In our “Jamaicans to the World” series, Jamaicans.com founder Xavier Murphy speaks with Vonetta Bailey and Warren Blake. They are Jamaicans living in Belgium.
Xavier: What is it like being Jamaican in Belgium? Hi. I’m Xavier Murphy, founder of Jamaicans.com and today in Jamaicans to the world I talk to Vonnetta Bailey and Warren Blake, who are Jamaicans living in Belgium. Vonnetta and Warren, welcome.
Vonnetta: Thank you.
Warren: Thank you. Good to be here.
Xavier: You know, let me first state, they are boyfriend and girlfriend.
Warren: Whoi, ooh!
Xavier: So this is why they are this close. And, you know, this was a spur of the moment, but I just love it. I wanted someone else and Vonnetta said, “Yeah, let me get him in here.” So, let’s get the two Jamaicans who live in Belgium in here. So, guys, welcome again. And a gwine (I’m going to) start with the first question, which paat (part) a (of) Jamaica yuh (are you) from?
Vonnetta: Well, I was born in Kingston, (Victoria) Jubilee Hospital. I lived in Duhaney Park and Havendale. From there, my dad is from Kingston, my mom is from Westmorland so, went to Grange Hill and then from Grange Hill ended up in a little place called Hopewell about 15 minutes away from Montego Bay.
Warren: I am from St Catherine you know. Linstead innu (you know). Carry mi (my) ackee go a (to) Linstead market, not a quatty wut sell (not even a quatty’s worth was sold). Born and bred innu (you know), right there.
Xavier: Good, good, so tell us the story of how you all ended up in Belgium.
Vonnetta: Okay. So, for me I’m between Belgium and the UK. So, I’ve lived in the UK for over 20 years. I still do. I go back and forth because of my partner, and, yeah that’s pretty much it I’m here because….
Xavier: What was it a visit? What was the love for Belgium? You just visited Belgium and you said, “Listen. UK, Belgium. I love Belgium.”
Warren: Well, for me, Belgium it’s a different life from the UK. It’s a much quieter life, and more easy-going for your kids, you know. You have young kids and here it’s a bit really family orientated. The system is totally different from the UK but it’s a really lovely country.
Xavier: So is it, okay. So, I think you said slower-paced.
Xavier: What do you mean by slower pace? Are you saying like from, you know, from something is always going on or is it just like nutten really go on (nothing is happens)? Is it slow, slow, slow or is it, what would you say?
Warren: It’s not that slow but compared to London where we were living it is it is…
Vonnetta: It’s more relaxed.
Warren: Relaxed. Yeah.
Vonnetta: Less crime. I mean, I can go to the shop in my night-gown and nobody cares.
Xavier: Wow. So, you said for kids, your kids are there in in Belgium?
Vonnetta: They’re back and forth as well.
Xavier: Back and forth. So do they know, well, first of all, let me make sure I may have the language correct. What language do they speak in Belgium?
Vonnetta: Well, we’re in a place called Ghent and the language here is Netherlands, Netherlands.
Warren: Parts of Belgium speak French.
Vonnetta: There are three official languages, French, Netherlands, and German.
Xavier: So, are you all speaking all three languages or which languages have you learned?
Warren: Well, I’m learning Netherlands. The kids speak good Netherlands, but I’m learn
Vonnetta: Good English,
Warren: Good English,
Warren: Dem (they) speak, you know our language, fi wi (our) broken suppen (thing).
Warren: But I’m learning Netherlands as we go because I did two levels in it.
Warren: Yes, so…
Xavier: Is it difficult?
Warren: For me. For me at my age it is.
Vonnetta: Well, to be honest, basically one of the things I like about Belgium, is one of the requirements when you get here is that you have to study the language, up to level two before you get naturalised, before you get nationality.
Basically it helps. It’s free. But it helps you to learn to introduce yourself, know how to say hello. It helps. It helps. But the course is free. You have to sign up to do at least two courses. You can do up to level 10, but the requirement is that you do up to level 2.
Vonnetta: I’ve travelled over 30 countries and coming to Belgium and they having that in place, is a very good system. Because when you go to the UK, okay, everybody speaks English. But for their system where you have to go to school and you have to learn the language, I find that very, you know, interesting.
Warren: It’s good. It’s good. You’re living in a country and they speak Netherlands, it’s good, you have to learn the language. It’s good for communication.
Vonnetta: Yeah. When you go to Rome you do what the Romans do.
Xavier: So, let me ask you this question. Are you able to get by on a little English?
Warren: Oh yeah. Yeah, they speak, where we are 60%, probably 70% speak English.
Vonnetta: To be honest, we went to Brussels first and in Brussels it’s French. French, French, French. I remember I needed ice cream and I went into the shop and I’m like, “Do you sell ice cream?” No answer. We discovered that there is a place called Ghent, where they speak English. We came here. It’s welcoming. It’s a multicultural city, so we just fit in well.
Xavier: You said multicultural city and I see oounu (see you) representing oounu (your) Jamaica. Big up, big up, big up.
Xavier: Multicultural, what about your Jamaican food? Do you get any Jamaican food there in that multicultural city of yours?
Vonnetta: I think you should go.
Warren: Okay. You know everything from Jamaica goes to the UK?
Warren: So back on food, we have two big vans. So, she go over deh (goes over there) an stock dem (them) up an (and) come back an (and) supply all Jamaicans weh (who) want Jamaican products.
Vonnetta: Breadfruit. We have breadfruit challenge. Cane…
Warren: Breadfruit, cane yellow yam, the whole…
Vonnetta: The whole entourage, anything you want, we have it.
Xavier: So, you have a little business going there with your Jamaican products?
Vonnetta: Well, to be honest, when I came here, it was, for me it was like we wanted Jamaican food, and we couldn’t find a Jamaican restaurant;
nowhere that sells Jamaican food. The people here, they love Jamaica. From you say Jamaica, it’s food, music, you know. And so, when we tried, we looked everywhere. There was no Jamaican restaurant and so we decided that we are going to open a restaurant. We wanted to do, you know, a restaurant to sell Jamaican food. So, for the last 3,4 years?
Warren: Three years.
Vonnetta: Three years we had been looking…
Warren: …for a location.
Vonnetta: …for a location and we finally found one there comes Corona.
Warren: Corona strike.
Xavier: Oh man. You’re going to pursue that after, you know, the Corona thing. After Corona has lifted or eased its grip on us, as many say.
Warren: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Xavier: Okay. So, you bring in your products. You get them from UK and you say drive them in?
Vonnetta: Yes. And we get from Jamaica as well.
Vonnetta: Yes. Because to be honest, we started it and then we stopped. And then there was the request for it. But when I found the breadfruit, “Oh my God!” They just, Breadfruit Challenge. And the whole thing for me was, it’s Corona. Everybody’s depressed. Everybody’s locked inside. People who normally go to Jamaica can’t go to Jamaica, you know. How do I cheer up these people in their home, you know?
And I seh yuh know wha? (I said, guess what) let me get the Jamaican products an den (and then) we start put it out (started to display them). We av dis (have this), we av dat (have that). And to be honest, when we deliver, he drives like 100 kilometres to do delivery in Brussels, past Brussels and the way how the people appreciate the product. When a tell yuh (you), people who want Ting, their favourite Ting, you know, bulla, bun, cheese, chiffon butter, banana chips. Chippies mi a talk bout (I am talking about Chippies). Mi a talk bout di (I am talking about the) real authentic product, even seasonings.
Xavier: Yuh kno di real ting (You know the real thing). Chippies a di real ting (is the real thing).
Vonnetta: Yuh understand? (Do you understand?)
Xavier: Chippies, oh wait! ‘him a look fi some Chippies! (He is searching for some Chippies!). The man came prepared.
Vonnetta: It’s the joy on their faces and the children, you know. And it just, for me it’s like, I’m so happy to be able to [can] provide the service where people who haven’t been to Jamaica for over 20 years, some a di things dem…(some of the things)
Vonnetta: Xavier, like, yuh know dis? (you know this?)
Xavier: Yes, the button. Weh yuh call dem? (What are they called?)
Warren: Police button.
Vonnetta: Tamarind ball. And they are like, “Oh my God, weh yuh get these? (Where did you get these?) Mi no remember dis! (I don’t remember this.) Gimme dis (Give me this). Gimme dat (Give me that).” They want everything. And it’s just a joy to know that …
Xavier: So, let me ask you this then. Is there that many Jamaicans there? I mean, because if you are delivering and you are thinking a (of) opening a restaurant, there is a lot of Jamaicans there?
Warren: The restaurant is not really for the Jamaicans.
Warren: It’s for the multi-culture people love the food.
Xavier: Right, right.
Warren: So, it’s not for just Jamaicans. [The] majority of the people that’s going to come there to get the food are not Jamaican.
Warren: It’s Belgium people and people who love the culture.
Xavier: Okay. I see.
Xavier: On that point, before I get off that point. So, do you have a website where people can contact you all or see how things are progressing? Or I don’t know if there is an email or something because if somebody from Belgium saying man, I want my Chippies or I want my this or I want my that, you know. You want to give out the email address? Or you have a website?
Vonnetta: The website. Yes. Basically, we have a non-profitable organization. It’s called Xaymaca Visa Tui. It’s really Xmaca if you pronounce it in Jamaican terms. But here, we say Xaymaca and this name, we decided to give it this name because you know when the Arawaks originally…
Warren: He knows. He knows.
Vonnetta: You know in Jamaica before it was called Jamaica it was called, you know, Xaymaca, which means land of wood and water. So, we decided to, if we’re going to represent our country, we are going to do it in a way where, you know, we have a story behind it. Because when we came here, we saw a lot of people who were pushing the Jamaican music, the festival, the food, but they are not Jamaicans, as in born and bred, you know.
When I came here, I always say to people, you know. We Jamaicans are gonna sit back here and then the only thing that’s left is they gonna have a little island put two palm trees and some sand and call it Little Jamaica. Lo and behold, Spice came here and performed at the BC Festival and that was her main speech you know. “I’m in this place and, all they need is two palm tree and sand and call it Little Jamaica,” which was true, because that’s what I saw when I came here as well.
I’m like, no we have to up this thing. I’m a real Jamaican. We want to do the real jerk chicken, the real curry goat, you know, the rice and peas. So, we decided to do a pop-up to introduce the Jamaican food in Ghent. And when we did that pop-up, it was a good turn out. And from there, Warren decided that we going to do a jerk festival. So, we did a jerk festival where we were expecting like 500 people. We had over a thousand.
Vonnetta: So, you know we try to do little events to introduce our culture. We contacted the embassy in Brussels and we had thirty ambassadors who came to the event as well. So, you know, it’s just us here saying, you know, we are Jamaicans in here. We realize that the Belgians the love the culture. They love the food. Because Belgians love Jamaican. Anything. If you say you are Jamaican, they just want to know everything; the food, the music everything.
Xavier: Wow! That’s, amazing that, you know, they recognize, love the food, love the culture, and you all started a jerk festival there. Really, really, great.
So back to the question, so they can email you or they can visit a website or how do they find you? Or…
Warren: Xaymaca Belgium.
Vonnetta: It’s on Facebook. It’s called Xaymaca Belgium and Jamjerk festival. We also opened an Instagram page called Xaymaca Shops. Sorry. I forgot the question. I got carried away.
Xavier: Not a problem. So, you mentioned the music, and there are music festivals, Jamaican music festivals there and so on. So, the Reggae is big? You hear Reggae there a lot?
Warren: Whoi. A big, big, big (noteworthy) suppen (something) man. You know, Reggae music a big big (noteworthy) suppen (thing) across Europe. Not just Belgium, right across Europe. But you have big shows that keep in are kept in Belgium. Reggae gale…
Vonnetta: Festivals. Belgium is known for festivals.
Warren: Reggae gale. A lot of shows, lota (many) big shows keep across, yeah.
Xavier: So, you’ll hear the music?
Xavier: Some people stream more than they turn on the radio today, but do you hear the music on the radio?
Vonnetta: Yes. Yes. Stat Ghent, they play Reggae …
Vonnetta & Warren: You have stations that play Reggae music.
Xavier: Oh wow. That is good to know that the culture and so on. So, when people first hear you’re Jamaican, you kinda mention it, they dig into culture and they dig into this. What is one of the kinda, you know, I don’t want seh (say) weird question. But what is one of the most popular thing you hear when they seh (say), “Oh, you’re Jamaican?” What comes after that?
Warren: “Yuh smoke weed?” (Do you smoke marijuana?)
Xavier: The weed.
Vonnetta: And because we have the dreads as well…
Xavier: Oh, yes. Do you encounter people wanting to touch the dreads?
Vonnetta: Oh, yes.
Warren: Oh, yes.
Vonnetta: And to take pictures. I had one guy said, “Oh my God, you’re from Jamaica? I’ve never met a Jamaican before.” And you know, they know the Usain Bolt and the Bob Marley. Believe me.
Xavier: So the food now, let’s go back to food a little bit now. And let’s talk about the food in Belgium and the Belgium culture. I want talk about, give the people a little bit about Belgium and the Belgium culture. What is the food there like and if there is one food you would say, you know, if you visit Belgium try this particular food, what would it be?
Warren: Belgium is known for the…, for me Belgium is…, at home I only cook Jamaican food.
Vonnetta: We only do Jamaican food, …straight Jamaican at home.
Warren: Okay. I try to make soup, how they make it. I like it, because I don’t put meat in it. So, it’s just for me. It’s just straight vegetarian soup. But I like it. That’s for me. But here it’s waffles. They do a lot of waffles…
Warren& Vonnetta: …and frites.
Xavier: What’s frites?
Vonnetta: French Fries
Warren: French fries, yeah.
Vonnetta: I have to tell you, the Belgians are not happy at all. And the main reason they are not happy is because, it’s French fries so people thought that, frites, you know, French fries were made by the French but it’s not so.
Vonnetta: Yes, it’s Belgian. Frites, French fries is Belgian. It’s a Belgian dish so the best French fry you can get is in Belgium.
Xavier: So, it’s not McDonald’s, they always say McDonald’s have the best French fries.
Vonnetta: No. No. And they say French fry was designed by the French people. No.
Xavier: So, in terms of visiting Belgium and the places and so on. What would you say if I was to visit Belgium is one of the places that you’d say listen, or experience; it could be a place. It could be an experience, where you say, “Listen, if you visit, you must go see this or you must experience this.” You know, what would you say? And it could be, listen, you know, I’ve heard things from other guests where they say, you know, the sunset here is just beautiful. This here, it could be anything, what would you, what would you recommend as an experience?
Vonnetta: Belgium has a lot of historic buildings. And a place that stands out for me is, I think it’s 10th or the 12th century, it’s called Gravensteen. It’s a castle in Ghent. And I would say to go and visit there. Also, in regarding to the Belgium dish, there’s a dish called Stoofvlees, which is beef. And there’s another one called Witloof, which is like, the witloof; it’s white. It’s like lettuce, our lettuce, but it’s smaller. And it’s wrapped, you know it’s wrapped, you know, that’s a known Belgium dish.
But the Belgium dish that I tried which I would say to anybody who is coming here, once you in Ghent, and they will pronounce it, “Hent.” You know, I have problem pronouncing the G and the R. But there’s a restaurant called Amadeus. Amadeus? And they sell the best potato I’ve ever had, because it’s seasoned.
But it’s the best potato. I would recommend you and it’s a chain of hotels, restaurants. So, it’s in different locations, and trust me, it’s hard to even get a booking because it’s always packed. So, we have to reserve a spot like in advance, you know, but…
Vonnetta: And Bruges, they can, you know, Bruges which is the fairy tale, you know, island, you know.
Warren: They call it the …
Vonnetta: The lovers.
Warren: … for lovers. But it’s…, for me Bruges is one of the places you would really want to…
Warren: …visit. If you come to Belgium, you go Bruges. It’s a nice…, I worked in, I work there before. But just driving through because I do delivery, just driving through there and the tourists and it’s a lovely, lovely little city to visit.
Vonnetta: Tourist attraction.
Xavier: Okay, okay. So, what would you say in terms of, apart from the language, was one of the biggest adjustments for each of you, in terms of the move to, or living in Belgium or to move to Belgium, what was the biggest adjustment?
Warren: You said it.
Vonnetta: It’s just the language.
Warren: It’s just the lang… For me it’s just the language.
Vonnetta: It’s just the language. It’s just the language.
Warren: … the language.
Xavier: Obviously, you all are getting by, because you’re still there so…
Warren: Yes, yes, yes. And when, in the initial stages, to find a job…
Warren: … the language, you have to speak, to get a job, that can maintain you and your family. The language, the language is always a barrier. We have to climb that hurdle to get by.
Vonnetta: But the people here in Ghent, they are, lovely. Like, they will say, you will go to them, and you start speaking English and they will say to you to speak, Netherlands. And then they give you the opportunity to try and it helps. Because you know you, I can speak it when I try, I refuse like you know I’m shy in speaking it….
Warren: Yes. That’s me. Yeah.
Vonnetta: …and sometimes they will just say, “Yeah, go on,” you know, “We’ll help you along the way.” So, they give you the opportunity to try and speak it. Like, even the police when you say to the policeman, “Oh speak English.” He says, “You’re in Netherlands.” But it’s not a bad way. It’s just for you just, you know, try and speak to them, to know the language and say to it them. So, they will help you. They will guide you and if they see you’re struggling, then English comes out and they will talk to you in English. But I love that. If you go to the offices, they will push you to speak, Netherlands.
Xavier: I see. The people you touch on the people, and you said they are very helpful there. What are the people like? Are they warm? You know, I’ve seen a trend with the folks I talk to in the European countries, and they say, you know, takes a little bit for people to warm up, you know. It takes a little bit. And I kind of hear a lot of that. What are the people like? I mean are they, you know, you know us Jamaicans wi gwine ( we will/ we are going to) embrace you if wi (we) like you right off. If mi spirit tek to yuh ( If we are kindred spirits) mi a (I will) embrace you right away. Okay. If not, you know, so what are the people like?
Warren: You find a few of them…
Warren: Reserved …
Vonnetta: …until they …get to know you.
Warren: … until they get to know you. But when they get to know you. Wow, they just, they accept you.
Vonnetta: You’re family.
Warren: You’re family. And then, you know, we’re in Europe and then you’re going to have the opposite of that, where, I don’t want to say it. But you’re going to always have the opposite of that. Yeah, I don’t let the opposite of the one that embrace you get to you. You just focus on what your….
Vonnetta: It’s everywhere.
Warren: Yeah, but it’s everywhere.
Xavier: Well, so what would, you know, in terms of advice, if you had a piece of advice that you would give to a Jamaican or anyone who is thinking of moving to Belgium, what would that advice be?
Warren: For me, if I’m saying, “Xavier, move to Belgium.” Come with an open mind open. So, I would explain to you about the language. That’s the hardest thing, for me the language but, come and see. See for yourself.
Vonnetta: Yeah, I would just say, you have to come, adapt and adjust. But mostly what I noticed there is opportunity so come with a business plan, you know. Come…
Vonnetta: …because here, there’s opportunity. So come with a business plan. And what I like here as well. They get behind you.
Warren: Yes. Yes.
Vonnetta: They support you. They push you… as a…
Warren: …young entrepreneur.
Xavier: Is it the government that does that or just the people or, is there supporting organisations? Because that sounds very good.
Vonnetta & Warren: Supporting organisations.
Vonnetta: And it depends on where you live.
Warren: That is good.
Vonnetta: They get behind you. Like, I can only speak for Ghent, because I know they do that. They give you the opportunity. They will do your business plan for you. You just have to tell them your idea. They’ll do the business plan. They get everything. They give you the loan. They push you to set up. So, if you’re coming, come with a business plan. Come determined to work, of course, you know. If you’re going to come here and think, no, I’m not going to work. Don’t come. Don’t come.
Warren: That’s not going to go nowhere with you.
Vonnetta: That’s not going to go nowhere because here you have to work on pay taxes and inherit back from it. Yes, so if you’re think you just going to come, seh yuh deh a (to say you’re in a foreign country) foreign, hah, hah, just stay.
Xavier: A question on how, the kids are adjusting to Belgium. I mean, it’s probably all they know. But how do they navigate that culture between knowing, you know, I’m Jamaican. Or I have Jamaican parents who are bold and into dem Jamaican culture, and then you have, I’m sorry, the Belgium culture. How are they navigating that? How have you observed them navigating that?
Vonnetta: And the British culture. So, they have a whole heap a (a lot) mix up going on there. But surprisingly to me, like my son, he picked up the language within two months. And he was what, eight at the time? Eight years old and he picked up language within two months. They know how to adjust. They know when to speak English because we only speak English with them.
We speak English and patois, of course, you know. “Siddung deh so.” (sit there). Yuh (you) know.
You know. “Get up.”
Yuh undastan? (Do you understand?)
“Move dat.” (Remove that thing.)
You know, you know, straight Patois, like, you know.
Like my little daughter would say to her friend, “Hey, bwoy, yuh tink me a ramp wid yuh? (Little boy, do you think I’m playing/ horsing around with you?). I’m like, you know. But if you’re a Belgian and you’re gonna have a conversation with them, they will have a conversation too and I’m like, okay, they know more than us.
Warren: They speak the language.
Warren: Fluent language.
Vonnetta: English everything. They get confused sometimes. Because when we go to England, when we’re in England, they will say to my friend, “Ik heb hoofdpijn” Now hoofdpijn is… [head]. So, they will see my friend the expression on her face like. And then she’ll go, “Oh, my head is hurting me.” And she was only what two years old.
Warren: Yeah. That’s…
Xavier: Ah, that’s good, that’s great. So, let’s let me throw a scenario out at you and I’m winding down. I have one last question before but I’m throwing the scenario before the question. So, I know yuh (you are) into oounoo (your) Jamaican food it is obvious, of that. But you landed in Jamaica, what is the first thing you do when you land in Jamaica?
Warren: Tell them wah (what) you do next.
Vonnetta: I love cherry malt. I don’t know if you remember cherry malt. Yuh (you) know that box drinks, cherry malt? But as I land, I have to get my KFC, because in England, they don’t sell the biscuits in England. As a matter of fact, in Belgium they didn’t have KFC. So, when I go to Jamaica, I have to get the biscuit. You know that soft, it just melt in your mouth, and the spicey ribs, the side breast, yuh (you) know. So, for me, and the grape soda. Oh yes.
Warren: For me, ground food, plant-based food. Gimme di (give me the) fresh yam and banana. Mi nuh waan no (I don’t want any) flour, mi no waan no (I don’t want any) rice. Mi wah (I want) callaloo, okra, mi waan (I want) fresh food. Those are the things that I crave for as soon as…
Xavier: Yuh (your) yellow yam.
Vonnetta: I cook him yellow yam and bulgar. Mi even find bulgar fi ‘im. (I even found him bulgar) Well listen, I help him.
Warren: These are the things weh me (that I) crave when me (I) head to Jamaica.
Xavier: All right. Well, listen guys, Vonnetta and Warren I really thank you for sharing your story and, and telling us a little bit about Belgium, and also about the people there, the culture, and your business. And I wish you all the success with your business but here’s how I end. And I know y’all are saying the language.
Warren: Whoi ooh! Speak! Speak!
Xavier: You’re going to have to teach me, and I’m gonna give you a final word, but you’re gonna have to say goodbye and teach me how to say goodbye, in, you know, the typical most informal way that you say it in Belgium. So, any final words and then you teach me, bye bye.
Vonnetta: Okay, so as I said I’m between the UK, England and Belgium. I normally say to people if you’re looking for opportunity, Belgium, is, is the place for that. I love the UK. I have business there. I still, you know, go back and forth. If you’re thinking of coming to Belgium, come with an idea. Come with a business plan. Focus and learn. Just have an open mind, to say, you know, you want to adapt. And make connection with your fellow Jamaicans that are here to help you, to guide you along the way. But the Belgians, where I am, they’re very helpful and they’re there to assist you as well. So, you know.
Xavier: Good. Good. Warren any final words before you have to teach me bye bye?
Vonnetta: And don’t forget to like and follow us on Xaymaca Belgium.
Xavier: Okay. Alright.
Xavier: Okay, so you all had five minutes now to think about it now. How you say bye, bye, the Belgium, informal way.
Warren: Totzien. Totzien. T-o-t-z-i-e-n.
Warren: Totzien or Saluu.
Xavier: Which one is the most informal one?
Warren: Saluu? Saluu.
Xavier: Okay. Alright guys. Well…
Xavier: Totzien and saluu.
Photos – Deposit Photos