Taking Advantage of Ignorance
It hurts me to say the truth -- those of us in Jamaica who are educated and employed benefit from those who aren't.
Coming home to Jamaica has meant many things, including a certain distance from doing housework, cooking and household chores.
My helper, who works very hard in the 1.5 days per week she spends with us, earns approximately US$25 per day. In Florida, I paid about twice that amount. In other words, the time she spends to clean or cook is well worth the price I pay.
Anyone coming back to Jamaica knows this fact, and is counting it into their expectation of the benefits of moving back home to live. Expats might be surprised, but Jamaicans living abroad are certainly thinking about it as they clean their houses, do all their chores and cook every day -- all after a day at the office, and a long drive home on I-95.
They come home on vacation and see how their friends live, and know that they cannot afford to live that way abroad.
However, there is a cost to pay.
Low wages for household help is partly a result of a poor economy and a bad education system that excludes thousands. Jamaicans on the fringes are forced into taking low-paying jobs, begging or crime, out of sheer desperation.
It feels good to know that labour is cheap (this said as an employer.) It's not so good to be asked over and over again if we have any day's work by someone who looks able, but is unlucky, and probably has other mouths to feed.
People go hungry at night, unable to satisfy their own hunger and that of others in their families. They boil tea, fix coffee or mix weak soups in order to stave off real stomach pangs. It also doesn't feel good when they join criminal gangs and terrorise their own poor communities. The inescapable truth is that those of us who are able, and privileged benefit from poverty, but we also suffer from it.
I remember visiting Hawaii once, and seeing field after field of pineapples being grown. As I drove around, I longed to see someone in a simple stall selling the local fruit, and hoped that I could taste one ripened in the sun to compare it with the pineapples we get back in Jamaica. After a week I never saw a single person selling a single fruit on the side of the road.
I saw LOTS of McDonald's, Burger Kings and Wendy's, however. The only pineapple I tasted was from a grocery store, with a Dole sticker on its side, tasting exactly like the bland fruit I was buying at the time in the middle of January back in New Jersey. In Jamaica, this would be unthinkable.
We have a veritable buffet of food for sale on the side of the road, with different districts well known for the kind of food that can be bought. Driving around the entire island is like driving around a large city with choices of the freshest foods and fruits abounding.
Unfortunately, truth be told, the food is available and sold this way because of poverty, and lack of education. Hawaii, with its first world standards, has no need for anyone to set up a stall made of cast away wooden planks in order to sell the guavas they found yesterday deep in the bush. Whether Hawaiians and its visitors are better off with their state of affairs than we are here in Jamaica is another matter... It's hard to know how to think about all this.
By contrast, Trinidad is making a rapid transition due to the bounty that is coming its way due to its oil revenues. It is at full employment, and everyone who wants a job can find one easily. Stores all have signs asking for help -- even gas stations.
On the other hand, kidnappings are a feature of their oil boom -- the greed for instant cash.
So is unbelievable volumes of traffic on their very narrow roads. So is corruption, as a lot of money chases after few suppliers. Inflation has been rising as a result.
Whereas their economy looked a lot like Jamaica's did ten years ago when I first visited, they have leapfrogged our economy and are visibly expanding with no less than seven buildings over 10 stories under construction in downtown Port of Spain. Their property prices have sky-rocketed, as the demand has far outstripped the supply.
If we in Jamaica were to find a way to grow our economy that quickly, it would be years before it reached our citizens with their low literacy rates and, low productivity. To be sure, gone would be some of the things that we Jamaicans like about Jamaica, and we would rapidly head the way of Trinidad and ultimately Hawaii.
While it wouldn't be the Jamaica we know, it would put more food into people's stomaches, better health in their bodies and more information in their heads. It may also mean less drum-pan chicken, and more KFC, more store bought shrimp, and no Middle Quarters bag shrimp, packaged yam in Hi-Lo versus roast yam in Mandeville, and "Boston-style"Jerk Pork" in restaurants, but no actual jerk anything in Boston itself.
I, frankly, found myself detesting the fact that traditional Hawaiian food and native fruits were almost impossible to find.
Is there a way that we in Jamaica can retain our Jamaican-ness, while still giving all of our people a shot at a decent life?