Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas in Woodlands District in the Fifties

(It was Really sinting!)
Basil Waine Kong

Growing up in St. Elizabeth is fraught with wonderful memories, especially of Christmas. As I look back, I see manicured lawns,(freshly chopped with a sharp machete or a donkey, horse or even goats). Any of these animals can eat down the grass. I remember gleaming white washed stones about six feet apart lining the walkways right up to the house steps and white washed trunks of trees in the yard. Christmas also coincides with the advent of winter when there is a precipitious drop in daily temperatures from the eighties to the seventies. We call it "Christmas Breeze", which is one step above "Cool Breeze"!

I have traveled the world and no where can make you feel more welcome as rural St. Elizabeth. There is no greetings, huggs and smiles more sublime. I imagine Jamaicans living foreign flock home for Christmas just for that feeling of welcome, familiarity and belongingness from “femi people”. It's nice that these “Been-to” people bring money, presents, music, movies and food to show off what a success they have made of themselves! We can be a loving, jocular, generous but slightly contentious people.

The children were always on stage when I was a child. Not only did we perform regularly in school and church plays under thatched roofs and in our homes, we were always being coached in poetry, singing and dancing by Ms. Mavis Smith for “Festival” that was held in Santa Cruz each year. Whenever relatives and friends visited, we were asked to recite poems, tell a joke, spell words, sing or dance. One of the important jobs that adults joyfully accepted was to encourage and big up the yuths with a heap of praise. Those of us who grew up in the country have great egos because we didn’t know we were poor or we even thought we were bulby (bright). Children were front and center of the community. The adults regularly beat the hell out of us to keep us in line but we felt loved nevertheless. I started working in Mass Claudie’s shop at about ten years old and at our Saturday night dances, the older people enjoyed putting me up on the counter to dance and then give me money. The popular dances back then were: “Back to back, belly to belly”, “Banana, banana, banana” and "Ramadin and Valentine".

Many unfamiliar foods and dry goods came to us by way of vans and visiting relatives and friends. We are a mountain community but we were able to enjoy lobsters, fish and even clams brought to us by vans. We got bread, buns and bullahs from Harry Chen See’s bread truck. When you bought a whole loaf of unsliced hard dough bread, we got a brata of two bullahs. We would watch out for the passing of the truck, run to the roadside to hale the driver, bought the bread (unwrapped) and put it into the bread basket that hung by a hook close to the ceiling. Our usual breakfast was a “hunk of bread with butter”, a boiled egg and hot fresh cow’s milk. I liked my bread with sweet condensed milk! We ate whatever fruits were in season throughout the day from anyone's property. Children had a free run of the place with no concern about property lines.

I am not sure that this is true for all families in Jamaica but for our family, we took food to everyone we visited and also brought food back home from whatever was left over especially at Christmas, funerals and weddings. In other words, we are always bringing and taking food. We don't like anyone to be hungry. If someone is going to America, a roast breadfruit, ache, corn pone and gizadas were in tow. When they returned, packed away in their luggage were hams, canned pears and peaches packed in syrup.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, every household prepared sorrel with and without rum but with lots of ginger. I loved the beautiful red colour and tart taste. A roast (beef) and fruitcake would also be prepared to serve to all who visited. Aunt Myra’s roast was the best! The fruits (raisins, currants, plums) for the Christmas fruit cake would be soaked in rum and port wine for several months before baking day. I usually couldn’t wait for the cake so I would eat the batter while I helped to rub the ingredients together. Those who really wanted to show off would also have a Christmas ham from 'merica that was sliced as thin as a razor blade and treated like gold. The ham bone was used later for soup. If you greet someone with "Happy Christmas" or "Merry Christmas" before Christmas day, the receiver of the greeting predictably add: "When it comes".

On Christmas Day, we woke up as soon as the first cock crowed. We got dressed and greeted each other with “Happy Christmas” and a smile. While we did not send Christmas cards or exchange presents, on Christmas mornings, the first thing we looked forward to was Granny's egg punch. She put on the milk to scold (heat up), break a dozen eggs and carefully separated the red (yolk) from the white. She handed the bowl with the yolk and brown sugar to Uncle Elton to grind and the whites with a few drops of water to Uncle Ronnie to whip with a fork. When the yolk was nice and creamy and the white was nice and fluffy, she combined them, added hot milk, a Guinness stout and a Red Stripe Beer, nutmeg, vanilla extract, mixed it all up and served it for breakfast. wow! But you must remember to take out the eye (germinal cell) or the punch will taste "raw". After breakfast, we blew off steam by blowing up fire crackers that was answered by the other people in the community. I prided myself on being able to hold the fire crackers in my fingers without getting hurt. Other boys were not so lucky and lost fingers.

Some of the people from Springfield Church walked to the houses of those who were sick and shut in to sing Christmas Carols with them. While the equivalent of Santa Claus is "Father Christmas" in Jamaica, he existed as a concept and I never had the experience of being handed a gift by the old man.

Busha Price (Granny's friend) would be at our house by 8:00 am all dressed up with suit, tie, handkerchief in his breast pocket, felt hat, black and white shoes, his walking stick tipped with brass and always had some small change, maybe a sixpence for the children. After drinking some of Granny's egg punch, he would say: "Ms. Rosie, it mak mi cranium crawl" which I interpreted to be a good thing. We asked if he wasn't going to wipe the egg punch from his fluffy mouth stash. He delighted in telling us that that is his way to save some for later.

After breakfast, Granny would give us our Christmas money and we headed out to the community picnic at Shield’s Pon where vendors sold ice cream and fresco, grater cake, pound cake, jerk pork, fried fish, cane juice, peppermint sticks, and all the treats of Christmas. It was a show when the old soldiers would march with wooden rifles. Herbie Arnold’s rumba band would play all day. I loved the colourful Maypole and the Merry-go-round. Two strong men could turn four swingers. While we never had an elaborate “Jankonoo”, someone would put on a horse head mask and dance around on stilts. The next week, all the Pickney dem built stilts and try to dance around on them like the Jankonoo man.

It was a day when everyone shared what they had and indulged: “Eat, drink and be merry” were the orders of the day. The women and children mostly drank the sorrel and ginger beer, but all the men got drunk and everybody danced. The rule was that all the men had to dance with all the women regardless of age or relationship, so the old people and the smallest pickney would get into the act as well. But mostly, the old people would sit against the wall and watch the young people wind up dem waist. Everyone was in a festive mood and buying waters (rum) and Red Stripe Beer for each other.

While no one ever dressed up like “Father Christmas”, all the children received balloons, fifi that curled up like a snake and other noise makers that amused us for several days. And we didn’t have Christmas trees either; but our houses were decorated with poinsettias that grew wild in our community.

Every Jack man shaved holding a two edge razor blade very gingerly, got their hair cut, their pants creased and their shoes shined. The ladies got their hair done, dressed up in fancy crinoline dresses and were awash with kuss kuss perfume. The girls put coconut oil on their legs and they looked amazing!

The Sunday closest to Christmas, we not only read the wonderful Christmas story but sang all the Christmas Carols at Springfield Moravian Church. As service lasted more than two hours, there was no hurry. My favorite Christmas Carol was “I saw three ships come sailing in” by Ms. Maude. We were also treated to a Christmas play on Sunday night directed by Mrs. Joyce Chang in which I always participated. For atmosphere, we put candles in oranges and lit up the place. The boys also burned each other with the wax. I am surprised that the church never caught fire except that the Grannies were never far away to keep control.

Our festivities did not end with Christmas day as we had a cricket match as well as a horse race with lots of betting on “Boxing Day”(day after Christmas).
Christmas comes but once a year and when it comes, it brings good cheer! Happy Christmas to all! (When it comes)

Note. After all the young people migrated to England in the late fifties and early sixties, there was no more festivities and no more joy in our district! Our community became a community of Grannies raising grand children.

Dr. Kong! Fabulous article!! I shall forward to friends!
Happy Holidays!
Debra Ehrhardt

Hi Waine:
I loved this story on the Jamaican Christmas. I know it's your story, but it reads like a story right out of an anthology of Christmas stories by well known authors. Yours is more intriguing and detailed. Many of your descriptions are similar to our experiences. It is so sad that many children today will never experience these simple but oh so memorable joys of Christmas. I do hope that you and Stephanie will have a wonderful, blessed holiday. I hope we can get together at some point over the holidays. Love to you both.
Janet and Julius
Waine, thanks for sharing this. Sounds like we had similar childhoods across the "Pond".

Tom Vaughn

Beautifully remembered and written. I'm glad I waited until now to read it instead of rushing through it earlier. I enjoyed it.

Kim R LaRue, RN

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Movie: "Anonymous" is not worth seeing

Shakespeare Anonymous?
Basil Waine Kong

After paying good money and spending valuable time that could have been profitably spent doing something else, my wife and I regretfully saw the movie “Anonymous” based on J. Thomas Looney’s book: “Shakespeare Identified”. He was joined in these beliefs by Sherwood Silliman and George Batty---quiet a credible crowd!

Here is my recommendation: do not waste your time or your money. It is not even as good as the PBS Special (1996) that made similar claims. In fact, thousands of books and more coming suggest that not only were Shakespeare’s parents illiterate and signed their name with an "X" but the boy Shakespeare had minimal education and exposure to the world. Some say he never owned or read a book. So where and how did he gain the experience and culture to have written so knowledgeably and eloquently about the affairs of Kings, the military, geography, law, the sea, and especially the human heart?

This film is boring rubbish based on claims that Shakespeare was not wise enough, educated enough, worldly enough or sophisticated enough to have written the plays, sonnets and poetry to be regarded as the “ultimate expression of the English language” as well as "the greatest literature ever produced in English>" So based only on made up stuff (circumstantial evidence), the movie supposes that Edward de Vere, Seventh Earl of Oxford and the Queen’s consort, must have been the writer. In fact, the movie did not stop at claiming that de Vere was the ghost writer for Shakespeare, it depicted Shakespeare as an ignorant, illiterate blackmailer with no redeeming social value. The movie claims that Shakespeare could not even “form his letters.”

So, how is it that none of his contemporaries raised the question? For that matter, no questions were raised for two hundred years after his death claiming that THE Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. This question became popular in just the last hundred years. I, for one, love the man and honour him for his amazing gifts to mankind like Bill Bryson wrote: "Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man---whoever he was".

I have a theory. I visited several of the Mayan Temples and Pyramids in Mexico ten years ago and took great interest in the pyramids of Chichen Itza. These magnificent structures spoke loudly about the sophistication of the Mayan people of old, the inventor of astrology and the Mayan Calendar. So what did Europeans devise as the explanation? Non-white people could not possibly have done this. Space travelers from other planets must have lived among them, designed and built these edifices. The rule is: If one’s achievements are remarkable, they didn’t do it and they will make up some preposterous explanations to explain it---most notably, foreign or inter-planetary influence.

Tell that to Usain Bolt! How does little Jamaica, produce the fastest runners (both men and women) that world has ever known? Get ready for preposterous theories: we must have made a deal with the devil, we eat some special diet, Obeah, Usain is out of this world, or take performance enhancements---anything but nurtured talent! Ordinary people do extraordinary things all the time. What’s the difference between a small farmer in St. Elizabeth who never went to school and a doctor? Often, just one generation. It is not unique for modestly acculturated or even deprived children to excell. Jamaicans know this story better than anywhere else. "We little or may have very little but we talawah!"

My granddaughter (Mackenzie) was studying Shakespeare in school and in order to have meaningful and interesting things to talk about with her, I studied along and even made up the following Quiz. If you wish to take the "teaching test" and e-mail me your answers (bwaine@bellsouth.net), I will be happy to score it for you. My very bright grand-daughter as well as her younger brother (Brooks) both made the grade!

Quiz on Shakespeare: His Life and Times

1.It is said that “No human being has received more attention or yielded more uncertainty” than Mr. William Shakespeare (S). He is at once best known and least known of historical figures. We are, however, certain about:
a. What he looked like
b. The spelling of his name
c. His education and how he got to be so smart
d. None of the above

2. S was born in England during a plague epidemic, on April 23, 1530 in:
a. Stratford
b. Snitterfield
c. Springfield
d. Southwark

3. At a time when the life expectancy was 35, S was baptized on April 26 and died at age 52 in 1582 on:
a. July 18
b. April 3
c. July 12
d. April 23

4. When S was born, in the City where his parents lived, they observed which calendar?
a. Gregorian
b. Old Julian
c. Chinese
d. The calendar was not yet invented

5. At 18 years old, S married a woman 8 years his senior. The age of consent to be married was twelve years for girls and fourteen for boys. The spelling of his name on his birth certificate is: Shagspere. Before her marriage, her name was:
a. Anne Hathaway, who was said to be: “sweet as May and shy as a fawn.”
b. Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton
c. Melanie Rochelle of Columbia
d. Mackenzie Kong-Sivert of Phoenix

6. Queen Elizabeth I, who defeated the Spanish Armada, the monarch during most of S lifetime followed by James, never married or had children, ruled England for how many years?
a. 10
b. 20
c. 30
d. 45 years

7. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Why was beef, veal, chicken classified as fish during S lifetime?
a. The catholic church required that converts only eat fish on Fridays
b. All meat taste like chicken
c. “Fish” was a shorthand word for meat
d. Because refrigeration was not available, all meat smelled like fish

8. During S lifetime, if you invited friends to spend the night at your house without a permit from local bailiff, you could be:
a. Fined
b. Stoned
c. Put in jail
d. Insulted

9. A line from “As You Like It” describe a school boy who reluctantly went to school because:
a. The buildings were not heated including sleeping quarters
b. The food was meager
c. The whippings frequent
d. All of the above

10. Children during S lifetime mostly studied
a. Farming
b. Latin
c. Law
d. Religion

11. S attended school until fifteen years old. He had to learn:
a. Metaphor and anaphora
b. Epistrophe and hyperbole
c. Synecdoche and epanalepsis
d. All of the above

12. How many children did S father?
a. One
b. Two
c. Three
d. Four

13. The printing press is thought to be the most influential event in the fifteenth century revolutionizing the way people conceive and describe the world they live in. Printed books (including our Bible---King James Version) became available to a wide audience. Who invented the printing press?
a. The Roman Empire
b. German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440
c. The Chinese under the Ming Dynasty
d. East Indians when they published the Bhagavad Gītā, "Song of The Blessed Lord"), (a sacred Hindu scripture)

14. Bathrooms were not yet available so even the rich relieved themselves wherever they could, including in corners of churches. Some people made a living by carrying containers for urine. Toilet is also called:
a. A washroom in Canada
b. A “Head” on boats
c. A “rest room” or “powder room” in the United States
d. All of the above

15. The clothing style during 16th century (imported from France) was to wear starched clothes. Where did the cassava starch come from?
a. Jamaica
b. India
c. China
d. Brazil

16. Piccadilly was so named for people who enjoyed parading in the square in their “ruffs” (pica dills). Why did they have to stay out of the rain?
a. The dyes in their clothes would wash out as dyes were not yet color-fast.
b. The starch would make their clothes limp
c. They believe they would catch their death of cold
d. All of the above

17. What is “Gresham’s law”, named for the gentleman who built the first shopping center in 1570 so 4,000 merchants could do their business out of the rain.
a. bad money drives out good
b. criminals can take over a community if good people are not vigilant
c. a shopping mall could be used as a “tax shelter”
d. all of the above

18. The style of the times was to have black teeth. The rich had black teeth because they could afford to eat a lot of sugar from Jamaica. So, those who could not afford sugar blackened their teeth artificially. What other silly things do we sometimes believe in the Jamaica even today?
a. Taking medication to lengthen eyelashes when the side effect could be blindness
b. Injecting botox (a toxin) to reduce wrinkles
c. Bleaching our skin will make us more attractive
d. All of the above

19. The association between pale white skin as the standard of beauty (supreme loveliness) and black skin with evil emerged out of this period. So, all kinds of skin bleaching were applied including borax, sulphur and lead. Today, the whitening cream industry is estimated to be worth around $432 million in India and $7 billion in China In Japan, Gaishas:
a. Paint their skins black
b. Paint their skins white
c. Bleach their skins with papaya
d. All of the above

20. Tobacco was first introduced in England about when S was born. Even children were encouraged to smoke as it was touted as a cure for:
a. Venereal disease
b. Migraine
c. Eprophylactic against the plague
d. All of the above

21. What was a common medical procedure during S lifetime that was just outlawed in the USA just before WWII?
a. Blood letting
b. Massaging
c. Laying on of hands
d. Lobotomies

22. The ocean was a common theme in his plays as a place of storms and shipwrecks: “Take arms against a sea of troubles.” “An ocean of salt tears.” “Wild sea of my conscience.” How long did S spend at sea?
a. No time
b. One year
c. Two years
d. Three years

23. The Theater where S plays were performed was owned by Shakespeare, Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope and Will Kemp, all actors otherwise known as “Lord Chamberlain’s Men”. It was built in 1599 and burned down in 1613, three years before S died. What is the name of the Theatre?
a. The Julius
b. The Fox
c. The Globe
d. The Regal Elizabethan

24. Animal baiting was a popular source of entertainment during S’s time. What was it?
a. A bear, bull or horse was tethered to a peg in a ring (sometimes with a monkey on its back) and mastiffs (dogs) were encouraged to rip the animal apart.
b. Bullfighting
c. Dog fighting
d. Cock fighting

25. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Juliet and Desdemona had what in common?
a. Their roles were all played by men
b. They were all Queens
c. They were all married
d. All of the above

26. In addition to being a playwright, S was also:
a. An actor
b. Stage manager
c. Costume designer
d. Popular singer

27. S lifetime was a period of great suffering. In London, at least ten thousand people died in a single year from the plague. Those who could afford to established residences elsewhere left London. What S did is not known but all the doctors:
a. Stayed in London to help take care of the sick and dyeing
b. Left London with the other well-to-dos and left the care of the sick to Apothecaries
c. Left the country altogether
d. None of the above

28. S deduced that the Earth moved around the sun before:
a. Astronomers
b. Religious leaders
c. Politicians
d. Teachers

29. S was not good at Geography (anatopisms). Which of the following did he get right?
a. He put a sail maker in Bergamo, a landlocked city in Italy (Taming of the Shrew)
b. Set sail from Milan and Verona when both cities are more than 100 miles from the Ocean (The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
c. Did not know that Venice had Canals
d. All of the above

30. S was often guilty of anachronisms in his plays. What did he get wrong
a. He had Egyptians playing billiard
b. Implied that Caesar had a clock fourteen hundred years before it was invented
c. Referred to Cato three hundred years before he was born
d. All of the above

31. “The most unkindest cut of all” is a/an:
a. often repeated quote from S
b. Double negative
c. Double superlative
d. All of the above

32. S name has been spelled 80 different ways. The proper spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary is:
a. Shakspere
b. Shakespeare
c. Shappere
d. Shaxberd

33. S introduced 2,035 new words (neologisms) to the English language. Which one was not among them?
a. Critical
b. Horrid
c. lonely
d. computer

34. S is responsible for at least 10% of the quotations in our everyday speech. Which phrase did not originate with S?
a. For every truth you discover, the opposite is also true
b. One fell swoop
c. Vanish into thin air
d. Bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, cold comfort, more in sorrow than in anger, salad days, to thy own self be true, foul play, tower of strength, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, forgone conclusion.

35. Stanley Wells observed that S was born in Latin but died in English. When Thomas Smith produced the first textbook on the English Language, he wrote it in which language?
a. Latin
b. English
c. German
d. French

36. Plays by S were originally performed at mid-day because:
a. In the Sixteenth Century, people worked from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm but had a four hour break during the mid-day
b. It was not safe to be out after dark
c. There was no artificial lighting available
d. All of the above

37. The S Library in Washington DC contain more than 350,000 books and is called:
a. The Folger Library
b. The National Archives
c. The Library of Congress
d. The Shakespeare Library

Note: By far, the best source of information as well as the most entertaining book on Shakespeare is:
“Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition” by Bill Bryson (Atlas Books, 2007). I am a Bill Bryson fan. His research is flawless and his writing keeps a smile on my face. If you had to just read one of his fifteen books, please start with: “A Really Short History of Everything.”You will immediately become (not necessarily healthy or wealthy but definitely) wise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Good Clean Family Fun in Orlando

Basil Waine Kong

It is our oldest son’s 41st birthday, so Stephanie and I are in Orlando to help him celebrate. Freddie and his wife Tracy are proud parents of two cute and endearing children, Kai (3 years old) and Hailie (18 months). While Kai is active and strong willed, Hailie is as cute as a bug in a rug and in fact we call her Hailie bug. The best moments of our visits are the hugs, welcome to our home, good to see you moments when we first arrive.

While Tracy had to work, Freddie and I played golf at Eagle Creek on Friday afternoon while Stephanie Babysit---which she loves to do for her grand children. I had my usual three bad holes but played well otherwise. Freddie rolled in a 40 footer and chipped one in accompanied with the usual exclamations. We got back home, took our showers, dressed and made our way to his celebratory dinner at Bone Fish Grill, a seafood eatery in Orlando. Although the children were a little antsy, the food was wonderful, service superb and priced well for the quality! Our waiter, Mike, was the best. He should go into business training other waiters. My wife, a very exacting diner, was completely pleased with the attentive and professional service. That made the food taste even better.

The appetizers, bang bang shrimp, entamane (steamed soy beans) and calamari, were a little unusual but very tasty. For our entrées, my wife had the sea bass, pan Asian style with Jasmine rice, Tuna with a beacon jalapeño sauce for Freddie, Tracy had sea bass with mango sauce, and I had crab cakes. The little ones dined on Mac n Chez with steamed Broccoli and lead us in the singing of “Happy Birthday Dad”. We all shared the complimentary warm brownies and ice cream and were in complete agreement that that was a memorable meal.

In addition to the usual hugs and kisses, chasing the grand children, lovely family meals and conversations, swimming, shopping, spa treatments, walks in the park, playground swings and climbs on monkey bars, we spent Saturday at: “Scott’s Maze Adventures” www.cornmaze.com and a wonderful time was had by all--- good clean fun!

Scott’s is a large family owned farm in Zellwood, Florida (about an hour’s drive from Orlando) that is famous for its triple sweet corn. Yes, the corn is sweet and can be eaten raw. Each Fall (Autumn), they convert seven acres of their cornfield into a maze. While the corn maze is the main attraction, children have various “play” options including a spongy wind pillow the size of a tennis court that our grandchildren delighted in jumping, falling and romping around. Kai loved by far, the zip line! The kids sit in a harness and zip down an outstretched line. They can go on and on and our grandson Kai was delighted with each pass. It was wonderful to see the glee in his eyes!

For lunch we dined on fried clam strips and French fries, corn dogs, hamburgers and the usual refreshments. On a day like this, we ignore the usual dietary restrictions like when we go to a ballgame. What’s a baseball game without hot dogs?

After lunch, we go off to the mazes. As corn is called maize in many parts of the world, so, this is actually a maize maze. There are three mazes, the “mini”, the mist and mega maze with three maze quests to play: Kernel B. Cobb’s, Cornelious Quest Picture Find and Poppi’s Secret word Jumble. We didn’t run into any skeletons because they give you a flag on a long stick that you can wave and be rescued it you are hopelessly lost or have an emergency.

Labyrinths and mazes have been around since Ancient Egypt and Greece and is cornfigured as a puzzle with complex branching passages that walkers try to find a route to the exit through the designed twists and turns. In this case, walkers were asked to walk around corncentric circles and find designated stations where answers to paper and pencil puzzles about the environment and alternative energy could be obtained. They did their best to create “cornfusion” with the maze to get people lost but we were able to find the five stations and make our exit in about an hour.

We finally got to the hay ride with the accompanying lecture by our corncierges telling us about the farm’s efforts to make farming environmentally safe and productive. I did not know that each string that makes up the silk at the top of an ear of corn (the cornfer) is connected to each grain of corn.

On our way home, as the children were Cornfined to their seats, the corny jokes were non-stop.
Cornation: countries that grow corn as their principal crop
Corncentrate: thinking deeply about corn
Corncealment: sealing up leaks with glue made from corn
Corncede: what you plant to get an ear of corn
Cornceit: a chair made from corn
Corncerts: breath mints made from corn syrup
Cornscent: things that smell like corn
Cornception: becoming pregnant from eating too much corn for women who need to produce an heir of corn.
corncession: giving an ear of corn to settle a disagreement. And my favorite, if you don’t like them, you can corndemn to hell.

Anyway, the point of this blog is to suggest that this would be an easy thing to implement in Jamaica. How hard would it be to convert a sugarcane plantation into a maze with the accompanying rides, foods and kid friendly activities? Mazes are popular throughout the world. With all the undesirable or non-existent recreational options in Jamaica, how wonderful would it be to have a “Cane Maze?” It would be a terrific tourist attraction as well as a place every Jamaica family would want to visit. It would be lots of fun to “get lost” while raising cane.!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So Much To Do and So Little Time

How much can you fit into a week-day in Jamaica?

Basil Waine Kong

It is Wednesday morning, I am missing my wife who is in Atlanta and I am wide awake at 6:00 am without an alarm clock as I am each day. I immediately call her to share well wishes and our plans. After a breakfast of callaloo and salt fish with fried dumplings, June plum juice and coffee, I go through my early morning routine to read both the Gleaner and the Observer on line, check my e-mails and I am off to the golf course for my 8:00 am Tee time. Today, I played with Peter Lindo, Steve Hill and Lindy Delapano. Steve and I beat them three up on the front and they came back to beat us on the back---good competition and camaraderie. It is an enjoyable round of golf with my Caddie “Garth” in tow and at least Peter buys us drinks with our money. I have ox tail with rice and peas and a salad for lunch, refresh myself in the beautiful pool at Caymanas Golf Club, shower, dress and I am off to the country.

As I drive towards Mandeville, I find myself replaying my round of golf. The great shots I hit, the birdie I made as well as the mental errors and some God awful shots.
You see, each round of golf at Caymanas is something to tell about and recall next hour, day, week , month and repeatedly throughout one’s lifetime. Having the game and courage to go for the green in two and eagling the par five number two is something to strive for, enjoy and relish for a lifetime. The finishing hole is long and a true test of golf with water on both sides of the fairway and big bunkers guarding the green. Peter was once up by three coming into the 18th hole and I worked my Obeah on him and predicted that he would make a seven. No one was more surprised than I when he in fact made seven which tied the match. Maybe I have supernatural powers after all---science man.

While driving through Santa Cruz, I spot three men playing dominoes and decide that they needed a fourth so I invited myself, bought a round of Red Stripe Beer and proceeded to give our opponents a six-love. Interestingly, the proprietor (Days) recognizes me as a school mate from Springfield All Age School. In fact, I learned that his sister, (Eileen Robinson) another school mate was admitted to Mandeville Hospital and getting preparing to have one of her legs amputated due to diabetic neuropathy. I promise to visit her the following day prior to her operation.

I continue on my journey with a stop at Lynn Salmon’s shop in Springfield to have drinks with old friends (including Joyce Henry) who just happened to be present and got answers to: What ever happened to …? and making a donation to one of her causes. I also decide to visit an old friend, Mr. Asley Black. As a boy, Asley was the older gentleman with whom I spent numerous hours discussing the great questions like the meaning of life, human nature and the value of organized religion. I worked as the shopkeeper at 12 years old and as he sipped on gin and salt, we would sit across the counter and had many pleasant conversations between having to sell sugar and whatever else customers wanted. Then there was a 50 year absence until I returned and found the same old Ashley, spry as ever. We have visited several times since then.

I park my car at the road and walk a quarter of a mile straight up the hill. I am out of breath but he enthusiastically hugged and welcomed me inquiring as to why I was winded. At 85 years old, he makes the walk to the road and back several times per day. But I now understand why he lives on this hill. He saw me looking across the wooded slopes and said: "I can get drunk with happiness just sitting on my veranda and gazing at this majestic beauty, especially this time of the day." I arrived just in time to see the multi-coloured glory of the setting sun reflecting on the Moravian Church with it's red roof and high steeple. I was at a loss as to where to turn my head to admire this endless hill and gully panorama clothed in woodland loveliness of banana, mango and neeseberry trees and sprouting cabbage, Irish potatoes, dashine and cassava. The landscape was beautiful but as I focused on the little houses with dinner fires sending smoke over the treetops, I could imagine how brutish their daily existence must be---kind of hell and heaven on the same canvas.

Ashley jovially invited me in for a drink and something to eat. He prepares a country dinner of dumplings, bananas, yam, with mackerel mixed with salt fish and it all tasted delicious. We talk about the old days and how men these days cannot afford to hang out at the rum shop anymore as liquor is too expensive and people don't have money.

After a pleasant visit, he walked me to the bottom of the hill to me car and said my good bye. As I drove away from his house, I passed women carrying heavy loads on their heads and men carrying crocus bags and hoes on their shoulders walking home from their fields wearing water boots.

I then make my way to Woodlands and stopped to have a drink with about ten people who welcome me and update me on who died, who had babies and who migrated. I finally made my way to the country home of Mr. and Mrs. Garnett Myrie. His brother Joshie (the caretaker of the property) welcome me and show me to my sleeping quarters. I am in bed by 9:00 pm and read my Kindle until I fall asleep to the barking of dogs, chirping of insects, toads and frogs. Otherwise, all was quiet on the western front.

I am awake at five in the morning and administer some eye drops to clear my eyes so I can continue to read my Kindle. I drink my usual early morning glass of water as tonic.

About six months ago, I bought "The Complete Mark Twain Collection". I am determined to complete it before my death but I have my doubts as it is 100,000 Kindle pages. I probably did not read this many pages in my entire college career. I am about half way through and it is well worth the investment. He is such an entertaining writer who has a very unique way to express himself. I cannot wait to consume the next page.

My wife does not agree that he a great writer and her assessment is that he is one of the worst racists that ever lived. I try to reason with her that we cannot judge a man that lived 100 years ago by modern standards. The racism is, however, glaring I admit, but his writing is still amazing. He was traveling in the Middle East and checking into a hotel. He wanted to make sure that he had enough light to read late into the night. They assured him that it was “no problem”. When he was shown to his room they lit a candle. He was visibly upset and asked if that was all the light they had, the gentleman’s said “Of course not. You can have two candles if you like.”

I have just finished “Joan of Arc” and believe it is his best piece. You have to remind yourself that the facts are true. No one is capable of believing that the Catholic Church and the English could be so evil and conniving. I am also reminded that as I lawyer, I am trained to take any set of facts and make anyone a saint or a sinner.

As the dawn breaks, I listen attentively for the familiar sounds of mornings in Woodlands, the braying of donkeys, the cows announcing where they are so all the little cow calves can find them, the roosters crowing, the birds chirping and the goats bleeping. By six AM, these sounds are all overwhelmed by the gospel music on the radio next door. I shower and dress including water boots and I am off to walk my property through the high grass and don’t want to harbor tics. I go by the grave yard to bring greetings and prayers to the dearly departed and to pour a little libation. In a few years, I plan to build a house on this property and I spend some time imagining grand children running around.

It is perfectly calm and the sun is brilliant. It is now 8:00 am and I make my way to Ms. Erma Cameron’s home for breakfast. She is also an early riser, so the coffee is ready. I so enjoy a good cup of coffee in the morning. Ackee and salt fish, friend dumplings and friend plantains are also on the menu. She also picked some grapefruit from her own tree and I enjoy that as well. We are joined by neighbours and we have a gay time eating, visiting, singing the old songs and remembering the old days.

On my way back to Kingston, I decided to visit the YS Falls. I keep passing this jewel of St. Elizabeth and never visited, so today is the day. I pay my entry fee and board the tractor train that takes the group past the famous “Brownie” cows and horses to the reception center and I immediately walk towards the falls by following the thunder and smoke created by these falling waters. I am actually surprised. I was not expecting something so stupendous. I believe it is grander than it’s more glamorous sister, the Duns River Falls. As it is the rainy season, tourists are advised not to set foot into the falls; The flow is so rapid, it reminds me of Niagara Falls. The view is breath taking but I couldn’t resist sneaking a dip, sit under the shower to get a good massage and survived it. I declined the repelling but saw more brave souls sliding along the tree tops.

I sit on a bench on the side and read Mark Twain on my Kindle. It is a special moment.

In about an hour, I make my way to the first pool, slosh around a bit and was told that there was an even larger pool not far away so I make my way and it is a treat to swim is the cool waters. Again, I sit by the pool and read some more taking sips of the Red Stripe Beer I bought from the commissary close by. The sun shine is brilliant.

I then make my way to the Mandeville Hospital where Eileen is a patient. I am actually impressed with how modern the hospital is and their courteous and helpful staff. I am usually very critical of the health care system in Jamaica but I now need to correct this perception. It is now 2:30 pm and visiting hours do not start until 3:30. I decided not to have lunch at the Hospital canteens but opt instead to go across the street and enjoyed a wonderful curry goat lunch along with a cold Red Strip at the "Island" restaurant in the Plaza. It was delicious.

I am back to the Hospital in time to be allowed in. I am directed to the Women’s Ward and find Eileen’s Room. As we have not seen each other in fifty four years, she is a little puzzled at first but then the light came on and she shouted: “Basil, Basil Kong, is that you?” “Same one”, I answered. “I bet you are surprised to see me.” My most vivid memory of Eileen is that we were both in the same house (Punctuality) for our annual sports day. Another boy (Sylvester Mair) and I were tied for first and I needed the break the tie but only the jump rope contest was left. Who ever heard of a boy participating in jump rope? I asked Eileen if she would be my partner and low and behold, we won and I was crowned “Boys Champion”. We reminisced a great deal about the glory days and I am heartened that she is not distressed about the impending operation that was scheduled for that evening. I promised to help with her prosthesis. There is so much improvement replacing limbs these days. I am reminded, however, that good doctors cure disease and surgically solve medical problems but really great doctors prevent them. The best hope for managing the cost of health care in Jamaica is through prevention!

She was very happy with the quality of medical care she was receiving and thought it was wonderful that it was all free.

I stopped to buy fruits in Porus, get Tastee patties in Clarendon and fill up my gas tank at the Oasis Station, got on beautiful Highway 2000 and I was back in Kingston by 7:00 pm in time to shower dress, join the Myrie’s (family friends) for dinner and then five of us went to “Waterfalls” for dancing at 11:00 pm. I am back home by 1:00 pm, ready for bed and fall asleep quickly.

You can certainly find things to do in Jamaica.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Art of Hating Your Friends and Loving Your Enemies

Racial Superiority (Inferiority) is a Fraud

Basil Waine Kong

In response to the story: “Brownings Please” (Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011),reporting that when placing trainees from "HEART", some employers specifically request non-black employees, a reader who chose not to be identified wrote: "It really breaks my heart to see poor blacks damaging their health by bleaching. It breaks my heart to see that the content of a person's character and ability is judged by the colour of his skin. It breaks my heart to see that education, intelligence and ability have taken a back seat to the lightness of a person's skin colour."

We delight in pledging to become a united nation with the plethora of people who call themselves Jamaicans---"Out of many, one people." People from just about every corner of the world call Jamaica home. We run the gamut of personalities from those who love themselves, love their country and always work to make things a little better. Then there are those who hate themselves, bent on tearing down our country and always treat and value others better than themselves or others who look like them. Is this behavior an expression of self-hatred? Self hatred describe people of low self esteem who dislike themselves as well as the national, racial or ethnic group to which they belong. Who is the cockroach who must know their place in: "Cockroach have no business a fowl dance."

Buju Banton sings:"Mi love mi car, mi love mi bike, mi love mi money an ting/But most of all mi love mi browning."

”Di gyal dem love off mi brown cute face!
Di gyal dem love off mi bleach out face.” (Vybz Kartel and Tarik Russian)

While an enlightened Ms. Louise Bennett said in a television interview that when she was growing up, nearly everything black was bad: bad hair, that black people bad and patois bad, she nevertheless wrote:

“Donkey tink him cub a race-horse;
John Crow tink him pickney white."

A derogatory rhyme is repeated much too often by African Americans:

"Niggers and flies;
Niggers and flies;
The more I know Niggers,
The more I love flies"

Even more disrespectful in Jamaica is the phrase used to describe replacing the political party in power: "swapping black dog for monkey." or "Nutten black no good."

Because human beings generally strive to better themselves; improve their financial status and quality of life; as well as aspire to be respected and honoured; we sometimes become prey to a negative frame of reference. Often we look to others with power for affirmation, which if your are looking to people of European ancestry, requires that you submit and subjugate your values to coincide with those of white people. People of colour are bombarded with images of European values regarding beauty, intelligence and success.

We are forever strapped to the ball and chain the British stamped on us over the last three hundred years. While we are an independent country, it is impossible to declare our independence from our deeply entrenched colonial mentality. I am personally thankful to the British for cricket and golf, afternoon tea, the English language, the wonderful poetry and literature, a stiff upper lip and all that. My advocacy is not for the wholesale rejection of everything British but our continued dependence of things that obviously does not work for us. Jamaica no longer need to copy British traditions wholesale. We should take the good, reject what is senseless or even harmful and develop our own out of this mix. Good old Jamaican values of love and respect for each other should be paramount. Everything else emanate from this central value.

When a black person accomplishes something great there is a feeling among whites that this is not right. There must be something wrong as this level of success is reserved for whites. This is the basis for much of the attacks on President Obama in the United States. Lady Musgrave was so disturbed by the success of Jamaica’s first black millionaire (George Stiebel) and his opulent eleven acre house and gardens that she could not bear to see it as she traveled down Trafalgar Road so she insisted that the Governor of Jamaica (her husband) build an alternative route so she did not have to be reminded that there was a successful black man in Jamaica. The Governor complied and it is called “Lady Musgrave Road” to this day. Nothing Black people do is ever considered good enough to be accepted so blacks are constantly being called on to prove themselves. One slip and they are rejected. “I knew he was not worthy and is just a fraud.” It makes blacks feel insecure and increase their need for acceptance by whites so they act the way they believe will be acceptable to whites. You must be an Englishman to be accepted. This poison is then digested by the general population and become manifested as “You cannot depend on black people to do anything right. Only white people can do things professionally.”

Many Asians and Caribbeans carry umbrellas and wear long sleeve shirts and blouses, not as protection from the rain, but as a shield from the sunshine so they will not become darker. Advertising can at times be racially biased and instead of uplifting our spirits, they serve to tear down our concept of who we are. We then arrive at the preposterous conclusion that we are unworthy of love and become haters of ourselves, our neighbors and anyone who look like us. Self-hatred is destructive and does not serve us well. This is true badmindedness. So, let’s reject these corrupt values.

"This above all; to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 1, sc. 3

If you take the case of Michael Jackson, no amount of success could change his obsession with becoming white and having white children. Tiger Woods do not want to be regarded as black and calls himself caublasian, married a white woman and demonstrating some of the same traits as Michael. We recognize their self hatred, hope they will one day get over it but love them anyway. Or maybe we love them because we recognize ourselves in them.

As children, we adopted the traits and beliefs of our parents in the hope that we will enjoy the power and privilege that we perceive that they enjoy. Did we adopt the traits of our slave masters in the process?

Do you compulsively compare yourself with others and always conclude that you don’t measure up?
Do you respond negatively and aggressively to criticism?
Do you encourage abuse from others and rationalize that you don’t deserve any better?
Do you start fights you are sure to lose because you deserve to be battered?
Do you relish compliments and attention from whites but do not value kindness from people who look like you? (In fact, you don’t even pay them any mind.)
Do you automatically find yourself only hiring white people when you need a doctor, lawyer, accountant, builder or repairman?
When you do work for whites, do you go out of your way to do a good job but when working for a black owned company, you slack?
Do you believe that anything foreign is better than locally produced products and services?
Do you believe that ice being sold by whites is colder and is of a better quality than ice being sold by Blacks?
Do you believe that white politicians will do a better job than people who look like you?
Do Black people frustrate and make you angry because they can never do anything right?
Do you place unreasonable demands on yourself to be perfect because you believe this is the only way you can get respect and make yourself lovable?
Do you have the courage to be imperfect?
Do you hide Uncle Joe and dark complected family members from your uptown friends because you believe they will embarrass you because they talk bad and don’t know how to properly use their knife and fork?
Do you dread weddings and funerals when everyone will find out about your relatives?
When you look in the mirror do you only see your flaws?
Do you constantly criticize members of your family, belittling and ridiculing them?
Do you engage in reckless, self destructive suicidal behavior like over eating, consuming dangerous drugs, driving recklessly, and engaging in promiscuous behavior?
Do you make comments characterizing being black as ugly around your children and buy them white dolls?
Have you ever broken off a really great relationship in favor of being with a really bad person? (Do you go out for hot dogs when there is pea soup at home?)

A substantial effort continues to be made to brainwash our people into believing they are physically unattractive. Who came up with "The Black sheep of the family" to describe the family member who did not meet the family expectations? Why is there a market for hair weaves and bleaching creams? Some may arrive at self-hatred because everywhere they look, the people with dark skin are at the bottom of the economic ladder and want to identify with the winners. This process takes place for any child that feels the powerlessness of their diminished circumstances compared to the broader world. They consider themselves losers who lack resources (intelligence, personal connections, money, and influence).

When our police delight in giving white looking people and professionals a break and harass people who look like themselves, it is self hatred. When civil servants ask white people to step to the head of the line ahead of Black people, it is self hatred. When you vote for political candidates because they are white, it is self hatred. When teachers favor a white child, advance him or her and hold back a Black child, it is self hatred. When you only invite “respectable people” into your living room, that is self hatred. If you don’t have the courage to be imperfect and cannot accept the imperfections in your neighbours, that is also self hatred. Why do we continue to treat family and friends badly and save our best for guests and strangers? Why is it that the people we care about the most are the ones who hurt our feelings?

"When God looks at mankind, He doesn’t see us as different races. He doesn’t see different social standings. He doesn’t see color or creed. God looks past all the superficial things that our culture seems to magnify — what we wear, what we drive and what we look like — and He sees us all the same; not black or white, just His beautiful creation. Not upper class or lower class; just one big family." (Sharon Jefferson)

In genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent alike. What that means is that modern science has confirmed the common humanity that we first learned from the Bible and our skin tones are only skin deep. Over the centuries, we have intermarried so much so that Black Jamaicans are often more different than our ancestors in Africa. Regardless of how much black skin correlates with poverty and the opposite with whiteness, there is nothing inherently inferior or superior about skin colour and stigmatizing one group and glorifying the other is what makes it so. According to Dr. J. Craig Venter, Head of the Genome Project: "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world."

If I am Black, why would I want to be white? I am Black and I am proud. I am Black and I am beautiful! As opposed to hating ourselves and our neighbours, we are admonished by God to love our neighbours as ourselves. But to do that, we must learn to love ourselves first---the greatest love of all. Let us shun self-hatred. It is counterproductive. You are a child of God, made in his image and embody the temple of the Holy Spirit. You are a valuable human being who was mysteriously and wonderfully made. Our self-worth is not based on what other people tell us about ourselves. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Your rights and privileges as a citizen of this great country are no more and no less than anyone else. In the words of Bob Marley: “Stand up for your rights” and learn to live comfortably in your own skin. Don't look at others reflections but look upon yourself. If you do so you are truly admirable. You are God’s valued and special possession. He knows everything about you and He gave you special gifts and abilities for a purpose. Whoever you may be, walk with pride and you will walk good!

Do not envy the oppressor; And choose none of his ways.
Proverbs 4:31

Thursday, September 1, 2011

My Eight Near Death Experiences

Mi Hard Man Fi Dead
You can pick me up and lick me down
And I will bounce right back

While death will eventually have its day, I have had a number of near death experiences that has only strengthened my will to live well even as I tempt fate. The lesson I learned from sky diving is that if at first you don’t succeed, it’s not one of those times to try, try, try and try again. This is not for you.

Can you imagine strapping on a parachute, flying to 2 miles up and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane? The moment of terror that lived in my stomach for 7 days is just before the jump. My wife has died a thousand deaths over my decision to go skydiving. She does not complain, however, about the other passionate little deaths (la petite mort) I experience several times per week.

1. Hopping a truck
One of the pastimes in Jamaica is hoping flat bed trucks and getting a free ride. When this skill is perfected, a man can save a lot of time getting from point A to point B by waiting for a truck to come, run along until you are going the same speed preferably up a steep hill when it predictably slows down. They grab onto a side panel, pull themselves up and get a free ride. I grew up watching very skillful boys do this repeatedly without a problem. It actually looked like fun. The opportunity for me came when I was about eight years old on my way to school. As the truck slowed down on the hill next to Johnson's property, I went through the familiar routine and was feeling proud of myself that I got on without a problem and without the driver even knowing that I was on board. As the school is on a flat road, the truck picked up speed and was now way past my destination. As no one told me how to get down from the truck, in my panic, I just jumped off the truck that was now going about 30 miles per hour clearly expecting to land on my feet. Instead, the landing was a traumatic collision with the ground and I rolled around in the stone gravel. I was battered, bruised, bloody, crying and in severe pain. When I limped to school, Teacher Fargueson beat me and immediately sent me home. When I got home and told my loving, patient and forgiving Granny, she beat me as well before cleaning me up with an antiseptic (Detol) that turned the water white. She put iodine on the scrapes and scratches and crushed chick weed on the deeper cuts. I then went to bed and slept through the night. The bumps on my head (hematomas) that Jamaicans call "coco" went away after a week when Granny declared that I was as good as new. Did I stop hopping trucks? No. I just leaned that you have to hold on and run with the truck for a while before letting go. The trouble with learning from experience is that sometimes the exam comes before the lesson.

2. The Bees
I grew up loving to eat brains (fish, chicken, goat, and hog)hearing that it would make me smart. The other brain food was bananas. About a year after my road accident, I placed some green bananas in a secret hiding place and then went back a week later to gather my prize. As I stuck my hand in to retrieve the sweet bright yellow bananas, I instead disturbed a wasp nest. They immediately started to sting me about 100 times. Within an hour, my face arms and legs had swollen to four times their normal size. My grandmother merely crushed a cube of “blue” that she would ordinarily use to rinse and brighten white clothes and dabbed it on each bite. In a week, I was as good as new and brighter too. When it got dark one evening, I got my revenge. Because wasps cannot see at night, I poured kerosene on the nest and killed them all. The best part was that I got to eat my slightly over ripe bananas.

3. Running for my life(Usain Bolt was a boy to I-man).
When I was twelve years old, I got into an argument with a bigger boy who I accused of stealing the watch my mother sent for me. When he ran after me with a machete, I knew I was going to die. So, I did things I never thought was possible like jumping over walls, traversing a pond and outrunning someone who was the fastest runner on our Boys Brigade troop. I learned that day that Jamaicans are very sensitive to being called a “tief” and that I could outrun anyone. After that, whenever I wanted to run fast, I would get the adrenalin going by pretending that “Mad Ronnie” was chasing me with a machete. I subsequently became the sports champion on sports day at Springfield All Age School in 1958 as well as set a 400 meter track record at Madison high school in New Jersey which earned me a track scholarship to Simpson College in Iowa in 1963.

4. I was coming around the Mountain
I had just graduated from Simpson College in 1967 and while I was pursuing a master's degree at American University as well as got my first job working as a juvenile probation officer in Montgomery County, Maryland. I approached my new job with a great deal of optimism. Because I had met and studied Glasser’s “Reality Therapy”. I asked my supervisor to give me all the hard cases because I thought I could turn water into wine and delinquents into productive citizens. One of my innovations was to borrow the Paddy Wagon from the police department and take seven delinquents at a time to a friend’s cabin in the Allegheny Mountains. We would go on hikes, cook and ate together and at night as well as enjoy great fireside chats. One day, I was taking them down the mountain to buy some provisions when I suddenly came upon an unexpected sudden right turn that I was going too fast to maneuver around and the paddy wagon turned over three times before coming to rest against a tree. It all happened in slow motion. My nose was broken and cut, my ear was severed and there were several severe cuts on my neck and arms. I ran around trying to make sure the boys survived the ordeal. They turned away from me as if I was a hideous creature. It was a good thing that most of them were in the padded police wagon but these tough guys were all crying: “I want my mommy.” We were all bleeding and the problem that we were on a mountain with no telephone, no traffic and no access to help. Fortunately, in about an hour, another camper drove by and was able to go back and get ambulances. My daughter was only a week old and police called my wife and told her that her husband was in an accident. Not knowing whether I was alive or dead, she left Baby Jill with a neighbor and raced up to find me battered and bruised but alive to see another day. Isn’t plastic surgery wonderful?

5. Runaway Bay with Jillian
Jill was about five years old and we were vacationing in a villa in Runaway Bay, Jamaica. When I came back from playing golf, I quickly changed into my bathing suit and ran to the beach to get a quick dip in the ocean to cool off. As I swam out, I heard someone say “gulp” and realized that my precious daughter had followed me into the ocean without my realizing it. In the wide ocean, she was close enough to afford me the opportunity to rescue her. I call this one of my near death experiences because if I had lost her that day, I believe I would have just gone ahead and committed suicide.

6. Ocean City with Melanie
When my oldest daughter Jill was about fourteen years old and youngest daughter Melanie was about eleven, we were living in Columbia, Maryland and took our summer vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. We were very happy to be at the ocean. As soon as we got to the beach, Jill went with her mother to lie in the shade and read while Melanie (the tomboy) and I immediately ran and swam out into the ocean not paying any attention to the warning signs. We were having a glorious time but when I glanced back to shore, we must have been a mile out. A rip tide had carried us out to sea. We tried to swim back and were making no progress. I was exhausted and now convinced that the situation was hopeless, I told Melanie to swim for shore and not to look back. Just when I said my last prayers, I heard a voice yelling: “Grab the ring”. A lifeguard had appeared from nowhere and rescued both of us. He immediately told us to swim parallel to the shore to get out of the rip tide before swimming for shore. When I reached terra firma, I kissed the sand, thanked the lifeguard profusely for saving my daughter and me and went to join Jill and their mother. We decided not to even tell them what happened. About a year later, I got a panic attack as I recalled my daughter Melanie and I and this very close call.

7. The sleigh ride with Aleron
My youngest son, Aleron, was about 7 years old and we lived in York, Pennsylvania. After a lovely snow fall, we used an inflatable raft that we had used in the summer at the pool and went up and down the hill at the Water Commission Property behind our house. When we came home for lunch, I got inspired to tie “Judy Jet”, our huge husky/Labrador mix to the raft and visualized that the dog would just pull Aleron along at a nice pace like he would when we walked him twice per day . As soon as I uttered the word “mush”, the dog took off at about 90 miles per hour through the thick woods with me running behind in a panic yelling to Aleron to jump off. Aleron was holding on to the inflatable raft having a great time and Judy Jet kept running through the trees at speeds that made it impossible for Aleron to roll off the raft. My wife heard my yelling and running after our son and soon joined in the chase running after me with her apron and house slippers. Our older son Freddie, heard his mother and I yelling and he also joined in the conga line running after Judy Jet and the wayward raft. After what seemed like an eternity and the miraculously making it through the woods and going down a very steep hill, Aleron finally fell off the raft giggling and all of us thanking God he was safe. I on the other hand had my life flash before my eyes as I envisioned my son impaled on a tree limb which would have led to my own death-- this time at the hands of my wife Stephanie.

8. Upon the roof
After a severe storm that hit Atlanta in 2002, trees were down, the power was out and there were several limbs on our roof. I decided to be proactive and got my long ladder and went up to the roof to get rid of the debris. I did a great job but when I was climbing down, the ladder gave way and I fell to the stone patio in our back yard. My son Aleron heard the commotion and ran out of the house saying: “Talk to me Dad!” and don't move. I am calling 911. He went on to say that he had seen an episode of ER and when you fall from heights you are supposed to lay still. In my stunned state, I tested my limbs one at a time and everything worked as my son and I waited for the paramedics who rushed us to the hospital. They notified my wife, who left work probably driving faster than the paramedics. When she arrived at the hospital my Xrays showed that nothing was broken and my brain was in tact. I told them that jumping from a truck in Woodlands had prepared me for the fall.

When I walk through storms, I keep my head high and summon courage. There are a whole lot of angels guarding me. That’s why I continue to “walk good”. Don’t worry; I think I still have one life to live.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mass Basil, the Shopkeeper

Basil Waine Kong

In Jamaica, Chinese people developed the tradition of "The Shop" or the "Chiney Shop," where customers could buy small amounts of grocery items. This convenience certainly helped and at the same time exploited families on limited incomes and perpetuated the tradition of only buying what was absolutely necessary for each meal---a few ounces of sugar, a quarter pound of flour, a half a pound of rice, a quarter pound of salt fish and even a slice of bread or a bulla (soft molasses cookie). So, the Chinese became culturally and affectionately known as the "Shopkeepers". While my father was one of these Shopkeepers, his departure out of our life when I was four years old was the last vestige of Chinese influence imprinted on me. I have visited China twice, had occasional relationships with people of Chinese heritage but no substantial oriental influence other than through reading. While I am aware that I look "Chinese," I have had an entirely "Black" experience and always worked for Black organizations and lived in Black communities. So, when I get "happy" as a Deacon in my Baptist church, it is something to behold. Not withstanding the lack of Chinese influence, I nevertheless became a "Shop Keeper".

Woodlands District, St. Elizabeth where my brother and I were raised by my Grandmother is a 100% Black community except for two half Chiney Pickney who felt loved and cared for by all the people. Even now, they treat me with the same affection whenever I visit. The entire village raised us. I often say that during my childhood years, even though there were no police or any semblance of law enforcement, I never knew anyone who wanted to harm me or to be even impolite. There was absolutely no crime. Yes, I had four fist fights during my childhood, probably for being called "Chiney Nyam dawg," but we were the best of friends a day later. I do not believe there is a better place in the universe to raise children than in a community in which every child has "mothers, fathers, cousins, aunties and uncles" throughout the community who were not blood relatives. "Good mawnin Mass Bertie. Respect to you sah."

Each generation of Chinese were able to obtain loans that were not available to other Jamicans to start a Chinese Shop in another village after serving as apprentices in their father's shop and continue to expand their business. They could never run out of villages to exploit. As there were no Chinese in Woodlands, someone had to keep shop. So, it fell to Uncle Claudie, the "Big Man" of our community. He started a small shop that became and remained successful throughout his lifetime. It died when his sons and daughters migrated to 'merica and rented the shop space.

Based on the Jamaican Chinese model, this one storey building had a main shop with three counters with a window at the end of each counter. The one to the right sold salt pork, salt fish, red herring and salt mackerel. The centre sold asham (parched ground corn and sugar) sugar, salt, flour, bread, crackers, bullas, canned and other baked goods with the scale in the middle. The left counter sold dry goods. This included shoes, cloth, needles, threads and buttons.

In addition to selling grocery, we also bought pimento (cloves), coffee, corn and beans that we would sell to buyers who came by in trucks. The public space was reserved for dominoes, all fours (a card game) and talking politics and how Cleve Lewis, their representative to Parliament was stealing the eye out of their heads. I learned to play all these games and enjoyed them. If someone wanted a drink, he would visit the rumshop next door where a mento or rumba band played music on Saturday nights and where Mass Claudie would put out salted snacks to make people thirsty so they would buy more beer and white rum with water that was referred to as just: "waters". After each customer, I would wash the glass in a pail of soapy water,rinse, wipe them with a towel and turn it upside down on one of several wooden pegs on a tray.

I was working in Uncle Claudie's shop buying, selling and making change by the time I was ten years old. It was a unique experience making change with pounds, shilling and pence. The smallest denomination was a farthing (one quarter of a penny that could buy an ounce of salt). A quatie was one and a half pence and could buy a slice of bread or a bulla and a shilling could buy a loaf of bread with a bulla as a bratta (a little incentive). It was a good education. I felt very privileged and "Big up" working behind the counter. I developed great relationships with people like Bradda Ashley Black, who taught me to drink gin and and explored the great questions of life with people who just hung around the shop---truly the lifeblood of a small community.

Occasionally, the "Iceman" who was also known as "Spirit" would bring blocks of ice from the ice factory in Santa Cruz (20 miles away), transporting it in hampers covered with sawdust and walked with his donkey back to Woodlands. He then converted it into ice cream (either run and raisin or grape nut), fresco (milk shake) as well as snow cones (shaved ice with strawberry syrup). These were wonderful treats and very refreshing!

My favorite treat at the time was jell-O. I would give money to the the truck driver who took people to Town (Kingston) to bring me a pack of strawberry jell-O mix. I would then have to wait until "Spirit" had ice. I would then mix the jell-O in an ovaltine can (one cup boiling water and one cup cold water) and place the precious liquid on the side of the ice to jell. I would impatiently check it regularly until I could enjoy the cool jelly slide down my throat. When I went “farrin” (overseas), my mother found out that I loved jell-O and served it at every meal. Within a month, I could not stand to even see the stuff.

My most memorable character was "Brother Boogs," the town drunk. Brother Boogs' never got over the death of his beloved wife and he daily drowned his sorrows with rum. Each evening, he would stagger home in the moonlight singing songs he made up. My favorite was:

"When I am a dead dead man
Don't you bury me at all
Just lay my bones in alcohol
One bottle of beer
One to my head and one to my feet
And let the world them know
That my bones can cure."

His daughter dearly loved him and when she went off to “merica” and became a success as a nurse, she sent for Brother Boogs to live with her in New Jersey, but he lasted about a month. He begged to return to Jamaica and to Woodlands where he continued to drink, sing and live in a wonderful house his daughter built for him.

We all loved cricket. To this day, I vividly recall the thrill and every detail of hitting the one six I ever hit. I was fourteen years old. While our games and practice took place at "New Pond", all our club meetings took place at Mass Claudie's shop. Captain Mills was the wise leader of the Woodlands Cricket Club. During our weekly meeting at the shop, before and after the meeting, young and old would break out in song:

"Captain Mills sent and called us boys
We all must go (repeat)
He gave us the command so we must move to it;
Moving like soldier boy
Soldiers fit for war
We all must go."

Whenever we went to other villages (New Market, Black River, Darliston, Pisgha) for a cricket match and lost, we would be quiet. If, however, we were victorious, on our way home in the truck we would make a joyful noise and all sing:

"You were wrong to send and call us
You were wrong;
You know we are the warriors
You were wrong to send and call us."

Another gentleman, Busha Price, courted my Grandmother and was always giving me money and delighted in teaching me to write and recite poetry. He would finish each of his poems with: "Lord Cornwallis, knock'na dough, turtle a'back." I had no idea what it meant, but it had a rhythm to it and could be called a "scat."

One of the suppliers that came to the shop was "Mr. Lazarus." He drove a station wagon full of stuff: shoes, needles and thread, buttons, thimbles, knives, forks, spoons, tools, plates, cups, etc. Uncle Claudie would buy these items and sell them back to the customers. Mr. Lazarus was five feet tall and three hundred pounds. He would bet that the circumference of his waist was more than his height. Someone would always take the bet and lose. He is fond of saying: "I am not deep, but I am very wide. It takes a long time to walk around me."

Uncle Claudie's filing system was a long nail that kept all his bills and receipts in perfect sequential order except that they all had a hole in the middle. Over the years, I adopted the same filing system even in this age of electronic filing. My secretaries and assistants always marvelled that I could always find my messages and communications "filed" neatly on several message nails under my desk. No amount of encouragement on the part of my assistants or my wife could convince me to not use my trusty nail message holders. Old habits die hard.

In our downtime and after closing, we wrapped rice, corn meal, sugar, flour, poured coconut oil in “aerated wata” (soft drink) bottles. I enjoyed making the black pepper funnels. We would also stock the shelves, sweep the floor, wash the glasses and wipe off the counter. While I was not paid for my work, I could eat all the candy I wanted and drink champagne cola. I even occasionally got permission to eat a can of sardines, bully beef or salmon which were wonderful treats. For the thirsty, I would pick a sour orange from a tree at the back of the shop and make lemonade or just mix strawberry syrup and water or condensed milk and water. To make extra money, I would buy a pound of sugar, cut up a coconut into little squares, and boil them together with a little ginger and sell each of these as "coconut drops" for a penny. Each time I did this, I doubled my investment.

I learned about the dangers of drinking over-proof white rum first hand. Uncle Claudie always added water to the cast of overproof rum so that people would not kill themselves. Someone actually took a bet that he could drink an entire bottle. He passed out and slept for a long time after he drank about a half bottle. I don't think he was ever the same after that. He was a ruined man.

The shop also sold kerosene oil (aile)to feed all the "Home Sweet Home" lamps in every household. Every so often, someone would knock one over and their entire house would go up in flames as the broken lamp would become a Molotov cocktail.

One Saturday night when everyone was happy, I was dancing and someone picked me up and put me on the counter so everyone could see how the Chiney Pickney could “wine up im waist”. They all stopped dancing and I was the centre of attention. They then had a good laugh, applauded and gave me money. I was a professional dancer!!!

The store was open six days per week but only the side window was open on Sunday morning because there was not supposed to be any work or business activity on our day of rest. Everyone (except Uncle Claudie) went to church. I don't think Uncle Claudie ever knew what the inside of the church looked like until he was being burried.

For several years, The McDonalds'living quarters was in the back of the shop with a separate building for the kitchen and a latrine further away. I lived with my granny up the hill. As Mass Claudie amassed his fortune, he built a fine house on the hill overlooking the shop.

When politicians and religious leaders came by to give sermons and speeches, they would always meet in front of Mas' Claudie's shop with a Tilly lamp that he hung in front whenever it was needed. That lamp with its special blue fuel actually lit up the place.

I worked in Uncle Claudie's shop after school and week-ends for four years taking part in adult conversations, making change and having a drink from time to time with the men. There was no restriction on children buying and drinking alcohol. Even at seven years old, Granny would send me with sixpence to buy brandy. She needed a little nip from time to time.

When I was twelve years old, Uncle Claudie decided to leave Aunt Myra and Uncle Ronnie (The Jew Boy)in charge of the shop in Woodlands and expand his operations to Springfield, about five miles away. He took this step even though Harry Chen-See ran a much larger shop up the street and Mr. Lynn Salmon and Miss. Zippy owned a similar shop on the other end of the village. The Chen Sees even had a gasoline pump where they would measure out each gallon in a glass container on top of the pump before transferring it to the car. Miss. Ada and Miss. Gloria (mother and daughter) were particularly kind to me and even invited me to spend time with them behind the counter. I loved going to the bakery and fashioning animals with the bread dough and was delighted to take these hand made breads to Granny and my brother. I also remember that the Chen Sees raised turtles for turtle soup. The post office was upstairs and across the street where I went to collect the boxes of "breguede" (goodies) that my mother frequently sent.

I was asked to go live with Uncle Claudie at this new location for six days per week to help with the shop and keep his company. After we closed the shop on Saturday evening at 9:00 pm, we would get on his high horse and ride the five miles back to Woodlands with all his money in a bag. On other occasions I loved riding Uncle Claudie's horse and even had a donkey that I sometimes rode to school.

Eventually, Uncle Claudie sold the Springfield shop and consolidated his business back to Woodlands, building a new shop that included space for the District postal agency.

On one of my trips to the big city of New Market, I asked Mr. Cummings, the Chinese owner of "Cummings Dry Goods" to give me a job as I now had plenty of experience as a shopkeeper. He immediately hired me. On Saturdays and holidays, I either took the "Champion Bus" or walked the five miles to and from work and earned real spending money. While in New Market, I made friends with Miss Maudie, a single Chinese lady, who owned a similar shop across the street.

Starting in 1957, the word went out that jobs were available in England and anyone who got there would get a job paying ten times their current earnings. So, people sold their land and all they owned to Uncle Claudie (who made huge profits from these desperation sales) as just about all the able bodied men and women went off to England, along with our mento band, our cricket club, the dominoes club, and our ping pong club. This mass migration took the life out of the community. Suddenly, we had a hard time just getting four men together to play dominoes. The shoemaker, the carpenter, the barber, the tailor and most regrettably, all the members of the "Herbie Arnold Rumba Band" and the church organist left to find gold in London. There was no more live music, no cricket matches, lively Saturday dances---only grandparents and children were left behind. On balance, they sent a lot of money back for their families.

I left on April 5, 1959 and returned May 5, 2009, fifty years later to discover my beloved island all over again. I continue to believe in the old values and will continue to support the country of my birth and the people who nurtured me in my youth. All of my children have been provided some of these rich experiences and I encourage them all to allow our grandchildren to live here and be educated here. This is "home" to my soul as I continue my Jamaica Chapter, hopefully participating in it's past, present and future.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Which is More Important in Jamaica: Merit, Preparation, Charisma, Ethics or Who You Know?

Basil Waine Kong

I take issue with recent comments made by our Former PM (P.J. Patterson) claiming that we have a highly capable civil service; a trained cadre of bright, competent public officers in Jamaica. That is certainly not my experience. I am forever being frustrated by one government bureaucrat or other. It is just too difficult to get things done. My observations lead me to believe that Jamaica is a country where relationships reign. You cannot get anything done without knowing somebody. Merit, skills, education, a positive attitude, ethics and good citizenship is useless baggage and count for little if it isn’t combined with connections either by blood or friendship.

This is a summary of a recent letter to the Gleaner (Wednesday | May 18, 2011) from Courtney Washington Joiles, President of Elcore International Fashions: “I recently started the process of transferring my garment-manufacturing business from the United States (US) to a leased space in the Kingston Free Zone…I came home full of hope and faith in my country and my fellow Jamaicans…My experience with getting the manufacturing space ready for operation has been an exercise in frustration. Rarely have I encountered more ineptitude. No one has delivered the service I was promised on time...There have been numerous hurdles - all of them attributable to inefficiencies and lack of communication between cross-functioning departments…Is this the way our country treats investors who are willing and able to contribute to our economy via new jobs?”

It is said that Jamaica is controlled by twenty five families. They not only look out for each other, everyone else is star struck and beat a path to their door, anxious to please. Members of these families are denied nothing because everyone wants access and cannot succeed without their blessing. They never wait in lines and are always favoured in the most glaring way. “Mawning Mass Charlie, you are a busy man, you don’t have time to wait in line, come up to the front.” Strangely, there is no protest from those inconvenienced. There is the prescribed Rube Goldberg way to do things for the general public and the efficient way where relationships take precedence. No employment of the most trivial nature, (well paid or not), is possible if you don’t know the right people and can return the favour. If you are not in a position to dish our favours or exert influence, you will be ignored. And if you are known to be associated with a political party, don’t expect any favours from the other.

If an influential politician is approached by the daughter of a friend who has never worked, has no skills and was too lazy to obtain an education, the government minister will likely say to the Permanent Secretary: “Ms. Johnson, this is Miss. Jones, please find something for her to do with an appropriate salary. She is my niece. No work will be required and when other employees find out about this political appointment, they will decide that they don’t need to work either. But the competent ones will be frustrated as their responsibilities are assumed by these political appointments. To have the friendship of a man of influence and substance is money in the bank. Along the same line, don’t go getting the right people angry. The objective of Social gatherings is not necessarily to have a good time or to relax but to make connections. Your presence is required to succeed in Jamaica while the wheels of government grinds to a halt.

According to Mr. Carl Bliss: (Gleaner, Monday, May 16, 2011) “For so many years, the business/ entrepreneurial community has been screaming at the Government to make Jamaica more business-friendly. Both PNP and JLP governments have promised to do just that. The reality is always different…There is little doubt in my mind that the current environment is decidedly inhospitable to business. Just try dealing with Customs, JAMPRO, the tax department, Companies Office of Jamaica, to name a few, and you are in for a near nightmarish experience. We have a culture which systematically aims at penalising enterprise. Our political, social, economic and policy-support systems will need revolutionary changes if we are to see the type of business-friendly atmosphere necessary to propel us… Almost every agency of the State seems to treat business as the enemy which must be hounded and eventually brought down, at whatever cost.”

This will not happen until we implement an objective merit system for hiring civil servants so we can make use of our most talented people (who are in abundance) instead of our current relationship system.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Raising the Abundance Generation

No Pain, No Gain
Basil Waine Kong

My wife and I spent last weekend sprinkling a little stardust and otherwise taking care of two of our six adorable grand children while their parents went off on a week-end cruise. While we live for these opportunities so we can hug up and spoil them, we departed with some sadness because there was literally nothing we could “buy” to spoil them. They already have every material gadget imaginable! But I do not consider it a blessing that our grandchildren have never been out of the supervision of adults, hungry, thirsty, tired, hot, cold or know any other discomfort. We seem to have forgotten what coaches are always saying: "No pain, no gain". Do you really want your children protected from all unpleasantness and never encounter a bully or a criminal? Do you advise them to never fight? With my Jamaican sensibilities, I don’t think it possible to appreciate a sweet apple without tasting a sour one. My children obviously disagree with me, as does their doting, over indulgent and protective grandmother, “Nana”.

If any of our grand children's needs are conceived, they are immediately fulfilled by their parents. This is a time when we should be spoiling our grandchildren but what do you do when every possible avenue for spoiling them is already fulfilled. While we try to nourish their spirit and create indelible memories, I asked them to think big and tell “Pop-Pop” and “Nana” what we could buy them and they cannot think of anything as they have no unmet material needs. While I always eat and drink whatever was provided, if these children don’t like what is prepared for them for dinner, no problem, their parents will fix something else, order a pizza or take them out to a restaurant to get them whatever their hearts desire. Four flavors of ice cream is already in the freezer or being made ready in their ice cream maker, candy and treats of all kind are in the pantry, DVD movies are stacked on shelves and they already have libraries of books, toys galore and computer games. If anything hurts, they are immediately transported to a source of medical care or medicated.

There is no quiet time as entertainment is non-stop. When at home, the TV is always on. When being transported, the video in the car immediately comes on and the children are mesmerized and no longer share in songs, jokes and conversation with each other or with their parents. I am also not sure how I feel about children receiving a reward and a prize for coming in tenth in a contest or race as is the practice at their school. I love my children and take great pride in their success and their good intentions but I do not share some of their modern ideas of conferring happiness upon their children. No pain, no gain.

It may be old fashioned of me to believe that hardship and even suffering makes us more confident that we can handle similar challenges, wiser and therefore better. There has never been a successful leader who did not spend time in the wilderness or struggled. You cannot make steel without experiencing the hot coals of hell. One cannot grow in holiness and faith in God’s grace without hardship. Leaders must come through the fire, experience the depths of despair and experience the victory over death. Then one is ready for leadership. I am not surprised that the pampered upper class never produced any of our heroes or sheroes.

My approach to children’s happiness is to provide incremental and progressive increases. I believe human nature requires us to “do better”. So, if children get everything they need or want, they are doomed to be unhappy whenever this cannot be sustained and they reach a plateau or even regress. Whether you can afford it or not, giving a child a luxury automobile when he obtains his or her driver’s licenses at sixteen is dooming them to unhappiness later, if they cannot progress to something better. Which teenager is happier? The one who fixes up an old car or the one who gets a new car? What a patient wants to hear from the doctor is: “You are doing better”. Employees what to know they are on the right track and improving. We want to make progress. A millionaire who lost one of his millions is unhappy. A man of average means who gets a better job or a raise is happy---for a while. We do our children a disservice if we don’t save some of life’s pleasures for later.

Honestly, I am not attempting to equip our army with bow and arrows or even muskets nor do we wallow in “this generation is going to hell” syndrome. I do wonder what our grand children’s motivation will be for doing the parents bidding or to work hard to achieve. The saying goes: “Soldiers produce professionals who produce artists who produce…” I was shocked to learn that fifty percent of American Olympic athletes were born in another country. What a guan?

About ten years ago, I saw a photograph in a magazine of a boy from rural Mississippi hugging his first pair of shoes with tremendous glee and happiness. I also recall my own childhood exuberance and appreciative expressions when I received a bag of marbles or a packet of jello. My grand children will never know this joy. They get a new pair of shoes every month, their closets are full of clothes that they will probably will never wear because they are growing so fast. I often ask them to slow down because if I miss seeing them for a month, they change on me and learn new skills. They are all engaged in supervised sports and activities. While this occurs for the fortunate few, it is now rare to find pickup games or children just playing together or riding their bicycles outside. It is unfortunate that children do not walk and talk to school any more.

How lucky I was growing up that other than church and school related activities, children had very little supervision. While American children are supervised every second and locked into car seats, high chairs and cribs, no one other than their parents and close relatives are allowed to touch, hug or even discipline them. Everyone in Woodlands District had a right to discipline any child they saw misbehaving. A four year old child in Maryland was actually expelled from school because he kissed another four year old girl. Thank God, I grew up with lots of hugs and kisses from neighbors, teachers, and even strangers.

I honestly believe that bad experiences make the good experiences sweeter, being deprived makes obtaining material things more meaningful, and that absence does make the heart grow founder. I don’t believe any of my grandchildren have ever had a “bad experience”. I am reminded of the Prince to Siddhartha Gautama, who was raised in a perfect environment, given every advantage and protected from evil, or anything that could make him sad, frustrated or bored. As soon as he could, he escaped and founded a religion based on the absence of need. The true road to nirvana is to free one’s self of the need for earthy wealth. True insight and motivation comes from denying one’s self. Earthly pleasures cannot satisfy the longings of the heart and soul.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's advice was: "Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the
better. What if they are a little course, and you may get your
coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly
rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be
so afraid of a tumble."
We seem to be raising our children to do just the opposite.

As impressed as I am with the abundance of America, I lament. My daughter (Melanie Shaw) reminds me that: "Being happy has little to do with "stuff" and much more about personal achievement, sense of purpose, feeling appreciated, the feeling that you're making a difference... and having friends and loved ones to share and give witness to it." It is going to be harder to teach these lessons to children in this abundance generation. I have to believe that there is more to life than having everything.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Saying Good bye: Death and Dying in Woodlands District in the Fifties

Basil Waine Kong

I grew up in Woodlands District, St. Elizabeth Parish, Jamaica. My grandmother who raised me (Mrs. Rosella McKenzie) believed that when people died, they get to talk with God about others left behind. If the living want a good report, they must have excellent relations with others and particularly for those who are going home. In our community, the care and feeding of those who are in the process of dying was treated with great reverence. Granny was particularly helpful to the sick and unabashedly reminded them that they should not forget to recommend that God send her a special blessing when they saw Him. Sick people in our community were always treated with kindness as a testimonial of their virtue with an expectation of a reward. Duppy have power. Occasionally, someone felt a need to clear their conscience and confess their sins before they pass on. This, however, always implicated others, so the chalk man would be called to make sure he or she stop “talking”.

Everyone believed that death is a journey of the soul from this world to a better place where there is no pain or sorrow. It was a curiosity to me that a land of milk and honey with angels flying about was the best they could do to motivate the living to do God’s will.

The death of a loved one would be accompanied with the tolling of the bell at Springfield Moravian Church calling the entire community to gather at the home of the person who passed on to pay respects to the deceased and to comfort the bereaved. Some of the women would wash, anoint the body, tie the big toes together and tie a scarf around under the chin and around the head to hold the mouth closed. The corpse will be dressed in his or her best clothes and made available for the viewing. The men measured the body, dig the six foot grave (east and west), in the church cemetery or family plot and construct a simple cedar box to specifications---all done in the dead person’s yard. Granny would invariably say: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you and me.”

Other women would immediately start a wood fire on three large stones, cooking in a washed out kerosene can. The white rum and water would help to drown out their sorrow as well as quench the thirst of those assembled. For the following nine nights, the community would gather to keep vigil on the family, pray, play dominoes, sing and dance with tambourines, cry, tell dumpy stories and talk about the life of the dearly departed.

While men were restrained from showing much emotion and may cry quietly, women wailed. Granny said the nine night (set up) custom started because they didn’t want to make a mistake and bury a person who was not dead so they would wait nine nights to give the person every opportunity to wake up. Lots of noise were made in an effort to wake the dead. A second reason is to ward off evil spirits and assure that the dearly departed is not prevented by the devil from their ascension into heaven. Generous contributions from neighbours would cover the tremendous cost of the food, drinks, and materials for the funeral. Often a cow was butchered. For the carpenters, grave diggers, the women who prepared the food and the body for burial, this was a labour of love and no one expected to be paid.

The number of songs at the wake was endless and as most people could not read, a song leader would (track) call out the next line of a song for everyone else to follow. My favorite nine night songs were:

Mi sa mi ole man dead and he no lef no will; He lef a likkle piece of land fi feed the whole a we; but mi bigger breda tief it way from wi; Glory be to God, Glory be to God fi de whole a wi.

"Adam in the garden hide him self, hide himself, hide him self; Adam in the garden hide him self, hide himself from God

"You have longed for sweet peace
For grace to increase
You have earnestly and fervently prayed
But you cannot have rest or be perfectly blessed
Till at last you are on the alter laid"

After the ninth night, the coffin would be nailed shut and transferred to the church. The entire community would attend with men dressed in black suits and the women in white dresses. The choir would sing, the minister would preach and pray, and the family would weep being supported by friends who would fan and hug them. The attentiveness of friends kept grieving family members from hurting themselves when they inevitably fainted. About a dozen people would offer affectionate remembrance and the spouse was expected to wear black and be in mourning for six months.

After the service, the six pallbearers would pick up the coffin and start a parade to the burial site at the church yard or to the family plot with everyone singing as they walked. A second service took place at the grave. The coffin would be placed over the grave and finally lowered to the bottom. I can still hear the sound of the two ropes as they were pulled out after the coffin came to rest. Several people would say: “Good bye Mass Georgie, see you soon.” No one left before the last shovel of dirt is tossed and many would linger for hours after to partake of the vittles that was provided. Granny would remind us that dust to dust, ashes to ashes was the way of all flesh. Soon and very soon, we all have appointments to see the King. She just wanted to remind us that she does not want to be looking all over heaven for her family so we better live a good life so we could join her up there. For the following weeks after a funeral my brother and I would have nightmares and wake up screaming as we dreamed that we were being covered with dirt.

As scary as funerals were to us, Granny always pointed out that once upon a time, people lived forever. There were no births and no deaths . But the people asked God to give them children and He said that would only be possible if people would also accept death. They unanimously agreed and so it was that every time a child is born, someone dies. In Woodlands District, Invariably the news of a death was always accompanied by news of a birth.