Finding Ourselves in the Dark

A floading river in St AndrewA few days ago Hurricane Sandy blew threw Jamaica pulling down trees, light posts and occasionally lives as she went. Having teamed up with other weather conditions to become a superstorm, she’s now wreaking havoc in the US, seemingly bent on imitating  the film The Day After Tomorrow. As far as damages go, Jamaica has certainly weathered worse, and our hearts go out to those in North America, especially in those states where they’re nor really used to this hurricane thing. And after the storm, after we’ve begun to pick up the pieces, is one of the hardest parts to deal with. And no, I’m not talking about picking up the windswept, water soaked pieces our dealing with the major loss, I’m talking about life without electricity.

After a hurricane it’s usual for the powers that be or their pretentious pals to tell us how much was lost. They calculate the loss of property and how much the repair will cost. But what they never measure is the impact of the loss of “light”. Today, being plugged in isn’t so metaphoric. Most of us are glued to at least one glowing screen for most of the day, sometimes two or three at a time switching from laptop, to phone, to tablet. So now the loss of power takes on a whole new light.

As ridiculous as I find the characters on that new drama Revolution, you can’t help but wonder what we would do if the power goes for too long. Even here in the Caribbean where the loss of electricity comes with the territory, these days, after a few hours of no electricity we get a little flustered trying to remember what we used to do when the power went. Heck some of us who turned to Kindle for our reading pleasure suddenly realize the value of a hardcopy book (assuming it didn’t get wet).

Faced with all the damage that comes in the wake of a storm, it’s hard to think of any positives.  But the truth is, storms strip us bare, giving us a chance to look at ourselves beyond the electric glare. They remind us that when the power goes and separates us from our thousands (or in my case tens) of twitter followers hanging on to our every retweet, all we are left with are the people in our real lives, not our virtual one.

It also gives us a chance to get back to the basics and allow a few of those ole time sinting to come back, if only for a little while. When you’re stuck with your family in the dark, you’ll either have to kill them or talk to them. Hopefully you’ll choose the talking (it’s a lot less messy). Technology has brought so much to modern life, that we kind of forget what it has also taken. The truth of the matter is, emoticons can’t replace emotions, and my following you on twitter or stalking you on Facebook is not quite the same as a check in to see how you’re really doing, because you’re status update might not capture everything. With the myriad of social media now available to us, we’re always so connected that we can’t see the disconnect.

So after Sandy has huffed and puffed, and especially if she hasn’t blown your house down, note that she might leave you standing in the dark, cold and internet-less, but hopefully you’re not alone. So take the time to find yourself and those around you. The morning after a storm is always beautiful. It’s as though nature is reminding us that we can rebuild, regroup and eventually retweet.


Ballad of Sixty Five

“We heard the boom boom boom of the drums and the high, thin voices of the fifes as Deacon Bogle marched down from the north on Morant Bay town. We heard it in the morning that had suddenly become still. The noise of the sea had fallen away from the oncoming drums as if the waves had not been roaring at all.” Vic Reid, Sixty Five

Interpretations of Paul Bogle

The faces of Paul Bogle

Today, October 11, 2012 marks the 145th anniversary of the Morant Bay Rebellion when Paul Bogle and the people of Stony Gut rose up against injustice. It is his spirit, as it is the spirit of Nanny, Tacky and Sam Sharpe, the willingness to rebel, to refuse to die in “an inglorious lot” that has made Jamaica the country that it is, and more importantly, the country that it can become.

In tribute, I invoke the words of Alma Norma’s ‘Sixty Five’

The roads are rocky and the hills are steep,
The macca stretches and the gully’s deep.
The town is far, news travels slow.
And the mountain men have far to go.

Bogle took his cutlass at Stony Gut
And looked at the small heap of food he’d got
And he shook his head, and his thoughts were sad,
‘You can wuk like a mule but de crop still bad.’

Bogle got his men and he led them down
Over the hills to Spanish Town,
They chopped their way and they made a track
To the Governor’s house. But he sent them back.

As they trudged back home to Stony Gut
Paul’s spirit sank with each bush he cut,
For the thought of the hungry St Thomas men
Who were waiting for the message he’d bring to them.

They couldn’t believe that he would fail
And their anger rose when they heard his tale.
Then they told Paul Bogle of Morant Bay
And the poor man fined there yesterday.

Then Bogle thundered, ‘This thing is wrong.
They think we weak, but we hill en strong.
Rouse up yourself. We’ll march all night
To the Vestry house, and we’ll claim our right.’

The Monday morning was tropic clear
As the men from Stony Gut drew near,
Clenching their sticks in their farmer’s hand
To claim their rights in their native land.

Oh many mourned and many were dead
That day when the vestry flames rose red.
There was chopping and shooting and when it done
Paul Bogle and the men knew they had to run.

They ran for the bush were they hoped to hide
But the soldiers poured in from Kingston side.
They took their prisoners to Morant Bay
Where they hanged them high in the early day.

Paul Bogle died but his spirit talks
Anywhere in Jamaica that freedom walks,
Where brave men gather and courage thrills
As it did in those days in St Thomas hills.

Oh Bumboklaat


Peter Tosh’s Oh Bomboclaat is an anthem for injustice, using the word as a weapon to ward off frustration

I’ve long had a fondness for the word Bomboclaat. It’s one of my all time favourite words for a number of reasons. It’s rhythm and it can equally express awe or frustration. And now, in the wake of the tragedy of Kayann Lamont who was shot in an altercation which resulted from her use of the word, it seems more appropriate than ever, capturing many Jamaicans’ frustration with a police force that is far too often given to excessive brutality.

Like its sisters-in-claat, Bomboclaat is used to express joy, triumph, frustration and defiance. Lamont’s brutal murder seems to have nothing to do with that other language battle currently raging in Jamaica, the question of whether Jamaican Creole should be taught in schools, but it does. Both situations are about language power, politics, class and ideas of decency. Lamont’s shooting is the worst possible outcome of our contemptuous and contentious relationship with Jamaican Creole.

Though it hasn’t been said out loud, one of the biggest issues in the debate about teaching Jamaican in schools is legitimacy. Jamaican is a bastard born from two mothers, England and Africa and there is no father in sight. English is a legitimate language having been written in books, in far too many cases, in blood. King James’ decision to ensure that Jesus and Shakespeare speak the same language was not to be taken lightly. English was a major tool of colonization and its superiority was literally beaten into us, to the point where we know, without a doubt that in the beginning was the word, and that word was written in English.

Every time someone dismisses Jamaican by arguing the words are not real words (because apparently real words are only those found in dictionaries – and neither the Dictionary of Jamaican English nor the Dictionary of Caribbean English count) but are instead just words borrowed from English they question the legitimacy of the language. What they are saying is that Jamaican is just a likkle dutty bastard and has no place in the hallowed halls of the school. Of course the main evidence of its bastardy is that many of the words in Jamaican are of English origin, as the major differences between the two languages is in the grammar. So some argue that Jamaican cannot be considered a real language because so much of its vocabulary is borrowed. However, as the Miss Lou pointed out, if all the other languages were to take back their words from English, it would be left with very little.

The “borrowed language” argument misses that, as in the case of English, many of the words no longer have the same meaning as in their language of origin. Sometimes the differences evolved from pronunciation but often they have evolved from use and now reflect a Jamaican world view. So “ignorant” as used in Jamaican Creole doesn’t mean an absence of knowledge. It means being driven to such a state of anger that one loses all touch with rational behaviour. Similarly, “craven” comes from “crave” and therefore has nothing to do with cowardice. Additionally, it doesn’t mean to want, it means to be greedy. There are numerous words like this and this is a part of the reason it’s important to take Creole into the classroom. Watch an episode of Ity and Fancy Cat for that segment where they ask someone to translate a song lyric from Jamaican to English and see how many people get it wrong.They do because with the similarity in vocab, and because the two languages have never been formally differentiated for most of us, we do not realize that we are speaking two different languages.

The absence of spelling conventions is also used as evidence that Jamaican isn’t a legitimate language. Many view the Cassidy system as incomprehensible, despite its being far simpler than English. A part of the argument is that the Cassidy system looks “mek up” which is true, but then every language system is made up. However we don’t feel that way about English, or French or Spanish etc, because were simply passed on to us, so it seems they came wholly in tact. We don’t think about the fact that English has so many exceptions because of its “mek-upness” which is why “taught” is past for teach but “praught” is not the past tense of “preach” or and why “awesome” and “awful” are opposites.  Furthermore, all languages, unless it’s dead, evolve as speakers make up new words or change the meaning of old words to reflect their current existence. A few years ago, only birds could twitter and no one had a “tweep”, and we all had to say “ridic” would be ridiculous. (Note tweep and ridic are among the Oxford Dictionaries New Words 2012 list)

None of those who propose the inclusion of Jamaican in school curricula argue that it would be in lieu of English. Instead, they argue that not only will it improve English learning skills as well as comprehension in general. The argument is that by formally teaching Jamaican in schools you would strengthen the higher cognitive skills by strengthening your native tongue. This means therefore that it would also improve our ability to learn other languages. While many argue that speaking English gives us access to the world, this isn’t completely true. While England, having sucked the blood, sweat and wealth from the numerous countries it colonized can afford a “one head, one language” attitude, we cannot. There are only approximately 8 million people in the English-speaking Caribbean and our constantly being grouped as Latin-America and the Caribbean affects more than access to HBO or TNT. It affects how we do business; it affects our eligibility to work with multi-national corporations. We need to be multi-lingual.

So if teaching Jamaican can improve our access to English and other languages rather than hinder it, why are we so opposed to it?

The late Morris Cargill likened Jamaican Creole to Yahoolish and argued that it was no more coherent than a barking dog. While many of those who remain opposed to Jamaican being taught in schools are not that extreme, one cannot separate the issue from class in Jamaica. Worse yet, not only is speaking Jamaican a marker of being poor, but it is also used to indicate that you are semi-educated, or worse yet, an idiot. This outlook is why people express surprise when they realize that “an intelligent DJ” is not an oxymoron. And despite this, people like Bounti Killer are maligned as stupid, despite his eloquence in Creole, because English keeps kicking his ass. So, for many people speaking Creole is a marker of being poor, black and stupid and in Jamaica, that may as well be a criminal offense.

We all know that there is a language learning problem in Jamaica, but rather than admit that we need to try something new, something tested, something proven because the system is broken, we choose to argue that the students and teachers are broken. This leaves no room for acceptance that Jamaican is a rich, vibrant language capable of varied and nuanced expression. It blindly refuses to accept that a language so vilified, and denigrated can have anything to offer outside of leisure (or for cussing).

And in the face of such wanton ignorance (and here I invoke both English and Creole meanings), I am left with only the weapon of words, and I simply throw up my hands in frustration and yell, Oh bomboclaat!

And oh yeah, Happy Birthday Miss Lou!

Bolt and Beyond

“If at first you don’t succeed, you suck salt through wooden spoon” – Amina Blackwood Meeks

Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt, and Warren Weir swept the men’s 200m

The total sweep by Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir in the 200m for men of the 30th Olympiad in London isn’t merely the icing on the cake for Jamaica, it is the cake. But it’s not just their victory that makes up this cake, every other Jamaican athlete who has taken the field has been a part of it. This awesomely rich cake, that right now appears so sweet you could get diabetes looking at it also includes Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Asafa Powell, Alia Atkinson, Hansle Parchment, … and …. and …. and…

The nation’s triumph at the 2012 Olympics, sure proof that neither the Beijing Olympics nor the World Championships of Berlin or Daegu were flukes, is the perfect gift for its 50th year of independence. The celebrations of Olympic victories and independence have therefore been swept together in a massively rising ball of euphoria. Numerous buildings in Kingston, the nation’s capital, are decked in swaths of black, green and gold, as the buildings themselves scream it is independence to claat and we are victorious. Those who deigned to question whether celebrating Jamaica 50 was worthwhile can no longer be heard above the din of Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!

Jamaica now firmly grips the title, the world’s fastest nation. And of course the superstar of it all is Bolt, who by becoming the first man to successfully defend the 100m and 200m titles has become a living legend. How much greater that legend gets depends on his further feats. At 25 years Bolt’s shine is far from over, and his fellow country men, who race behind him sweeping along their own share of glory dictate that if he wants to keep his status he will have to rise.

This incomplete monument at the Habour View round-about is decorated for Jamaica 50

Truthfully, Bolt was striding toward legendary status even before the 200m win. He has committed that rare feat that no other sprinter has done before him, become a bonafide superstar. Bolt electrifies not merely with his feats, but also with his showmanship. As Bolt himself said in an interview, the Jamaican audience is hard to please, and in their fickle demand for constant greatness, if he slips they will cuss him faster than he can say 19.32 seconds.

But right now, he is our darling, a symbol of what we believe we can achieve. So, we look at his antics, whether post victory or prior to a race and we think you know that bwoi not right and we smile affectionately, indulgently, like a mother looking at her washbelly because he has made us proud.

Even before the Bolt/Blake/Weir sweep, the international press has been much taken up with exploring the issue of Jamaica’s massive cultural impact despite it’s size. There have been some interesting articles but none of them come close to explaining this.  The theories are many. For some, it is simply a manifestation of hard won tenacity born from a brutal history. This theory rests on the idea that the most problematic slaves were shipped to Jamaica, and our history of rebellions and that revolutionary ethos that has passed from Tacky and Sam Sharpe, through to Bogle and Bedward and on through Garvey and ultimately rising up in the beat of Reggae, seem to prove this true.

It might be this same history that has instilled a braggadocio and our inability to comprehend that we are a small nation. We’re not surprised to be world class, we expect to be, even when we’re not.

But bubbling beneath this euphoria of Jamaica 50 and the London Olympics is the daily reality that we will have to face once again… eventually. Many of these companies, including some of the island’s biggest brands, are no longer locally owned, which means despite the show of patriotism, most of their earnings go elsewhere.

Through the feats of our Olympians, particularly Bolt, we have garnered more positive press than our tourism marketing budget could ever afford. But more importantly, their achievements remind us that the nation’s greatest resource remains its people. One of the striking things about this year’s achievements (and I don’t only include those who medalled) is that there were quiet a few in areas Jamaica had never competed in before or reached that far.

Reality will not wait for the euphoria to pass

In light of the Jamaica 50 celebrations, there was some minor controversy over the fact that some souvenirs (the most notable of which was the “pin of pride”) was manufactured in China. Some saw this as a betrayal and shortsightedness and further evidence of why the country continues to wade in a morass of economic woes. But if we are honest with ourselves, we would really admit that manufacturing is not ideally suited for the island. Manufacturing brings employment, but most of it is low level with long hours and minimum wage. We tried the Free Zone dream and last I checked it left us with nightmarish tales.

I fully believe that the craft market is important but craft should be separated from the souvenir market. While some craft are souvenirs, all souvenirs aren’t craft. I have no problem with the fact that flags we wave to show our joy were made in China, (I’m just asking that we should insist that our flags have gold not yellow, or worse yet lime green.) The country has far more to earn from its creative output than from manufacturing.

The fact that the track and field podium has been so heavily decorated in black, gold and green, highlights that as unique and phenomenal as Usain is, he isn’t merely a bolt from the blue. His talent has been built on a strong foundation which is currently pushing out several other sterling athletes.

A part of the beauty (in the way that tragedies are usually painfully beautiful) about Jamaica, is that we usually succeed despite ourselves. Athletics have become one those areas that have received the requisite support, and now it is bearing fruit. So we need to take these athletic achievement not merely as occasions for momentous joy, but as lessons for the way forward. Getting here is not accidental and has taken far more than talent. The same is true for so many other areas of Jamaican life where we continue to succeed in spite. It is hard to succeed here, so it doesn’t quite surprise when we succeed where playing fields are more level or fewer hurdles are in the way. It is high time that people be given more than wooden spoons to treat with the salt rubbed in their historical wounds.

Making Waves and Sporting Greatness

Alia Atkinson

Alia Atkinson, 100m breaststroke finalist

Jamaica had its first medal brush in the 30th Olympiad in London on Monday afternoon (Jamaica time) when Alia Atkinson powered through the waters of the Aquatic Centre for the finals of the 100m breaststroke. By a hair’s breadth, Atkinson placed fourth. And in the Olympics where a hair is all that separates glory from failure, Atkinson’s fourth-place is far from failure because, well… it’s swimming.

One of the greatest paradoxes about Jamaicans (and I’m told Caribbean people in general) is that we might be surrounded by water, but we don’t swim. We have wonderful beaches where we cavort, drink rum or coconut water (or both), eat jerk chicken and steam fish and we’ll even go as far as splashing about in the water, but swimming, … not really. For some of us the sea is just the place where you go to break the curse of salt and wash off your bad luck. So it’s absolutely great that we have a swimmer in the 2012 Olympics, one who made it to the finals and almost earned a medal, creating a national record.

Alia Atkinson

Atkinson did her country proud by placing fourth in the 100m breaststroke

Atkinson wasn’t merely swimming against her competitors in the pool at the Aquatic Centre; she was going against a tide of tradition that has in the main kept the Caribbean out of the competitive waters. She is not alone. If Wikipedia can be believed (with the requisite servings of salt of course) we have had a few decent swimmers. However swimming is not athletics.

The separation between the two isn’t a matter of history. It’s a matter of resource. It’s been noted by various experts (and non-experts like myself) that Jamaica has been able to create its current glorious crop of sprinters because our runners are developed at every stage of the education system. Even from our early education (basic school) days when we are just learning to count to ten, running (often with a lime and spoon) is a part of the school’s extra-curricula activity.

Every school doesn’t have a pool. Every school doesn’t have a language or science lab. Every school doesn’t do dance or drama or lawn tennis, or table tennis. But every school has a patch of grass or dirt where they can have a sports day and that sport is usually running.

Swimming on the other hand, is largely relegated to the elite with many high schools, including some of our very established and highly respected institutions, having no access to swimming pools. Additionally, as far as I am aware (and I admit to not being very aware) even our athletic tradition was developed more from well-meaning private groups or individuals rather than a general national policy geared at developing athletics. That policy (I think) is just coming around now.

And as Atkinson’s interview with Gleaner reporter Andre Lowe highlighted, getting the sponsorship support to keep you in the game is far from easy. Though not complaining, Atkinson remarked that she hoped to be able to garner enough support to be able to continue to train through to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And while we hope she is able to, the trick of it is that we tend to support winners, not those who have a great chance at winning. The attention she has thus far received may well earn Atkinson her much needed support.

Gi dem a run! When the sprints begin every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring!

Atkinson’s performance allowed many Jamaicans to feel an additional swell of pride we were waiting to tap into later this week, because when the running begins every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring. Recently there seems to have been greater effort to support other sports which will is very welcome. Our athletes Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey, Grace Jackson, through to our current crop of Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt are a huge part of Brand Jamaica and the reason we pack a cultural punch that resonates far beyond our size. These athletes allow us to sport our greatness. It gives us something else to be proud of in our wonderful little country where so much goes so wrong.

I remember being downtown during the 2008 Olympics and a newspaper vendor was selling the afternoon Star. She looks at me through the open window of my trusty 1996 Suzuki Swift points at the paper and  says “Downtown girl a front, country girl a back! No uptown girl!” The “girls” being referenced were Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown. But what the vendor was pointing to is that Jamaican athletics is dominated by many who strive against great economic and social odds. The growing cadre of locally grown athletes have further cemented it position as a valid path and it has certainly been an inspiration to others to attempt to achieve such greatness.

However, regardless of how my heart soars and races along with our runners, we can’t all run. So it’s important that other routes be developed, whether they be other athletic, artistic or academic avenues. Indeed, as this is Jamaica, let me not ask too much. We don’t need the avenues – those wide, well-paved, tree-lined routes. Just a give us track and we will cut and go through.

Oh For the Love of Trees

The Poinciana flower

The Poinciana in bloom looks like a tree ablaze.

It’s easy to lose perspective in the heat and noise of Kingston. Faced by the constant rising tide of the cost of living, it’s easy to forget why this country was dubbed called the land of wood and water. Though Kingston is embraced by the beautiful Caribbean sea and cradled by the Blue Mountains many of us rarely take the time to look up or look out. Our vision is blocked by that insolent taxi-man who just bad-drive you (and possibly sent you two pieces of his favourite claat to top it off) and the myriad of other things that annoy and frustrate.

Driving through downtown Kingston and seeing the dilapidated skeleton of a city that was can be heart breaking. But to focus on the decay and poverty is to miss the true potential of this city. To see only the noise and heat is to miss its beauty.

What I love most about Kingston is when the city blooms. It’s June and the poinciana is robed in fiery orange petals which have earned it its other names of flame tree and flamboyant. The golden shower tree, boasting massive cascading bunches of petals that are reminiscent of little girls with breaking-and-entering tendencies.

Neither the Poinciana nor the Golden Shower are endemic to Jamaica, but they are an important part of Jamaica’s over 3000 species of flowering plants. But Jamaicans have a strange relationship with plants. For many of us, unless they are potted, bought from a plant shop or gifted by a friend (and sometimes even a stranger) they are just bush, nameless, anonymous. And as much as our people, our plants reflect our multiple origins. They remind us that many cultures and beliefs are fused into who we are, they are a part of our out of many that has become one.

The Karato or the century plant

The Karato or the century plant blooms on the hills among the rocks

So these trees are a part of the reason that when I think I’ve had enough, when I hear another budget being read and mistake it for Canada calling, these trees remind me that I am home. Every time I see the Poinciana, the Poui, the Lignum Vitae, the Karato, or even the ignominious shrubs like the shame-a-lady and the ramgoat roses … they remind me that there is beauty here.

So for the love of trees I remain, and remind myself that Buju was right, those who can afford to run will run, but some will have to stand. And so I stand … under the cooling shade of a Lignum Vitae, hoping to gain strength and wisdom from its gnarled, hardened wood, trying to figure out how I can make a difference in the 50 years to come.

50 Days Toward Jamaica 50

Jamaica 50 logo

Jamaica 50 logo

In just under 50 days, Jamaica will officially mark it’s 50th year as an independent nation on August 6, 2012. As we trod toward that important date and jump over the numerous fracas that continue to mark the commemoration I wanted to craft 50 posts in the fifty days leading up to Jamaica 50. I am two days behind.

In numerous posts I have expressed my frustration with this nation so, I thought I would start my Jamaica 50 in 50 series simply by making a pledge, the national pledge in fact:

Before God and all mankind, I pledge the love and loyalty of my heart, the wisdom and courage of my mind, the strength and vigour of my body in the service of my fellow citizens; I promise to stand up for Justice, Brotherhood and Peace, to work diligently and creatively, to think generously and honestly, so that Jamaica may, under God, increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity, and play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.

May be it is because you have to learn these things by route, but I think its easy to not really pay attention to what the words truly say. But reading these words again remind me of what I must do if I wish at all to make a difference in this country, in this world. I particularly like that the pledge leaps beyond our island state to speak to our roles as citizens of the world.

So I pledge…