Feeling safe in Jamaica

How did my British friend, who had planned a family vacation in Egypt, end up in Jamaica? Eager to escape the tension of shell-shocked London, they had packed their bags on Saturday July 23, ready to depart the next day for Sharm el-Sheikh. Then the phone rang. Several bombs had exploded in the very district where they were to stay: the death toll would climb to 84.

After much discussion, they finally persuaded their tour operator to redirect their travel funds to another destination. But where? They thought of many options, then settled on Jamaica, the place where they had lived nearly 20 years before. Miraculously, when they called Air Jamaica, there were only four seats left, perfect for this family of four and the same number of seats for the day they had planned their return trip.

“It was meant to be,” said Rita Kumrai-Mitra, as she reflected on their marvellous holiday. They were able to get a modestly priced villa in Ironshore, St James, staffed by a caring Jamaican family. The cook enthusiastically created enjoyable dishes for her child who has special needs.

Commenting on the tragic bombing in London where she lives, the nerve-jangling security routine in that city, then the screaming footage of Sharm el-Sheikh, Rita remarked, “I had heard a lot of bad news about Jamaica, but since we’ve been here, I feel safe and at peace.”

My friend was in Kingston for two days, and also went on day trips to Negril and Ocho Rios. We agreed that Negril has kept its character despite its development. However, she found Ocho Rios disappointing. I have been watching Ocho Rios over the years, deteriorating from a sparkling green and turquoise jewel to a hodge-podge resort that is losing its soul. Rita and I wondered if Ocho Rios had suffered because the surrounding towns and districts of St Ann and St Mary became too precious politically to be left alone. Who encouraged this wholesale squatting, this element of badmanship, we may never know.

Rita was shocked at the high cost of food and attractions. “How can ordinary Jamaicans enjoy their country at these prices?” she demanded, explaining that she spent £350 (yes, pounds sterling) in one day at Dolphin Cove.

She was also troubled by the comment of a friend: “Life is cheap in Jamaica. You don’t have to pay a lot to get someone killed.” We can’t lay this one on the politicians alone – how did the parents, businesspeople, educators, and pastors allow our human currency to become so devalued?

We discussed a group of under-respected Jamaicans who have largely kept their innocence and may have contributed much to our national safety. As I reflected on the fanaticism that has made first-world cities so security-conscious, I think we owe our Rastafarians a huge debt. Instead of falling for violence-prone fundamentalist religion, many of our youth over the past 40 years were attracted to Rasta’s gentle philosophy of “Peace and Love”. This is why I am a bit pained by our outdated ganja laws. I drink alcoholic communion wine at my worship, so who am I to tell a Rastaman that his sacrament is unacceptable?

Then we sent our policemen to enforce our blinkered laws, earning them the undeserved label of “Babylon”. This may have spawned the deep-seated resentment of inner-city dwellers for police. “Three o’clock – roadblock,” sang Bob Marley, “And I have to throw away my little herb stalk.” One former senior police officer says he has seen far more negative behaviour caused by alcohol than by ganja.

We have cashed in on Rastafarian music and Rastafarian culture, without giving them the respect they deserve. When I hear the wrong turns in lyrics taken by the once-inspiring Buju Banton, I wonder if the pressure of the system has crushed the endearing spirit we used to hear in those first stirring songs.

Rita has fallen in love with Jamaica all over again, but she is concerned at the degradation of sexuality. She noticed the blinged-up BET/dancehall makeover of sexuality, and its cost to wholesome family life. “Blakka” Ellis wrote a wry but serious piece last week about the extreme machismo in our society where men party together, dance together and show little affection for the opposite sex. We are giving our young men the message that it is “uncool” to be loving and considerate.

But I was glad to tell my friend that there were still good people that were doing their utmost to protect the most vulnerable. I mentioned Mother in Crisis, Fathers Inc, Dads of Distinction, Hear The Children Cry, Children First, our service clubs, and the many other charitable groups that are genuinely making a difference.

There is also a new wave of philanthropy here, whipped up by generous corporations and big-hearted diplomats. Hopefully, we will use this well, before the urgent social needs in this country do serious damage to our tourism product. No amount of advertising dollars can sell a country that has not adequately addressed our burning social issues.

As I write this I am fervently hoping that in the few days that Rita and her family have left in Jamaica, there will be no negative incident. We are on tenterhooks because some of our leaders will go on the air to address one problem, but will privately encourage negative elements in their constituencies. Who will be brave enough to write the history of these uncontrollable pockets of criminality in our resort areas?

But as I pointed out to my friend, there are reasons why we can still have hope for Jamaica. As we argue over PJ Patterson’s legacy, we have totally disregarded the fact that he has given us so many platforms to argue on, by granting more broadcast licences for radio than any previous government.

Kudos also to Opposition Leader Bruce Golding who delivered a brave Emancipation Day address, quoting from Prof Swithin Wilmot’s account of full freedom in 1838. Sounding more like a leader than a politician, Golding reminded Jamaicans that ex-slaves looked forward to finally earning their keep, buying land and building their own houses. He underlined the importance of independence and self-reliance.

So I am happy that someone who left these shores so many years ago can still see what others have stayed here for. Yes, we are going through serious crises, but there are also huge investments, Digicel being the biggest business success in recent times. There are bright, brave people in Government and Opposition who are keeping our democracy open and dynamic. I think my friend Rita will have even more to feel good about when she makes her next trip to this special spot on earth. As my Rasta friends would say, “Jah Mek Ya!”

Jean Lowrie-Chin runs an Advertising/PR Agency, PROComm, in Kingston, Jamaica. Visit their website at www.procomm.com.jm