Jamaica: Not as seen onWestern News Media
** By Professor Abdoulaye Saine, Miami University , Oxford , Ohio
I write this Op-ed as an African and an Africanist scholar for over two decades with considerable interest in political and economic developments in Africa, as well as countries in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Jamaica . In visiting Jamaica for the first time, December 29 to January 8, I could not help reflect on visits to other Caribbean, South American ( Chile ), and African countries. This is, however, not a scholarly article even though it could be developed into one at a later stage in which I would be less impressionistic- more in line with social scientific research expectations- this is the beauty of editorials as they are less constraining and give one degrees of freedom and flexibility- and now on to Jamaica .
If your image of Jamaica is one of drug-crazed kingpins nuking it out with drug-squad police in downtown Kingston or Rastafarians with waist-long locks smoking three-inch long ganja cigarettes while dancing to soothing reggae music and responding to requests and questions with, “yea mon,” “no problem,” think again, as the reality could not be more stark. The Jamaica I saw, following an eleven day visit that took me and my wife from Montego Bay to Kingston (via Ocho Rios, Spanish Town), a four-day visit in Kemps Hill and May Pen in Clarendon Parish, Negril via the majestic city of Mandeville, in Manchester Parish, and back to Montego Bay would set straight any visitor who harbors such or similar mages of Jamaica or Jamaicans.
Jamaica is a stunningly lush island paradise with majestic looking mountains, white powder-like beaches, breathtaking sunsets and views of the Caribbean Sea that wrap your whole being in peaceful splendor. Independent since 1962, Jamaica is a stable and vibrant democracy that has a tradition of peaceful change in government(s) with strong institutions, accountable leadership, a critical watchdog press and journalists whose writing flows with eloquence and ease- a clear reflection of the unrushed tempo of the island and its peoples.
About Jamaicans, you could not meet a more pleasant, generous, purpose-driven, professional people, be it at a private home, airport, resort hotels, hospitals, or in high or elementary schools. Deeply religious and family oriented (Jamaica boasts the highest number of churches per capita for a population of less than three million), families walk the streets or parks, stop for a meal at a fast-food burger joint or patties and ice cream at Devon House in New Kingston.
Frankly, for a people who live in the tropics, I expected Jamaicans, a people of diverse African, Indian, and Chinese ancestry to be more boisterous. Rather, they are a genteel even soft-spoken people who so clearly love and take pride in their country, and its beauty. In fact, there is a reserved, self-assured yet warm demeanor to Jamaicans- reflecting their serene, beautiful and clean physical environment, which they take much pride in maintaining.
And if you are adventurous enough to visit the countryside and homes of Jamaicans, you will be easily swept away by their generosity and willingness to share meals of curried goat and curried Irish potatoes for dinner, fried or boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, Ackee and stockfish, yams and callalou, a mélange of cooked green vegetables for breakfast. While at it, try the liver-and-onions, if you are not too fond of kidney-and-onions, and for desert after dinner, do not go past the rum-cake- it is intoxicatingly delicious.
At the beach resorts of which Jamaica has so many, the food, service and entertainment are unrivalled. If you are content to staying at these venues, you could still have an enjoyable time. However, you would have missed the real Jamaica and its peoples- a big loss and perhaps money not well-spent. Venture outside the well-trodden tourist resorts or even Kingston , home to the elegant Pegasus Hotel. You will see the Jamaica not shown on CNN. Rent a car and travel with a Jamaican who knows the country and you will be in for a treat. Even in the countryside electricity and water, at least during my visit were readily available. This is not trivial business because in some parts of rural or even parts of urban Africa these would be luxuries.
Clearly, education for the young even in the countryside remains a national priority. Here, smartly-dressed and groomed students clad in starched and well-pressed uniforms, sometimes with a tie to match, a relic of British colonial policy, walk the paved streets for their daily lessons at local schools. Students there are eager to learn and study about Africa and their African ancestry, which the curriculum covers but not sufficiently. Further afield students from Kemps Hill in Clarendon, once a vibrant town when sugar cane was king, travel by bus to attend a nationally ranked high school in May Pen, while dedicated civil servants drive to work on a road that is well over-due for resurfacing- the only one I saw in such disrepair in my entire eleven-day stay in Jamaica.
Hard hit by the global economic recession, Jamaica suffers high unemployment and crime but nothing to dampen the strong optimism for the future- “better must come,” a saying I glimpsed on a wall. The government’s strong resolve to curb crime and unemployment, as well as citizen and community policing have taken a big bite out of crime.
One gets the impression that the country is really in good hands and is well-managed by serious, dedicated professionals and politicians. Like in all countries politicians have their share of criticism, some of it deserved to be sure. Yet politics in Jamaica have not become venomous as in the US where on arrival from Jamaica we were greeted by the attempted assassination of a Congresswoman and the shooting death of six people, including a nine-year old girl. Corruption in Jamaica does not appear to be so debilitating to the extent that civil servants go months without pay or school children go without needed school supplies and roads and general infrastructure are in utter disrepair.
Jamaica and Jamaicans have a lot to be proud and thankful for. It is home to a proud and hardworking people, what appears to be good and thoughtful leadership. A country where citizens and journalists are not afraid to speak their mind, fear being abducted in the dead of night, tortured and left for dead in some street corner or disappeared never to be seen again. It boasts a good University with top-notch scholars, serious students, great athletes and entrancing reggae music.
For a country the size of Rhode Island , Jamaica has a bigger name and contribution globally that its size suggests. Thanks in part to its productive Diaspora who remit millions each year. This is not to say “ Jamaica , no problem,” far from it. Like any country it has its share of challenges, and were I to stay longer, I could probably unearth many more. Yet my senses were never once assaulted by sights or smells of visceral poverty that make one cringe or lower one’s gaze, hard as I searched. This, for a country that is less than 50 years old and slated to celebrate fifty years of independence from Britain in 2012.
Jamaica offers poignant lessons for many African countries, the ancestral land of most Jamaicans, where tyranny, rampant greed, unaccountability, and quasi-military dictatorships routinely abuse the human rights of citizens and journalists. Countries where journalists have had to flee out of fear for their lives, and those not so lucky disappeared, assassinated, with radio stations forcibly closed, and newspaper premises torched by state security forces or vigilante groups in the pay of the state. The current political impasse in Cote D’Ivoire and the long list of authoritarian regimes are cases in point.
Visiting Jamaica and well-governed countries and economies in the Caribbean, Africa and South America forced me long ago to abandon the pejoratives and often racist notions so readily and uncritically applied to “other” countries and cultures- “poor,” “underdeveloped,” “developing,” and “backward.” After all, who could possibly look at Jamaica and Jamaicans with all their accomplishments in forty-nine years and describe them thus, just because the economy does not meet some reified macroeconomic indicator? In sum, the Jamaica you see portrayed on CNN and Western media may well be true but gives a distorted glimpse of a complex and more nuanced reality. Granted, I was in Jamaica for less than two weeks. Notwithstanding, I left with favorable impressions of Jamaica and Jamaicans. I shall return!
**Abdoulaye Saine is Professor of African Studies and International Political Economy in the Department of Political Science at Miami University, Oxford , OH , USA .