Jamaica is grit, brown dog and noise. Jamaica is litter strewn about her sidewalks, resting after lofty flights on errant winds. Intrusive lights, gunshots or maybe fireworks or maybe a car. Jamaica is smog and fresh air. Dry rivers and wide-open seas. She is not so shallow as to stop at the “Irie Mon” from a smiling face high atop a coconut tree, but instead gives free reign to contrasts and conflict beneath the occasional fog or maybe smog.
There was once a time when my mother and I would stand at the bus stop after work and school to “boom a ride.” Thumbs pointed in the direction of our travels, my mother’s best friend and her own brood would accompany us in the sport. A toss-up between the bus and the inclinations of relative strangers (far less nefarious then as it sounds now), whichever came first, it was the thing to do in passing the time between being home and not.
Such activity required some skill and a fair amount of charm on all sides—we made a game of it. But most importantly, it required a very healthy amount of trust in your fellow countryman. The idea that we were all in this together, one looking out for the other, the individual doing their part in sustaining the whole, ferrying each other home. Idyllic almost.
I repeat stories like the one above to myself and consider it a delightful anecdote to share with others of a time not so long ago. It may seem an impractical thing, dwelling solely on the charms of the past when current narratives would have us look only to the future. But still I think fondly of my family and I gathered on our veranda to trade stories of history and legacy, me playing the role of absorbent sponge while my parents and grandmother wove a tapestry of their lives before mine.
There was a time when violence was novel and mostly concentrated in and around St. Andrew, a time when extended family that had never lived outside rural areas refused to visit us. Much of what they heard of the city ignited fear. Still so secluded from the bustle of Kingston town—my grandmother’s district functioned without electricity and running water well into my early childhood—the occasional praedial larceny formed the bulk of crimes reported. Even then, bad as it was, it was never that bad and one could easily dismiss their fears as hyperbolic.
Now when we gather, we exchange tales of murder and bloodshed, of war and missing women. I read aloud from the nearest newspaper, “A deadly gang feud has already claimed more than 12 lives in the two communities since the…” “I left there one month now. Them say them going to kill me wife because my son…” and the commiserations are the same. “Boy, mi nuh know…” “Jamaica gone to the dogs.” “Yuh nuh see seh wi in trouble?”
Bad news rises in waves, a surge of measured fear and appropriate levels of horror slurry together before receding to reveal vague recollection of that awful thing. Psychologists warn of the effects of repeated trauma, the type that lingers no matter how repressed the memory. It’s almost seasonal, robberies rise at Christmas, women go missing in the fall, murders rise in the summer, grief all year round. The men in my family have now introduced talk of the necessity of guns for reassurance, guns for security, guns I never imagined taking up residence in my home.
Lest I neglect my role of dutiful Jamaican, it would be folly to neglect mention of the island’s gem-like qualities. An emerald afloat in the Caribbean Sea, the whole rock is precious and her power incomparable. Sometimes yuh buck up on one of these power spots and a feeling just wash over weh mek yuh stop, take a breath and whisper, “Jamaica nice.” There still remain parts of this island untouched and unaffected: pockets of lush rural splendour, along a densely wooded Hollywell trail, separate from all else below the waters of Boston Bay.
How then do you reconcile with tragedy in paradise? It’s easier for the man who has had limited to no access to that which inspires awe in others, the man more familiar with poverty and loss behind a zinc fence. And for the tourist, who never sets foot outside their ultra all-inclusive resort, with access to vistas denied to islanders. The western parish of St. James, with a population of 180,000 people recorded more murders in 2017 than New York City, which plays host to a population of 8.5 million. In that same year, a day of heavy rainfall in the parish’s capital resulted in extensive flooding and property damage. In spite of this, our Ministers hurry to offer assurances to potential visitors to the tourist mecca, lest the thought of dying and displaced locals should affect the numbers.
Responses to loss and tragedy are often marked by reassurances to outsiders and investors as this excerpt from The Gleaner reads, “Almost 300 people have been killed in St James since the start of the year, but visitors to the island's tourism capital have been largely safe, and Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett says everything is in place to keep it that way.”
Much of the island is a lesson in duality, Jamaica’s ubiquitous cultural influence emerging from a marriage of contrasts. Rough-hewn homes set against forested hills, inner city communities bordering affluent neighbourhoods, pious worship and nude revelry. Land of wood and water, the only nation to have given the world six new genres of music in the 20th century and home to the fastest man alive. You sample the rhythms, make butchered attempts at the dialect and argue over the origin of the word “ting” with a Canadian-appointed island prince. You consume the material without knowing the source and the significance. Jamaicans, too, are guilty of this.
We have forgotten our power, placing value on monetary profit and economic stimulation by any means necessary, at all levels. We sell an image of paradise accessible to those who can afford it while building higher walls along our coast. As the façade fades, more and more, we become more insular, closing ranks in defense of life and safety. Some argue that they love Jamaica, she just doesn’t love them back. But given enough time, Jamaica can restore. Salt water the medicine, river water leave you pure, coconut water wash off yuh heart, how many can access the cure?