Jamaica needed Roger, indeed
Roger Clarke was the Miss Lou of Jamaican politics: Dearly beloved by large numbers of Jamaicans, young and old, for his warmth, wit, good-naturedness, affability, Jamaicanness, down-to-earthiness and even his chubbiness.
The collective mourning of the nation since last Thursday when news of his death broke represents a deep wound to the soul of a nation; a huge sense that we have lost something rare in his passing: a bridge across our gnawing political divide, an old-fashioned 'niceness', a sterling example of generosity of spirit and non-partisanship, and exemplar of humaneness.
We loved Roger Clarke because he was what we would have liked to see in more Jamaicans: an ability to take criticism without rancour, a remarkable sense of ease with oneself, the uncanny skill of turning savage criticism and ridicule on its head. Roger Clarke came in for some harsh criticisms from this paper - which is the right of a free press - and even while he was on his sickbed, that criticism did not abate. But it never stopped Roger from speaking congenially, to its reporter, Christopher Serju, some days ago.
AGRICULTURE HIS FORTE
Declaring that he had lost some weight and was going to cease his rum-drinking ways, the obese, on-leave agriculture minister said, "When you see me, you going think is Usain Bolt!" Despite The Gleaner's calling for the prime minister to put him out to pasture and to bring in younger blood - a call The Gleaner has made several times but repeated recently - Clarke shot back from his bed in Florida: "When it comes to the thing called agriculture, with all you hear them saying, that is my forte. Me know it like the back of me hand and I don't have to ask anybody whether I am doing a good job or not." He was not through: "I am there," he said, to "provide comic relief and I am there to work." And despite The Gleaner's ageist prejudice, the results are there to prove it.
While Minister Clarke lay on his hospital bed, the head of the Planning Institute of Jamaica, Colin Bullock, was telling Jamaicans a few days ago at his quarterly press briefing that Roger's sector had turned in a stellar 12.5% performance for the last quarter. Traditional export crops skyrocketed by 92.1%, while seven of the nine crop groups recorded increases, including plantains which experienced a 70.6% growth in production, yams which grew by 15.4%, and potatoes that shot up by 14.53%.
DOING SOMETHING RIGHT
Even severe media critic The Gleaner - which always pointed to Roger's compelling likeability - was forced to put out an editorial on January 10 this year titled 'Roger Clarke's learning to swim'. In that editorial, The Gleaner acknowledged that there were some things that were going right under Roger's watch. Red Stripe had signed an agreement with the Agro-Investment Corporation, an agency of Clarke's ministry, to lease 36 acres of land at Bernard Lodge for the cultivation of cassava.
That was to be a pilot farm for Red Stripe's ambitious plan to have 2,500 acres under cultivation. "Such attempts at backward and forward linkages," the Gleaner editorial writer noted, were not only limited to Red Stripe. Note was taken of Caribbean Broilers, which had started an 800-acre experimental farm with sorghum. Caribbean Broilers plans to have up to 7,000 acres under sorghum production in Jamaica. Jamaica Broilers also is experimenting with 100 acres of corn. Roger Clarke had been talking about reducing the country's nearly US$1-billion food-import bill, and it was obvious to even his critics that he was making some progress in his plans.
UNFAIR AGEIST CRITICISM
This was from that Gleaner editorial, commenting on the far-reaching initiatives in agriculture and agro-industry: "Importantly, these projects hint, refreshingly, at modern, technological, business-oriented approach to agriculture — and the fact that Mr Clarke may be learning to swim." It was precisely the kind of approach The Gleaner has unfairly characterised him of not being capable of because of age. But we are not as sensitive yet in Jamaica to ageism as an unacceptable prejudice.
Roger Clarke took all criticism in stride and never harboured any bitterness because of it. He was stung by some of it, I know. But he always comforted himself by the love he knew so many Jamaicans had for him. As he told one group when he was under pressure of criticism over his oxtail statement: "What mek me happy is because I know that, anywhere I go in Jamaica, the people embrace me and love me." That was not delusional.
We loved him for his irresistible sense of humour. At the height of the social and traditional media buzz about his 'daggerin'' photo, I brought it up to him off-camera in one of our interviews. A gentle smile creased his face as he said, "I walked inside here yu nuh. Nobody never carry me inside here and I did not come here in a wheelchair. Dem can talk. A nuff man my age caan even walk much less fi dagger!" The whole studio erupted in uproarious laughter. That was Roger.
In the middle of the most intense political storm when his party would be under severe fire, Roger would find some humour to put on his opponents. I will miss Roger. His grace, his camaraderie, his charm - his humanity. Roger was always accessible to the press, no matter how embarrassing the issue for his party. If you could not get another minister, you could get him. It did not matter how thorny the issue, Roger had a way with the media and he knew that his likeability would always count for much.
He was not style without substance. That was a slander against him. Roger was a worker and an achiever. He had been very successful as a private farmer and he was successful as a minister, though his sector is plagued with structural weaknesses beyond his control and impervious to any single minister's solving. (We have a tendency to believe in messiahs, and that's a source of our unrealistic expectations.)
There is much we can learn from the life of Roger Clarke. It is said that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Roger was a caring, compassionate human being. He was a big farmer, but he cared for the interests of small farmers. He was a Comrade but he cared about Labourites. He was rich, but he cared about the poor. As he himself said in that Serju interview: "Every time I look and see what I have been able to do, probably not significant, to help some poor people, lift them out of the gutter ... I have been a positive influence on some people."
ROGER WAS RIGHT
There was some mocking when The Gleaner carried that headline, 'Jamaica needs me - Recovering Clarke has no intention of leaving politics now'. But he was right. Jamaica needs him.
At a time when our political leaders are trading insults, we need a politician who shows respect for colleagues. A politician who sets an example for followers to turn their backs on the tribalism and divisiveness that have ripped us apart. We need Roger Clarke's example of robust, vigorous support for his leader without rancour and hate towards her opponents in her own party and outside. We need Roger Clarke's example of friendliness and warmth towards political opponents in a culture steeped in 'cass-cass' and political malice.
We need to be able to not take ourselves too seriously; to stand back from even the most trenchant criticism and to have goodwill towards those who attack us. That was Roger Clarke's example. He was not perfect. He was flawed and walked with feet of clay like all of us. But he towered over us in significant ways. And in a curious way, we admired him because he was so unlike us: He was our better selves.
Roger Clarke was a fine human beam — a light that shone brightly in our lives, leaving us its radiance, which we will always cherish.
Walk good, big man.
Declaring that he had lost some weight and was going to cease his rum-drinking ways, the obese, on-leave agriculture minister said, "When you see me, you going think is Usain Bolt!"