Friday, 20 June 2008

Experiencing the heart of Jamaica to celebrate immigration

Journalist Derek Johnson blogs from Jamaica

To appreciate the extent of Jamaica’s deep-rooted social problems you need look no further than the tag line advertisers have chosen to bestow upon its capital city, Kingston.
Billboards across its sprawling districts picture a smiling face beside the words “City Of Kingston - COK For Life.”

It is a line so awful, so plainly hilarious and ridiculous when spoken out loud (as it very often was on this trip), that you cannot help wondering if the great and the good who signed off on it at some multi-media presentation had their heads in the sand, clueless about to the way their message would be perceived by the wider world.

Something of this obliviousness exists in the official attitude to crime. All the time tourists flock to Montego Bay and the beaches of the east coast with their wallets full of greenbacks things are OK. Every time a returnee who sought their fortune abroad buys a plot of land, builds a house and pumps money into the economy, the island is doing fine.

The reality is painfully different. A taxi driver in Montego Bay said he dreamed of leaving. “There is a monster on this island,” he said. “And the monster is crime.”

On the main strip along Montego Bay, the same one American tourists waddle down by day en route to tat shops and jerk chicken emporiums, 200 people have been killed this year. Victims of gang and drug crime, shot and stabbed at night, long after the visitors have been serenaded to sleep by a hotel band knocking out Country and Western classics.

In fact there have been 700 murders in Jamaica in the first six months of 2008. The island is heading for a record death spree. It is so bad that the government has been shaken out of its COK For Life alternative reality. A minister has already resigned and the prime minister has warned that Jamaicans may have to give up some of their cherished freedoms if crime is at last to be put to the sword.

The worry, strangely, is not so much about the tourists. We drove around Kingston, saw its thriving street life, soaked up the reggae and soca sounds, chatted to passers-by and even clubbed until the early hours. And it was no more intimidating than Maidstone on a Friday night. Having said this our driver refused to go anywhere near Trenchtown, the area immortalised by Bob Marley and the Wailers - where Bob sang of meeting friends at the Judgement Yard and lighting fires in the cold night. It was so dangerous after dark these days, he said, that the police never went there. Residents blocked up their own streets with tyres to avoid drive-by shootings by rival gangs.

You see the tourists are largely confined to the beaches, the dolphin and plantation tours and the all-inclusive, pile-it-high buffets close to the pool. Concern revolves around crimes committed against returnees – the migrants who’ve returned home after decades away. The US$2 billion a year they provide Jamaica with trumps tourism when it comes to foreign exchange earnings.

The danger of losing some of this income is one of the factors causing the government to talk tough about crime. Plus they can hide their heads in the sand no longer. The recent Biennial Jamaican Diaspora Conference put crime and corruption at the top of its agenda, delegates warning that returnees may end up staying in their adopted lands.

It’s a fact alluded to by the Labour Minister Pernell Charles. Mr Charles has the most extraordinary hairstyle. It is a perfect split – one side black and the other white. It is so striking and original that it’s very easy to drift off while talking to him and speculate on how exactly this wonder is achieved. There are privet hedges and manicured lawns in the Home Counties whose lines are not as straight and well-maintained as Mr Charles’s hair. It is hard to think of anything else except a badger. It is even remarked upon by Edward Seaga, a former Prime Minister clearly not given to bouts of humour with interviewers and whose conversation is otherwise measured and serious.

Anyway, The Badger says that Jamaica would be in big trouble if not for these earnings from overseas Jamaicans. And he acknowledges the extraordinary fact that there are far more Jamaicans outside the country than within.

That exodus did not begin after World War Two. After emancipation from slavery hundreds of thousands left in one fell swoop for the promise of a better life overseas. As Mr Seaga says: “Jamaicans have always been a migrating people.”

But in 1948 the Jamaicans allowed 492 West Indians to board a troop ship bound for England – the Empire Windrush. It docked at Tilbury on June 22 where its passengers looked for work. The Windrush began a mass migration of Caribbean people to England. That eventually transformed our nation, re-defined the way we perceive ourselves – we became multi-cultural for the first time. It would have been unthinkable in 1948 for black, Asian and Chinese people to call themselves British whereas now it seems unthinkable that once they would have been frowned upon for doing so.

The Windrush anniversary was the reason we were in Jamaica. For all its troubles it is a beautiful and welcoming island where people look at you for who you are and engage you with genuine interest. And they always ask you to come back again. We shall indeed COK For Life.

You can watch the full series about the story of Caribbean migration on ITV Local.

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