Monday, May 24, 2010

Jamaican Children Caught in Downward Spiral

There is much to love about Jamaica: the beaches, the friendly people, food, steel bands, and Reggae music, legacy of Bob Marley. The sun going down is perhaps too strong an image to use in a story about the future of its children. Recent news, however, detailing near open warfare breaking out between drug gangs and the police, offer little encouragement that much has improved since I wrote this piece following a trip there in December of 2004. From the Herald-Citizen, March 20, 2005.


On the day after Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon, I took a walk south to Negril’s Towne Centre. It was about two miles from my room. The sun was bright and hot, and my legs were sore.

A small bridge arches over the Negril River at its estuary, and then the road enters a roundabout. Yesterday’s early-morning marathon had made a turnaround here before dawn and headed back north. I wanted to see the place in daylight.

Afterwards, walking back to my hotel, the sun got hotter. I waved at a cab. He pulled over.

“How much to the Tree House?”

He stretched across the seat, laboring to roll down the window. He started to say three but then changed it to five in mid-sentence when he looked up and saw an old gent. It came out like:


“Five? You said three the first time.”

“Three? No, I didn’t say three! Hee hee.”

I pressed the point, derisively.

“Is that five Jamaican dollars?” (Roughly one US dime in 2004)

“Hee hee hee. No, not Jamaican.

He knew he’d messed up. He also knew that it was a buyer’s market. If he left, there’d be another taxi along shortly, and he hated losing the fare. Finally, he said,

“How much you wanna pay?”

I’d won the argument. The ride was mine for three. So, I announced,

“I’ll give you five.”

I sat down beside him. I wanted to be generous; it’s hard in Jamaica.

“It’s hard in Jamaica,” he said.

I don’t mean for you, he told me—for us living in Jamaica. I asked him why it was hard. There’s too much unemployment and lots of poor people, he said. He appreciates tourist coming down. He wanted me to know that. He made the point twice. He rarely gets to the states, to Miami occasionally.

My generosity turned out to be a good investment; the man opened up. Money won’t buy anything, he said. I told him I knew about the Jamaican dollar falling. You go to the grocery store, a thousand dollars won’t buy anything—three little sacks, he said. He could remember when a thousand would actually buy something. A thousand dollars is only worth seventeen US dollars now.

With the decline of Jamaica’s economy has come an increase in drug trafficking, and other crimes, further sucking the lifeblood out of the country. A Kingston paper, The Sunday Gleaner, proudly shouted some news in a tall red two-word headline: “KINGFISH JACKPOT.” The story was about teaming up with Scotland Yard to catch some of Jamaica’s ‘Kingfish’ drug lords. Upon careful reading, the front-page story details more the hope of catching Kingfish than the actual catching of them. It reports only one caught so far, and he was caught, charged and tried in Great Britain, not Jamaica.

But officials are optimistic and upbeat. I don’t know. My thought is that for every Kingfish caught, likely two more will be waiting to take his place. Crime pays. And for drug trafficking, Jamaica lies conveniently placed, just 90 miles south of Cuba, a perfect transshipment point for cocaine traveling north from South America to North America and Europe.

A separate problem originates within the country—the illicit cultivation of cannabis, one confirmed by my earlier encounter on the beach with a man selling “smokes.” The government has a cannabis eradication program, but, as usual, corruption is a problem.

And what accompanies the drugs? The Gleaner reflects that, too: HIV, murder, social upheaval, and so on. I only have to scan the story titles: “AIDS, Disability and Insensitivity,” “A Crisis in Human Sexuality.” Numerous columns, stories and letters pursue this particular theme.

Kevin O’Brien Chang’s column on murder is eye popping. He said the murder rate was poised to top 1500 for 2004. He contrasted that with only 423 in 1989. He went on to note that “…Kingston is quite possibly the murder capital of the world….” (Perhaps Mexico's Ciudad Juarez holds that dubious distinction now.)

That is not the title Kingston needs when Jamaica uses the “One Love” theme to promote tourism, and it is not a title befitting the home place of its late author, Jamaican hero and musician, Bob Marley.

Caught in the swirl of all this ugliness are the children, the beautiful little children, standing roadside in clusters waiting for the bus, smiling in their school uniforms—khaki shirt and trousers for the boys, khaki skirt and maroon blouse for the girls. In the education of the children lies Jamaica’s hope for the future. But fear rests there too—the fear that those same children may not escape the grip of drugs, HIV and shootings already raging across the country.

On my last afternoon in Negril I sat in the beach bar looking north along the shore. A few feet away a little Jamaican girl, about seven years old, worked hard in the sand, digging with a green plastic shovel. She eventually built herself a sandcastle and then excavated a moat around it. She knew a moat should be filled with water, and she tried to coax the waves into doing the job. She lay beside the moat. Each time a wave ran up the beach toward the castle, she attempted to swipe some of its water into the trench. Her little hand didn’t catch enough to fill it.

Her little sister, maybe four years old, had an idea. She waded into the surf and filled a black plastic shopping bag. Then she ran up the slope with the bulging bag, jets squirting from holes in it, and dumped the contents into the moat. The older girl caught the idea and likewise filled a cardboard carton. They both ran back and forth, working hard and seriously, ferrying water to the moat. Finally the box softened and the bottom fell out.

They gave up then. All was lost. All the water they’d managed to pour into the moat seeped into the sand and drained away.

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