Social Change in Jamaica: Returning to the Place of my Birth

George's pic
Social Change in Jamaica: Returning to the Place of my Birth
Reflections on growing up – and returning to – Jamaica. Photograph by George Brown.

How much change can you expect from an individual, a country or a place in 54 years? That’s how long it has been since I left the shores of the Caribbean island of Jamaica.  

I left the shores of Jamaica in 1965 having not finished secondary school, with much trepidation and fear, but also with a sense of excitement - I was going to a place that I had only read about in history books.
 
My life then was a merry-go-round of pretending to study and hanging out with my friends. We had the normal boys’ routine, which at that time was tame in comparison to what is accepted as normal for young boys today. We made our own toys, played outside all day, reappearing for lunch and dinner, and nobody was concerned for our safety.  
 
One aspect of my life was visiting the country during the school holidays, and as soon as school broke up, I would pack up, get the bus, and head out the 50 or so miles all on my own to my aunt’s farm in Orange-field, St Catherine. After chores in the morning, the rest of the day belonged to us.

This gave my cousins and I, and occasionally friends and children in the neighbourhood - children of the expatriate community working at the Bauxite plant from the UK, USA and Barbados – the freedom to  roam about the farm. The boys from the UK, USA and Canada were white, and the boys from Barbados and the other Caribbean island were black.

We all had a great time playing, cooking in the bush and eating fruits we picked from the trees or plants such as mangoes, oranges, large sweet tangerines, grapefruits, pineapples, corn, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, avocado pears sugar cane…the list goes on and on. The routine was to carry out chores then visit our “camp,” and cook and play, not returning home until evening. We had no mobile phones but if we were needed, our aunt or uncle or whoever wanted us would shout and the echo would reverberate around the hills and valleys.

At the end of the day we would return to our various homes, and my cousins and I would untie the goats and chase home after them. Most times it would be us, the “townies,” who my country cousins would let the goats chase, and you had to be quick as you would be butted if caught! Life was idyllic and I still remember with fondness my childhood experiences.  
 
In the 54 years since I left Jamaica for the UK I’ve returned on a number of occasions. In almost every walk of life there have been some drastic changes. I remember walking home from primary school and if hungry there were trees bearing some small and tasty (if a bit slimy) green berries and they would act as a partial satisfier - now the children tell me they have been told they are poisonous.
 
In stores where before Caucasians, Syrians or Jews sold their goods, many black owners have replaced them; however, the supermarkets have a greater Chinese presence now than in the 1960s. This is in keeping with what I saw not only in the English-speaking Caribbean, but also in the Dutch-speaking islands.  
 
The latest figures from the Chinese embassy suggest that there are approximately 70,000 Chinese nationals living in Jamaica. I’m not sure if the figure included those living there, identifying themselves as Chinese Jamaicans. As a group, these newcomers were very evident as it was mainly them carrying out the infrastructure work; now we see only the supervisors and it’s only likely to be one person.  
 
In Montego Bay, I visited a Jewish shop/restaurant and got chatting with the gentleman behind the counter, who says he has not long moved to Jamaica, and some of the Jews who probably had long standing ties with Jamaica were considering re-establishing themselves there too. That would be no bad thing, as there are still a number of Jews still living in Jamaica.  
 
To me, born in Jamaica all those many years ago, I had experienced the reason for the motto “Out of many one people” as there was in those days a “cacophony” of people of different nationalities all speaking Jamaican patois. Now, the essence of this mix is still there, although the mix seems to me to be more homogeneous.
 
In the 1960s Jamaica was viewed worldwide as a developed economy.  Now the pressures of the worldwide economy have taken their toll. We are looking at an economy ravaged by hurricane, mismanagement, world depression and crime. It is reported that after a period of sustained poor performance, the economy is looking promising. It doesn’t mean the economy is out of danger, but currently there are more people employed than 20 years ago.  
 
Besides the economy and athletics, the talk of the country is the crime wave that has left it reeling. It is a situation primarily brought about by a previously unheard of - in my time as a child and young person - a lucrative crooked process, unemployment and a lack of suitable work.  Telephone scamming businesses have brought about gang warfare, and innocent people are killed in the crossfire, including in cases of mistaken identities. The government and security services have taken up the challenge, but time will tell if they are successful in reducing or eliminating it.  
 
Jamaicans were always into sports, especially athletics. The prowess of the athletes and their current domination of the sprints and sprint relays is common knowledge. In the sixties Jamaicans were Olympic champions in the 200 and 400 metres races, however the shorter sprints were dominated by the Americans…now an island approximately 1.3% of the American population reigns supremely in the above-mentioned races…  

There are many changes in the country that makes for a better place and environment. There is a surge in tourism and cruises from Jamaica. I remember three years ago visiting the island with a number of relatives, and staying in a hotel in an out of season period and there were guests who had booked rooms but could not be checked in because the hotel was full. The group included two of my cousins and their families. It took almost 5 hours for the hotel management to find alternative hotels for their guests and some were rebooked into hotels 20 miles away...Luckily my cousins were found rooms in our hotel.
 
There have been many changes since 1965. The infrastructure is being upgraded along with the extreme inconvenience a lack of it includes. The improvement to (some) of the roads means easier and quicker journey times between cities and towns. Transportation between cities is much more sophisticated.  
 
There are some issues that remain and affects people mostly in the city and that is drought. In May this year it was highlighted by the government that the dam serving Kingston, because of the drought, had only a third of the water the city required. Here it could be said that ‘some things don’t change.’