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Hilary Robertson-Hickling | Many rivers to cross from Windrush to today

Published:Saturday | May 18, 2019 | 12:08 AMHilary Robertson-Hickling/Contributor

As we enter a week celebrating the torturous journey of Jamaican workers, we must thank Jimmy Cliff for his prophetic song Many Rivers to Cross. May 24, 2019 will make 71 years, or nearly four generations, that Jamaicans embarked on the SS Windrush in Kingston to take the perilous journey to England. Some had served that country in the recently concluded World War and others were simply unwilling to tolerate the low wages and limited options provided by colonial Jamaica.

The song explores themes of hope and despair, desperation and expectation for the arrival at the land of the white cliffs of Dover. I continue to be amazed at the faith held by some of our ancestors and country people about the benevolence and fairness of a country in which they met the signs of ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’. Today, that has translated in the hostile environment and deportation, which are the current policy in Britain. So for many of our Caribbean migrants and from elsewhere, nostalgia and faith have been shattered, leading some to madness, early death and despair.

In my time of living in Britain, I grappled with the experience and listened to the stories of people who had been invited to help to rebuild post-war Britain and to make a living, but found that it was a very tall order. Meanwhile, the very circumstances which drove hundreds of thousands of people to migrate are still present in Jamaica. For some reason, I am disturbed to see Jamaicans lined up in Liguanea to enter the USA in an era in which it is clear that they are not welcome. Nonetheless, they have to try their luck, as for many “life is no bed of roses”, according to one DJ.

I read the letters and hear the programmes exploring issues by immigration lawyers about the USA, Canada and the UK. People trying to deal with matters of citizenship. People trying to find legitimate ways of entering the great metropoles. Today, we realise that there is room for the wealthy and the highly skilled but for some of the other groups, there are many rivers to cross.


So is this why in the last year under review, more than 10,000 Jamaicans have run off, that is, overstayed on their visas, according to the US Embassy? Our policymakers and politicians and some of us believe that life in the diasporas is filled with roads paved with gold instead of snow, ice, and very hard work. We celebrate the great achievers who make us proud, while ignoring those of our country people in correctional facilities and in mental hospitals, as well as those on the run. Do you remember Lee Boyd Malvo, a young man of so much promise who became involved in a murderous plot?

As our teachers, nurses and other citizens take themselves to new countries, the authorities provide glib explanations and continue to pay these folks poorly while not recognising that they have options. In the 1960s, 25 per cent of New York’s nurses were from Jamaica, by some estimates. The discussions about brain drain, brain circulation and other matters cannot grasp the enormity of the problems. I know that the conversations about migration need to be held, but I am not sure who should be speaking. Ultimately, the decision to migrate is made by individuals and families. Policymakers here and in the metropoles simply facilitate or make more difficult the decision.

The people find ways and means to cross the rivers. In the colonial time, the British government made it nearly impossible for those who wished to go to work on the construction of the Panama Canal, but the people found a way.

Today, the people are finding ways and means. If the suggestion that more than 60 per cent of Jamaica’s wage earners are earning less than the minimum wage is correct, what would we expect?

In this Workers’ Week, I salute the Jamaicans who cross many rivers to make life.

Hilary Robertson-Hickling, professor, Mona School of Business and Management, University of the West Indies, Mona. Email feedback to hilary.hickling@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com