The history, traditions and culture of Jamaica are regarded as rich by most. As a child of the 1960s my earliest memories are full of personal experiences and first hand stories that confirm the fullness of daily life that existed. I fully appreciate now the practical wisdom I gained engaging in activities that are today shunned by many.
As one who spent most of my youthful days in rural Jamaica I was engaged in most aspects of country living. This meant getting out of bed early and doing chores such as tending to animals before and after school. It also included missing schools on certain days to help when needed on days when yam and other crops were being harvested. We would earn allowances reaping coffee, pimento and cocoa during the holidays.
Rural life during my very early years did not include a refrigerator, gas stove, television or electricity. There were no telephones and the technology of computers and the internet were not a concept we would have grasped as even possible. People relied on the telegraph system at the post offices to send urgent messages such as death of a family member via telegrams. I literally ran all the way home when I received one of these at the post office.
We spent many hours hunting birds with slingshots, creating contraptions to use as toys, climbing trees, fishing, playing marbles and cricket. We ate mangoes, various “apples”, ripe bananas, tamarind and of course sugar cane. Food was plentiful and most people were very generous and so a real challenge was not to become full before dinner.
School and church were important institutions that instilled respect for God, family, the elderly and community. They provided the seeds that would shape our future moral perceptions of the wider world around us. It was in many ways a rich, hard working, fun, simple and mostly peaceful existence that positively shaped many a character. Unfortunately there were also traditional and cultural limitations that could easily deceive one into not looking beyond what we were exposed to in our daily routines.
My childhood experiences pale in comparison to those of my parents and grandparents. It was in many ways similar but more intense. Most only had the opportunity to attend school up to the third grade before they were had to take up more demanding responsibilities. After that they were fully employed in the family activities which consisted mainly of farming.
My grandfather and others have shared stories that included being far away from home in the fields for days at a time by themselves making sugar and molasses from sugar cane. Sugar was made by boiling the sugar cane juice in large iron pots until hardened. The process required constant attention to the cauldron.
At times they would have to accompany their parents to market. Travel was not by the modern conveniences of trucks and buses on paved roads we have today. It was mules, donkeys and carts often through inclement weather and muddy paths for many miles in the dark or in scorching sun.
In the past economic boom times for sugar cane and banana the people spent back breaking hours supporting the industry. Jamaica, like former colonies of Britain, exported sugar and bananas to the United Kingdom under a quota system for decades. Banana farmers would reap and wrap the fruit to protect it from bruising, deliver the fruits to the depots where inspectors would reject or accept the product. Selling sugar cane to the estates for a living also demanded lots of time and intensive manual labor.
Change would come over the years at a slow pace through the decades, some perceived as positive and others negative. Motorized trucks, buses and access roads that linked many farming communities would reduce the amount of time and energy it required to sell produce. More farmers also opted to sell their produce to vendors called higglers than go to the market themselves.
Over the decades the planting of sugar cane and bananas also declined as demand on the world markets dried up and competition increased from other products, markets and cultivation methods. Many Jamaicans are today still low producing hillside farmers growing small plots with pumpkins, yams and vegetables.
Praedial larceny has robbed many of the opportunity to rear animals such as cattle and goats. The life of the rural Jamaican farming family is symbolic of the many problems which continue to plague the country and its continual economic and social decline.
Many families have remained stagnant tilling the same plots of land and living in the same homes that generations before them did though they have added electricity and other modern comforts. Land titles are as they were inherited with no clear ownership. Their individual wealth has not increased.
Jamaica’s overall economic growth and development is not impressive and has not kept pace with the rest of the world even with increased access to modern technologies. There is room for improvement.
While most in my generation and after were afforded more opportunities to improve themselves through education, exposure and modern technology, there still exists more than a remnant of the old way of life and thinking among many. The country is contradictory in that it parades a more modern and affluent image which coexists alongside old fashioned beliefs and obsolete practices in our social, educational, religious, political and economic structures.
High rise hotels and tourist shops in the resort areas are right there with squatters, insanitary and dilapidated surroundings. The country has not undergone any significant economic or social transition for many decades. Successive governments have failed in devising a coherent strategy to mutually achieve economic and social goals.
Admittedly the available resources are insignificant in comparison to the scale of the problems. These economic and fiscal constraints tempt ambitious politicians to make unrealistic and deceptive promises of free government handouts and political redistribution of wealth. Their view of governance is to provide to the needs of their constituents without requiring individual responsibility. This is not practical and encourages more intense political contests as people associate politics with obtaining economic advantage.
It is the marginalized, weakest and most desperate in society that cling to these promises and the ones most likely to be hurt. As a result this widens differences in the society. Political campaign speeches do not promote an appreciation for prosperity through hard work. This paternal relationship breeds severe unemployment, depreciating currency, and decreasing productivity, increasing crime, loss of economic opportunities and declining per capita income.
As a consequence of the economic uncertainties it is believed that a large percentage of the skilled tertiary graduates opt to migrate to overseas labor markets. More and more people are becoming disillusioned and hopeless. Even if the global economy should immediately recover, Jamaica ‘s situation will not be significantly improved. There is a strong possibility that the economic difficulties would be exacerbated by increases in crude oil prices and higher interest rates for loans.
Next: Part two, the solutions.
Vinton Grant writes out of the Washington, DC area.