Jamaica Walking a Thin Line

Marcia Forbes PhD

I have never wanted to go to Haiti, until now. As a teenager some of my nursing batchmates went there. Their reports drove fear into my heart and although never faint-hearted, I decided Haiti was not for me. They spoke of the voodoo and the cursed stare. Later I heard stories that Haitians feared Jamaicans. We eat sussumba, something they use in their voodoo rituals, and that apparently gave us power over the spirits, ergo we are feared and respected by Haitians. It is amazing how hearsay and the ignorance of youth can colour one’s opinions but I didn’t want to visit Haiti.

In Cuba I witnessed Santeria and right here in Jamaica have attended a few Kumina rituals where the poor sacrificial fowl had its head bitten off and its blood smeared across the chests of males and faces of females who spewed white rum into the air as they participated in the ceremony. So what did I have against visiting Haiti? Surely it wasn’t the spirits. Was it because its most consistent epithet is ‘poor black’? I already live in a poor black country and travel for me is to explore the different. As a mature adult whenever I flew over Haiti I’d look at her from the skies and mourn her parched earth and barren look. Now I want to go there.

I was happy and very impressed when Prime Minister Golding and Opposition Leader Simpson-Miller visited so quickly after the devastating earthquake which has brought Port Au Prince, the Haitian capital, to the ground. When I heard and saw Dr. Ford warning about potential problems for Jamaica in the wake of the quake, although some of what he said resonated, his non-verbal stance was off-putting and his words too harsh at the time they came. He seemed uncaring and my heart bled for the people of Haiti. I hope none of our Caribbean neighbours would behave this way toward us, were we as unfortunate as Haiti to suffer such a devastating natural disaster.

But there are many like Dr. Ford and one misstep by the Prime Minister will encourage them to reveal their true feelings. A January 18th news poll, although unscientific, had 80% of callers indicating that Jamaica should not let Haitians onto our island. Whatever the number that 80% represents it does not auger well if our assistance to that country is not competently handled. When Mr. Golding was a no-show at the scheduled meeting with the Unions to discuss Air Jamaica, the unions were not happy. They would have heard as I did via the news media that the PM was off to the Dominican Republic on matters relating to Haiti. While I believe someone would have been asked to deputize, unions want to see the ‘head honcho’ not a deputy and they can be unreasonably hard.

To put the Dom Rep. meeting over that with the unions may be seen by some as prioritorizing Haiti over Air Jamaica. We know how much of a hot-button topic that airline is and even moreso with its imminent takeover by Trinidad. From my own informal ‘survey’ Jamaicans are very unhappy with this. Perhaps irrationally so since we can not afford the airline and to the best of my knowledge the pilots did not put forward a proper business plan. The unions are right in calling for further and better particulars, even if they do not get this directly from Mr. Golding.

The Prime Minister is walking a thin line. In times of great stress at home, escape into foreign affairs is attractive. Importantly though, Haiti needs Jamaica’s intervention on its behalf and our Prime Minister is admirably suited to this. But Mr. Golding must be careful not to appear to immerse himself into this role to the perceived neglect of domestic matters, pressing as these are at this time. Air Jamaica is just one, far more important is the Jamaica Debt Exchange (JDX) for which greater clarity and further discussions are needed to tease out critical aspects of the way forward. Once some of us begin to feel the effects of interest rate reduction on our ‘pockets’, we will become more demanding of clear policies to ensure that our belt-tightening efforts are not squandered.

Coming back to Haiti, in the face of media reports of looting and bad behaviour by what seems like a small faction; I have heard some Jamaicans begin to question the humanity of the people of that beleaguered country. While I could never honestly say that I have ever experienced hunger and material deprivation, I can only imagine what it must like to be hungry for days. However, I can not even begin to imagine what it must be like to experience the kind of physical, psychological and spiritual trauma the Haitians must be going through at this time. My godson’s girlfriend is a young American but of Haitian parents. She was there during the earthquake and is still there unable to get out. I have seen the trauma his entire family is going through as he gets snippets of information via text messages from her as she tells of the hunger and suffering.

So, before any of us in Jamaica bad mouth the Haitians and look down on their fight for survival, let us remember the beam in our own eyes. We fight sometimes for no reason and he kill and maim each almost with wild abandon. Before we cast aspersions on Haiti and talk about their curse, let us look at our own. I have seen Jamaica, once a jewel in the crown of our colonial masters and in more recent times a country that was respected, reduced to mendicant status, robbed of much of its dignity and shunned by some of our very own. Mr. Prime Minister all of us will be watching and grading as you negotiate the delicate balance between attention to domestic and to foreign affairs. As for me, I will travel to Haiti, as soon as things settle enough for them to let me in.