Have you ever wondered what’s it like being a Jamaican living in Kuwait? On our “Jamaicans to the World” Facebook Live show, Jamaicans.com founder Xavier Murphy spoke with Ayana Ashanti. She is a Jamaican who has lived in Kuwait for 15 years.
Xavier: What is it like being a Jamaican in Kuwait? Hi, I’m Xavier Murphy. The founder of Jamaicans.com today on Jamaicans to the world We talk to Ayana Ashanti who lives in Kuwait. Welcome Ayana. How are you?
Ayana: Hello? I am doing great. Thank you for having me.
Xavier: My first question is what parts of Jamaica yuh (you) come from?
Ayana: I was born in Spanish Town, but I grew up in Point Hill, St Catherine.
Xavier: Okay, a St. Catherine person.
Ayana: I’m a country, girl,
Xavier: Listen, country life nice man, country life nice. How did you end up in Kuwait?
Ayana: I retired from the United States army. And after that I opened Taste of Jamaica in Texas, but there were some friends of mine who were going overseas and they told me oh the salary is good. You should try it. So that’s what I did. I went to Iraq at first, but Iraq was dangerous. I was tired of dodging bullets, so I did one year in Iraq. Then I went to Kuwait because I had friends in Kuwait doing contracting also, but they were at the beach, they were going to the movies and here I am in Iraq, dodging bullets. I just said, it’s time for me to go. I did one year and I left. Then I went to Kuwait. So that’s how I came to Kuwait for government contracted.
Xavier: Okay. I see. How long have you lived there.
Ayana: So far 15 years believe it or not.
Xavier: Oh, so you’re in, you’re totally in.
Ayana: I came for one year, 15 years and I’m still here. I’ve been here since 2005.
Xavier: What do you love the most about Kuwait?
Ayana: To be honest, I feel safer here in Kuwait, than in the United States and in Jamaica. in Kuwait, black people feel safe. That’s just the bottom line. You don’t have to worry about anyone breaking into your cars. You can sleep with your door, unlocked, nothing. You know, I’ve never had that problem. The 15 years I’ve been here. And you’re not, you’re not worried about being black. In the United States. driving while black is a crime, being black is a crime, being born black is a crime. We don’t have to worry about that here in Kuwait. Black people, especially as Americans, we walk around freely and never have to worry about being black. Never have to worry about the police pulling your car over because you’re black. That’s the best thing I like about Kuwait the safety as a black woman. Yes, I feel safe.
Xavier: It sounds like there’s a lot of black people are other black people there. What nationalities you’re talking about that are also represented there in terms of the black people you see there,
Ayana: We have black people from all parts of the motherland, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania. We have people, Uganda all over Africa, Africans represented fully in Kuwait with black people. We have black people from the UK also from Canada, from the United States, of course. It’s a large variety of black people in a way. Yes.
Xavier: How about Jamaicans? Are there a lot of other Jamaicans there, too?
Ayana: Yes. But let me tell you what it is with the Jamaicans. There are two types of Jamaicans in Kuwait. There are Jamaicans like myself. We have American passports. Even though inside our passport, it says Jamaican nationality, we’re considered Americans because we have an American blue passport. When they see our passport, they see American, but we are Jamaicans. Yes, I have American nationality, I’m American citizen, but once you have that American passport, Kuwait’s, see you as what you are according to your passport. Your passport is what counts in the country. No matter what you sound like, they’re looking at your passport. Then they’re also Jamaicans who are straight from Jamaica, especially nurses, engineers, mechanics, they’re Jamaican, straight from Jamaica to Kuwait. They have nothing to do with the United States, they’re not US citizens, they’re still Jamaicans citizens. We even had a Jamaican embassy here since 2010, but they closed last year. We had an embassy here. Yes. So those are the two types of Jamaicans we have in Kuwait.
Xavier: Do you all get together, is there like you celebrate. You celebrate independence together? Do you have a restaurant where you hang out with them if possible, Play dominoes or so on?
Ayana: Yes, we do have, when the embassy was here, we had a Jamaican Association. We call it Caribbean Association. We did not separate other Caribbean people because they’re only three. At the time, there were only three Caribbean Embassies in Kuwait, Cuba, Jamaica, and Guyana. Now Jamaica is no longer here, we’re back to just Cuba and Guyana. So when we formed the association, we changed the name from Jamaican Association to Caribbean Association to incorporate the other Island people into the group, because there was no specific association where all the Caribbean people could be a part of it. At the Jamaican Embassy, yes. I was the President. It was pretty good. And we had our Jamaican Ambassador. He came from South Africa and Kuwait was this next station. He wasn’t here for a while. Yes. Right now, different Jamaican groups getting together. And I have a taste of Jamaican restaurant here in Kuwait for 15 years.
Xavier: Oh, so you have the restaurant where they come and play Dominos. This is a place to go.
Ayana: Yes. And now I have a TOJ (Taste of Jamaica) Guest House, and in the guest house we have the restaurant, because you know, when COVID started a lot of the restaurants, all the restaurants, we had to close, because that was the rules, but we could do takeaway and delivery. You’re actually looking at the guest house. That is where I am. We live here, I live in the guest house. My staff live here too. We’re open to Caribbeans and Americans.
Xavier: I know where I’m coming because I will feel like a little like home. I will get my Jamaican food there.
Ayana: Feel free to come.
Xavier: The stairway, looks beautiful. Oh, wow!
Ayana: Sense of Jamaica, this is our menu.
Xavier: Let me ask you this. Do you get all your supplies to mek (make), yuh (your) everything, yuh (your) steam fish, yuh (your) curry goat. Yuh (you) get all of that there?
Ayana: Not everything. We can get snapper, we can get chicken, we can get goat. Here the Indians they call it Goat Curry, Chicken Curry. But that’s how you know, who’s lying to you that they’re Jamaican. They tell you chicken Curry, you know, Jamaican say Curry Chicken right, but the ingredients, the ingredients, as in the seasoning, I import the seasoning into Kuwait. We cannot get our seasoning, So those come inside, from New York and from Texas.
Xavier: Okay. I see. What about, yam, do you import that in or do you get that at maybe, one of the African stores, I know Africans eat yam.
Ayana: We have no African stores in Kuwait, and when you get yam from the Africans, those are from people who went home to Nigeria or Ghana, and they bring it back and then sell it to them. But there’s no specific grocery store where you could go in there and buy Yam and Ackee and Saltfish and those things, no we don’t. But, Jerk seasoning and oxtail seasoning, salt fish, those things I import them into Kuwait. That is how I get them.
Xavier: You’re not missing any of your Jamaican food, really? Apart from the Yam?
Ayana: We even have the packets for the Fritters, the festival, even the fried dumpling, you have the package with the powdered fry dumpling, or you can make your own from scratch. So we’re not really hurting for the Jamaican food, except there’s no store, but because I have the restaurant, people can get it from the restaurant. They can come and get the dishes. Yeah (yes) man, Jamaicans haffi (have to) represent.
Xavier: When people come to the restaurant, first time, let’s say a Kuwaiti or whatever. What you hear about the Jamaican food? I mean, you must have some people that are like, man, this is good stuff. What do you normally hear?
Ayana: They enjoy it because they see black people in the restaurant. That’s the number one thing they’re looking for. Especially Arab people when they come into the restaurant, they don’t want to see people who are not Jamaican, because they’re wondering, is the food authentic? That’s the first thing in their minds. Kuwaitis want what’s real and we have many Kuwaitis who traveled to Jamaica. When they heard about our Jamaican restaurant to them it’s impossible, Jamaican food in Kuwait. They’ve never had it before so they’re surprised they’re happy. And they’ve tried some of the dishes they did not try when they actually went to Jamaica to visit. But here they get the chance. If you can’t go to Jamaica, come to the restaurant, we’ll bring Jamaica to you.
Xavier: Okay, great, great. Here’s the other question I have for you. What’s the biggest adjustment you had to make when you moved there?
Ayana: Oh my goodness. You will not believe this. The language, oh my. Arabic is not the easiest language in the world to learn and coming to Kuwait if you’re not coming here as a maid where you can learn the language inside the house within three to six months, it’s going to be very difficult. When we first came here, we worked on the base, on the military base. We were speaking English because that’s the only language we knew. But the Indians and the Nepalese and the Philippines who worked under us, they spoke Arabic. But for us to train them, they had to learn English. On the outside, being a business person in Kuwait, the language is a barrier you must know how to speak Arabic to help you better, but that is my greatest challenge the language. Fifteen years and mi (I) still caan (cannot) speak Arabic except if I am in a taxi, I know enough to tell them to turn right, turn left, go straight, stop, go back, you took the wrong turn. I learned bits and pieces just to get by. Sometimes the taxi driver cannot speak English. He just know, you can show him on the GPS and he follows The GPS.
Xavier: Google maps! google maps!
Ayana: Yes. Language is the barrier.
Xavier: I have two questions I want to ask. And I’m going to ask in succession because I have a little background noise going on and I want to just get you to answer these two. While the background noise goes away. But, two questions. The first one is this. When you got there and somebody learned that you’re Jamaica, sometimes, people say, Oh! you’re Jamaican. Tell me what happened after that’s one. And then the next question I want to ask is Kuwaiti food. Tell us a little bit about Kuwaiti food and the Kuwaiti culture?
Ayana: Okay. To answer your first question. When Arabic people realized I’m Jamaican, they get surprised. It’s, as if, a Jamaican in Kuwait, what are you doing here? They’re trying to figure out what is it that could have sent you to Kuwait. You’re really Jamaican, because when they hear the word Jamaican, they think about Bob Marley, they think about reggae music, they think about ganja. Those are the three things, now they’re looking at a real live Jamaican. I have lots, that’s another thing. The men, they want to touch my hair because they’ve never seen that type of hair before on a real person, except on TV. If I’m the first Jamaican they’re meeting with locks, to them, it’s different and they love it. Believe it or not, they love it. They love my accent and they want to know more about Jamaica, Bob, Marley, Usain Bolt, Shaggy, Sean Paul. The Kuwaitis who travel a lot, they know about these people.
To meet a real Jamaican, it’s surprising to them. Your second question about the food, I’ve noticed that when you talk about Kuwaiti food, most of the food that they’re using as Kuwaiti food, it’s Indian. Kuwaitis will tell you we have Biryani rice, chicken Biryani, but it belongs to the Indians and the Sri Lankans. I have one Kuwaiti friend. She invited me to her home. She said she was going to let me try Kuwaiti food. It turned out to be Indian food. Fifeen years, I’ve still not tried real Kuwaiti food. I cannot tell you the name of any Kuwaiti dishes, because all the dishes I know there are either from Egypt, Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka. I still don’t know what Kuwaiti dishes are, I’m still here trying to learn.
Xavier: The culture itself how are the people, warm, a little reserved? How are Kuwaiti people?
Ayana: I would say most of the ones I’ve met, they’re warm, they are reserved, and they’re very family oriented. In Jamaica, Sundays is a day for church, right? Family get together, they go to church. In Kuwait, their Holy Day, or their religious day is on a Friday. Friday is not considered a weekday here, it’s considered a weekend. There’s no school on Friday, but you do have school on Sundays. Sunday, the first day of the week here, where children go to school, the government is open, the banks are open. It’s not like in the United States and Jamaica or in the Western world, it’s totally different. The culture is laid back, the people are very, very family oriented. Your religion and family, those are the two biggest things I’ve seen here in Kuwait where people pay a lot of attention to. On Fridays most Kuwaiti families, they don’t even answer the phone.
You will not get any, any type of business done on a Friday. That day is reserved for them. They keep their phone off and they’re just into their children. The government here, they pay you for your children. You get a stipend for your children, you can take them out on the weekend, and they don’t want to be interrupted with people calling them every minute on their phone. Husbands and wives, they’re all about their children and they go out with the kids. The children get that weekend where they can enjoy mom and dad. Yes.
Xavier: What’s the one place or a couple attractions; something that you sey (say), if you come to Kuwait, you have to come and see this.
Ayana: For me, there is no specific attraction here in Kuwait as far as something that’s open to the public. They have something similar to the space needle in Seattle, Washington, where you can go inside and it spins around slowly you cannot even feel the movement. Some people are attracted to that, some people are attracted to the museum or the science center. I am not attracted to any of those public areas. What I am attracted to are the Villas that they have. They have beautiful Villas and I’m very, very much attracted to those. Sometimes I call up the real estate agent and I just go Villa hopping. I’m not renting any, I’m not buying any, I just want to see them; they are beautiful. I take pictures, I take videos. I’m even living in one, the guest house is a Villa. It’s new, it has seven bedrooms. I love it, I love it here. That’s my attraction the villas are beautiful, beautiful villas. Most of the beauty is on the inside not on the outside.
Xavier: Landscape wise, is it, desert,
Ayana: Desert, man, desert, and when there’s a sand storm, your car, your building, sometimes the dust comes inside. from the AC, it comes in the house. You have to clean, clean, clean. Sometimes we have two days of sand storms and the sand storms it’s not something you enjoy. Everything is dirty, you might as well just leave your car until the sand storm is over. Because if you wash it, it’s going to get dirty again, and on the base, we have Camp Air John here in Kuwait, army base. On the base it‘s more open; you can see more of the desert. Outside the base there are lots of buildings; the buildings are going to get the attraction from the sand storm, but yes, the sandstone is a big deal here. We hardly get rain, sometimes one year straight, you get no rain or if you get it, it might be two times. for the year, you know, you don’t see rain a lot in the desert.
Xavier: Have you been out there, what they call it, Dune? Some type of thing where you get out there and you in a buggy and you get out in the desert, have you done that?
Ayana: Oh no mi (my) dear, me and them something there at all, no, no. A lot of young people they love those things, they enjoy getting out there in the desert. They get in the what they call dune buggies, and they get in, they have fun, they go out in the desert. Some of them don’t even go in the desert, they’re in the city driving like dem (they) crazy in and out of the traffic in front of you. There’s nothing you can do. We have Ramadan here, it’s a big thing. Ramadan is a big thing, you cannot smoke, you cannot drink, you cannot chew gum in public, none of that, cannot eat in public, you can eat inside. All the restaurants are closed until sundown. Ramadan is a big thing in Kuwait because it’s, Muslim countries. In America, we have Muslims in America, but America is not a Muslim country.
Ramadan is not a big deal in America because people just go about their business. They eat on the street, they eat in the restaurant. The restaurants are not closed until sundown, but in Muslim countries, it’s more strict and Kuwait is a Muslim country. We have to go with the rules and the regulations. If not, you pay a fine and you actually go to jail. You can go into jail just for chewing gum in public. Drinking water, you’re in your car at the stoplight and you drinking something, someone can call the police on you. Yes. They can write down your license number and report you.
Xavier: That’s very interesting. So you can’t just go, out and say ok, I’m going to take my breakfast with me and just eat it in the car or eat in public during that time, you have to be very careful and watch yourself.
Ayana: Yes, and sometimes people even forget that Ramadan started and they have a bottle of water in their hand, and someone will come up to them and ask them to put it away, because people are fasting. They don’t want to see someone eating when they might be hungry and can’t eat, and here you are, you’re eating in front of them. And this is 30 days out of the year. It’s one month.
At this point, the Emir, the King, he passed away. They started the holiday yesterday. Now the government buildings will be closed for three days, but the country is on a fourth days, mourning, so very strict, you cannot wear short skirts, you cannot wear shorts, you cannot have cleavage showing, you cannot have anything where your shoulder, you cannot show skin, put it that way, very strict.
Xavier: In terms of adjustment, what would you say was the biggest adjustment that you had to make moving there? Apart from the language?
Ayana: My biggest adjustment was getting used to the custom. There’s certain rules here you’ll have to follow. And if you don’t know the rules ahead of time, you will break them easily. If you get caught, yes, you can go to jail. They can even give you a fine . I’ll give you a good example of what I’m talking about. If you are not married, you should not be out as a single man or woman with another person, especially if the person is married, that is not allowed in Kuwait. You cannot go to a hotel with someone who is not your spouse. It is not allowed in Kuwait. People try to dodge and hide, for example, one person will go and rent a room later on. Someone just goes straight to the room and visit them. But together you have to be husband and wife in order to do that. Even when you’re renting an apartment, if the person is not your spouse, legally, they’re not allowed to live with you no cohabitating, unless the person is married to you or related to you. That was hard to get used to because it’s something we didn’t know until we were told. They have a lot of strict rules here. This is not a place like in the States where you’re free, you know, in America and in the Caribbean, you’re free to do so many things, but Kuwait, you better learn the rules because you will be sorry if you didn’t. When you buy an airline ticket to come to Kuwait, no one is telling you these things, the travel agency, they’re not telling you, Oh, travel with your marriage certificate, so you can prove that’s your husband. You know, maybe you show your license that you both have the same last name and your address is the same, but it’s very strict here. Apart from that it’s okay.
Xavier: I think you gave us a piece of advice that anybody moving there, they need to make sure they learn the rules of the country before coming.
Ayana: Yes, know Before you go, simple. Know before you go, you save yourself a lot of trouble.
Xavier: It’s an oil rich. One of the oil rich, right? It’s oil rich?
Ayana: Kuwait is the sixth richest country with oil in the world. Yes.
Xavier: You’re seeing a lot of luxury there. What’s one of the luxury items that you’ve seen, that you’re blown away.
Ayana: Cars. I’m crazy about cars, and I’m crazy about gold. Yes. Those two things. I think gold is a good investment because when you go back to the States, you can sell it and make a profit from it. Gold is a good investment to buy in Kuwait while you’re here, yes. You can get good prices and go home and resell it, you may need money, sell your gold. It’s a good investment.
Xavier: You have provided some great information here, and I don’t know if you have any closing thoughts, any words, any closing thoughts, but this was just great. Some great information on Kuwait.
Ayana: I would like to say the currency; Kuwait right now holds the best currency in the world. One, we call it. K.D, Kuwaiti Dinar is approximately over three us dollars, but in Jamaica, one K.D in Jamaica is way over $200 Jamaican dollars, close to $300. It’s very good if you’re working in Kuwait to invest your Kuwait dinars in Jamaica, because you’re Kuwait Dinars in Jamaica will go a long way. Even if you don’t live here, get into some type of business where you’re making Kuwait money, because when you exchange it, the equivalent is much more than the equivalent for American dollars. It’s great, that’s why a lot of Jamaicans are here because their Kuwait Dinars go very far. I had two Jamaican chefs. We, flew them from Jamaica here to work in my restaurant, and they were making 450 KD per month. They receive transportation, food and accommodation. Those they didn’t have to pay for. So 450 KD went a long way. You multiply that by 3.1 and you see how much they were making. They didn’t pay rent, they didn’t have to have money for traveling back and forth to work, they had accommodation and they ate in the restaurant. When you are off, you just come to the restaurant and you still eat, and you took food home. That was a good deal, and I did not mind helping my Jamaican people
Xavier: Good. Is there any plans to open back the full restaurant once things are open? Or are you going to keep it in the Villa like you’re doing now?
Ayana: We are keeping it in the Villa with the guest house, because with the guest house, you need food. We’re going to keep it here and we’re going to open back on the economy and also open on the army base. We will have three locations.
Xavier: Excellent, excellent. Now.
Ayana: We must bring Jamaica everywhere we go right? We have to represent,
Xavier: Ayana, thank you very much for joining us and telling us a little bit about Kuwait. Excellent information. Folks you have to go check her out. She has a Villa there. Listen a little piece of home right there in Kuwait. If you head out there, she has been there 15 years, a wealth, a wealth of knowledge. Thank you. Any closing thoughts? Any last words?
Ayana: I love my Jamaican and any foreign country I go to, I’m going to represent Jamaica from A to Z, with the food, the language, our culture, everything. Jamaica is well represented in Kuwait since 2005. We’re still here, we’re going to keep being here until I leave. But look, mi (I) love my Jamaican people no matter where I go, I’m going to represent Jamaica all the way. Thank you for having me and thanks for the interview. God bless you.
Xavier: Blessings my friend and thank you again for the great information.
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