What Has Happened to the Jamaica I Remember?

From my home on a quiet street across from Lake Gibson in Lakeland, Florida, I read with disbelief about the latest horrors taking place in my homeland of Jamaica.

As I watch the squirrels and birds frolicking among the oak trees and the butterflies fluttering among the blooms in my garden, I recall a Jamaica that was so similar to that tranquil scene, so completely different from that reflected today in the pages of The Gleaner and The Observer.

What has become of the Jamaica I remember? In my memory, streams murmur among verdant hillsides, ferns overshadow winding roads, and smiling people, many with baskets of produce on their heads, greet each other politely as they pass.

Churches were packed on Sunday mornings, the congregations neatly dressed, the choirs filling the sanctuaries with sacred music. Uniformed schoolchildren greeted you with respect. Shopkeepers welcomed your business and treated you as a valued customer. At Christmas, for example, the shopkeeper in our village would send us a huge ham in appreciation for our yearlong loyalty.  

My memory might be flawed after all these years, but the Jamaica I remember seems far distant from that reflected in today’s news.

I am not saying things were perfect back then. There was undoubtedly social injustice. The rich enjoyed a far different lifestyle from the poor. And it seemed most of the rich had light skins, while most of the poor had dark skins. Money was scarce for nearly all of us, and luxuries were few. But, mostly, we got along with each other, and crime was much less prevalent than it is today.

When a gunman like Rhyging emerged, it was front-page news for weeks. Murders warranted huge headlines. Gang violence was unknown during most of my early years. It was not until my late thirties that I became aware of the growing menace of the gangs in Jamaica.

Much has changed over the years. The island achieved independence from Britain and political upheavals have left new social systems in place. Now, the dominance of the British and the European, Middle Eastern and Asian residents has apparently been broken. There is greater opportunity for talented Jamaicans of African ancestry. And that is undeniable proof of progress.

But somewhere along the way, Jamaica seems to have “thrown out the baby with the bath water.”

In the reformation of Jamaican society, valuable assets have been discarded. The civil service I remember was if not incorruptible, at least responsible. The police force was staunchly honest and enjoyed the respect of the people. A public official who betrayed his or her trust was regarded with contempt. People talked about honor … and respect … and shame.

If what I read in the newspapers is a true representation of today’s Jamaica, then respect has vanished, honor is quaintly old-fashioned, and people abuse their power with no sense of shame.

Apparently, the island has been physically and morally trashed.

Take the case of Douglas Chambers, who was murdered because he tried to root out corruption at the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. And the break-in at the Salvation Army’s School for the Blind. Consider the recent murders of law enforcement officers.

These are just a few alarming examples of an apparent moral bankruptcy.

In the Jamaica of my memory, people had respect for the institutions on which our society was built. Nobody would dream of robbing the Salvation Army or gunning down a government official because he tried to do his duty. Shooting a law enforcement officer was all but unthinkable.

I realize that we tend to view the past through rose-colored lenses, and my recollection may be suspect. But statistics seem to bear out my perceptions.

Officials reported 1,574 murders in Jamaica last year, a 17 per cent rise from 2006. Victims included 19 members of the police force, 146 women and 65 children. And I read in The Gleaner that there were more than 660 murders during the first five months of this year.

From what I read, the gangs seem to be rampant, and the government seems powerless to control them. Many officials apparently take their trust lightly, or – worse – view their positions as an opportunity to line their pockets. Several financial institutions have failed, robbing investors of their life’s savings.

I have not been back to Jamaica in many years, and I doubt that I will ever see my native land again. From what I read in the newspapers, I would be taking my life in my hands to go back home.

About the author

George Graham