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Isis Semaj-Hall | 'Forward ever, a backward never'

Published:Monday | August 7, 2017 | 12:00 AMIsis Semaj-Hall

August 6 marked a milestone for Jamaica. No, not Usain Bolt's retirement run. That was Saturday. And, no, not Elaine Thompson's fifth-place run in the 100m. That was upsetting.

It marked 55 years of Independence. If Jamaica were a working citizen paying into the National Insurance Scheme, she would still have another 10 years before she could retire and access her pension.

Presumably, Jamaica would embrace year 55 as a time for critical planning. Jamaica would use these next 10 years to gain control of all finances and pay off all debts. Jamaica would carefully manage all investments and savings so that even if there are unforeseen obstacles, the future is safe and secure. Jamaica would assess her health and health-care options so that she can not only survive, but thrive in her golden years.

Jamaica would, ideally by now, own her home and should take this time to fortify its infrastructure. This is what Jamaica would and should do if she were a citizen. But she is not a citizen; Jamaica is a nation.

How does this nation prepare to move forward? In my estimation, the first step to forwarding is to stop reversing.

What I am saying is not new. In 1978, Jacob Miller, the gone-too-soon young reggae singer, sang out with love "forward ever, a backward never", yet wherever you go in Jamaica, you see signs of backwardness.

Barring the nation's innovative musical history, Jamaica has been regressively cautious when it comes to moving forward. Clothing and dress-code rules are often cautiously backwards. Rules regarding how one styles their hair in public are anti-progressive. Anti-buggery laws are backward. Indeed, the way that Jamaica polices the bodies of its citizens forwards a very backward agenda that is steeped in colonialism and its mores.

With more than a half-century of granted Independence, Jamaica is not yet breaking from the traditions left by the British, and the island is still showing a preference for reversing. When will the day come when Jamaica relies less on colonial tradition and more on the potential of forward innovation? Wouldn't that bring practical meaning to Jacob Miller's words?

Rain clouds began gathering after Usain Bolt finished his 100m race. Heavy rains started to fall on Sunday afternoon. Some Independence Day events were delayed, but the Grand Gala at the National Stadium proceeded as scheduled. With Elaine Thompson's 100m upset, the rains returned.

Much of Jamaica is wet; but Jamaica is not drowned. We celebrate 55 years of Independence. Bolt is set to retire from track and field following his 4x100m race on Saturday, August 12.


Net worth


Upon retirement, he will be 30 years old. Forbes estimates Bolt's net worth at US$34m. Jamaica is 55. Jamaica is not eligible for retirement for at least another ten years and has an external debt of US$16.76b (according to December 2016 figures).

I do believe that Jamaica has many a good race left to run. But, critically, Jamaica has some careful work to take care of before retirement time comes. Jamaica needs to invest in forward-thinking sustainability and infrastructure. Jamaica needs to invest in its women and its young people. Jamaica needs to support its scholars and artists and advocate for creative innovation that pushes beyond the boundaries of music.

Jamaica needs to protect its environment and define its brand if it wants to have a comfortable future of Independence. Let Jamaica start by heeding Jacob Miller: "Forward ever, a backward never."

- Isis Semaj-Hall, PhD, is a University of the West Indies lecturer, writer, and cultural critic. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.