the upkeep of its housing stock. I beg my upset host to please not start on UWI lecturers. Many of them are living in institutional housing because they can’t do better.

And, in any case, those ‘big’ houses were not built for the natives. They were designed to attract (white) expatriates in the early days of the university. It’s only the grace of God that has blackened the campus. And as the campus got blacker, the houses got smaller. The racial politics of housing is quite visible. The natives needed to learn to ‘small up’ themselves.

TAXED TO DEATH

So my host launches a new line of attack. Guess why house prices are so high in Jamaica? It’s because Jamaicans are trying to dig out the eye of returning residents. They have no conscience and are mercilessly exploiting ‘foreigners’. I should have just agreed with him. But I don’t. I argue that the exorbitant cost of housing has little to do with returning residents.

esttaxI suggest that it’s much more basic than that. Everybody is trying to gouge out everybody else’s eye. And that includes the Government, acting under the watchful eye of the International Monetary Fund. We are being taxed to death at every turn. Then I pointed out the fact that it’s only a few people who are really living big in Jamaica.

Not many people have legal incomes that can cover the cost of the palatial residences that are as huge as the egos of their occupants. People in the know can buy their houses cash. But most of us don’t want to know what those people know. So we continue to live as best as we can. In fact, it’s only poor people who still believe in mortgages.

ACKEE TREES IN FLORIDA

All the same, my frustrated professor does have a point. Most middle-class Jamaicans living abroad cannot hope to reproduce their lifestyle in Jamaica. This might seem absurd to those of us here who can barely make ends meet. But housing is, in fact, a major problem for some returning residents.

Owning a house in the US is no guarantee that you’ll be able to afford a replacement in Jamaica. Suppose your house in the US is worth $300,000.00. You foolishly sell it and come home. Can you find a comparable house for $35,000,000.00? You’ll be lucky to get a modest town house for that price in a ‘safe’ neighbourhood.

And just think of a basic commodity like a car. This is not a luxury in the US. If, as a returning resident, you decide to bring your car home, you suddenly discover that you are not wealthy enough to import it. Its value has increased by 54 per cent, the rate of duty. True, this is much better now than in the dreadful days of 100 per cent duty on cars under 3,000cc and 260 per cent duty on cars over. But still!

ackee3As a wannabe returning resident, you do the maths and you realise that you are not wealthy enough to ever live in Jamaica again. So you settle for the occasional visit. And you smile every time you remember that ackee trees are flourishing in Florida. Home is where you can afford to live.

And, to be honest, it sometimes grieves you to think that Jamaicans still expect you to keep on sending remittances that you can hardly afford. It is they who should be sending you money so you can save up to return home. But, at core, you are a true yardie in exile. So, no matter what, you will continue to do all you can for Jamaica. From a distance!

‘Man To Man Is So Unjust’

I recently heard an alarming interpretation of the first line of Bob Marley’s song Who the Cap Fit.

The proverbial statement, ‘man to man is so unjust’, is now being decoded as a condemnation of male homosexuals. Or, to use the politically correct term, men who have sex with men (MSM). Incidentally, the ‘homo’ in ‘homosexual’ does not mean ‘man’. It’s not Latin; it’s Greek. And it means ‘same’.

So, technically, ‘homosexual’ refers to both men and women; and, more recently, to all other genders who have sex with each other. These days, sexuality is not a straight-forward business at all. Queer sex is not always a simple case of ‘same’ sex. Some sexual combinations cross multiple lines. And new sexual positions require sophisticated acrobatic skills – both literally and psychologically.

Bob Marley knew his words could be distorted. In an interview published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1981, this is what he said about the Kaya album: “You have to play it and get your own inspiration. For every song have a different meaning to a man. Sometimes I sing a song, and when people explain it to me, I am astonished by their interpretation.”

deceptionSome inspired interpretations make absolutely no sense. There’s no evidence in Who the Cap Fit to support the ‘same-sex’ interpretation of that opening line. The song is not about sexuality. It focuses on trust, hypocrisy and deception. Admittedly, these issues do come up in sexual relationships across the board. But the song is not about condemning men who have sex with men.

IRRATIONAL HOMOPHOBIA

Jamaica is back in the news for our irrational homophobia, as evidenced in that astonishing misinterpretation of Marley’s song. UK Channel 4 has done an exposé on outcast youths who are living underground. Here’s an excerpt from the promo for the documentary which aired last Friday:

“Jamaica has a reputation for intolerance of homosexuality. Male gay sex is punishable by 10 years’ hard labour and violent hostility is entrenched in the island’s culture. Unreported World meets one group of gay and transgender people who are now living in a gully, which is usually designed to carry flood water and rubbish from the city.

“It’s hot, crowded, infested and filthy. But it’s the only place these 25 people are able to call home. There are no facilities: cooking and washing-up are done in the gutter. Water comes from a broken pipe under a road bridge. And it’s not in a poor part of town, but in the middle of New Kingston, the capital’s business district.”

outerdarknessThis is a complete disgrace. Not on the homeless who have taken refuge in the gully; but on all us who live somewhere! We cannot self-righteously keep on singing the same old Sankey from the Book of Leviticus. We have to move past the rhetoric of abomination and change our inhumane attitudes to queer people. We cannot continue to cast them into outer darkness.

UNJUST GAY-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS

We also have to challenge unjust gay-rights activists when they misuse their collective power and victimise others. The recent termination of the contract of Professor Brendan Bain, director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) initiative, is a complicated case of competing rights.

The press release issued by the Office of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies states: “The issue in question arose about two years ago in a high-profile case in Belize in which Caleb Orozco, a gay man in Belize, challenged the constitutionality of an 1861 law that criminalises men having sex with men (MSM).

“Professor Brendan Bain provided a statement on behalf of a group of churches seeking to retain the 1861 law. Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain’s testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM. This opinion is shared by the lesbian, gay and other groups who are served by CHART.”

I speculate that many of Professor Bain’s detractors have not read his now-infamous statement. There, he clearly affirms that he was “given no instructions by any party”. He makes no reference to the contested law. Professor Bain gives well-documented scientific evidence on public-health issues relating specifically to men who have sex with men.

53108bainprotestj20140521ng_300The UWI press release comes to a disturbing conclusion: ” … It has become increasingly evident that Professor Bain has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach, including the loss of his leadership status in PANCAP [Pan Caribbean Partnership Against HIV& AIDS], thereby undermining the ability of this programme to effectively deliver on its mandate.” That’s not a good reason for firing Professor Bain.

I do support repeal of the Belize law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal”. But I am appalled by the decision of the UWI administration to bow to belligerent gay-rights activists, bringing down disgrace on a distinguished academic who has done so much to protect the health of MSM. Man to man is so unjust. Who di cap fit, mek dem wear it.

Extortion At Papine Market

Market20130704NGIT’S SO much easier these days to get in and out of Papine Market. Traffic congestion has been significantly reduced. Taxi drivers have been forced to line up instead of sprawling all across the road waiting for passengers. I’ve taken it upon myself to reason with those few delinquent drivers who refuse to play by the rules and stay in line. 

I got an unexpected response when I asked one of them why he was “mashing up” the programme. He said he was a victim of extortion and was protesting. Yeah, right.  But, as it turns out, Mr Outa Order does have a point. The new orderly system is designed to encourage passengers to simply take the first taxi in the line. This innovation has made loaders redundant. Refusing to accept the fact that things have changed for the better (or worse), loaders are still demanding money from drivers to fill taxis. They insist on business as usual. After all, loaders make a living out of chaos.

extortionIt is only in societies like ours that ‘loader’ is a proper job. In fragile economies, disadvantaged people have to come up with creative solutions to the depressing problem of regular unemployment. “We know how fi tek wi hand turn fashion”. We learn how to make do and make work. With grand, sweeping gestures and lots of sound effects, skilled loaders entice hesitant passengers into taxis. I suppose loading is a lot like the ancient art of herding sheep.

One loader stubbornly told me, ‘A long time now mi a do dis ya work right ya so a Papine an mi don’t plan fi stop now’. This redundant ‘public sector’ loader belongs to no union. He cannot go to Mama P to ask for severance pay. Having invested years in perfecting his craft, he is not prepared to retool. Robbed of the work he knows best, he may be tempted to take up a deadly tool. Unemployment often does lead to crime, as we know all too well.

UNCONSCIONABLE EMPLOYERS

timeoffWhen I told the loader I was going to write about the issue, he asked me not to. He didn’t want any trouble. I promised him I wouldn’t reveal his identity and I would give him a preview of the article so he could approve what I said about him. Unfortunately, when I went to Papine last Tuesday afternoon to look for him, he wasn’t at work. Loaders need time off too. And since they’re self-employed, they can regulate their hours. They’re not stuck with unconscionable employers.

Incidentally, since writing the column, ‘Email from a hellish resort’, published on July 7, I’ve got more complaints from frustrated hotel workers. One man used this headline for his letter: ‘Local hotel industry turning dreams into nightmares’. He was terminated, with immediate effect, from his job in management, after two and a half years, without even an exit interview or a proper explanation for why he was fired.

all_workers_should_have_the_right_to_unionize_sticker-r7092a29536e14df783035e10c01900f9_v9wf3_8byvr_324For the last 16 months, he and his industrial relations consultant have been trying to set up a meeting with his former employer through the Ministry of Labour and Social Security. As he put it, “all we have been getting appears to be a run around from the MOL”. When I suggested to another aggrieved man that hotel workers need to unionise, he asked a serious question: who is going to take the initiative to set up unions?

Workers are fearful about losing their jobs and trade union leaders seem to be fearful about confronting hoteliers. One woman who escaped the industry described it as “modern-day slavery”. If this is so, it is the employees who will have to emancipate themselves. “Backra massa” isn’t going to willingly allow trade unions to come into hotels unless workers fearlessly stand up for their rights.

“MI SHAME LIKE A DOG”

VoiceMailBack to Papine. I asked if anyone knew where the loader was and explained why I wanted to talk to him. A helpful woman telephoned him but got voicemail. A man who introduced himself as Chief Loader took the draft of the article. He was most offended when I asked if he could read: “Not because we a loader mek we can’t read”. I apologised profusely. “Mi shame like a dog”.

Chief Loader began to read the draft out loud to prove his point. But, to be honest, “im buck”. So I finished reading it for him. He said what I wrote was alright. I warned him: “No bodder tell me seh it alright an when it come out inna Gleaner unu blood me”. He reassured me that it was OK.

All the same, I took the number of the loader I had the agreement with and tried to call him. I got voicemail and left a message. I did get a call-back. But it was a woman saying rather suspiciously, “Is a uman answer”. I thought it prudent not to speak. “Next ting, my man ha fi go gi explanation bout why uman a call im. An is den im inna trouble”.

UNIVERSITY TOWN

Andre Hylton, member of parliament for Eastern St. Andrew, has a big vision to turn Papine into a university town. And expansion and rehabilitation of the market are part of the plan. How will the proposed development affect existing businesses? And who will benefit from the transformation of Papine? Presumably, things will get better for everybody who does business in Papine.

But, as the case of the redundant loaders proves, some players lose when development takes place. The challenge is to ensure that all stakeholders have a chance to take part in the ‘development’ process. But politicians rarely consult the people who will be most affected by the grand schemes they come up with.

logoAugust Town is a genuine university town. Many residents are employed by the University of the West Indies.   And the University has invested in the community, as in the recent Greater August Town film festival. Papine is a thoroughfare. If Andre Hylton does it right, Papine can become a first-class destination.

Leadership Crisis At UWI, Mona

wei1

wei

After the rumours were finally confirmed last week that Professor Gordon Shirley, principal of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, would soon be sailing into a new port of call, I had a spirited conversation with an optimistic colleague. In response to my fears that the campus would now be facing a leadership crisis, he reassuringly reminded me of that famous gem of Chinese wisdom: danger + opportunity = crisis. It’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a fortune cookie.

ji

ji

As it turns out, it’s a fake gem – even though all sorts of people have brandished it. John F. Kennedy once famously declared, “[T]he Chinese use two brushstrokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brushstroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.”

This much-recycled formula is not an accurate decoding of the Chinese symbols. In Kennedy’s case, the error is understandable. We don’t expect politicians to be linguists. Double-speak is their usual armour.

In an article on the Pínyín.info website, Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylannia, relates an amusing anecdote: “I first encountered this curious specimen of alleged oriental wisdom about 10 years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling.

“At that moment, I didn’t have the heart to disappoint my gullible neighbour who was blissfully imbibing what he assumed were the gems of Far Eastern sagacity enshrined within the pages of his workbook. Now, however, the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction.”

WISHFUL THINKING

images-1According to Professor Mair, the seductive proposition that danger and opportunity are equally balanced in a crisis is nothing but “wishful thinking”, based largely on a “fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages”. Mair shows that ‘weiji’, the word for ‘crisis’, is made up of two syllables, ‘wei’ (danger) and ‘ji’.

Contrary to popular misconception, ‘ji’ definitely does not mean ‘opportunity’. Instead, it means ‘crucial point (when something begins or changes)’. Mair confirms that “a weiji is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits”.

Gordon Shirley

Gordon Shirley

As far as I can tell, the only opportunity in the leadership crisis on the Mona campus is for those who will be ‘run-jostling’ to temporarily replace Professor Shirley. Not surprisingly, the contenders are all male, from what I’ve heard. It appears as if there is no female who can fill the shoes of the well-heeled Professor Shirley, even if only for three years, the unusual duration of his secondment to the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ).

Secondment is a tricky business. It’s leaving and staying at the same time, somewhat like a bad marriage. You don’t want to cut your losses and just get a divorce. But you do want the freedom to roam. Secondment can turn out to be a case of either danger or opportunity for the secondee. You may like your new place of employment so much you can’t possibly return to the arms of your former love. That’s the opportunity. Or, you might dislike your new job so much you have to beg to be taken back. That’s the danger.

images-4For the institution that gets left behind, it’s usually more danger and less opportunity. Like a rejected lover, those who have been abandoned keep pining for the missing member. In the case of the principalship of the Mona campus, it’s the head of the institution that’s leaving. A head is not an appendage that can easily be replaced with a prosthesis. He or she symbolises the brainpower of the institution.

FAILURE AT SUCCESSION PLANNING

Especially given Professor Shirley’s distinguished performance as principal, it is imperative that he not be replaced by a stand-in who may have no mandate to bring his or her own distinctive vision to the task of leading the Mona campus. Curiously enough, the three-year term of Professor Shirley’s secondment is exactly half the length of his six-year tenure as principal. It’s a long time for the Mona campus to be led by a place-holder.

Noel Hylton

Noel Hylton

Furthermore, three years is a very short time for the new head of the PAJ to make his mark on that foundering institution. The relatively youthful Professor Shirley is replacing an octogenarian, Noel Hylton, who headed the PAJ for almost 40 years! It is hardly likely that in a mere three years Professor Shirley will be able to turn the ship around.

In a stinging Gleaner article, ‘Port Authority – a study in Jamaican management’, published on January 4, 2013, Aubyn Hill asks two damning questions: “No directive was given to prepare not one but a small group of able successors for Hylton? No younger Jamaican managers were capable?” Hill blames both the ministers of government and the members of successive boards of the PAJ for their collective failure at succession planning.

in_limbo1Professor Shirley is a serial secondee. He fully understands the politics of planting his feet firmly in two places at once. But, in this instance, both the Mona campus of the UWI and the PAJ are likely to suffer as a consequence of the temporariness of his appointment. Both institutions will be held in limbo, awaiting permanent leadership. And that’s ‘weiji fi true’.

Vybz Kartel’s Book For CXC

images-3Vybz Kartel’s arresting book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, co-authored with Michael Dawson of People’s Telecom fame, gives a penetrating account of the deadly conditions endured by too many youth who are barely surviving on the margins of Jamaican society. Claiming the authority of the traditional warner man, Kartel compels his audience to pay attention to his prophetic story. You just can’t put the book down.

Kartel’s intention is not to entertain but to upset: “As strange as it may sound, I hope you do not enjoy this book. I hope it disturbs you. I hope after reading you realise there is something wrong with Jamaica that needs to be fixed. I hope you will never look at a ghetto person the same again.”

Cynics have been asking if Kartel really wrote the book. They clearly have not listened to his songs. There’s an organic connection between the two: “… After seeing the crowd’s response to my conscious songs, I wanted to tell more of the story that I could not capture in three minutes riding a riddim. So I started writing, still unsure at the time if a book was what I wanted to do.”

Each of the 10 chapters amplifies the core concepts of selected songs. For example, chapter 1 is based on ‘Thank You Jah':

Psalms 127 Selah,

Except di Lord build di house,

Dey labour in vain dat build it,

Except di Lord keep di city,

Di watchman watcheth, but in vain.

Thank yu, Jah, it’s just another day, selah,

It’s just another day,

Thank yu, Jah, mi wake up dis mornin

Roll out di herbs before mi start yawnin

Tun round buss a kiss pon mi dawlin

Tell har seh, “Honey, mi ah touch inna di steet.”

In di street mi see poor people bawlin

Nuff juvenile no even nyam from mornin,

“Weh di black woman future?”, me aks him

“Weh di system a do fi she”?

Now big up di gyal dem weh fight it alone

An ah raise two, three pickney pon dem own,

Weh di man deh? No man no deh home,

Babylon have dem inna jail.

Big up di juvenile dem inna di street

Weh a seh dem haffi make it

An nah touch di chrome!

Dem no waan wi fi claim our own,

But Africa nah form no fool inna Rome,

Ghetto youth, we go on and on

Babylon waan wi gone,

Hungry from morning til night come,

Dem waan wi fi live our life so,

Dem a wonder if di youth dem a go stop, no!

A wonder if di ghetto a go drop, no!

Dem a wonder if wi ketch inna di trap, no!

A wonder if Jah tun him back, no!

SAVAGES SAVING SOULS

‘Thank you, Jah’ is a prayer that every fundamentalist Christian in Jamaica can identify with – up to a point. Kartel chants his gratitude to Jah in Old Testament lyrics. But the song quickly changes tune and tone. ‘Thank you, Jah’ becomes a damning judgement on the failures of modern Babylon. Kartel’s invocation of the psalm is decidedly ironic.

images-1The Lord is certainly not keeping the city of Kingston. Babylon labours in vain to build a city founded on injustice. The so-called ‘system’ brutalises poor people in Jamaica. The profound philosophical question the song raises is whether or not ‘Jah tun him back’. Are ghetto people the victims of divine indifference, as Babylon hopes? The song condemns the conspiracy of Church and State to keep poor people in bondage.

In the book, Kartel has ample room to elaborate on the inequities of Jamaican society, especially the apparent willingness of the Church to postpone justice until ‘Thy kingdom come’. He gives a quick history lesson to demonstrate the origin of the racism at the root of imperial Christianity.

Christopher_Columbus3-1Kartel demolishes the myth of European conquest as a mission to save the souls of savages: “Sometimes, I wish Gaza was around in those days when these men came off their ships, dressed in their stockings, short pants and funny hats to tell Portmore people they are heathens so they should come and work for free and these men in stockings will show them salvation. I am confident you could stay from the toll road and hear those sailors begging for mercy when the Gaza done wid dem.” Although Kartel doesn’t want us to ‘enjoy’ the book, there’s lots of humour.

THE GARVEYITE AND THE BLEACHER

In a telephone interview last week, Michael Dawson explained his role in the creative process. He sees the book as a recording of the ‘reasonings’ between himself and Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer. In his ‘Preface’, Dawson admits the ironies of the project: “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about. How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book? … How did my Campion background find common ground with the Gaza?”

Dawson gives an intriguing answer: “I realised what Addi was reluctant to admit; that deep down he realised he had the gift of being a lyricist and the ability to put it on a dancehall rhythm like no one else had. He feared, however (my observation), that being known as a conscious artiste would gain him a label that he did not want.”

It was the opportunity to lecture at the University of the West Indies that changed Kartel’s mind. Wilmot Perkins must be turning in his grave. The ‘intellectual ghetto’ has clearly served its purpose, promoting dialogue between town and gown.

images-2The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto should be read in and out of school. It ought to be on the CXC social studies syllabus. It raises complex issues of social justice in an accessible way. This book will engage the attention of every student, from Campion College to Gaza Secondary. And Adidja Palmer needs to be given a fair trial. Quickly! Otherwise, we run the risk of turning Vybz Kartel into a political prisoner, fulfilling the expectation of the book cover.

Protoje to lecture at UWI

Protoje20130220CThe Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Mona continues our series of ‘Reggae Talks’  on Thursday, March 28  at 7:00 p.m.  This week’s  featured guest is Protoje.  He will speak on the topic, “Music From My Heart”.  The venue is the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre in the Faculty of Humanities and Education.   Copies of his latest CD, “Eight Year Affair” will be on sale for $1,000.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

6th Edward Baugh Distinguished lecture

Edward Baugh

This year, I will give the 6th annual  Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture which  is put on by the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

Professor Emeritus Edward Baugh has earned an international reputation as an authority on Anglophone Caribbean poetry in general and on the work of Derek Walcott in particular.

An outstanding teacher, Professor Baugh has guided the  intellectual development of several generations of students at Mona.  I, myself, chose to do my PhD dissertation on Derek Walcott’s poetry and plays, largely because of Professor Baugh’s passion for the subject.

TheDistinguished  Lecture Series pays tribute to his stellar career.  Previous speakers  include Trinidadian writerEarl Lovelace,  Guyanese author/scholar Mark McWatt and Australian literary critic  Helen Tiffin, one of the co-authors of the foundational post-colonial text, The Empire Writes Back .