Proud to be poor
Anthony Gambrill, Guest Columnist
Everyone, from the IMF's head honcho Christine Lagarde down to your friendly cocaine exporter from Colombia visiting the island, would be forgiven for mistaking Jamaica for a wealthy country. They would marvel at the plethora of Audis, BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Land Rovers, SUVs and occa-sional Jaguars.
If, for a moment, they took their eyes of Kingston's roads - a risky impulse at the best of times - they could feast on the three-, four- and five-storey homes perched on the St Andrew foothills. Some resemble apartment blocks in Kazakhstan; others might just about satisfy a Russian oligarch. Even Trinidadians are astonished at such manifestations of national affluence. Which is the impression many Jamaicans would like to convey.
Although more than a million of our citizens are living below the poverty line, we would rather not have to admit that we rank 86th out of 187 countries in the world and are sliding further down that scale every year. And we haven't referred to ourselves as Third World (Michael Manley steered us into the category of Non-Aligned nations to avoid the issue) for years. We'd prefer to be known as members of the 'developing world'.
we are to blame
For more than 50 years, we have lived beyond our means, borrowing our way into penury. We pretended that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn't a train approaching. We finally realised that it was. To mix metaphors, it was easier to bury our collective heads in the sand, and, pretty soon, all we would have left to eat, figuratively, is sand.
Of course, we all know who is to blame. One way or another, we are all to blame because - more than ever before - we are a 'fi mi' nation. At the top, it's having the NCB CEO's alleged $134-million pay package; at the other end of the socio-economic scale, it's those who are allocated the 'scarce benefits' that leave the million below the poverty line.
For the time being, the important thing for all Jamaicans to do is to make sure that we don't lose face, and to find a way of appearing, if not prosperous, at least 'developing'.
First, we must dispense with the word 'poor'. I have a number of alternatives: have-nots, disadvantaged, underprivileged, under-endowed, members of the underclass, bottom of the socio-economic scale. Never impoverished or poor. Okay. That should get the illusion going.
Here's an idea. We could make it look as if our currency has remarkably appreciated if we get the Bank of Jamaica to knock a zero off our money. That way, a US dollar in future would only cost J$11.62. As the saying goes, you can fool some of the people some of the time.
WHAT REALLY COUNTS
But let's get down to some of the things that really count. The standard reward for pledging your vote at election time is a box lunch of chicken neck and back. From now on, add a wing. What more proof is needed that our have-nots are having better?
Then there's the collection plate in church. Surely, it's an indication of a country's growing ability to overcome poverty by the size of the offering gathered after each service. To swell the take, I recommend that the Government undertake to match the congregation's contribution. This way, the have-nots can give less, but the preacher's expectations can be met. Jamaica certainly wouldn't want to slip down the world ranking for weekly church collections.
Our above-mentioned visitors to the island are prone to pointing out the number of gated communities that are a feature of Jamaican
suburbia. To stop the poor from begging door to door? Keep out itinerant vendors peddling pants lengths? Prevent burglars doing a reconnaissance for future endeavours? To assuage such notions, my suggestions would be to have a National Welcome Your Community Day when all town-house schemes would leave their gates open for 24 hours as a gesture of confidence? Well, maybe not 24 hours, but at least until the sun goes down.
Next thing you know, you'll say I'll be suggesting you invite one of the disadvantaged in for a cool drink. No, I'll go one better. Let's get Usain Bolt, the best ambassador Jamaica ever had, to take half a dozen of the underclass on one of his international jaunts so the world can meet his less-fortunate countrymen.
A sprint along the beach in Rio de Janeiro, hanging out with Serena Williams, kicking a ball around with Manchester United, quaffing a stein at Oktoberfest in Munich, taking a spin in a gold Nissan in Tokyo, a rematch with Prince Harry ... . The publicity possibilities are endless, even if Bolt doesn't take part in a track meet. He can show fans across the globe that he is setting an example for other Jamaicans, even those who don't coin US$20 million a year.
Dare I say it? Is it time to make poverty popular? Before you know it, the annual Popular Song competition will be won with lyrics hailing pit latrines, coir mattresses, scandal bag toilets, standpipes and bagged juice!
Above all, if Jamaica is determined to keep face, it is important to tell the world we are proud to be poor. That's it ... . We need lapel pins and T-shirts boasting 'WE ARE PROUD TO BE POOR'. The politicians will adapt this to declare 'POWER FOR THE POOR', or is that going a little too far?
Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.