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The International Writers Magazine
: Life and Living in the Island in the Sun

Simone Gigliotti deconstructs Marley country

One does not usually think of Jamaica as a primary stop for New Zealanders, or Australians for that matter. Would it surprise you to learn that New Zealanders purchase more Bob Marley music per capita than any one else, that Bob Marley’s visit to New Zealand in 1977 is commemorated proudly if not insufficiently on the walls of Bob Marley’s old house at 56 Old Hope Road in Kingston, now a museum, that reggae influences are audibly inscribed in Pacific indigenous traditions, and that Maori historical experiences have often times been compared to how Afro-Caribbean populations, such as Jamaicans, responded to European colonization and territorial displacement, first by the Spanish and then the British?
My experience in Jamaica offered an opportunity to reflect on these discoveries, and to gaze at the reality of the rather tattered postcard image of endless diamond dust beaches of Negril’s seven-mile beach, the spine-threatening cliff jumping at Rick’s Café in the same location, the Angela Bassett outcome offered by Stella’s reawakened, youthful sexuality, and the heterosexual idyll of all-inclusive resorts for singles or couples only whose only contact with Jamaicans is limited to the provision of transport services, ganja, and sometimes financially induced sexual relations.

The following comments derive from an extended sojourn in Jamaica, resulting from a temporary teaching appointment at a local university in Kingston, the island’s capital.

I was advised not to take up the offer, and received regular inquiries from family especially about my mental health before, during and even after my visit. Admittedly, Jamaica’s postcard images masked deeper and profound social, political, economic and racial divisions that are impossible to understand without some ongoing intimacies produced from relations with Jamaicans of differing social classes. It is rather easy, pending will and expense, to go to Jamaica and create a touristic experience in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios (North American cruise ship hotspots) and Negril (US Spring Break destination) through insulation in all-inclusive resorts and crowd activities of Karaoke and $2 nights at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. It is more challenging to transcend the consumer impulse connoted in the word tourist and become a traveler, an observer of traffic of all sorts, and to some extent, participant, by virtue of relative isolation in the socio-economic and geographical oasis afforded at the Mona Campus in Kingston.

From November to February it is winter. I would wait for the sun to rise, and never eager to get up too early, advance the time on my watch hoping the sun would match it, and rise at 6am, make my deliriously tantalizing Blue Mountain coffee, sit on my balcony and sip a few cups of it while admiring the majesty of the actual Blue Mountains, and pondering the locations of where free black communities, such as Maroons, resisted the British occupation. I could only afford this hour or so of romanticizing and historical transport to past eras for so long, and then take a shower before the water ran out due to hospital supplies and burst water mains on account of flooding or rains the day before. Jamaica’s only season was 'heavenly', for an Australian like myself, that means an endless summer with the promise of more. Hurricane season came from June to November, and instead of earthquake preparations, I went to Hurricane Preparedness Week on the campus, where I was instructed to tape up my windows, buy candles and tinned food in the event of tropical deluge.

The Caribbean islands were colonized by the Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, British and French, possess multilingual and cultural traditions, and differing political systems, but all are united in their vulnerability to the weather, and that means hurricanes, tropical storms and earthquakes, in a path that moves from east to West, round to Cuba, and then to the southern US states. Jamaicans in particular think about rains and floods like Americans think about snow. Both are feared and revered. Tourists come and go to Jamaica, and generally they are safe, except when as a young British tourist and his friend discovered, you can get killed, in fact, bound up and shot, if you traffic drugs from Kingston to London.

The US State Department website does not advise travel to Kingston. Having checked its website before my departure the usual fear and paranoia was evident in the rhetoric that Jamaican is a human rights nightmare, on par with China, and other countries with alleged dictators. It has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the Caribbean, after Haiti, making the region, only second to Botswana in the World Health Organization register of HIV infection rates. It also has, alongside Ethiopia and India, the highest car fatality rate in the world, and a staunchly homophobic culture. It is highly unsafe, for example, for gay men to be open and expressive; you risk receiving a stoning, as did “David”, who was chased and stoned by a group of men into the sea near the local harbour. Potential car theft is addressed in what is known as mob justice. In a scene reminiscent of all too many American teen-slasher films, a young man attempted to rob a student’s car on the University of Technology campus. Security was notably absent, and other angry students apprehended the alleged suspect, chased him into a sewer ravine, began stoning him, and set fire to the grass surrounding it. Despite attempts at surrender, mob justice triumphed, the suspect drowned, and no witness came forward to identify the perpetrators, not least because of possible retributive action. In crime scenes covered on television, people suddenly lose their identities, the word eyewitness assumes all manner of potentially incriminating visibility, and suddenly not having a name seems to be fashionable, and a way of maintaining survival.
There was the story, reported in the newspapers and on television, of a drug-related hit, where a gunman went into a party and shot out the womb of a fifteen year old girl’s stomach. The phrases ‘drug -related crime’, and ‘tragic events’ become meaningless on such occasions to describe a perpetrator’s motivation and effects on the psyche of ordinary Jamaicans, who protest all the time at the decline in moral values and increased violence.
Ethical and moral debates on the value of human life, the direction of Jamaican society and self-empowerment find their way into the national paper The Gleaner’s opinion pages, yet are overshadowed with the politics of ‘rescue’: how to salvage what is ‘good’ and ‘possible’ in Jamaican society from the evils that corrode its social fabric, the corruption that undermines its fragile democracy, and the continuing exploitation of Jamaica through neo-colonial systems of trade and globalization.

Jamaica is far smaller than New Zealand; it is roughly the size of Connecticut, and looking at various maps of the world that position New Zealand as directly beside or resituated unfairly south, I struggle to find it, even though I lived there, in the self-described “Reggae Homeland”. Comparisons in size are of course superficial. Compression of that kind leads to stereotypes of parochialism, in-breeding, the need for cultural self-sufficiency and autonomy, resistance to ‘foreign’ influence and domination, and when dealing with Jamaica, they are especially voluminous. Kingston is a long way from Wellington, my present base. Expressions of social intolerance tends to offend the trained, liberal eye. Its treatment of prisoners and gays outrages the human rights activist, and its unofficially polygamous policy encouraging multiple partners, second families and ‘baby muddas’, in the production and reproduction of a staunchly macho culture, unsettles the feminist, who might be intrigued, to say the least, if she were to find out that graduating third year women students would not be out shopping just for frocks, but for food as well, in competition to lure and entice potential student husbands with their cooking skills.

Kingston is regularly described as tough, even by people who live there. It thrills, excites, and grabs you, but is enclosed in small social circles. Poetry nights are held weekly at "Weekenz", the outside performance club where lounges are embedded in the grass, bamboo lights surround the outdoor bars, and Reggae Entertainment television sponsors acoustic nights featuring many of the Marley brothers, my favourite Damian included, and other artists. To get there, it is not really safe to walk the streets at night as one could walk Courtney Place, Manners Street or Cuba Mall in Wellington, since the chances of being accosted or mugged are foregone. To be without a car, is like a runner without feet; being a ‘walkfoot’ (someone without a car) is only possible if doing within a 1-2 km radius and in sunlight hours only. As I learned over time, frustrated by preparing for class, Kingston was getting me down, and I had to get out of it. Not because of the potential danger, or my regular consumption of violent stories, and senseless child murders and stories of ostracized pregnant single mothers outcast in an oppressively Christian society, but because I was not traveling. I was existing in the physical security and cultural comfort afforded by university life. Visits by friends from Sydney and Washington DC produced two driving trips around the island, a majestic transport through dramatic three-dimensional landscapes of excessive lushness, bamboo walks, and driving to Ocho Rios through Fern Gully.

The latter route included unforgettably comic side stalls selling inflated wooden versions of Jamaican manhood. To me, this was nothing more than an attempt to re-appropriate and commodify a European racialised image, a mockery of the perception of Afro-Caribbean sexual power. The more I made my way to Ocho Rios, the more I realized that the notion of a temporary visit would soon etch its way into my memory as a permanent longing: my seduction by this land of contradictions.
© Simone Gigliotti May 2004

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