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.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Soca Season Now Starts

Good news -- I am now listening to my first soca music of the season - Machel Montano's Higher than High, and I am jumping a'reddy!

But as I go through the list of songs one by one I am once again annoyed that no one seems to have invented a way to download single songs in mp3 format. This means that the millions of people around the world who are soca music fans are once again forced to rely on a CD here or there sent by a friend from Trinidad.

This is a classic case of a problem dying for a solution, but the solution requires cooperation from many people to make it work. The ideal solution would be something like iTunes -- after all, Carnival music is largely single driven, and people should be able to download a single at a time.

But the artists are probably scared about people just sending mp3's around the world for free -- but the truth is, I would pay around US$1.00 per single for the convenience of being able to get the music onto my mp3 player right now.

Maybe there will be a solution before February this year -- my fingers are crossed.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

What Jamaica Needs to Do

One of the most powerful desires possessed by returning Jamaicans has to do with the initial reason they left.

Most leave their island home for one of a few reasons: a weak economy that presents few opportunities for employment or advancement; crime that threatens the well-being of one’s self or family; deepening education or experience.

Most leave with a heartfelt feeling that their stay in “foreign” will not be a permanent one, and that one day they will be able to return. Most link the idea of returning with some material accomplishment, and convince themselves that they cannot return “empty-handed.” This idea leads few to return.

Many of those who do return, however, do so with some kind of idea of “what Jamaica needs to do.” Just about everyone has some kind of opinion, and also some kind of interest in finding real solutions. Those who return, do so with an optimism, that somehow a way can be found to create a new Jamaica – different from the one that played such a tremendous part in their leaving.

They have seen different, and more prosperous societies, and have worked in economies that grow without the problems of exploitation, stagnation and crime.

The problem is that there are no easy solutions.

I have been looking for some clue myself – or some set of seemingly coherent set of clues that might guide me, a recent returnee in my own efforts to make a profound difference.

Certainly, I am sure, a part of the answer has to with where we draw our spiritual wisdom, and how we Jamaicans do not sufficiently engage in our own personal development as individuals – themes that have echoed through this blog from entry to entry.

However, much “harder” solutions have seemed to be elusive to me, as I have never been satisfied by over-simplistic answers that sounded like partial solutions.

Until now, that is.

I have just finished reading the book “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey Sachs that that I can powerfully recommend as a must-read for Jamaicans who plan to return home.

I will not try to do the book justice after only a single read, but there are a few lines that stand out.

From p.226

The world’s remaining challenge is not mainly to overcome laziness and corruption, but rather to take on geographic isolation, disease, vulnerability to climate shocks, and so on, with new systems of political responsibility that can get the job done.”

His thesis is simple: those of us who think that poverty is caused by cultural factors such as a widespread unwillingness to work hard, and official corruption by the rich and powerful are wrong, according to the data.

Instead, the data shows that countries that have a certain set of advantages find economic growth much easier to accomplish than others. The advantages are:
Good harbors, close contacts with the rich world, favorable climates, adequate energy sources, and freedom from epidemic diseases.

Countries that lack some of these advantages (or even all) are faced with an uphill battle to economic success.

His point is that lasting solutions need to be multi-faceted, and are beyond the reach of individual organizations with single-foci like the IMF and World Bank. He also makes the case that the reality of an inter-dependent and global world is that there is not a country on the earth that can get themselves out of poverty by itself.

Even those countries that discover windfalls of oil, gold and diamonds at a time when world prices are high are still structurally poor -- with the exception that they have won the equivalent of the global lottery.

Long-term economic growth comes from creating a particular kind of foundation that _allow_ growth to happen.

Each country has, according to the author, already committed itself to eliminate poverty in writing by creating such a foundation. I am in the process of looking for Jamaica’s Poverty Reduction Strategy which describes our own commitment to certain measurable goals to be hit by 2015. This set of goals is known as the Millennium Development Goals.

These strategies and goals give the returnee a useful set of ends and means with which to work – almost a playbook that can be used to help make Jamaica into the kind of country that gives us pride in all respects.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Belonging and Moving Back

I am on the plane returning home to Jamaica from a couple of days in the US, and I noticed something that I have not felt since my first days in that country in 1984.

When I walked in the streets of Chicago or in Miami I was observing people, either ignoring me or observing me. There is a subtle but very consistent difference in how I am perceived in both places.

I could encapsulate it by saying that in the US I am subtly distanced, whereas in Jamaica I am subtly drawn in.

In the US there is a kind of suspicion that takes me off people’s radar, whereas in Jamaica there is also a kind of suspicion… more of a feeling of: “I suspect that you may know me.”

I am not saying here that one feeling is better than the other, as I have enjoyed both kinds of social environments. In the US you can really crawl out of the door wearing anything you want and never feel that you are being judged one bit. That lends itself to a certain kind of freedom to do things your way, which translates to whichever way you want.

However, you could also drop down flat on the road and no-one would stop to even look at you twice.

In Jamaica, going out in public means having to deal with multiple fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters – many of whom are more than willing to put you in your place directly, or tell someone who knows you to put you in your place!

I also do not know how much of it has to do with being a Black man, as I know that this has an effect on people in the US, without me having to do much or say much.

Which one is preferable?

I cannot say, because they both have pros and cons. I do know that I prefer the world I am living in at the moment, living here in Jamaica and enjoying the warmth that comes from that feeling of belonging. As I get older, and now that I am 40, that is turning out to be more and more important.

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Dutty Whine and Extremes

Moving Back to Jamaica means coming to terms with so much that is utterly contradictory in Jamaican life.

Take the most recent dance craze, which by virtue of the fact that this blogger knows a little about it, means that it is already over.

The Dutty Whine was invented in Jamaica, which is still the focal point for an inspiring number of dances, beats, rhythms and slang that end up running t’tings in the pop music world.

The dance involves throwing the head around in circles from the neck up, in an eye-catching yet dangerous manner that is just amazing to watch. The hands are placed on the knees, and the bottom is also thrown around to the beat … this takes no ordinary gymnastics for the skillful woman, for the dance is meant for women only, as everyone knows (or should know.) It is not a dance that everyone does at a club, or that couples engage in – it is for the handful of women who can do it, and want to be the center of attention while doing it.

It is provocative, teasing and sexually graphic. In other words, a lot of fun.

It is a dance that is full of the raw power of Jamaican women, as the dancer takes centre stage in concert, club or dancehall while everyone else stops to watch what looks like a graphically simulated sexual act – the wildest doggy style that you can imagine, more or less.

This is a phenomenon that could only be born in Jamaica.

Why so?

While we often throw around statistics like our world-leading number of churches per square mile, that is not a day to day concern. Instead, my wife and I talk more about the church across the way from us that regularly flaunts the noise abatement act. From approximately 400 yards away, we are force-fed a regular diet of Sunday morning sermonizing at fever pitch, starting at 7:30am on the dot, and ending around 2:30 pm on good days.

On busy weeks the irregular Sunday night service, Wed night bible study is also added in to the mix, as is the occasional 7 night a week crusade and 12hr+ all-night hour service (no kidding.) And this is no quiet church. Shouts, screams and moans are only exceeded by long and loud utterances in some strange tongues.

The local story is that the pastor, when asked by neighbours to turn the volume down, replied with a quip: “If they can have their carnival, then I can have my church.”

What does this have to do with the Dutty whine?

Well, nothing really… except that in this land of opposites, extreme sexuality lives in happy coexistence with extreme religious expression. The one constant is the extreme nature of the expressions.

A visitor to a different country, such as Barbados here in the Caribbean, or Toronto, or Munich, might be struck by how sedate and calm daily life seems to be.

Daily Jamaican life is a study in extremes, and anyone moving home must prepare themselves to deal with outrageous events on a daily basis, allowing them to move in and out of one’s attention without investing them with too much personal energy. To do so would be to court disaster, or madness, or destruction.

I remember one morning run in which my wife observed a thief being beaten by security guards, and also a mad man walking around the street wearing only a shirt. And this was before 7am.

After our compound was broken into last year by nothing short of some spider-man, we sat down and came up with a “security plan,” which basically consisted of different tactics to take if:
 attacked while running
 hijacked in the car
 thieves broke into the house
 stuck up while entering or exiting the premises
For each eventuality, we came up with a set of tactics to use, and also equipment to employ (including a secret way to ring the door-bell, a heavy black police flashlight, mace and pre-programmed numbers in our cell-phones to the security company)

It didn’t feel the least bit strange to be making these kinds of plans, and taking preventive measures, and my advice to someone moving back home is that it is important to accept Jamaican living for what it is – an urban version of the X-Games.

After all, you if you were interested in entering the X-Games you would practice and prepare yourself extensively. Living in Jamaica is no different.

Extreme sexuality. Extreme religion. Extreme crime. Extreme risks.

Extreme beauty. Extreme communities. Extreme democratic politics. Extreme wealth. Extreme poverty. Extreme ugliness.

Extreme politeness. Extreme rudeness. Extreme courage. Extreme fear.

Moving Back to Jamaica – an extreme undertaking.

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The Right to a Job

One of the great laments I have about those who run our government in Jamaica is that precious few of our leaders have run their own companies.

There is something sobering about running a business – a real one, with its ups and downs, cash-flow requirements, weekly payroll to meet and taxes to pay. Economies rely on entrepreneurs and business owners who are willing to expand their companies so that they help to grow GDP, reduce unemployment and give people hope for the future.

I recently read an article by Charles Krauthammer in Time magazine that gave me pause for thought, and convinced me that the situation that prevails in France is on that we Jamaicans would do well to avoid at all costs.

His essay, (Time, April 17, 2006), includes the following excerpt:

Millions of young people and trade unionists, joined by some underclass opportunists looking for a good night out, have taken to the streets again. To rise up against what? In massive protest against a law that would allow employers to fire an employee less than 26 years old in the first two years of his contract.

Basically, French youth were protesting against what some called “precariousness.” They essentially wanted the law to continue to protect them from being fired. They wanted “an absolute guarantee from the state that their very first job will be for life, with no one to challenge them for it,” according to Krauthammer.

The result of this law? Unemployment of 10%. Among young people under 26, it is 23%. One in ten kids who leave high school don’t have a job five years after taking the baccalaureate.

Furthermore, in France, not a single enterprise founded in the past 40 years has managed to break into the ranks of the nation’s biggest companies.

Krauthammer rightly notes that precariousness goes hand in hand with the very idea of being an entrepreneur – although that word has somehow become a dirty one in France. Instead, they have a country in which 76% of 15-to-30-year-olds say they aspire to civil
service jobs from which it is almost impossible to be fired.

This is something – young people who are fighting for life to be made less risky, and for the government to take care of them not when they are old, or infirm, but when they are at the prime of their energy.

This all sounds to me to be upside down, and as a business owner it seems unthinkable. The worst employees I have hired or worked with are those who attempted to buffer themselves against life’s risks in inordinate ways.

When I left AT&T Bell Labs to start my own company in 1993, I did so at a time when it was the pre-eminent research facility in the world, bar none. Nobel Prize winners worked in the same building, and the perks accorded to its members made for quite an easy life for its basic researchers, systems engineers and technicians. Friends of mine at the time warned me that I might be making a mistake, and that they were opting for the safer route.

If they knew now what we all know then they may well have chosen differently.

Within a few years, AT&T was split into parts, including the members of the old Bell Labs. The name “Bell Laboratories” was passed on to Lucent Technologies, which only recently brought itself back from the brink of bankruptcy after cleaning up some massive fraud, forcing it to restate its earnings.

The division I worked for with hundreds of others no longer exists. The name Bell Labs is hardly heard nowadays – it is only a shadow of the proud entity that once existed.

In other words, my colleagues that stayed for the “safety” ended up being cast to the wind, at the whims of forces they could not control, and possessing only obsolete skills that were perfect for the old AT&T, and irrelevant in the real world.

A friend of mine who also worked in the Labs says that one of the best things that ever happened to him was that his division came close to being disbanded shortly after he joined in the late 1980’s. The few months of uncertainty taught him (much earlier than the rest of our colleagues, including myself) that he could not rely on the company, and needed to start his own. This he did, several times, until one worked.

He recently sold it for a tidy profit.

Here in the Caribbean we do not have the stifling laws of the French, although we do have unions that are quite aggressive in their defense of worker’s rights. At times, their aggression is misplaced, and they can end up defending rights that should not be defended.

My concern is that our leaders of government who have never run companies do not understand the nature of business, and when they start to support the individual’s “right to a job” they do not understand what they are saying. It seems to me that a job is a privilege, not a right, and that a person has as much right to job as they do to a spouse.

The French laws are promoting a lie, and the French people are paying for its promotion in high unemployment and stagnant growth.

As a business-owner, if faced with that law I can freely confirm that I would simply never hire employees covered by that law.

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Living Nowhere

When I used to live in New Jersey, I had the uncanny feeling that I was living “nowhere.”

A Jamaican living in the US who lived in Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, New York or Hartford was understood by other Jamaicans to be living in a city in which there were many other Jamaicans. Because there were other Jamaicans, there was some understanding of what living there might be like, gained mostly from second-hand accounts.

However, everywhere else in America occurs to a Jamaican as “the bush.”

New Jersey, even when I lived there, occurred to me as just another bush state and could only be described as being “close to New York” to other Jamaicans.

So, for a while… I lived nowhere.

Strangely enough, the longer I lived there, the colder it felt, until I could not leave the house without wearing long-johns underneath my pants.

When I left to live in Miami, I was relieved, because it also had started to feel more and more foreign. Perhaps it was the snowstorm that hit just a few months before I moved that dumped 26 inches one night on the state. I knew then that I was done.

Now that I am home, I no longer feel as if I have to defend myself against severe cold, and I feel relaxed.

I am back to living somewhere.

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A Fan of Obama

I have become a fan of the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.

I just finished reading his first book, Dreams of My Father, and was amazed at the life he has lived, and how much he has thought about it.

It also struck a chord with me because his first visit to Kenya, detailed in the book, resonated powerfully with me as a returnee to my own home country.

He first came to my awareness with a line that I think would apply to every Jamaican who has ever had the thought about returning:

“There is more to life than being rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.”

That one hit me between the eyeballs. The twenty years I spent living in the US was all about slipping in and out of values that promoted these peculiar ideals as an end in themselves. Now, when I travel back to the U.S. it seems rather strange, and the advertising seems bizarre. Here on the other side of the world (I am in South Africa at the moment) the American lifestyle looks even stranger.

I remember vividly that when I lived in New Jersey I began to think that I could live in America forever.

And this was in New Jersey… sometimes called “the armpit of America” partly because of the smell that assaults the senses upon driving out from Newark Airport, or into New Jersey from Staten Island.

I slipped into this kind of thinking after I had achieved the “American dream” of owning a 4 bedroom house on a third of an acre, two cars, comfortable job, house full of furniture, etc. Only a trip to Jamaica saved me from staying in the grasp of that thought for too long.

However, I think that Jamaicans who migrate to the U.S. are tempted, like I was, to slowly accept American values and become... well…. American… even while denying that they are.

This all came from his quote, and before reading the book. It is a quote that has the sound of someone who knows America, but knows more than just American ways.

Obama, I learned, had a black Kenyan father and has a white American mother. His father returned to Kenya when he was three years old, and he grew up in Hawaii, mostly, but also lived for a short time in Indonesia.

The highlight of Obama’s book, for me, was his first encounter in Kenya, at the airport on his first trip. When he arrived, his luggage was lost and he checked with the agent who recognized his name: and explained:

"Oh, you are so and so so's son"
He continued:
"My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances and grudges that I did not yet understand"

This is a man who has gauged some of what it means to Move Back to Jamaica.

Of Kenya, he says: "Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal."

Here is a Black man discovering what it means to be in his own country, a country in which there is a freedom to live that is just harder to grasp while living to in America.

He also adds in the following quote, from his uncle (or grand-uncle):

“"How can the African defeat the white man when he cannot even make his own bicycle?" And he would say the African could never win against the white man because the Black man only wanted to work with his own family or clan, while all white men worked to increase their own power. "The white man alone is like an ant" Onyango would say. "He can easily be crushed. But like an ant, the white man works together. His nation, his business -- these things are more important to him than himself. He will follow his leaders and not question orders. Black men are not like this. Even the most foolish black man thinks he knows better than the wise man. That is why the black man will always lose."”


The book is brilliant, and speaks powerfully to Jamaican-Americans with a commitment to move home – I recommend it.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Long time no blog...

My two blogs seem so lonely nowadays.

The irony is that I have been writing more than ever (I think.)

What has changed is that I am writing more for publication to my ezine and in white papers, and while I can throw out a blog here and there with little or no editing, I find that I cannot do that with my other publications.

So, I have been writing and writing, and editing and editing. Just as much activity as before, but much less to show for it.

I hope the quality shows.

(My ezine is called FirstCuts and can be joined by sending email to or visiting

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