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Feeling good about Jamaica

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor


THE BBC'S Country Profiles mostly start with a dry economic or political summary. One of the few exceptions is Jamaica, which begins "Known for its strong sense of self-identity, expressed through its music, food and rich cultural mix, Jamaica's influence extends far beyond its shores."

There are bigger and richer and more historical countries than Jamaica. But how many of us would have wanted to be born elsewhere?

Even those forced to seek their fortunes abroad dream of returning to the land of their birth.

Visitors constantly talk about the relaxed vibe in the air, making you feel at one with the world. Those who've resided only in Jamaica naturally think it's like this everywhere. But who has lived abroad and come back, knows this is a special, perhaps even unique, place.

Whatever our troubles, this is a God-blessed island. The weather is as good as it gets - with my hometown of cool Mandeville once being listed as having one of the 10 most pleasant climates in a 'world's best' book. (Let's hope - knock wood - this hurricane season spares us!) We are thankfully free of serious racial or religious divides, have never suffered the ravages of war, and enjoy a remarkably stable democracy.

If we ever managed to fix our problems, life here might just be too good to be true! In fact, I once heard a priest joke in a sermon that

"I almost feel like it's a good thing that we have crime and poverty here - because if we didn't we might start thinking we are living in paradise, and there's no such thing on this earth!"

Optimistic

Three things make me especially optimistic about our future - the unfettered freedom of discourse, the female educational climb, and the patriotism of our business and political elites.

Jamaicans' second-favourite pastime - no prizes for guessing number one! - is top-of-the-voice verbal disputes, with politics a particularly popular topic. Our members of parliament must be among the most verbally abused on earth but what can they do? In the buses and taxis, at the bars and hairdressers, on the radio and TV — we cuss them blue and black, and they have to grin and bear it. Sometimes you almost feel a tinge of sympathy for our elected representatives. But, hey, they knew it came with the job when they applied. If you can't take the heat ... .

All this abuse hurled at our prime ministers and opposition leaders eventually produces some sort of national consensus. We might sometimes make ballot-box mistakes, but free-speech democracies like ours are inherently self-correcting - one reason why no elected Jamaican government has ever had its legitimacy challenged.

Despite limited resources, the press here does an excellent job of keeping the nation informed —Jamaica rated 23rd out of 196 countries in the 2011 Freedom House press rankings. The immediate past president of the Press Association of Jamaica, Byron Buckley, tells a story vividly illustrating the rude health of our media. In 2008, the PAJ banquet's guest speaker was John Fisher Burns, the New York Times London bureau chief, who has basically covered the world. While present in a meeting between journalists and police, Burns spontaneously remarked on how remarkable he found the amicable discourse. The norm, in his experience, was an atmosphere of antagonism and suspicion. Whatever our other problems, he went on, the freedom and maturity of the media's intercourse with larger society was something Jamaica should be proud of and guard jealously.

Public voice

Our very interactive newscasts also give a public voice to the common man, with those involved in newsworthy incidents always being granted a chance to forthrightly express their views. Clifton 'Nobody Canna Cross It' Brown, aka recent Sumfest deejay, Cliftwang, was a striking example.

In other places, people speaking out strongly against perceived injustices have sparked popular revolts or harsh government crackdowns. Only in Jamaica could a man expressing the anger of his community on TV then become an overnight musical celebrity!

When I came back to Jamaica in 1989, very few young ladies applying for store clerk jobs had any CXCs. Nowadays most applicants have five or more, evidence of a significant increase in the educational level of female high-school leavers. The flip side is 80 per cent female tertiary institutions, with boys being left behind academically, as Prime Minister Bruce Golding recently lamented.

(One obvious way to help boys do better in school is to have more active fathers, and one way to get fathers more active is to have their names on birth certificates. So how's that 'compulsory registration of fathers' law coming, PM? Or is Parliament quietly trying to bury it again?)

Lagging boys and all, we must celebrate our female academic attainments. Educate a man and you educate an individual, educate a woman and you educate a family. The next generation of Jamaican mothers will be able to make more informed decisions in raising both their boys and girls. "For the hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world."

A 1970s academic paper claimed that nearly all directorates of Jamaica's major companies were in the interlocking hands of 21 all-white families. Whatever the truth then, the situation has changed.

The current 'rich list' is now far from lily white, and most senior banking sector managers are now black. Most major companies have become publicly listed, and so 'owned' by tens of thousands of mostly black shareholders.

Room for progress

Yet, a glance though the business press, and the make-up of groups like the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), suggests that the economic heights are commanded mostly by racial minorities. Though things have moved along, there is clearly still more progress to be made on the road to economic equality.

Gleaner proprietor Oliver Clarke once remarked that race in Jamaica often has as much to do with behaviour as appearance, with those actively contributing to the national welfare considered majority Jamaicans, that is black, and those not seen to be doing so considered interlopers that is non-black. Not all will agree, but the lack of racial animosity here suggests he may be on to something fundamental.

Yet whatever its hue, corporate Jamaica has never shown the 'let's gouge all we can and shelter behind 10-foot walls' mentality of places like Haiti. The nearly 100 per cent compliant Jamaica Debt Exchange, virtually a world first, was vivid proof. As someone once said, who wanted to leave left in the 1970s. Who is here, is here for good, and wants a decent country to live in.

This perhaps accounts for the striking normalcy of life enjoyed by even the richest Jamaicans. Unlike the wealthy in so many other third-world countries, they do not have to constantly travel in bullet-proof limousines with armed body guards. Sensible folk are aware of this and want to keep it this way.

This means, among other things, businessmen continuing to act as responsible citizens and giving back to those communities who contribute to their profits. To their credit, our moneyed classes have, in general, understood this principle of enlightened self-interest. As some joker puts it, "our businessmen may be thieves, but they are not rapists!".

This could also apply to our politicians. None of our elected heads have been the "plunder the fools and build palaces" type. Norman Manley was famously honest to the point of eventual bankruptcy. When you read about the millions and billions looted by politicians in other countries, well, let us for once, praise our leaders. Whatever their faults, they have all been devoted to the welfare of their country.

Kevin O'Brien Chang is author of 'Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture'. Feedback to: Kobchang365@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.