Moving Back to Jamaica

A blog about my Move Back to Jamaica after 20+ years of living in the US. Most of the articles focus on the period from 2005-2009 when the transition was new, and at it's most challenging.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

80%? Could it be true?

Recently, the World Bank estimated that some 80% of Jamaicans who have graduated from tertiary institutions live abroad.

Click here for the article

I remember hearing the number and hoping that it just was not true. But here it is -- we are right there with Haiti in having some of the highest numbers, in the company of other poor countries. It matches some other surveys done in Jamaica that show that 80%+ of my countrymen would migrate if they were given the chance.

What the heck are we in a rush to migrate from, exactly?

I was cycling up to Flamstead this past weekend, and a fellow cyclist and I were marvelling at how beautiful Jamaica is. We both followed that remark with agreement that if we could only do something about the crime...

Which makes me think that if we could only do something about poverty, then that would solve everything.


Well, maybe not. I visited Ghana once and remember seeing greater poverty, and much, much less crime (although there was much more begging.) Obviously, it is not just a matter of how much money or possessions one has.

Maybe it is linked to the income disparity that exists in Jamaica?

But no, why would I turn to crime just because there are rich people living nearby?

I would also need to resent them, I imagined, in order to get to the point where I would be willing to hurt them to take away their possessions.

Resentment. Is that not another word for intolerance? An intolerance of the wealthy?

This seemed to ring true. So, I'm adding this to the ways in which our intolerance exists in Jamaica, and manifests in so much destructive behaviour.

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Trinidad's Creative Class

I remarked in an earlier post that Trinidadian society is much more supportive of its Creative Class than we are here in Jamaica.

Glancing through today’s Trinidad Guardian (which is available online) strengthened my opinion, as it included the following headlines in today's business section:

Small business...The bastard sector
T&T probably has the highest per capita complement of private entrepreneurs in the entire Caribbean...

What happens after full employment?
T&T’s unemployment rate has fallen to a historical low and expectations are ripe that the booming economy could attain the Government’s full employment target of five per cent even as early as this year. Is the full employment target truly attainable? Or will we wake up and regrettably realise it was all a dream?

With respect to the 3T’s: Technology, Talent and Tolerance I can detect some important differences as someone who has had a few years of working with companies in Trinidad.

Technology: I don’t know that there is any difference from the other islands, as I can only say that Trinidad tends to be 6-12 months behind Jamaica in the adoption of new technologies. This might well be due to Jamaica’s significant foreign-based population, and also our proximity to North America.

At the same time, Trinidadians invented the only new musical instrument of the 20th century – the steel drum.

Talent: Trinidad just announced that education through the University level is now free. In Jamaica, we still have primary school students paying fees. The advantage that this gives Trinidad (and Barbados, incidentally) is substantial.

Tolerance: This is where Trinidad is well ahead of its English speaking counterparts. Its citizen’s ethnic composition is primarily Black and Indian, with Indians being the slightly larger group. With that difference in ethnicity comes a distinct mix of religious backgrounds, with Christianity being the largest single religion, and Catholicism being the largest single denomination. There is a significant number of Hindus and Muslims.

There is hardly a trace of the kind of religious fundamentalism that has become so strong in Jamaica. It is not hard to see why – the society must have come to terms with the fact that co-existence means acceptance, and that fundamentalism might be the pathway to destruction, whether it be religious, political or social.

Also, Trinidad has been colonized by the French, Spanish and English. By contrast, Barbados has only been English, and Jamaica was captured by the English from the Spanish in 1655.

From my own exposure to Trinidadian carnival it is easy to see that Trinidadian-style carnival could not have been invented in either Barbados or Jamaica. That it now exists all over the world (albeit in diluted forms) is testament to the success of their creative class, and to their tolerance of differences.

A few years ago, a mildly popular soca tune out of Antigua by the singer Wanksie (sp?) carried the line: “We no want to chi-chi man inna di massive carnival…. more gyal… more gyal.”

“Chi-chi man” is a Jamaican, derogatory term for gays that was popularized in TOK’s huge hit, which called for their destruction.

The response in Trinidad was enormous, and loud. Except… the noise came from people charging that the song made using a slur to deride homosexuals. Of course, as any Jamaican will tell you, they were right.

I laughed when I read an interview with Wanskie, trying to explain that “No, no, no – chi-chi man does not mean anything about homosexuals, it just refers to anyone who is of bad character” – (or something quite close.) He said this in much the same way that many Jamaican dance-hall artistes tried to explain that their anti-gay songs were just a metaphorical expression of their opinions and religious convictions.

In these respects, Trinidad is a much more hospitable place to its Creative Class. I’m not sure what it will take for us to the same in Jamaica, but we must do so if we hope to build our economy on more than just tourism dollars and remittances.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A related post in my other blog

I recently wrote an entry in my business blog that I thought might be of interest in this blog, entitled: Critical Thinking vs. Faithful Following. It includes some thoughts I have had on the relative lack of independent thinking across the Caribbean.

I'm sure there is a more elegant way to link the two, but until I find out how, here is the URL:

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Jamaica's New #1 Export

One might think that Jamaica's greatest export is sugar, bananas or even ganja.


I think history will show that these products are nothing compared to the unintentional success we have had in exporting our Creative Class.

It's no secret that overseas Jamaicans rescued the Jamaican economy from complete ruin in the 1990's. The increase in remittances has today made this source the number one ''earner'' of foreign exchange. In other words, overseas Jamaicans are willingly contributing their hard-earned after-tax dollars to support family and friends with little or no expectation of immediate financial return. This contribution has not only saved individual families from ruin, but also the national economy from collapse.

This is a remarkable story of duty and generosity.

However, is it the case that these same Jamaicans could not have made the same or similar contribution to Jamaica's economy had they remained at home? What is it about the North America that makes it a place in which wealth generation seems to be so relatively easy?

A few years ago, a colleague of mine in the U.S. met Richard Florida. He is the author of a series of books, the most recent of which is called ''The Flight of the Creative Class.'' My friend was quite excited by what she read, and recommended his first book highly. I was a bit slow to read more than an article by him, and I only recently purchased his new book, courtesy of

In his new book, he analyzes the data the data he has collected on what it is that causes some US cities to experience growth, and others to decline. He has distinguished that it is NOT any of the following factors:
  • access to raw materials
  • geographic location
  • size
  • racial composition
  • ease of transportation
  • access to ports
  • attractions like sports stadiums
  • cheap labour
  • education levels

Instead, the factors that do make a difference are ones that powerfully attract a core set of people that is the engine of growth: the Creative Class. This rather small and focused group of people makes up the highly-educated, innovative core of a city's economy that provides the entrepreneurial and artistic energy to start new businesses, set off artistic trends, spur new ways of thinking and invent new technologies.

What is relatively new about this group is its mobility, and willingness to move to cities and countries that offer the lifestyle they are looking for. They are willing to take risks (to a point,) especially if they are surrounded by others of the same ilk. They value freedom of thought, opportunity and a ready source of ideas, so many tend to cluster around first-class universities.

Importantly for us in Jamaica, a significant number of this group tends to be “bohemian” (or in other words, offbeat) and in some cases, gay.

In his books, Florida describes the 3-T’s that attract the Creative Class: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. Cities such as New York or San Francisco that score highly in several measures that describe the 3T’s tend to be much more attractive than those that do not, such as Omaha and Cleveland.

Clearly, there is no shortage of raw talent in Jamaica. Jamaicans living in the USA out-earn Black Americans (in terms of median household income.) While we fail to develop this talent sufficiently by any measure, those that are well-developed are considered to be world-class. Also, we in Jamaica pride ourselves on having access to some of the latest technologies that we can import.

But these are insufficient to compensate for the one area in which we are very weak – Tolerance.

Florida explains that among the leading indicators of Tolerance are religious diversity, ethnic diversity and acceptance of gays. We Jamaicans have no problem saying that we are a Christian country that has laws on the books against buggery. In addition, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that suggests that many actively hate homosexuals and the gay lifestyle, with many using scripture to prove the point.

At the same time, there is at least a "broad understanding" among our people that many of the great contributors to the visual and dramatic arts are gay. Many of our leading artists and dramatic artistes are believed to be gay. As there are only a handful of Jamaicans living in Jamaica that are publicly gay (certainly less than 10,) there is no way to prove the claim definitively at the moment.

However, there is a much larger number of gay Jamaicans who live abroad that are, in effect, living like refugees. Their homosexuality, and the real threat of everything from prosecution to physical violence, keeps them abroad. Also, many gays that live in Jamaica believe that their freedom will only come through migration; as someone I met put it, “I am ready to die by staying here in Jamaica.”

In essence, we are forcibly exporting gay Jamaicans, by holding on to our intolerance and scaring them out of the country. Many of us take pride that “we don’t put up with that kind of behaviour here,” which is essentially boasting that we are “as intolerant as we want to be,” and unwilling to consider change.

This intolerance is keeping us poor -- not in spirit, but in GDP.

And our intolerance to the gay lifestyle is only the beginning. In corporations, we insist that seniority is critical to proper functioning. I recall a Group CEO being heard to say that “there is no way he would hire a managing director under 50,” regardless of his or her background.

On the religious front, the largest religious groups in Jamaica now consist of denominations that are among the most dogmatic and fundamental. Without saying anything about their belief systems, it is true that each of them insists that their way is the right way, and that anyone else who thinks differently will be judged as sinful and will end up in Hell. There is very little room for new ideas to the contrary, and to new thinking, much less new religions among this fast growing group. Anything that is too different is quickly labeled and dismissed as non-Christian, anti-Christ, Satanic or worse.

Former Prime Minister Michael Manley also did his part in helping to make Jamaica inhospitable to the entrepreneurial creatives, in particular. In the 1970’s he announced that “Jamaica has no room for millionaires. For everyone who wants to become a millionaire, we have five flights a day to Miami.” Thousands of the country’s business-people took him literally, and when he deepened his flirtation with Fidel Castro and Socialism they did just as he recommended and took flight.

This has all helped Jamaica, in the past 30 years, to join company with some of the most backward economies in the world. According to the Creative Index, it is not hard to imagine that we enjoy the good company with some of the poorest countries in this regard. Countries that scores among the lowest in the Creative Index (i.e. 3-T’s) include Egypt, Haiti and Afghanistan.

The fact is, the majority of Jamaicans living in Jamaica feel a sense of security when they are surrounded by others who share their unbending views on religion, homosexuality and entitled positions in corporations. To our Creative Class, the likelihood of change seems small, and it just seems a lot easier to get a Canadian visa than it does to stay and fight for change.

It’s sad to think that we are continually exporting our Creative Class while coddling the intolerant majority who resists change.

We have long wondered why it is that countries like Trinidad can produce twice the GDP/income that we can. They have not had anything near the migration that we have had, and neither has Barbados, and the have the most vibrant economies in the region. On the other hand, the other CARICOM countries that have experienced creative class migration on the scale of Jamaica are Guyana and Haiti -- among the poorest in the region.

The message here is that if we leave our bigotry unchecked, it will only help to drag us further into poverty.

Read more!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

More Tief

We had a further reminder that every possession needs to be seen as dispensable, and temporary. At some point, they will all be taken from us, and when we die we won’t even be taking our bodies with us.

De dyam tief dem strike again.

This time, they broke into my parent’s place in the country, through the burglar bars, and made off with:
an old TV
a broken radio
toilet paper
2 canvas chairs
bath mats
a gas cylinder
old clothes
pictures from off the wall and wall-hangings
an old microwave (ca 1988)
an old toaster oven
some old carvings
stuff passed on from 3 grandparents
an old fan
Basically, my parents had wisely furnished the place with the crap they no longer wanted in their house in Kingston, knowing full well that the place would be broken into at some point.

So, the day finally came and they made off with absolutely nothing of value to my parents.

But the scary part is that there are thieves out there who are willing to either make several trips or use a car to steal what basically is a bunch of old junk. The word that came to mind for me is “desperate.”

Which is pretty sad… but that’s the state of mind that many of my country-men are in, who are not just poor, but in a state of survival. For people like me, who are fortunate, there is much work to be done.

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A Whiff of Possibility

For the first time in many years, there is a whiff of possibility in the air.

It started with the Leader of the Opposition for the past 16 years, Edward Seaga, retiring, in early 2005. Finally. He was un-electable.

It continued with the Police Commissioner, Francis Forbes, leaving. Thankfully. He was ineffective.

It kept going with the retirement of the Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, demitting office. At long last. He accomplished little.

It got a little extra push with the surprise departure of the Governor General, Sir Howard Cook. Gratefully. He upheld a status quo that was broken.

In the space of some 15 or so months, the most powerful positions in our country have changed hands, with the possible sole exception of the positions in the judiciary, and dem fi go from long time (including the DPP and the Chief Justice.)

It was 1972 when Michael Manley swept into office, and that perhaps was the last time that Jamaicans had leadership that we could believe in. He promised much at that time, and created a vision for our people that was outstanding and breathtaking, and just plain inspiring. He himself was brilliant, handsome, articulate and had a charisma that we Jamaicans just loved.

However, by the time he left office in 1980 in a massive landslide (the largest ever in a contested election in our nation’s history) it had all gone terribly wrong. The economy actually shrunk in real terms. Our citizens were leaving Jamaica without telling their parents, brothers, sisters and neighbours to live in Miami, Toronto and New York.

Although I was only 6 years old in 1972, and cannot remember anything of that year, I do recall the way in which Jamaicans were mobilized in creating a better future for our country, as Manley helped to create a picture of a better future for us all.

The turning point, in my own experience was not the oil shocks of 1974 and onwards that rocked the world economy. It was not the crime that began to increase at a rapid rate (although nowhere near what it is today.) It was not the interference of outside forces from other nations.

Instead, it was the death of possibility, that for me as a 9 year old was epitomized in Manley’s famous “five flights a day” declaration.

He said: “Jamaica has no room for millionaires. For anyone who wants to become a millionaire, we have five flights a day to Miami.”

That single statement is remember by Jamaicans everywhere, as it helped to set off a wholesale migration of our country’s professional middle class that we have never recovered from, and continues today with the belief that a better life can only be had by going to live abroad.

I’m sure that Manley didn’t intend that to happen, but happen it did, as his words as Prime Minister essentially killed the infant possibility that he had brought into existence in 1972.

When he lost power in 1980, it was by landslide, and there was a short-lived euphoria that ushered in Edward Seaga’s tenure as Prime Minister. He was succeeded by Manley, mostly because change was not happening quickly enough. Manley was succeeded in his own party by PJ Patterson, mostly because he was the best of what was seen as a weak bunch. He won every election after that, not because he was good, but because the alternative -- Edward Seaga – was unpalatable to most Jamaicans.

A few weeks ago, Portia Simpson-Miller won the right to become the head of her political party, and therefore next Prime Minister of Jamaica, replacing PJ Patterson. She was not supposed to win, as the word on the street was that one of her opponents was desperate enough to pay party delegates J$3000 (about US$50) to vote for him. There was more word that they (the predominantly male power brokers in the party) would never let her win.

Middle and Upper class Jamaicans were embarrassed, as Portia from time-to-time will lapse in what Trinis call “green verbs” – grammatically incorrect English -- and the thought of her “H””s doing a dance from one word to another in the presence of Kofi Annan, George Bush or (God forgive us) THE QUEEN.. was just unbearable to many.

“’Ello Your Majesty, I ‘ope you ‘ad a good flight, and welcome to h’our h’island home.”

(I cringle a llittle myself at the thought.)

But regardless of that (who cares about our H’s anyway given our much bigger problems…) her election has brought a whiff of possibility.

She has come from very humble beginnings, and made herself into a leader of a nation. She overcame the odds, and she is a fighter, and we Jamaicans love that.

She kisses, and hugs, and talks about love and forgiveness and God ALL the time, and we need that -- according to my wife, “What Jamaica needs now is a Mummy.”

But above all else, she talks about the future, our future. And she’s doing it in way that no-one since Michael Manley of 1972 has done it, or more importantly, been heard doing it.

While we are afraid to commit ourselves to much (we got too burned the last time around) we want her to succeed very, very, badly. More importantly, we want all of us to succeed, and we all want to succeed.

Out of nowhere, it seems, our murders have dropped by 20% in the last couple of months. It is the kind of thing that happens when possibility enters that air, and may we all work together to make it last.

Read more!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Scratching my A**

I never wanted to be the kind of blogger who put up a bunch of boring stuff like "Today I stayed home and scratched my ass."

However, at the moment I do feel the need to share something mundane, which is that since Trinidad Carnival I have gone bald.

It's not that I drank too much and my hair fell out... I cut off my hair. And I am looking quite different.

So far the reactions have been in favor, with one friend and one parent objecting.

At some point I'll update my picture, and maybe write something pithy about what it takes to keep the head bald and smooth. The extra looks from some ladies has not hurt either, so that may enter in there also.

My wife complains that I have become increasingly vain, which I connect to my trying to squeeze all I can out of my last few days in my 30's (31 days left until I turn 40.) After all, I did spend all of January and February in the gym trying to get the body in shape for Carnival (although that was also for "health purposes.")

In a few days I need to replace the glasses I lost while jumping in Tribe on C'val Tuesday. I'm looking for something that will go well with a bald head, if anyone has any suggestions.

Next step: I saw a really interesting tattoo the other day...

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Air Jamaica Skywritings Mention

Moving Back to Jamaica was mentioned as a blog of interest in the Air Jamaica Skywritings magazine. I can't find a link to it, so here is a partial copy of the page:

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Returnee's Advantage

It's been hard to put into words one advantage that many of us who have returned to live in Jamaica possess by virtue of having lived abroad. Up until now, it's been a case of "I know it when I see it," but beyond that .... I could hardly explain why I would hire someone who has lived and worked abroad more readily than someone who has never left.

I know that the quality of professional / academic classroom instruction has something to do with it, but the recent proliferation of foreign universities operating in Jamaica has not by itself, made that critical difference to its graduates (from my limited point of view.) If Harvard or Stanford came to Jamaica, they would undoubtedly provide a better academic education than Nova Southeastern, but the point of paying a Harvard graduate US$100k per year starting out is not only because they had better teachers.

Granted, the admission standards at the top MBA schools that are the best in the world guarantee that the students who get degrees are among the best.

However, I believe that what the best schools offer that is the most important is neither the quality of instruction, nor the privilege of being recognized as one of the best.

I have interacted with a few 20-somethings who, having grown up in Jamaica and its lower standards, are missing some of the things that I associate with the best young people. If you do not know what the following mean and you are over 50, then I am not too concerned: blogs, wikis,, jpegs, mp3's, myspace, flickr. However, if you are in your 20's and are a young professional, and have NO idea.... then I get really worried that the world is leaving you behind at a time when you, by virtue of your youth, should be ahead.

I remember using email for the first time when I was a college junior in 1987. Email use was driven by young people, as were web pages, porno and just about everything the internet is used for today. The cutting edge is really owned by the younger, risk-taking minds rather than the old, more stable professonals, according to Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class."

I also remember a friend of mine who left Jamaica to attend two top Universities in the world, one of which was MIT, before working for several top computer companies in the world. What is remarkable is not that he was able to accomplish at this very high level. Stories of Jamaicans going abroad and rising quickly to the top are a dime a dozen.

What is remarkable is that he had attended UWI for a couple of years, and according to him had done "OK." He played football for fun, and quickly realized that he did not really need to study to pass. So, he stopped studying, played a LOT of football, and still he kept on passing. This was testimony to his brilliance.

It dawned on him that he was wasting his life.

He took the SAT's (with one year left to graduate from UWI) and applied for a transfer to a top school in the US, which he had no problem getting. He told me something like "I realized that I couldn't live like that, with such low standards -- I almost gave up on myself, and got lost in the process."

It strikes me that what attracted him to the US was the extraordinary challenge it was to operate, learn and work at the highest of world standards.

This leads me to think that one thing that we Returnees have to our Advantage is not the money that we all hope to accumulate before returning home, or the education in the formal sense from a foreign school (now so readily available in Jamaica) but instead the following:

1. A willingness to work very, very hard and to be around those who work very, very hard. What a Harvard MBA alum will tell you most about is the volume of work they had to get done, the lack of sleep, and the people they were forced to work with juust to survive. This willingness to work hard at a very high standard is sorely missing among the average homegrown professional, and gives a returnee a distinct advantage

2. A hunger to learn from the best, wherever they might be. I recall my first college roommate taking me under his wing and telling me "exactly" all the things I needed to do. At first I resisted his help, because it felt like I should know these things and I didn't see them as urgent, anyway (with my 18 year old mind.) Eventually, I relented, and thank God I did, because his advice was incredibly useful as he had been an engineer before me, at the same school, before returning to complete his MBA. Some of his advice didn't make sense when he told me in the moment he first gave it, but he turned about to be very, very savvy in retrospect and I eventually followed just about everything he laid out for me -- he was a savvy guy.

3. A commitment to high standards, no matter what. The reason Digicel was able to sweep the cell-phone market away from Cable and Wireless (C&W) in Jamaica in such a stunning manner, was not just because they were cheaper. It was also because they introduced a significantly high standard of just about everything related to the industry -- equipment, customer service, store-layout, website, ease of use, etc. (which incidentally, C&W is getting closer and closer to meeting.)

When a returnee who is a professional enters the working world, these advantages are powerful ones that just cannot to be underestimated. The point here is not that a Jamaican who lives in Jamaica and has never worked abroad cannot achieve high standards. Far from it. The marketplace in Jamaica rewards employees and companies who work harder, learn / innovate faster and maintain higher standards, and doesn't care much where "yuh come from."

I'm reminded of the parable of the blind man sitting on a box, begging alms on the side of the road. He begs for a pittance each day, until a wise man comes by and asks him why he has never opened the box. He does so, and realizes that it is filled with gold.

That gold comes at a price, however. I remember friends of mine (I was spared) cleaning toilets at college just to make things meet. Others had even messier jobs (especially in the cafeteria!) I don't know what license we Jamaicans get when we go abroad to do these things, but the idea that we have when we leave Jamaica does not include doing things we would never think of doing.

And... maybe that's the real gold -- becoming someone who is willing to work hard, learn and keep high standards. The question is, how do returnees give up a desire to make Jamaicans at home think that "we look good" and "we made it?" How do we do that, and instead hold on to the gold that _really_ makes a difference?

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Post-Carnival Recovery

It's hard to explain to my parents why I come to this thing each year, and spend all time in the hot sun, doing all sorts of things that many people say one just "SHOULD NOT DO!"

If it weren't so good, I would agree with the majority, and not do them.

As I say to Jamaicans who remind me that I "SHOULD NOT DO IT" -- "come try it nuh?" The truth is that we don't really have Carnival in Jamaica, we have elements that we have copied from Trinidad, and the truth is that we have copied only the most obvious, showy and recent pieces: small costumes, wining, drinking, jumping and waving, etc.

In Trinidad, Carnival means much more than that, viz:
  • Calypsonians singing in tents and saying things that would get them shot in Jamaica
  • Old Mas, which includes men wearing wigs, nighties and bras, carrying signs with jokes written on placards
  • Jouvert covered in mud, red, paint, blue paint, cocoa, black paint plus other stuff I'm not sure I want to know about
  • pan, pan and more pan... and of course, panorama
  • sailor mas -- played in elaborate sailor costumes
  • Indian mas -- played in Indian dress with huge head pieces
  • "fabric bands" -- with plenty clothing on
It just happens that we in Jamaica have picked the most scandalous and sexual part of Trinidad's mas to copy, thinking that that is the real thing. It's too bad (but probably no accident) as we miss out on so much of the depth of the experience, and have not done a good job of developing our own expression of Carnival.

An executive said to me, that if weren't for Carnival tis country would have serious social problems.

I extrapolated that to mean that because we don't have a widespread Carnival in Jamaica, we experience social problems as there is no equivalent opportunity to "let off steam." I'm starting to think that we have lots of unproductive ways of "letting off steam" in the form of too many protests, violence and murders.

It's a fact that over 90% of our murders are committed against people that are known to the killer, and most have to do with reprisal.

Trinidadians have traditionally known how to convert psychic and social pressure into a joke, a calypso, a lime, a drink, a game, a wine and a smile.

We Jamaicans probably have something to learn here.

Read more!