Orville W. Taylor
Sun a shine but tings no bright;
Doah pot a bwile, bickle no nuff;
River flood but water scarce, yaw;
Rain a fall but dutty tuff.
It has been more than four decades since this ageless Jamaican poem was written and first performed by the late great Dr. the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou). Yet, it is amazing how much of it is relevant today.
Miss Lou will be given an official funeral and will be buried along with the exhumed remains of her husband. I imagine that it will be in the National Heroes Park where many a 'hero' is buried. I am not sure if there is any heroin(e) buried there but the aroma of non-native marijuana pervades the air from time to time. Still, I wonder whether Miss Lou will feel comfortable in the company of all of whom we consider heroic given that there are many persons who are given national titles who do not deserve them or have not yet earned them even though they may do so in another few months, years or days.
I am sure that she is glad to keep company with Marcus Garvey because he is one of the first black persons to proclaim that we must be proud of things black. Miss Lou, who died just two days after the 106th anniversary of the first Pan-African Congress in London, was not simply the "First Lady of Comedy" given her theatrical activities with her husband Eric "Chalk Talk" Coverley and of course Randolph "Mass Ran" Williams.
Though I enjoyed her recitations and even performed Uriah Preach with much gusto for a gold medal at school, it is not her comedy that I found most engaging because I did not think that she was all that funny.
However, she single-handedly took on the cultural aristocracy and forced us to come to terms with ourselves. In bringing patois to the national table, Miss Lou unmasked the hypocrisy of many of our 'mimic-men' wannabe British, Afro-Saxons, who, like roast breadfruit, were only black on the outside. Even today, some well-intentioned persons try to dissuade me from using 'dialect' or 'broken' English in this column and on air. "Well sarry! You betta tek kin teen and kibba heart bun, kaw mi nah stap! A patwa dat! We have so little pride in our language that we refuse to write it with a capital 'P', although admittedly, the best purveyors of our beautiful Jamaican cannot read or write.
More than half a century after the first verses in Jamaican were recited on ZQI and Radio Jamaica, people still have failed to accept that our language is not wrapped in fabric and does not wear a plaster cast or use crutches, except when cursing. Thanks to Miss Lou and academics from the University of the West Indies, our language is now recognised as not a dialect, but a real language. It is not pidgin or 'foul' language and is no more a broken version of English than is Spanish a bastardisation of Portuguese. True, 80 per cent of us are bastards but not our language.
Learn this please! Patois has a similar structure to Twi, which is spoken by the Ashanti in Ghana. This is the same structure that characterises Kreyol from Haiti and Kweyol from Martinique. Admittedly, most of its vocabulary is of English origin but it is not the 'lyrics' of a language that define it. It is the structure.
Nonetheless, Miss Lou is recognised as a cultural 'icon'. I get nervous when I see the prefix or suffix 'con' because it brings to mind, con-demn, condone, connive, conspire, confuse and of course d-con. Still, she has been admitted to the Order of Merit which has a list that includes Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and intellectual treasure Rex Nettleford, who as one would imagine, is at the top of it.
However, like Africanist Mutabaruka, I believe that she has not been fully recognised and honoured. First of all, I feel that she has done far more to develop our sense of nationhood and cultural integrity than Bustamante and Nanny. Indeed, her activities were not simply mythified and politically embellished. They are all documented for the world to see. She should have been made a National Hero while still alive.
Furthermore, if she was such an important living symbol and role model, unlike some of the other OM members, why could not the Government have put in place a healthy package for her and Mass Eric, to ensure that they would live out their days here? After all, this is the same set of people who were upset over Rita Marley's intention to exhume Bob and re-bury him in Ethiopia. She should be treated like former Prime Ministers, Governors General and National Heroes who live their twilight years here for the next generation to look at in awe. (or aaw!)
But where would the money come from to do this when we have had so much leaking of the public flow which could make the dutty soft? Why is it that after 44 years of independence the words below still ring true?
We dah fight, hard time a beat we,
Dem might raise we wages, but
One poun gawn awn pon we pay, an
We no feel no merriment
For ten poun gawn pon we food
An ten pound pon we rent!
With the exception of the currency, this could be a chant from the nurses, teachers, police, doctors and lecturers (I couldn't help squeezing myself in).
Maybe Miss Lou was too true. Bet you, Aunty Roachie, never imagined that these would still be issues today. Ay-Ay-Ay!
Dr. Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work at the University of the West Indies, Mona.