Lessons in Womanhood

As a black girl child uncertainty was bred into my bones. I was taught to doubt my every thought and decision. Taught to believe someone else’s version of the truth. Taught that my feelings were irrelevant to the task at hand, which was to pave the way for someone else’s vague notions of success. It isn’t that my family deliberately set out to rob me of self-confidence, but these were the lessons I imbibed as a child who was sensitive to the ways of the world.

As an educated black woman I marvel at how much these lessons continue to affect me, particularly in my academic and professional spheres. I note with envy how easily my male colleagues assume roles of leadership. How confidently they navigate their realms, without second guessing, without deferring to another person’s judgment.

I’m acutely aware of the influence that social class must necessarily have on these gendered upbringings. The poor have always been subjugated and have coped with that subjugation by adopting a deferential attitude. This is as much a survival tactic as anything else – the poor frequently have no options for economic mobility other than servitude. And a good servant is docile.

But I don’t want to be a good servant.

I want to be a strong black woman. Strong black women (history says) are rarely ever liked, but they are respected.

If there is one truth I must give the daughter I may never have, it is that her self-worth should never be called into question. That she does not have to shrink to make way for others to grow. That she must go out and make her mark on this wretched, wonderful Earth without fear or hesitation. That she must do this with as much poise and compassion as she can muster because the world will not be kind (though kindness is needed).

This is the lesson I hope society will one day teach: that our black girls are not pawns, no. They have been Queens all along.

*

Credit for the image (as well as my blog avatar) to Zigbone.

Prison Ablaze: A Symptom, not the Disease

Yesterday the Tower Street Adult Correctional Facility caught on fire.

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Photo from the Jamaica Gleaner

Predictably, the government is scrambling to conduct an ‘urgent upgrade‘. The article is peppered with buzzwords like ‘relevant stakeholders’ and ‘infrastructural development’. Interestingly there is no mention of whether any of the inmates were injured, just that they have been relocated.

It’s also worth pointing out that the fire affected the part of the prison that houses the mentally ill inmates. What is the level of supervision for these inmates, and what are their living conditions like? Were these facilities particularly susceptible to fire hazards? Was the fire an accident of poor maintenance, or the intentional act of unsupervised inmates, or something else entirely?

The article is keen to remind us that ‘high-profile’ criminals like Vybz Kartel are also housed at this prison. Is this supposed to garner public sympathy, or expedite government intervention? I’m not sure why the popularity of certain inmates is relevant to the reporting.

But it all goes to highlight the reactive way we deal with crises in this country. Institutions and resources struggle along for years carrying water with baskets until something catastrophic happens. Whereupon every Jack man jumps up to point fingers and fling on a hasty fix, only to have the system break down again because nothing long-term was put in place. For all the government’s talk about cutting costs (and it is mainly talk), you would think they would learn that prevention better than cure.

Apologetics: My Strange Fixation with White Women

Alternative title: Navigating my Reader Identity

When I was a little girl and just starting to flex my writing muscles the first story I ever wrote was called Cottage on the Hill. It was about two young white girls from London who went to spend summer vacation with their grandparents in rural England. Of course, I had never seen a cottage or spent a summer with my grandparents or been to rural England but as so often happens with young black writers the stories we write are the stories we have read about.

It never occurred to me at that age to consider Jamaican characters or settings. I had never read about home outside of those little chapbooks from primary school (you know the ones with the newsprint and sketches) that tried to impart Serious Moral Lessons through Anansi stories and others. But that wasn’t what I wanted to write – I wanted to write proper short stories. And proper short stories were about people from outside of the Caribbean.

I grew up, of course, and developed a thirst for Caribbean literature despite the disinterested way it gets tacked on to high school syllabuses. I actively seek out Jamaican writers and as many women writers as I can. Colonialism may have dictated my preferences but I can change that if I try hard enough. And sometimes the trying is hard. What I want to read isn’t always available, but often what is available ends up being what I want to read.

Transition with me from books to the online world of blogs; most of the ones I’m familiar with (and like) are written by upper middle class white suburban housewives. What the hell is this demographic? I have no idea. Okay, maybe I have a little idea. But as I grapple with this proclivity and the desire to see myself represented in internet writings, guilt often bubbles up. It feels like consuming all this content from a foreign culture only pushes me further away from my own.

Another issue is that I have more in common with these women than I do with people I actually live and work with. Cue identity crisis! Cue questioning my life choices*! This is why I read those blogs, this is why I feel distanced from my own culture: camaraderie and the quest for acceptance. But what is the solution, lock myself away from the world and read only content produced by Jamaicans for Jamaicans?

No, xenophobia isn’t the answer here. It isn’t automatically bad to be intrigued by alternate ways of life. On the contrary, globalization is accepted and encouraged. Where it crosses the line into acculturation is a little blurry, but we’re working on that.

These days I berate myself less and less for my tastes, but unlearning decades of stigma for being ‘the weird one’ is hard. I will probably never stop liking The Bloggess or Neil Gaiman, but I am gradually unwinding myself from the notion that these interests make me less Jamaican. In reality I will always be Jamaican, just a Jamaican who is open-minded, liberal and a little more day-dreamy than expected.


*Life choices like watching Doctor Who, listening to The Chainsmokers, and reading yet another Jenny Lawson/Elizabeth Gilbert mental health guidebook cleverly disguised as a novel.

 

Bonfires and Other Gateway Drugs

One thing leads to another and suddenly I’m on a beach under the full moon at 9 on a weeknight, swaying around a bonfire to the sounds of Rasta youths spitting troots and the soulful melodies of Kali Grn and DReblz.

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Glowing embers and DReblz in action

I think I’ve started taking deliberate steps down a path of cultural appreciation – specifically an appreciation of Rastafarianism and its associations. Rastafari is one of those aspects of our culture that we don’t really notice until we stop and look at it. But it’s all around us, like water to a fish, and it impacts so much of our daily life – from curse words to our reaction to authority to our taste in music. Rasta gave us reggae and weed and locs. In return we gave them Bad Friday and a persistent (though waning) stigma surrounding their lifestyle.

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Hol’ a vibes

I’m not sure when this journey started, maybe the day Obie and I visited the Rastafari Exhibit at the Montego Bay Cultural Centre. But it was definitely after Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded when we discovered (Columbus-style) Kali Grn that we fell down the rabbit hole. First it was the Spring Equinox Festival then a beach bonfire under the full moon then the Bad Friday commemoration at the Civic/Cultural Centre on Good Friday.

The experiences that lie along this path have been, so far, incredible. I used to think – and perhaps it used to be true – that MoBay had little to offer in the way of cultural events. Compared to Kingston where there are reggae concerts practically on a weekly basis, and a variety literary/musical/artistic gatherings we are taking our first tiny steps. But they are definitely steps in the right direction.

Big Pharma in Little Jamrock

a Third World Perspective on the Ethical Dilemma of Drug Company Gifts

Who doesn’t love presents? Santa Clause, your mom, your boy/girlfriend – doesn’t matter who it’s coming from, as along as the tag has your name on it (and you don’t have to pay). Can you imagine if you could get presents, not only from people who care about you, but from people you associate with in the professional sphere?

What, presents from work colleagues? Not quite. Gifts and privileges from medical representatives trying to push their products. What’s the harm, you might ask. I’ll take their stuff, but my prescriptions don’t have to change. Besides, so what if I prescribe Brand X instead of Brand Y. The patient still gets the same drug.

But there’s plenty of harm.

Multi-million dollar pharmaceutical companies, affectionately called Big Pharma, spend tidy sums of money each year keeping physicians loyal to their brands. This comes across as fancy dinners, paid vacations, or even just catered meetings. The medical representative proffers the olive branch of food (usually) in return for the chance to remind physicians why we need to prescribe their pills.

This, of course, can have disastrous repercussions for patient care, particularly when the ethical practices of physicians are called into question. For this reason the relationship between doctors and drug companies is heavily regulated in the United States and other countries. But in Jamaica physicians are left up to their own devices when handling drug company influences.

For the most part the attitude of Jamaican doctors appears to be politely non-partisan. We’re appreciative of the benefits meted out by medical representatives, but brand loyalty isn’t a widely supported concept*.

In medical school our lecturers went to great lengths to teach generic names instead of brands for common drugs. It’s a habit that sticks until you start working with doctors who almost exclusively use trade/brand names and then all our lecturers’ hard work is undone. And strictly prescribing generics becomes impractical when you start to consider affordability, brand vs. generic efficacy (and there is a difference) and of course patient preference. Most of our choices as doctors will be based on one or more of these factors, not just which company gave us better stuff.

Another aspect of third world presents that differs from our first world counterparts is the quality and scale of the benefits. I hear stories (from the U.S.) of travel expenses being covered and expensive electronics being gifted to conference attendees. Big Pharma has even literally paid doctors cash to recommend their products.

Now I am a still a small fry in this medical business, but I just don’t see Lil Pharma here in the Caribbean shelling out that kind of money. We get catered lunch meetings and one or two free conferences for medical education purposes, but the average ‘kickback‘ here is most often a pen or some hand sanitizer. Really, it’s like they’re not even trying (by comparison).

But this doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t being swayed. Especially when you add in other local factors like how Jamaica is so small that chances are you’re actually friends with one or two medical representatives (and so feel compelled to prescribe their drugs). Or how Jamaica has so much corruption that even if physicians practiced unethical brand loyalty people would probably still turn a blind eye. On the other hand, Jamaica is so poor that most patients aren’t able to afford fancy brands anyway so it’s not much use pushing those medications on our market.

This is where public and private practice diverge widely. Patients in the public system are treated based on availability of medication because for the most part they cannot afford to pay full price for their medications. Pharmaceutical companies sometimes bid for spots on the National Health Fund subsidy so that their drug can reach a wider base. Yay, right? Not necessarily. These are the cheaper drugs, often generic formulations and usually older than what the rest of the world is using. Standard of care takes a back seat to any kind of care we can manage at this point.

By contrast in private practice, patients are generally seen as wealthier and more actively involved in their health. These patients usually don’t mind paying more for a brand name medicine if they feel it works better than the generic, and this is where the industry can get a toe in the door. This is where the ethical dilemma of industry gifts begins to take root. And if we are going to start any kind of regulatory or even supervisory process this is where we must investigate first.

But for now people are comfortable. Patients get their medications, physicians get their food, and Big Pharma gets their profits. It’s a win-win-win, until someone (likely the patient) loses.


*Not statistical. Based on my own (limited) observations.

St. James: warm, welcoming, dangerous, defensive

This parish is a bundle of contradictions. While we smile and wave at tourists on the Hip Strip, lotto scammers fleece hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting (and greedy) foreigners. Upscale communities like Mango Walk and Ironshore are book-ended by their less refined counterparts Paradise and Flankers. In and around Montego Bay we are a thriving urban cesspool but you don’t have to drive too far out of town to find coconut groves, yam grounds and the occasional babbling brook.

When I went to Flamstead for a health fair Obie told me to make sure I got some coconuts (apparently Flamstead has good coconuts?). I ended up coming home with more than just coconuts, thanks to the generosity of rural folk and the fertile farmland that the community is nestled in.

In fact the good experiences I had at the health fair were entirely due to a brand of kindness that too many Jamaicans are growing up without these days. The church members who hosted us were more than accommodating, and the clients we interacted with were so polite! A far cry from the average short-tempered clinic patient. Jamaicans generally have a problem with patience (meaning we have very little) but aside from some minor hiccups the day was very productive.

As a thank-you gift (and because we asked, shamelessly) the church pastor sent us off with yam, sugar cane and other goodies. Even though I didn’t get home until after 6 I would gladly trade any sweltering unfriendly clinic shift with another day in the field like that one.

By strong and glaring contrast my home visits in the community of Flanker were filled with sharp zinc fences, sketchy looking dirt tracks and suspicious neighbours. Going to someone’s home is totally different from going to their community; home visits are a lot more intimate, and the experience was an eye-opener.

The contradictory nature of St. James came out full force again. Though it is a stone’s throw away from the planned upscale development of Ironshore, Flanker has a lot of captured land* and it is well known for having a violent streak. But while the stereotypical cruffs* congregated at every corner shop, behind the high gated walls you can find middle aged career types, retired couples and aging invalids. Yes, there were the common twenty-something girls with artificially lightened skin and lengthened hair, but in the same place a dirt road might actually lead to a house with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beautiful bay.

I left Flamstead with gratitude. I left Flanker with grounding.

In my dispassionate survey of these alternate living situations, I recognized that there is no one way to be Jamaican, to be uptown or even to be ‘ghetto’.  Neighbourhood lines and bank accounts don’t always gel, and poverty cannot be measured solely on the basis of ones weekly income. I recognized that the struggle was so much realer that I could have imagined, because it was many struggles rolled in to one. How old you are impacts how much money you make impacts where you can afford to live impacts your access to health care. The intersections of the biological, psychological and social spheres of health were made suddenly and painfully alive.

But despite my personal revelations St. James will continue to woo visitors with visions of sandy beaches and gorgeous sunsets, while hiding their less savoury vistas behind highway rails and zinc fences. When will we improve the pathetic social infrastructure that is dragging our economy down? When will we realize that a nation’s people are its best investment?

 

**
Cruff – unemployed male, usually in his twenties, who spends his days smoking weed, drinking rum and Boom and catcalling any girls unfortunate enough to pass by

Capture(d) land – land that isn’t legally owned (yet) by the person living on it

Spring Equinox at the Rasta Village

Barefoot, bamboo pipe and box food – this was the scene at the Indigenous Rasta Village on the outskirts of Montego Bay last Sunday. It was a space for communion, reasoning and celebration.

The Rasta Village is accessible by one of two routes – you can drive through Porto Bello to the Montego River Gardens then cross a river to get to the venue. Or you can drive through Fairfield, down a narrow winding dirt track until you reach the last house at the end of the lane. Behind the house is the village.

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Welcoming is the first word that comes to mind when you step into the circular space that housed the festival. Everyone nods and smiles openly when they greet you, with an enthusiastic clasping of hands in what feels like a physical manifestation of namaste.

The full programme included yoga, drumming sessions and an open mic segment. There were performances by Mentor, Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live. Around the central camp were stalls displaying natural oils and soaps. Two huge jars of cannabis stems rested atop a table under the main gazebo. The smell of cook food and ganja perfumed the air.

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As I sat cross-legged on a borrowed bamboo mat I drank my sip and looked around at the motley collection that had gathered. There were a lot of Rastas, certainly, but also several bald heads (I know, you don’ haffi dread fi be Rasta), more than a few mature upper middle class people, and quite a lot of people my age or a little older.

The vibe of the gathering had put me in a mood for reflection (or maybe it was the contact high) and I was intrigued by the thought that all these people from different backgrounds had come here with the same purpose: to revive, renew, replenish and reaffirm. That everyone would be affected by the experience in different ways, and would take away different things from the event that touched them uniquely, if it touched them at all.

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Nomaddz and Rasta Village Live

I leaned into the Rastafarian faith a little more that day. A lot appealed to me: the ideas of personal divinity, the belief in livity, the impressive respect for life in all its forms and yes, the ital food did taste good too.

But I also couldn’t stop my usual anxious over-thinking. I was convinced that there was a right way and a wrong way to be Jamaican and I was definitely doing it the wrong way. every “Blessings” or “Blessed love” I received in greeting I returned a nervous “Good afternoon”. I couldn’t help it – when I’m anxious my Patois stalls. I felt like a fake, because I have locs but I know very little about Rasta culture beyond what I read in school. Only the warm smiles from everyone (and I mean literally everyone) kept me from running away with my head bowed in shame.

How Agent Sasco song go, “no fashion dread nuffi come a talk bout Selassie”?

But over and over my mind kept returning to the deep seated contentment that shone from the faces of the Rastas I interacted with. They had invited us into their sanctum santorum and were so willing to share their music and ideas and food with us – a little bit of their culture free of charge. Maybe it was the weed or maybe it was the kind of peace that springs from a deep personal connection with faith, but however they achieved it I wanted some of that contentment for myself.

I left the Village feeling inspired and uplifted, on a healthier mental and physical plane. The sip and ital food had warmed my belly and the conscious lyrics of Mentor and Nomaddz had warmed my heart.

Then I promptly went and had KFC for dinner. It’s a work in progress.

My Cup Runneth Over: Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded

The artistic scene in Montego Bay is very well-nourished, or so one would think from the sizable crowd that squeezed into Blue Beat Jazz and Martini Bar last Saturday night for the poetry-and-music affair. I am acutely aware that the coverage is also sorely lacking, as I sit here penning this write-up almost one full week later.

Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded is the sequel to Lyrical Eloquence, a night of poetry and fashion where poets, musicians and designers gathered to share their craft and mingle with like-minded creatives. This iteration, with less fashion and more music and poetry, was thematically centered on Black History – apropos of the month of February.

Like so many events in this country, Lyrical Eloquence could not escape the trap of island time, and the programme didn’t start until an hour after the scheduled 8:30pm. Nevertheless the ensuing performances were at turns delightful and thought-provoking.

MC’d by the gracious Brian Brown, whose quick pace did much to move the evening along, Lyrical Eloquence Reloaded featured performances from Montegonian talent and some further afield. For me, the surprises of the night were two as-yet-undiscovered gems: Kali Grn and D Reblz, and Jeeby Lyricist.

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Kali Grn and D Reblz

Kali Grn brought me the humbling realization that I am more than a little out of touch with the Mobay Art Scene. He and his band are much beloved on the hotel circuit and based on the responses of the audience have garnered quite the local following. Though there are clear reggae influences, their sound is authentically millennial with clear melodious harmonies, dynamic instrumentals and clever thoughtful lyrics.

But if I talk about lyrics, I have to talk about Jeeby Lyricist, who by day is a student of law in Kingston (perhaps this is why he manages such quick-witted vernacular). The back-up singer was a little vocally disappointing (especially coming after those Reblz) but Jeeby weaves superb double entendres — his last song a tongue-in-cheek nod to masculine attempts at flirtation in this modern dancehall environment.

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Jeeby Lyricist in action

There are so many honorable mentions: Jah Meikle – whom I had the pleasure of first meeting some years ago in Kingston – is an excellent drummer and poet who makes combining rhythms look much easier than I imagine it would be. The dub poets Mentor and Fyah Marley, among others. Brian Brown himself. And the ineffable, inimitable Carla Moore who closed the show.

My greatest vexation about this event is that I missed Carla Moore’ performance. For those who don’t know, Carla comes to us from UWI’s Western Campus where she lectures in the Institute of Gender and Development Studies. Before that she was in Canada, keeping touch with Jamaica through her vlog countryfromlongtime. Now she mostly Instagrams @mooretivation. I find her to be unerringly in tune with the ethos and angst of this millennial generation, and her unexpected words of inspiration have never failed to comfort me.

My quarrel, of course, is entirely with myself. My bedtime is around 10 o’clock these days and by midnight (when there were still five more performers) I was fighting sleep hard. I was overwhelmed, in a good way, by the crowd that populated Blue Beat’s modest open air terrace and that swelled with appreciation for the spoken (and sung) word. Next time I will know to wear comfy shoes, bring snacks/coffee, and stake-out a good seat at least an hour in advance.

//

All image credits to Di Foto Shoppe

 

Ode to Cat

My cat turns one year old this month, and I love her more than I ever thought I could love another living creature. I love this cat more than my mother. More than my partner. And though my mother would be a little annoyed, my partner is unfazed. Perhaps because my cat loves him more than she loves me.

Cat comes first. Her delight at dismembering roaches, frogs, lizards takes first place over my delight at having a floor devoid of tiny animal guts. Her disgust with hours old cat chow takes precedence over my sad attempts to ration her (expensive) food. Her desire to be on my lap right at this very moment even though I have to get ready for work supersedes my need to get ready for work.

Cats aren’t usually paraded as the most affectionate of pets but it is a goddamn miracle whenever she chooses to hop into one of our laps at the dinner table. The ensuing nuzzle-and-purr I am convinced are mere tools to ensnare us even further and I wish I would resist (especially when she hops off to bring a cockroach home and it inevitably runs across my bare feet) but she is just so precious dammit.

Of course I get mad at her. She destroys the furniture, bites my ear when I don’t wake up on time to feed her, scratches my feet at play, and have I mentioned bringing creepy crawlies into the house? But even in her craziest, sprint-across-the-house-at-2am-for-no-goddamn-reason moments I still manage to lose myself in her huge – eyes (the crazy eyes) and that faint meow so unique to her.

She widens my heart one feline stretch at a time, indulges my need to cuddle, teaches me about acceptance and patience and selflessness. She’s everything I ever imagined a cat would be (plus some other things I never thought of – roaches, again).

Now excuse me while I put some alcohol on my fresh claw marks.

From Preatoria to Hopefield

Some thoughts on “The Problem with Black Hair”

Jamaican girls with unmixed African hair – that super coiled, cry when it combing out, deceptively short until you tug on a strand hair – have mostly always relaxed their hair. Which, like most major life decisions, is totally okay when it’s a choice. Not so okay when  mothers relax their 5 year old’s hair because they just can’t bother to comb it.

Recently there’s been a movement toward “embracing your curls” – which some of my more cynical and curlier friends have decried as a purely “mixed girl hair” movement. African hair doesn’t bounce around your ears in curly waves, they complain, no matter how much product you put in it. Fair point, but short accessorized afros are steadily gaining pace among trendy hairstyles of the 21st century. And I am so happy when I see people not giving up on their natural hair for the sake of having it easy.

If you know me, you would know that statement is more than a little hypocritical, because my sole purpose in locking my hair was to have a low maintenance hairstyle. I hate combing my hair, bitterly, but I didn’t want to relax it because chemicals are terrifying. Locs were the compromise.

It helped my decision that locs are still relatively uncommon in this part of the island – the Kingston liberal arts and hipster scene is awash with dreads both real and temporary but in Montego Bay I’ve found locs are largely restricted to the working class. And I like to make minor stirs when I can, upset people’s predisposed notions.

The radically opposing points of view on black hair simply cannot find middle ground. There is the “natural camp” and the “neat camp” and for some reason they have decided that never the twain shall meet. Obviously one can be natural and neat, if one only adjusts and compromises the meanings behind those adjectives.

The afro is going to face the same uphill battle that locks did, because of its historic associations. Once upon a time, the only people with locs or afros were people who couldn’t afford to straighten their hair (read: poor people) or people who were rebelling against society (read: criminals). This antipathy toward hair that isn’t long and straight with no strand out of place is as entrenched as our antipathy toward melanin, toward the spectrum of sexuality, toward difference on a whole.

But the world is moving forward, tentatively. Acceptance is in.