Monday, January 17, 2011

Woodlands is not what it Used to be.

Basil Waine Kong

I grew up singing “God Bless Our Gracious Queen” at all public events and left Jamaica in 1959 at the tender age of fifteen, lived in the United States for fifty years and returned in 2008 singing “Eternal Father, Bless our Land”. While I was away, I visited about twenty times, the first ten times to visit family but after the migration to England coupled with the Manley era migration in the 1980's to England, Canada and the United States, we didn’t have family to visit, so we stayed in hotels. My ten acre farm in Woodlands limps along without the vigor of the old days when we regularly harvested yams, coco, dashine, coffee, pimento (cloves), cassava, breadfruit, ackee, bananas, carrots, cabbage, corn, peas as well as raised cows, pigs and chickens. Unlike American farms that specialize in one product, we have always tried to be self sufficient and grow a little of everything. Now, instead of cane, however, I grow Dukane, a nuisance plant that sucks up the water in my pond. The property is nevertheless beautiful to the eye and restful to the spirit.

No history of Jamaica will include any reference to Woodlands and you will not find it on any map but you can find it in my soul. The world may be ignorant of it’s existence but everyone here knows everyone else as well as their dogs, cows, goats and even their chickens. In the old days, social friendliness prevailed. Five hundred little houses dot the mountainsides and our people live in peace and tranquility remote from the troubles of the world that they occasionally read about in week-old Gleaners that make their way to our village by those who had gone to "Town" (Kingston). We build our homes where we can enjoy the stately panorama but more importantly, to see approaching friend or foe in time to either run to greet them or flee. All our roofs are covered with sheets of zinc. We love nothing more than snuggling in our beds in a rain storm. The romantic platter-platter is joy to our souls and food for our libido. As dark clouds gather overhead we would often head for our beds and snuggle down into our banana leaf matresses even in the middle of the day.

We are awakened by an orchestra each morning. The cock crows, the birds sing, the donkey brays, the cows moo and the goats bleep. We also retire from a day’s labor with sunsets whose image linger long after dark accompanied by a cacophony of the chirping of frogs, the tweet of insects, the occasional barking of dogs and the cool breeze rustling leaves.

In Woodlands, the day begins early for women. From infancy to old age, from sun up to sundown, the women do most of the work. There is no job description or salary as they go about doing whatever needs to be done to keep their families strong. They dig, plant, weed, harvest, prepare the meals, get down on their knees to scrub and polish the floors, wash and iron, sew on the buttons, dawn the socks, mend the clothes and bear children as well as the heavy burdens on their heads on a catta of banana leaves. This may be ten gallons of water brought from the parish tank or a large basket full of vegetables to market. She is not required to work more than sixteen hours per day except when her man needs her which he does often.

The women of Woodlands District are strong (trong) and waste no time fretting about the yoke on their backs even when they are bent over, ached, racked with pain and become bruised. They will not even take an asparin. While she is unacquainted with even the basic necessities of daily life and unadorned with fancy clothes and jewelry, the love and dedication she feels for her family and community is genuine, earnest, sincere and occasionally enthusiastic, providing the wind beneath their wings and an umbrella when it rains. They use every opportunity to elevate the members of our community physically, morally and spiritually—no one goes hungry. There is plenty of pain and suffering here but it doesn’t last. It just makes the joy of good times that much sweeter. Get to know any one of them and you will find something to respect, something to admire and something to love. And when they reach the pearly gates of heaven,, the angels will welcome with songs of praise and God will utter the familiar words: “Well done, good and faithful servants. Come in and claim your reward.” If it wasn’t for our women, the population would perish. They deserve to be cherished, offered encouragement, sympathy, love and our affection.

The men of woodlands were straight and honest and their dealings with his countrymen were fair. His word was his bond in commerce. An honest day’s work for an honest days pay. After the big men in the community went off to England, the young people were without guidance. In Africa, when young male elephants grow up without the influence of Alpha males they become unruly renegades.

In old times and now, men are often seen in the mornings making their way to work their ground an hour away wearing water boots, a crocus bag over their right shoulder containing a pot, some pork to fry and flour to make dumpings for lunch in the field. We didn't eat salads or raw vegetables. On the left shoulder, they carried the tools of their trade, a pick axe, a fork and a hoe. In their right pocket, money and a knife and in their left pocket, a handkerchief to whip the sweat from their brow and to strain the water they drink. Out of these plots of land that sometimes contain more rocks than dirt, they bring home a harvest of carrots, corn, cabbage, scallions, tomatoes and peas (beans)that they would sell in New Market, Montego Bay and Kingston. The Animals they raised were sold when school fees were due or to buy a major purchase like a radio that ran on a car battery or a kerosene fueled refregerator.

Our joy came from talking on a veranda, on the side of the road, in the shade of a tree, leaning against a post, sitting down with a cup of tea or to accompany any meal. And when the curtains are drawn and the day shuts down, whispering sweet nothings after dark. We all talk, tell jokes, tease each other and laugh, gesticulating with our hands, moving our heads up and down to agree and from side to side to disagree. We are a contentious people with strong opinions and we make our points come alive with persuasive gestures. We could also win arguments by revealing that it was "written" and everyone knew that if it appears in the Bible, a book or the Gleaner, it was unquestionably true. Talking was the epitome of our pleasure. We love to keep company. As I travel around the world, this is one of my Woodlands qualities as I start up a conversation with whoever is at hand. I have never met a stranger.

Ninety nine percent of Americans have never killed an animal for food. Some years ago, a surveyor asked a sample of Americans where meat and milk came from and they answered: "The Supermarket"! Kingston Ginalds fall into that category as well. I am going to guess that all country boys grew up knowing how to test if a chicken is about to lay and egg, milking cows and goats, hunting birds, watching chickens run around with their heads cut off, cows falling after being poled in the back of their necks, goats hanging by their hind legs with their life blood draining from them and pigs being stabbed in the heart. I was asked some years ago if everything went to hell, could my family and I survive in the wild. I have no doubt that I could and it would not just be from eating berries. Growing up in the country taught us survival skills. My cousin, Presley, says he always grow some callaloo as he believed that if he had to, he could live on it for a long time (cooked or raw).

If I had fallen asleep fifty years ago and recently woke up, I would find that Woodlands District has mostly gone backwards. Under the rural development initiative of Prime Minister Michael Manley, most people in our district now has access to electricity but they pay dearly for it. Many people have computers and cell phones are a necessity for immediate access to friends and relatives near and far. Thanks to the policies of the wireless companies, there is no cost to those receiving calls, only the caller is charged. So, the Grannies of Woodlands can keep in touch with their children and grand pickney dem who are living in town or foreign. Some people returned from England and built large “Been to” houses and own automobiles. The beautiful new road from Mocho to Springfield thru Woodlands is a gift from whatever Gods may be. I smile broadly whenever I make the right turn from Mocho. We suffered through an eternity of extremely bad roads and now it is smooth sailing on Barba Green. May Allah be praised.

The ”been to” people (who spent time in England, 'merica, and Canada) are now highly invested in community development but they pay a tremendous price because they have returned to Jamaica without their children and grand children. My 89 year old mother lives in Atlanta and I have four children and six grandchildren scattered across the United States. Every few weeks, we “must” attend a graduation, a wedding, a birthday, anniversary, Thanksgiving, a recital or school related performance, as well as other important family occasions that we never miss. It isn’t easy balancing these obligations with life in Jamaica. My wife and I also love to travel to distant shores and I continue to visit four countries per year but eventually I want to just come home to rest my bones in my island home. After visiting 100 countries, with all our woes, “no where no better than yard.” And if Woodlands District only had a golf course, "no where in Jamaica would be better than Woodlands."

In 1958, I was the Boy’s Sports Champion at Springfield All Age School and Ms. Erma Cameron was the Girls’ Champion. A year later, I left for ‘merica and she went to England where she became a sales assistant. We have both returned but to her credit, she built a house in Woodlands and I am living in Kingston. She is now prominent in Church and Community affairs as well as my trusted friend. My friends (Garnett and Carolyne Myrie) also built a beautiful home where Stephanie and I sleep over when we visit. I was most sympathetic for Miss Erma's situation as she built her house next to a gentleman who believed he was a radio DJ and blasted her with his loud music night and day. He stubbornly refused to cease being a nuisance even after the District Constable was called a dozen times about it. They finally confiscated his equipment. My Aunt, Myra McDonald, migrated to the United States soon after I returned to Jamaica and is now residing with her children in Pennsylvania and Texas. I hope these two events were not connected.

So happy were my people to greet me back home, eagerly reminding me of the role they played in my broughtupsy. I gloated as they reminisced about what I was like as a little man and indulged myself in whatever was offered, a glass of cool water, a drink of rum, a piece of cake, curry goat, lemonade made with sour oranges, fruits picked from trees in their yard. I couldn’t get enough. As I went from house to house to visit, it was one sensation after another as my teeth were never idle. So much food was offered, I was afraid I would leave a famine behind. They were all in grateful remembrance of the kindness of my Granny and fond memories of the two half china pickney dem (Basil and Earl).

After 50 years, I could readily imagine the grove of trees from the stumps remaining. So, I ask: "How are things?" and the persistent response is: "Everything run down to nutten." I was looking at mere fragments of the old days and delighted in conjuring up the luster of times past. The kindness of the people came alive in their most vigorous, engaging and generous states. I was able to paint a landscape on a canvas that glowed with pretty pictures of my school days. The willows singing and dancing in the breeze, abundant and colorful birds chirping and darting about and every home sported a flower garden, literally a terrestrial paradise with ample supply of hibiscus, roses, red ginger, bougainvillea, heliconia, zinnias, dahlias, antheriums, lillies, marigolds and crouton.

Life in Woodlands was idyllic in the old days. It was truly egalitarian as there were no rich or poor people. While most of our food, toys, clothes and tools were homegrown and homemade, I recall (with pardonable vanity), the visits of my school mates who shared my store bought toys, gramophone and bicycle, compliments of my mother who lived in ‘merica. My brother and I had several pairs of shoes as well as pus (sneakers). We would stand on a piece of newspaper while Granny drew the contours with a pencil, cut out the size and shape of our feet and send it off to mi mumma and we got shoes in the next parcel. If they came too big, we stuffed them with paper. And when they became too small, we stuffed them with corn, filled them with water and by the next morning they would expand to a larger size. And then we would make a meal out of the corn. We wasted nothing. Many women in our community, in an effort to keep their shoes shinny and new would walk barefoot to church, wash their feet before fitting their feet back into these valuable pieces of leather. I remember Ms. Gertrude rejoicing after cutting her foot on a sharp piece of glass bottle with an exclamation of gratitude that her shoes were in her hands as her foot would eventually heal but at least she did not have to pay to repair her shoes. I hope some day, all God's children will have shoes.

Distances traveled by human feet were considerable. Riding a donkey, mule, horse or walking ten miles to Carmel Moravian Church for The Missionary Sunday Harvest Festival or three miles to New Market to shop was not taxing as it now appears that taxis and buses are now required for destinations close or far. We had a Champion Bus that ran mornings and evening but most people saved money by walking the distance talking and laughing in the company of friends and shouting pleasantries to neighbors or begging them for a glass of water as they passed. The one house that most people avoided belonged to our Obeahman who decorated his house with bones,flags of unknown origin, sticks and feathers organized for some symbolic purpose.

To light the way at night, travelers poured sixpense worth of kerosene in a bottle, stopped it up with a newspaper or cloth cork and every so often when the light would go dim, turn the bottle upside down to feed the fire. I suspect that the sharp edge that cut Ms. Gertrude's foot came from one of these bottles that often lost their necks from the heat of the flame. Flashlights were in common use but these Molotov cocktails were cheaper than batteries.

The ceremony of men who poured out a little libation on the floor to the ancestors before throwing back the rum with one gulp accompanied with a hearty ahhhh and forcefully replacing the glass on the table is a delightful memory. The white dresses and headscarfes of the Pocomania women and their vigorous singing accompanied with drums and homemade tambourines creates a memorable tapestry. They struck fear in our community by making predictions about impending deaths and disasters but it was more amazing to see them falling to the ground in a trance. It thrills me also to remember the sense of freedom I enjoyed as our roaming in search of friends, fruits in season, fire wood for our kitchens and hunting birds without supervision.

People readily and gleefully expressed love for each other. If a neighbor's cow was loose, someone would return it. If clothes were left to sun and was not at home when it rained, a neighbor would rescue the clothes. They not only minded each other's business but took active responsibility for each other. The poor and needy were never neglected.

My spirits were lifted and I felt elated smiles wrinkling my face to be back home. I even laughed uncontrollably from time to time. I exaggerate, no doubt, when I describe these indulgent memories and seeing the familiar faces. There seems to be so little that is tangible or comprehensible by anyone else who left and never returned and even those who still live there, but every step I took, every sound, every smell, everything that came to sight reminded me of these happy carefree days echoing and harking back from my youth. Could it be that I choose the most glorious of times to live in this paradise?

After one desperate story after another, however, I was overcome. I solemnly and slowly opened and closed my eyes several times fighting back my emotions but finally tore myself away reluctantly to lean against a breadfruit tree and cry for my beloved country. I recognized that the present reality was closer to perdition than the heaven I knew. There was little in the present that resembled the life of ease, simplicity and the culture I knew. Desolation, desperation and misery were everywhere. Not only have almost all my heroes and sheroes permanently departed or moved, all around me were evidence of brutal poverty, leaky roofs and crumbling structures and no convenient conveniences.

While dancehall music blared from every shop, no one played any musical instruments and there are no Saturday night dances. They no longer dressed up and assemble on Sunday afternoons to visit, enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers in each other’s yard, eat ice cream and cake, drink cane and carrot juice as well as coconut water. In this moment, I am again smelling the fennel, mint, kuss kuss, orange blossoms and fever (lemon) grass that never fails to intoxicate my senses.

I encountered only one other school mate from Springfield All Age School six form class (1958). Other than Miss Erma, my other friends from my youth were all seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Unfortunately, this classmate (Egbert) was the one boy with whom I had several school yard fights over what I cannot remember. I remember squaring off in a boxing position uncertain as to whether to proceed to blows but not knowing how to get out of it. Some trouble maker was bound to pick up some small stones and intimidate one of us into knocking the stones out of his hands and get on with the fight. "Hot pepper,hot pepper, box and touch." Our fight stopped when my younger brother who was more strapin than I entered the fray and humiliated him on my behalf. But here we are fifty years later full of cheerfulness. We recognized each other simultaneously, hugged and no animosity existed between us. As he was gazing with a lecherous eye at the rum bar across the street I invited him to have a drink with me. We were joined by others and we continued to wet our whistles.

I drank Red Stripe beers and he ordered “John crow Batty”. The bartender explained that it is the raw over proof rum that employees at the Appleton Estate poured into their water boots or soak in crocus bags, walk out of the factory and later poured into basins and then into old bottles, stinking feet notwithstanding, to be shared with friends or sold to their local rum shops.

Egbert and I recalled our school days and what so and so were doing and where they lived. Mostly the answer was: “Dem gone foreign and never come back.” He had stuck with farming and went to ‘merica to do farm work. While he never married, he had fathered four children. When I explained that I had retired and returned to Jamaica to live. He thought this was incredulous and asked most sincerely: “Are you mad? Everyone in Jamaica is trying to get the hell away from this God forsaken country and you come back. You are mad.”

The same way john crow batty wiped away the stench from stinking toes, time healed our disagreements and we only spoke about the good times, our athletic contests and even when he beat me at ping pong with the sand paddles on the table we built and painted under the direction of Ronald Essen, the woodshop teacher. He regretted that children no longer had manual training and learn carpentry. After an hour, we parted with a sincere good bye and a promise to keep in touch.

The people I visited used to laugh so spontaneously and found humour in everything. They were now sullen and beaten down with the hard life. Unruly children dressed in rags reminded me of sack cloth and ashes, the young men were weighted down by hopelessness and blighted dreams, older men, tired from unrequited toil, burdened down with the present and indifferent to the future with no hopes or interests, and crippled old people with no visible means of support or the kindness of neighbors. I emptied my wallet and pocket in an attempt to correct this injustice to no avail either as a remedy or a relief on my conscience.

We even had our first violent crime. The adorable, generous and community minded Ms. Kareen Lawson who made a success of herself in 'merica and was coming home for Christmas (2008)with great joy in her heart. Unfortunately, she was followed as she departed Montego Bay Airport in a rented car loaded with presents for family and friends. When she stopped at Woodlands Crossroads to greet family, the criminals alighted from their car with guns and demanded that she surrender her car with all the presents. When she adamantly refused, they shot her and took the car. She returned to the United States paralyzed and broken hearted, but could not stay away from the love of her family, so she returned and the community made up for it with all the love they could muster. It is a sad story but at least the perpetrators where not from Woodlands.

Although St. Elizabeth is the breadbasket of our country because of our rich soil and abundant rain, we are without commerce or manufacturing. Other than remittances from loved ones abroad, day labor, selling fruits and vegetables and raising a few chickens, pigs, goats and cows, there were no other tangible means of support. A man confessed that couldn’t read or write because his father told him that he only needed to know how to dig a yam hill to get by, except now he cannot find any land to plant his ground. I cursed our government for neglecting these basic needs of our citizens and yet they survive---some even thrive. I promise to keep on protesting and make personal sacrifices to better their condition.

In days of old, when darkness descended, we lit the kerosene lamp, wiped the soot from the previous night with a piece of old Gleaner and placed the “Home Sweet Home” glass shade back in the prongs around the flame. Earl and I then went out to Mass Claudie’s shop for our favorite beverage, to hear the latest jokes, listen to the Telefunkin radio that was tuned to a station in New Orleans. This was our introduction to Rock and Roll. We played dominoes or a card game we called All Fours (“High, Low, Jack, Game”). We didn’t have dice so we used broken porcelain dinner plates and made one inch rounded chips that were blank on one side and the flowers on the other. We took turns throwing them on the ground like dice. The winner at each turn was the player who showed the most flowers. On our way home from the shop, we carried a nip of brandy that Granny before she went to bed.

The beds my brother and I slept in were so lumpy we had hill and gully rides throughout the night. We moved the dried banana leaves around and simmered down until we felt the filling hugging us. Sometimes we could find the exact spot we left from morning. It was so cozy we did not need a blanket. We awoke snuggled in our nest as soon as the cock crowed, got up totally refreshed and feeling frisky. We joined Granny on our knees beside the bed for our morning prayers, used the two seat toilet before bathing together like naked birds in the water that had collected in the wooden tub that we pretended was a boat.

It is worth noting that Granny insisted that we pray five times per day---when we wake, before we go to bed and before each of our three meals. This was also enforced at school where we sang praises to the Almighty before and after school as well as before and even after lunch. For our morning and evening prayers at home Granny insisted that we bow our heads and be on bended knees beside our bed with clean hands and a pure heart. "Ask God to grant you anything you want but remember that he sometimes punish us by granting our request." As we would raise from repeating the Lord's Prayer, she would sing a song of praise but we would run along while her singing continued. What a wonderful privilege we have to this day to bring everything to God in prayer and to be particularly reminded that: "The Lord is my Sheppard, I shall not want..."

While we took our bath beside the house, both men and women would walk through our yard and we felt no embarrassment or modesty being naked before them. Not far away, Granny would throw corn to the chickens and their heads would bob up and down as they filled their craw and cooed to each other. Throughout the day, Granny would check if a hen would lay an egg that day. They would spend the day scratching for worms and otherwise swallowing pebbles and anything else that was shiny. When they were killed for Sunday dinner, my brother and I would anxiously cut into their gizzards to see what strange objects they had swallowed.

For breakfast, my favorite was a hunk of corn pone and hot milk. Granny made the best corn pone with bits of chewy coconut. She baked it in a Dutch pot with piles of hot coals on top and bottom. Each time she baked, she would remark: “Hell a top. Hell a bottom. Hallelujah in the middle”. We always got a thrill out of her repeating that. While the hot scald milk was a constant as children were not allowed to have coffee, it was either accompanied by hard dough bread, Johnny cakes, bullahs, hard or soft boiled eggs that she served in little egg cups, ackee and salt fish. On Saturday mornings, we got corn meal porridge (pap) with condensed sweet milk. For lunch, we had the rest of the porridge that had congealed. We turned it upside down to appreciate the shiny bottom.

I happen to believe a Village Chief, “Big Man” or Don is not only needed but desirable. My model was Mass Claudie McDonald (my uncle) who was the big man of the community. He was a tremendous resource. He owned the “Shop” in Woodlands that served as the center of the life of the community. When politicians (regardless of party) gave speeches, he provided the Tilley lamp and the space. Every Sunday evening, an evangelical church met under the eves of the shop with their spirited songs and sermons. The cricket club met in the storage room sitting on crocus bags that were full with dried pimento and coffee and sewed shut with a long curved needle and coarse thread.

Men bought drinks in the bar to share the latest news and to socialize. He had the only public toilet in the district. When some of the young men from Woodlands migrated to England and sent back to tell the others that there were jobs waiting for them, it was Claudie McDonald who bought their land or whatever they wanted to sell to make up their fare. He also loaned money to several who promised to re-pay him as soon as they got paid in England. No one reneged on these promises. The most important service he provided, however, was advice. Even though he only had an elementary school education, he was respected as a man who “knows things” and what he didn't know, he could decipher. He acted as a mediator for the purchase and sale of livestock and property and knew the exact contact if anyone from Woodlands wanted to do business with someone in Kingston, Montego Bay or anywhere throughout the Island. It helped that his wife ran the "Woodlands PA" Postal Agency.

Without telephones, cell phones, e-mail or even messengers, this informal network of “Big men” from each community served not only their economic interests but those who they chose to favor with this access. No employer would give a job to anyone without the recommendation of one of these Dons. Dr. Hibbert owned two drug stores---one in New Market and the other in Springfield where he lived. He and his wife Jemima could cook up a concoction for every disease from the 1,000 jars of herbs in his shop. They also made wonderful wedding cakes. Their daughter (Grace Darling Hibbert)migrated to England and had the distinction of serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Other big men I knew included Amos Kirlew from Backstreet, Lenny Miles in Santa Cruz, John McKenzie in Mile Gully in Manchester, Lynn Salmon and Noel Black in Springfield, Mr. Cummings in New Market, Sidney Hamilton and Charlie Baby in Bottom Roads.

Mass Claudie not only gave a paradise plums to all the pickney who stopped in the shop, he gave store credit for groceries as well as a cool drink of water for travelers. In fact, for six pence (fifty dollars), a traveler could buy two ounces of sugar, pick a sour orange out back, make delicious lemonade and either have a bun with an ounce of cheese or bread with butter. For about a shilling, you could buy a can of sardine or salmon and even a tin of bully beef spiced up with free scotch bonnet or bird pepper from a trees under the window of the shop. You could also buy a bulla or hard dough bread by the slice.

In the 1950s, before the great migration to England, we could lively up ourselves with Saturday night dances with Herbie Arnold’s Rumba Band (with Neri Myrie, John Bishop playing guitars, James Smith strumming the banjo while Wepi and Little Man took turns with the Rumba Box), Pinnock’s domino tournaments and even cock fights sponsored by Jancrow Can. We had regular cricket matches with Captain Mills at the helm.

I clearly remember the match against New Market when this batter was abusing us against the best spin bowling of Bra Bone (Joslyn Mills) and Herbie Arnold, the fast bowler. Neville Cameron's balls were described as "living fire." Just as we began to feel let down by this amazing batsman from Newmarket, Bunny (Erthan Billings) caught a well hit ball close to the boundary up on the hillside close to the bamboo grove, I believe you could have heard the shouting and celebration up at church yard a mile away. Sidney Curlew hit a six over the wall that fell in Mass Austin's ground (dashine and Coco). Ronnie McKenzie caught a ball on the slip. Cortney Phillips didn’t break the egg but Austin Heron, Little Man, Bertie Barrett, Alto Farqueson, Samuel Cameron, Basil Cameron and Arthur Blake scored about ten runs each to beat New Market. When we won, they were all heroes and the women denied them nothing. The home team treated the visitors to all the beer they could drink as well as curry goat and white rice. These treats were all paid for by the profit Mass Claudie made from the paying customers. White overproof run, three dagger rum and Redstripe Beer flowed freely. So was hot green tea! There was no drinking age so I not only working in the shop selling liquor but drank with the men when I was only twelve.

The after cricket dance was held in a temporary dance hall with a dirt floor, coconut bows and bamboo sides under the stars. Herbie Arnold and the rest of the band changed from their white cricket uniforms to colourful shirts to lick the music all night long. I remember taking turns playing the rumba box but I din't last as it hurt my fingers.

When I think about it, I am actually amazed that a small village in the most rural part of Jamaica could have been so organized and advanced. The secret was our cricket team. Many larger towns like Springfield, Donogal, Brighton, Mocho did not have an organized cricket team with all the equipment and expertise like Woodlands. Outstanding athletes like Little Man, Spirit, Ronnie Ferguson, Bertie Barrett, Amos Smith, Mass Hugh Cameron, Georgia and Uncle Paul Ferguson, Aston Heron and Edwin Goodin, who was so engaging, everyone just called him “Polite”. Even Uncle Claudie tried but had limited ability. The glue that held it all together was a highly respected old gentleman who was loved by everyone. Captain Mills arranged for all the games as far away as Success, Round Hill, Brooks Park, Balaclava, Ipswich, Santa Cruz, Wales Pond and New Market, conducted practice, kept records and was an inspiration for the entire community in his quiet assertive manner. Cricket meetings strictly followed Roberts Rules of Order and he never had to raise his voice.

It is worth telling that when we went on a cricket outing to Lucie, we came back with one more passenger. Pinnock met a woman (Sybil) at the social after the match and he talked her into moving back to Woodlands with him. She fell in love, went home, packed her clothes in a wicker basket, got on the truck and ended up in a happy, successful marriage, producing a daughter they named "Miss P". Wedding bliss lasted until Miss Sybil died forty years later and he followed her to a grave beside her two years after. In addition to running a shop, they organized domino tournaments, Saturday night dances; farmed, owned a Leland Truck that hauled the cricket team as well as the farmers and their loads to market in New Market, Montego Bay, Black River and even Kingston.

I was a member of the Boys Brigade Cricket Team, I can still feel the joy of the one six I hit in a game against the Boys Brigade in Maggoty. The ball went to my left and instinctively, I turned and caught the ball just right and it sailed over the boundary. The thrill of that knock has remained and I am reminded every time I attend a cricket match and even with the mention of the word “cricket”. Unfortunately, I was bowled out by the very next ball. In golf, we call it a PBSU, “Post Birdie Screw Up”.

In those days, only Minister Hayden Todd had a car. Half the boys packed into the car while the other half started walking for our twenty mile journey to play cricket. The first group was let off at the fifteen mile point and Minister Todd would return to pick up the group who were walking at the ten mile point and take them to the destination and on the way back, the groups would reverse the process. As the car passed the group who had been driven the first leg of the trip, I hopped onto the back of the car and held on for dare life. Somehow, Rev. Todd, realized I was there, stopped the car and with his face turning a bright red with anger cursed me with his British ascent. I don’t understand exactly what he said, but he was not thinking kind thoughts about me.

Children had free access to all the fruit trees in our community. Mother Blake had the juiciest, sweetest and largest tangerines. Ms Edna Wright was famous for jackfruit as well as her three beautiful daughters. Mango was abundant so we spent many hours seeking out the crusty ones that were the sweetest. Mass Benji had a forest of guava that ended up as guava jelly. He had 400 acres, so star apples, sweet cup, June plums, rose plumbs, neaseberrys as well as a pond where we went to splash and even learned how to swim. We were forbidden to go back to the pond after one of our friends drowned when he got entangled in the bamboo that had fallen into the pond. Since we knew nothing of the germ theory or micro organisms, the cows and all of us drank the cool shade tree water we swam in. As much as I have traveled through Africa, South America and Asia, I have never had intestinal issues because of the bacteria already present in my stomach.

Our click included Hiram Woodstock, Lynval Coke, Sylvester Meir, Elaine Lyons, Faye James, Branford Roy Robinson and Ruby Stewart, who later married. My limited information on their whereabouts tell me that they are all well off but not necessarily happy, because, for economic reasons, they are living in the various corners of the globe. I was traveling through Miami ten years ago and listening to a radio show about insurance. The very elegant host was “Mr. Roy Robinson”. As he gave the number to call for more information, I called and it turned out to be the same Blanford. We met for lunch and had a delightful time. He was a big success with his own insurance firm. Unfortunately, he and Ruby had divorced.

When I attended Madison High School in the United States, I ran the risk of never going to college because I was judged to have excellent skills working my hand in wood. Half the shed across the road on Springfield Moravian Church property, was used to house the horses that the men rode to church or when Mrs. Billings rode her white horse to school. The other half served as our wood shop. Under the supervision of Mr. Ronald Essen, we learned to saw, plane, sand, fit joints, glue, nail, varnish, made breakfast trays, picture frames, shields to award to winners of various contests, tables, chairs, bed frames and even doors and windows. We even made our own ping pong table that was a great source of enjoyment for all of us. So, while I average in my academic subjects after I moved to the United States, I was the most outstanding student in wood shop. So, my guidance counselor advised me to develop this talent and apprentice with a carpenter who she knew. I obsessed over this decision, but because I had set a 440 record, Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa offered me a track scholarship. So, I decided to go to college. Even though I love the smell of cedar and the beauty of Blue Mahoe, I have not used a saw or planed a piece of wood since then.

Morning Report (Digging Match or Morning work) was a special day in Woodlands. When a man wanted to plough and box his land for planting carrots, cabbage or Irish potatoes, instead of paying labourers, he invited all the men in the community to morning report and hire a singer man who kept the men in rhythm with digging songs like: "Draw Mattie out of bush mouth." "Gal and Boy down a manual road to brock rock stone. Brock them one by one. Brock them two by two." "Day O, Day O, Day da light and me wan go home", and "Chi Chi Bud Oh. Some a dem a halla, some a bawl". "Baba Ramgoat Oh, Baba deya."The women cooked corn meal dumplings the size of cartwheels, fried corn pork, dasheen, yam, bananas as well as fry up salt fish with callaloo which would be served on Banana leaves. The children served the water and everyone dipped in the pail and drank from the same tourine. After the work was done, tired and satisfied, they would marvel at what they could accomplish when they worked together.

Among the industries in our community was a wet sugar factory around Friendship (Just beyond Shields's Pon.) Mass Aston Curlew and Captain Mills bought Euba cane from others in the district, gathered them in big piles, prasup his mule to the grinder and sent him blindfolded around endless circles while he jammed the sugar cane between the two large steel rollers. The greenish cane juice extracted in this way would run down into barrels creating a white foam on top. If we were luckey, Mass Aston would allow us to dip up some of the cane juice and drink all we wanted. After a while, we would be staggering around from the sugar high. The cane juice was transferred to the big copper pots with a big fire with the dried cane trash that he called bagasse. He constantly skimmed the fraught and stirred the juice until it became thick. Again, this wet sugar would be a treat as Mass Aston would let us dip up some when it cooled. He even had some ginger to mix with the wet sugar. He would pour the wet sugar in used and washed up “kerosene” or butter pans and take it to New Market to sell on Wednesdays or Saturdays where he would sell it by the quart for one and six. The factory ended with Mass Aston’s death and there is now no sign of this once thriving enterprise.

So, in addition to the carpentry shop run by the Myrie Brothers, the sugar factories run by Mass Austin Curlew and Captain Mills, the leather tanning operation by the Bromleys, and the building expertise of Chiphus and Clif. Banton who built water tanks and houses that are still standing after our many hurricanes, the butcher shop run by Mr. John Johnson and Mr. Manley, the bakery owned by Mr. Harry Chen See, the cigar factory run by Ms. Euda McKenzie. We used the bark of mahoe to make rope and even made rope tobacco that Mass Claudie would sell by the inch so the men could fill their pipes and smoke it. Basil and Jimmy Graves cut trees and sawed up lumber with long saws and when the saws were no longer useful, they cut them into machetes. Mr. Alberga Robinson could turn a tin can into a coffee mug, a horse shoeing operation run by Rufus Heron and Brother Boogs, Lady Champion buses run by Victor Marshall and Charlie Smith, a truck to transport goods, ice cream and snow balls sold by Spirit on Sundays and holidays, we had a thriving community.

There is no longer a cricket pitch, no live music, no horses to race at Shield Pond and the large copper pots that boiled sugar has been sold off as antiques. While progress has been made with electricity, roads, radio, television and communications, the community has reverted to small farms. Sunday attendance at Springfield Moravian church has been reduced from 300 to 50. There are no May Poles, Merry-go-rounds or any form of entertainment except television, computer games and talking on cell phones. Unfortunately, those who remain don't even visit any more.

On my way back to Kingston, I looked out at the hectares of land which now lie dormant but, in my youth, had been packed with the lifeblood of our commnity: fruit trees and flowers, coconuts and cocoa, coffee and pimento, cows and chickens,hopes and dreams. I drove the winding road, passing reams of people whose quality of life have been deminished by the unforgiving hands of the migration of many of our gifted friends and relations, unsympathic politicians and larceny. Where have all the flowers gone?

Are our best years behind us?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

You Can be poisoned by More than Ackee

Wicked Plants
Cassava, Ackee and other common Jamaican plants

According to our Ministry of Health, between December 1, 2010 and January 12, 2011, there were 35 confirmed cases of ackee poisoning from hypoglycin and warned the public against eating unopened ackee. Common symptoms included vomiting and diarrhea. The public should also be warned about the other plants that we commonly encounter that are just as deadly.

I recently read the book “Wicked Plants” by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Book of Chapel Hill, 2009) and was fascinated by what the author had to say about common Jamaican plants.

Among the local Jamaican products mentioned are:
1. Cashew shells. The stain (urushiol) will cause a nasty rash. Biting on the shell to open it will produce a rash on your lips.
2. Peas (red kidney beans) when eaten raw can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea from phytohaemagglutinin.
3. Cassava contains a substance call linamarin that converts to cyanide in the body. The risk of cyanide poisoning can be eliminated through careful preparation that involves soaking, squeezing, drying, baking or cooking of the root. If not prepared properly, it can cause weakness, tremors, lack of coordination, vision problems and partial paralysis. When I was a child, my grandmother harvested the cassava, wash, grater and squeeze the juice out of it. She left the juice to settle into starch and poison water that was used as rat poison or to kill stray dogs. The remaining flour was dried and made into bammy or boiled like a dumpling.
4. Oleander contains oleandrin, a cardiac glycoside that brings on nausea and vomiting, severe weakness, irregular pulse and a decreased heart rate when digested.
5. Castor Bean from which castor oil is derived can cause death by ingesting as few as four seeds because it contains ricin which is removed in manufacturing when sold as a laxitive.

Consider yourself warned.

Increasing the Value for undeeded Real Estate

This Land is Your Land: Creating Value out of Dead Real Estate
Basil Waine Kong, J.D.

During the past fifty years,Jamaica has been characterized by glaring inequality, an active underground economy, high inflation, a weak currency, reduced incomes, high food and energy costs, inordinate influence of Dons and gangs along with flagrant disregard for law and order. Foreign investors are few and our professionals and entrepreneurs are leaving our country with their disposable wealth, knowledge and skills to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We cannot continue to ignore this turmoil.

Every society has people who live in the mainstream, who contribute to and hold a stake in the community; and others who, by choice or circumstance, live on the margins. The "margins" of Jamaica have reached such proportions that they threaten to become the new mainstream. The rivers have swelled their banks and the single most important factor in holding back the tide is rigorous enforcement of the onership rights to private property.

I asked someone who live in one of our extra legal communities how much his family of seven pays for rent and he said they did not pay rent. I then asked who owned the house they lived in and he said he didn't know but they have been living there for over twelve years. So, how do you get power, water and sewage? "We just work it out."

It may seem like the cruelest of "proposals" to pin our hopes for social progress on private property, when any serious attempt to enforce private property in Jamaica would, in the short term, make outlaws out of nearly half of the population. But we do people who live on the margins no favors in allowing them to occupy land to which they will never have a claim or deed.

The most important vehicle for social mobility is home ownership. For most of us it is the most important asset we will ever own. It is our address, our identity. It is literally the bedrock beneath our feet. We gain equity in it. We borrow against it to educate our children, address critical health issues for our loved ones and to start a business. With any luck, we bequeath it to our children and grand children.

The single most important source of funds for new business start up for various enterprises in developed countries is real estate (one's home). In spite of their obvious poverty, if we adopted a concerted approach to establish good title (legally enforceable property rights) for property occupied by the poor, we may find that we already have the assets to rescue the country and put us on a path to prosperity. At present, real estate taxes are collected on only a small portion of the land we call Jamaica.

The energies and aspirations of the poor are waiting to be released. As much as 50% of our people are "kotching" in extralegal situations (captured lands). While the value of any given plot may not have high value, cumulatively, the value is substantial. The moment is ripe for action. Let us unleash the potential of these dead assets. There is a great deal of value in land.

The first step is to update our records and to fix ownership to every parcel of land in a formally organized computerized system certifying each owner. By accomplishing this awesome task:
1. Property owners would be vested along with the owner's right to contract for water, telephone, sewage and electrical services as well as enhancing the value of our land holdings by increasing the net of potential numbers of buyers if and when they decide to alienate (give away or sell) their land holdings.
2. Debts could be more easily collected.
3. Law enforcement would be facilitated.
4. Taxes could be collected.
5. A more accurate census could be taken that would enhance voter
registration and extend voting rights to landless or homeless citizens.
6. Delivery of mail, summons and service would be possible.
7. Property owners would be motivated to form Homeowners Associations
to enhance the value of their properties and protect value.
8. Pride of ownership would be extended to more citizens.
9. The need for bribing government officials and Dons would be greatly

Albert Einstein taught us that there is enough energy in a brick to make an atomic bomb that could destroy a city if we only had the skills to harness and release its energy. Likewise, there is substantial potential in these shacks and dead assets if we can draw out the value and convert them to real value. Dunns River may be a beautiful river but it also generates electricity that powers manufacturing and production.

Land reform can be the platform on which the entire economy can be based. As a primarily agrarian society, it could be a tremendous boost to the economy if it then leads to increased production as the price of food is increasing rapidly not only in Jamaica but in the world.

Over the past fifty years, there has been a steady increase of citizens moving from country to Kingston and Montego Bay. This was graphically depicted in the movie: "The Harder They Come". When they arrive, legal and social barriers prevent them from acquiring legal housing, acquire training and education, obtain employment or start a business. They are more likely to work as day labourers or in the underground economy where they become easy victims of exploitation.

At tremendous cost to individuals as well as our country, our legal system is not only stacked against the poor, it is hostile. Rather than promoting the ambitions of its citizens, the poor are treated like criminals and our government purposely imposes rules and obstacles that serve to thwart their ability to make a living. We seem bent on finding a problem for every solution.

Establishing a legal business in Jamaica is a formidable business. Obtaining the right forms, filling them out, standing in lines, paying the fees and obtaining the necessary certifications to operate is a long frustrating process requiring an investment of six months of red tape even if you are a sophisticated businessman. The cost is at least a year's pay for an average worker. Most people opt out of the system and operate their business illegally. In Jamaica, a citizen cannot open a bank account without a utility bill in the person's name.

As much as our people try to do the right thing, the rigidity and cumbersomeness of our laws breaks our citizens more than they break the law. They do clandestine work and apply creative ingenious survival strategies because, without a support system or a little hand-holding, these recent arrivals to the city are hopelessly reduced to living as outlaws---outside the legal system. Residents in these communities can register an automobile, buy their driver's license, buy groceries, get their automobiles repaired, visit barbershops and beauty salons, use taxis, purchase baked goods, obtain the services of a dentist who may have never graduated from Dental School and pays no taxes. But there is a huge cost to bribe officers of the law and local "big men" for protection and the opportunity to operate their various enterprises.

Paying taxes would actually cost less and would certainly be less intimidating. Working in the underground economy, they have tremendous competition with each other but they also have to fight the government. If the system is in conflict with the way our people live, we should not be surprised that frustration, discontent, corruption, disrespect for the law, poverty and violence is the predictable outcome. It takes cunning ginalds to outwit the system just to survive.

Government allocations are never for development, training, housing or education for extralegal communities. Whatever is budgeted by the government always take the form of control---police actions, clamping down and catching criminals.

Properties change hands regularly as people get jobs and move. These transactions are not registered; do not involve lawyers or the tax office. These sales (social contracts) are either cash sales or gifts with no transfer of recorded title. Even expensive properties are bought and sold accompanied by some public gathering where the announcement is made so that "everyone" knows whose property it is. The dogs know who their owners are and the limits of their property.

The downside is that these valuable assets are commercially and financially invisible because the people occupying the property has no indicia of ownership to take to the bank for a loan to start a business or purchase an automobile.

In addition to setting up an efficient court system to establish title, my proposal is to establish macroeconomic reform in Jamaica. Let us marshal the resources at our disposal to:
1. Correct this legal failure and create a unified system that is more conducive to a productive and dynamic market economy.
2. Properly survey, map, record all the land in our country and keep our records current and accurate.
3. Research the "chain of title" to include the rights of adverse possessors (squatters rights).
4. Establish a formal property system that integrates the reality of land ownership with the legal records that give good title to people who are rightful owners.
5. Establish the property rights of extra legals.
6. Assume that if land taxes have not been paid for seven years, the property has been abandoned. (Much of our land has been abandoned by people who migrate and no longer have an interest in the property they left behind or the owners may have died and their children have no ownership interest and have taken no steps to establish ownership or to alienate the property).
7. Since our government has a history of making straight roads crooked, we need to establish a Ministry of Advocacy or a None Government Organization whose responsibility it is to:
a. Review our systems and streamline our bureaucracy to
accommodate the needs of our citizens to become legal taxpaying
entrepreneurs. (It is never enough to pass equitable laws without the will
to implement them efficiently and painlessly in the social reality of our
country. Laws and governments should serve the people).
b. Make a strong effort to communicate the advantages of becoming legal. They could, for example, openly operate and advertise their goods and services to a wider customer base.
c. A place to turn for those who are frustrated that they cannot negotiate the process of becoming legal.
d. Make these valuable assets commercially and financially visible.

Public animosity toward judges, attorney and public officials as agents of the rich could be greatly reduced. When most people obey and support the law, it is easy to enforce it against the few who break the law. But if most people break the law, it is impossible to enforce them and everyone can do what they want to do with impunity. Property ownership is the single most important ingredient for instilling respect for the law. According to Lyndon Johnson, Past President of the United States, "We can only have a law abiding society if everyone has a stake in it." Countries with wide distribution of land ownership are stable, prosperous, discourage unruly behavior, and respect for the rights of others increase.

By integrating current extra legals into our legal system, we will release the aspirations and energies of poor people by giving them a stake in the country that they will want to protect. It is time for custom and social contracts to be integrated and come under the umbrella of the formal law. This is a win, win, win for all concerned. As Jamaicans travel and learn how other societies are organized for prosperity, their frustration and bitterness will grow. On the other hand, this plan will liberate the poor and prepare them to be citizens qualified to participate in the development of the country.