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.

on Wanderlust and its Manifestations

so, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here
never enough for both
-Ijeoma Umebinyuo “Diaspora Blues”

I am restless in a number of ways. Two of them: I can never sit still (something my cat hates) and I feel uneasy when I’ve lived too long in one place. This is a direct result of my childhood which was spent moving from rental home to rental home, never quite settling down. But it is also, perhaps, the result of generations of restless women who have dumped all their unfulfilled wanderlust onto my lap.

People sometimes brag about having lived their whole lives in one place.

“Yeh, Paradise mi born and grow. Everybody know me.”

Substitute Paradise for Roehampton, Cascade, Trench Town, etc. In response I’m completely baffled by the determined way they fit like fixtures into one neighbourhood, the way they know the history of every ackee tree and eye newcomers with the collective distrust of small towns. Don’t get me wrong – I love making roots and connections and settling myself (temporarily) into the unfamiliar ebb and flow of a new place. But once the current becomes too well-known I yearn for novelty again.

It’s not my fault, entirely. My mother, one of the urban drifters, left her born-and-grow home of Donalva in Hanover for the expanding city of Montego Bay. Once there she moved again and again searching for home, eventually settling for the closest approximation.

My grandmother, born in Hope Bay, Portland then raised on the hills of Fruitful Vale, followed her errant brother to the plains of May Pen and then again to the far flung, frigid shores of England during the great West Indian migration of the mid-1900’s. Dissatisfied and homesick she turned once more to Jamaica settling west in the parish of St. James, first in rural Roehampton then the coasts of Mobay.

My great-great-great-grandfather, a Scotsman and a traveler who wound up in Portland, Jamaica (the same Portland as my grandmother) centuries before.

I could go further back to the forced melanin migration of the Transatlantic Trade, hundreds of thousands of families uprooted and displaced. The result a fractured diaspora that alternates its longing for home with a hatred of the same (or at best a distant apathy).

All of which distill down to me, who moves around so much the thought of settling down kick-starts my anxiety. There’s so much to see, so many houses to be lived in, so many countries and towns and villages to discover, to be a part of. How can I choose one place to spend the rest of my life?

Maybe restlessness is the Afro-Caribbean ethos. Maybe I’m trying to outrun some deep emotional trauma. Maybe I’m trying to pin down that nebulous feeling of Home.Maybe I’m not old enough to settle down (maybe I never will be).

And hold me fast, hold me fast
Cause I’m a hopeless wanderer
I will learn, I will learn to love the skies I’m under
Mumford and Sons “Hopeless Wanderer”

But maybe one day this hopeful wanderer will hang her hat on some worthy homestead, and settle down to tell stories of a life well-traveled. For now, though, I’ll keep knocking about, readjusting and starting over. After all, it’s what I know best.

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

 

If It Ain’t Broke? CRH is Definitely Broke

Local news headlines are reporting that the regional hospital on the western end of the island is having difficulties with the decades old ventilation system, forcing most of its services to be badly curtailed. As the only Type A hospital outside of the KSAC its services are integral to regional health stability. Not just the most critical patients but also the day to day management of stable patients depend on this hospital’s functions.

Which is perhaps why in an effort to avoid national panic, the Government (through the media) has downplayed the potentially longstanding and severe effects of the situation. Ventilation issues are the problem, they quip, and point to engineers assessing the situation, the plans in place to fix it. Never mind that every day brings the shut down or relocation of some critical department. Never mind that daily staff and patients are exposed to unknown airborne chemicals with unforeseeable effects to their physical health.

The problem as Dr. Christopher Tufton rightly pointed out is primarily one of neglect. For decades the ventilation at CRH has not been working and none of our successive governments has bothered to fix it. So when a simple problem of airborne irritants occurs there was no ventilation  system in place to redirect the fumes. And when they did turn the system on the problem only worsened. (This is a classic example of sick building syndrome).

Internationally speaking, workplace hazards are problems ripe for litigation. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that the employee is not placed at unnecessary risk in carrying out his or her duties (the so-called ‘due diligence‘). Where unavoidable this risk should be carefully calculated.

Human lives are at stake.

Healthcare workers are put at risk in so many other ways: needle-stick injuries, violent patients, contamination with blood or other bodily fluids, the constant exposure to illness. We mitigate these risks as best as we can, accepting them as part and parcel of our call to service. But the continued pressure to work in an environment with unidentified and potentially catastrophic risk is, I think, too much to ask. What the media (and therefore the public) have yet to fully realize is that human lives are at stake: patients, medical and non-medical staff, siblings, spouses, parents, children.

I don’t envy the Health Minister’s seat right now, backed into a corner with IMF restraints and the demands of an ailing health sector. And just as you said, Dr. Tufton, there is no quick fix. But the people working and convalescing in this contaminated institution cannot be left to languish while the situation is slowly rectified. Decisive action is needed if lives are to be saved. Come Dr. Tufton, do sumn before sumn do wi.

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.

Sankofa: Critiquing our Coverage of Culture

I have been remiss. Too often I forget that this is a space of growth, questions and a conscious quest for truth. It is too easy to descend into aggravated polemics without stopping to consider and critique. It’s the writer’s equivalent of chewing with your mouth open.

In pursuit of critical discussion I have stumbled across The Nassau Guardian, the oldest and largest newspaper in The Bahamas. More specifically, their Arts and Culture segment where thought-provoking essays by Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett and others are fanning new flames into discussions on race and identity.

It’s a Lifestyle section with more life than style, where the arts and culture pieces actually talk about art and culture. Dr. Bethell-Bennett delves critically into post-modern theories surrounding the manufacture of the Caribbean identity. His deconstruction of post-colonialism and its impact on Afro-Caribbean societies is not new but it’s so refreshing to hear someone wax poetic on the subject in a national newspaper.

I contrast our top two national newspapers: The Gleaner and the Jamaica Observer. The lifestyle section of both newspapers is filled mainly with light and fluffy pieces that don’t provide much food for thought. The Gleaner admittedly digs a touch deeper in its Arts and Leisure section, in that they comment on culturally relevant events. But the coverage is bare bones at best and leaves so much to be desired.

Is it merely that the first-world Bahamas with a supposedly higher percentage of tertiary-educated readers can easily devote segments of its newspaper to largely academic rhetoric? What is the interplay between economics and social commentary? Is socio-cultural criticism merely a luxury that Jamaicans cannot yet afford?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is that the discussions on race, culture and identity highlighted in The Nassau Guardian are critical to the future of Caribbean development.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, culture and origins is like a tree without roots.
–Marcus Garvey

The Only Culprits – in response to Glenn Tucker

Today the Jamaica Gleaner published a commentary piece from Glenn Tucker (educator and sociologist) about the “real culprits” behind child sex abuse. In the article, Mr. Tucker displays the same line of reasoning that allows rape culture to be so prevalent in our society – that of blaming anyone other than the perpetrator of the crime.

Mr. Tucker takes the point of view that our alternative Caribbean family structures are the main reason child sex abuse is taking place. He blames single mothers, absentee fathers, the revolving door of stepfathers – everyone except the actual person who should be blamed: the perpetrator.

I can’t argue that the way people raise their children leaves much to be desired. But as much grouse as I have with most parents in this country, there is no way I can condone blaming mothers and step-fathers for the actions of grown-ass men and women who prey on minors. Parents can do more to protect their children, certainly. But the argument that the blame lies entirely with the victim/victim’s parents is wholly reductive.

The entire tone of the piece is condescending and self-righteous, with Mr. Tucker seemingly placing himself above the “dalliances” of the hoi polloi – even so far as extricating himself from the responsibility of reporting suspected cases of abuse.

I know a mother who dolls up her daughter in nice short, sexy little dresses twice each week and sends her off to pastor for ‘driving lessons’. Four years later, when she became my friend at age 16 (do the math), she still did not know the difference between the stick and the ignition. This one is not likely to reach the courts, however, because she tells me gleefully that Pastor is “really, really good”.

Every citizen has a moral and ethical (and in some cases legal) responsibility to report cases like these, regardless of the child’s current age or the attitude of her parent. Failure to report abuse or suspected abuse is equally as heinous as committing the crime yourself.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing
-Edmund Burke

Then Mr. Tucker attacks the hard-working investigators of these alleged cases; an attack, which as a primary care physician, I take very personally. No agency or institution is completely infallible, but we have to believe that the overall thrust of organisations like CISOCA and the CDA is in a positive direction.

His sentiments completely devalue the efforts of governmental and non-governmental agencies alike. And he fails to consider the roadblocks of financial and human resource limitations, the constraints of our justice system and the inherent rape culture/informer fi dead culture. He, the indifferent observer, is content to blame the people actively trying to deliver justice instead of the people who are perpetrating the crimes.

But it’s the final paragraph that sends chills down my spine, when Mr. Tucker includes himself in the group of “dirty old men”, referencing I presume the population of mature men of power eliciting sexual favours from minors in return for financial assistance.

Because of the extent of family disorganisation in this country, it is us dirty old men who are keeping the bodies and souls of these ‘victims’ together, making them graduate from school. And university, in some cases.
Jamaica Gleaner February 6, 2017 (emphasis mine)

The meaning is ambiguous but the paragraph lends itself to a much more sinister interpretation. And I don’t think Mr. Tucker is the only university graduate who feels this way. If these are the opinions of the people teaching our children and leading our communities, it’s going to be a lot harder to fix our culture than I thought.

You are (meant to be) here.

I am often overwhelmed by day to day decision-making. Simple choices like what to have for breakfast, or which route to drive home, or what outfit to wear build themselves up in my mind, until somehow they have acquired more space than they should. Suddenly my decision to stop at the supermarket after work has the same weight as deciding to pursue postgraduate education.

Often, too, it feels like all my decisions are the wrong ones. When I follow my instincts, when I don’t follow my instincts – no matter how I try to weigh the pros and cons I still end up feeling like I let the right choice slip away.

Last week I was running late to pick my partner up from work. As usual my series of choices led me down the wrong path: tardiness. But as I crested the hill, I caught a glimpse of the sunset on the horizon. The brilliantly scarlet star was seconds away from sinking out of view, and I got to watch those seconds.

Almost instantly I felt a wave of calm and certainty. All the choices I had made that day – wrong, right or indifferent – had led me to this exact moment, and I couldn’t have timed it better if I tried. It suddenly didn’t matter that I was late – lateness happens. All that mattered was that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

 

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.