Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Alfred Dawes | Prisoners of tribalism

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2020 | 12:23 AM
Protesters during a Justice for Shukri Abdi demonstration, to support the family in their pursuit of justice, in central London, yesterday, following on from a raft of Black Lives Matter protests across the world sparked by the recent death of a Black man,
Protesters during a Justice for Shukri Abdi demonstration, to support the family in their pursuit of justice, in central London, yesterday, following on from a raft of Black Lives Matter protests across the world sparked by the recent death of a Black man, George Floyd, in the United States. Yesterday marked a year since the day the lifeless body of the 12-year-old Somali girl, Shukri Abdi, was found in the River Irwell in Bury, England.

Man, did I get it wrong! I saw the built-up frustrations and the burning desire for a more egalitarian society. I saw where it would take only one mistake by security forces, emboldened by years of getting away with oppressing the marginalised, to set the country ablaze.

Yet in my article, ‘The fruit man cometh’, I got the country terribly wrong. I believed it was Jamaicans who would be tired of the oppressive system, but in the end, it was Black America. And as I wondered how I could be so wrong, it dawned on me – Jamaica cannot unite behind a cause because we are incapable of uniting, save for an external enemy. We are prisoners of self-imposed tribalism.

In every other country that has successfully overthrown an oppressive system, it has been a mass movement of people united by a common cause. In our history, it was betrayal by other slaves why we were never able to enjoy successes the likes of the Haitian Revolution. Yet we were successful in lobbying as one people for the right to self-govern. Once that final war was won, we carved up ourselves into clans and have never been able to treat each other as equals since.

With no colonial power oppressing us, we fail to recognise that it is our own neo-masters who are our greatest threat. Clans and tribes are a natural tendency for humans lost in large societies. We want a smaller circle that we can identify with, empathise with and experience a bond as we face similar challenges. But the progress of each individual clan does not equal the overall success of the society – the sum of all clans. Some clans will progress at the expense of other clans and that is the fundamental problem.


A man stopped to buy honey recently. When the honey man gave him his wares, he refused to pay and drove off in his SUV, dragging the vendor into the streets. When he let him go, the honey man fell, and his skull was crushed by the wheels of the vehicle. The driver did not stop. The honey man was dead, but he was only a honey man. He belonged to a lesser, subservient clan of higglers and labourers who were innumerable and expendable. They were alive to serve the other more prominent clans. If they worked hard and sacrificed, then they, too, might join the elite. If they are still in that clan, then it was their fault.

The honey man has a name. He was Demar Lilly. And he lived and loved just like us. Why should his death in such a wretched way not cause outrage the same as if he belonged to the clans of professionals, merchants, the political class, or expats?

Because he was unfortunate enough to not have climbed out of the caste in which he was born. He belonged to a lower class with which we cannot identify. He was not one of us. Only when one of ours falls prey to the lawlessness that engulfs the country will we show righteous indignation. Demar, like so many before him, will be lost in the news cycle as we go about our business as usual.

To achieve any meaningful change in our society, we need to be able to unite the clans. For the ones willing to take on this monumental task, I have compiled a guide as to the larger clans in Jamaica. I wish you all the best in trying to get them to share the interests of the other clans. Because if you don’t, we are all doomed.


It is shameful that those who are not far removed from the lowest classes show such indifference to the plight of those left behind. They eat and drink with the elite, so they now identify with a different class. The further removed the generation is from poverty, the more highly they think of themselves. They are no different from the pirates and thieves who acquired enough wealth to become European noblemen and teach their children that they were now aristocrats.

Being monied in Jamaica means that you are entitled to certain privileges of which the average Jamaican can only dream. And many, no matter what their background, have no emotional connection to the poor. In fact, they bolt the doors through which they came and never send back down the elevator. They are upset with the status quo, but they cannot unite with the others because there is just no connection with them.


Being a professional allows you a middle-class standard of living that allows you not to mix with the lower echelons of society. Clans-members take pride in their academic accomplishments and although they yearn for a higher standard of living, they are not self-actualised by chasing wealth. Their productive years are spent keeping some semblance of order in the economy so the monied class can live in paradise.

Upon retirement, they are rewarded with send-off functions and plaques for years of service. They cannot identify with those who never made the sacrifices that they made to reach where they are now. Delayed gratification defines this group. They cannot see anyone who thinks differently as equals.


Not everyone was blessed with opportunities when we as a country somewhat took control of our destinies. Some never got the lucky breaks or escaped poverty through education. They became trapped in a system where their birthright was one of servitude for the other clans. They cook, clean, serve and take on the tasks that the other clans would not want for their children. Their lives don’t matter.


By far, this is the most hostile clan of them all as they wage a perpetual war with competing clans for scarce benefits and spoils. Drawn from any of the preceding clans, members are united by the common desire for power. Their actions are driven by that desire, even if it means that the clans from which they originate must suffer. Power brings favours. It brings upward mobility. It brings money.

Even if they are poor and uneducated, they can still command favours because a member of the political class will make a call. It doesn’t matter if their party is in power or not, they still are members of that stratum. Of course, the benefits multiply once your clan is in government, even if it is the crumbs from the plate.

Societies become extinct when internal divisions tear them apart. Our trajectory is set. Will we continue on the path to destruction, or will we be awakened by the murder of a lowly honey vendor?

- Dr Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic and weight loss surgeon, and medical director of Windsor Wellness Centre & Carivia Medical Ltd.; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to and