Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Thoughts for the day: Inspiration, culture and tradition

Taking what has become a regular pre-dawn morning walk from my father's house across and around the golf course I get a lot of time to think. I share my thoughts with the barking dogs who run my way, or with the crowing cocks that hail the sunrise, or with the egrets overhead as they wait for cows to come out. I look across the lovely misty hills of the parish of Manchester, which are like a blend of where my parents are from: my mother from the baked savanna of St. Elizabeth and my father from the lush hills of St. Mary. I think I am a lucky guy. I have the chance to spend some time with my father and for him to spend some days with his grand-daughter. She has spent most of the past few weeks in Barbados dressing in sweaters and leggings saying how much she likes cold places. Now she is in a Caribbean place that is really quite cold and is in her element.

When I got back from my walk I had the pleasure of seeing my young daughter have her grandfather tell her some stories about his life, of when he collected mangoes as a boy. She has no real notion of where he grew up; she just knows where he lives now. I gave her a breakfast of Ovaltine and bulla bread (a staple for Jamaican kids), a first for her and she liked it; she's not yet ready for bulla and avocado pear (a traditional favourite for Jamaicans). We then spent a couple of hours dressing up Barbie dolls.

My morning thoughts began with Bob Marley's Redemption Song; it was really the first verse that got me, but the whole song is worth recalling:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the and of the almighty.
We forward in this generation
Wont you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
-cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?

Some say its just a part of it:
Weve got to fulfil de book.
Wont you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
-cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

I think this song came to mind after a conversation last night with one of the coaches for the Jamaican karate team who had just returned from Japan; he happens to be my father's gym instructor and had popped in to see my dad. I asked him for his impression of the land of the rising sun and he answered that he admired how they protected their culture. He then expanded on how we in the Caribbean have no culture as we are all mixed up and a patchwork of peoples all thrown together. We had an interesting discussion about how the Romans viewed Europe, which they felt had no culture.

When I had visited Japan some 20 years ago I had noticed how homogeneous a place it seemed, and how traditions and standard behaviour seemed to be at the core of the country. That tends to make us feel that there is a culture. That sameness also comes with a certain conservatism, which can lead to hostility to outside influences and foreigners. I recalled some English friends who had studied in Japan; spoke Japanese fluently; married Japanese men; had children in Japan and lived there for nearly 20 years; knew much about Japanese culture and history, but were never fully accepted into Japanese society. Much of Asia prides itself on having a very long history and a wealth of traditions.

In Jamaica, we are by definition a young society and have been building a nation since independence based on a motto of "Out of many, one people". Views will differ about how inclusive and tolerant we are or have been. Those who happen to be on the margins of Jamaican society may feel constantly locked out, that is especially evident when it comes to homosexuals. But I love it when I am here and "foreignness" does not seem to be a reason for exclusion. Jamaicans of Chinese or Indian origin speak to me and I know immediately that they are true Jamaicans. Even though they are significantly in the minority they have an important place, often in trade and business, and that is recognized.

Coming out of a colonialism that was founded on involuntarily transporting people from their homelands, we we have a long road to travel to be able to build something that is truly worthy of the term culture, but we should try to build it. Many traditions coming from Africa, India, China or the Middle East have been part of the fabric that makes this country. But it's also true that many of these traditions have not lasted and are being displaced by practices that come from another new nation, the United States. So, it's hard to say which way we will go.

I am at heart a traditionalist, meaning that I love to feel that things that were important in my childhood will still be there and important for my children. Yesterday I went in search of "Solomon G(r)undy". This is the name of a dish derived from the English food Salmagundi, which was integrated into the English language from the French in the 17th century, and is a salad of cooked meats, lettuce, anchovies and eggs, with other condiments. But in Jamaica it is a paste made of red herrings and spices (and for me the best version is made by Walkers Wood).

For me, it also recalls a children's rhyme:

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday.
That was the end of
Solomon Grundy.

Well, my search was successful; a few months ago there was none to be found on the island--a production problem I was told. But I learnt that most of the young people in the grocery store have no idea about these piece of Jamaican tradition; the cashier who was about my age did ask me to sing the rhyme.

We need to learn how to protect our traditions if we hope to build a culture. It is hard because of our size to not be swamped by foreign cultures. But if we can get the world to accept things we do (like reggae music) then we need to find ways to defend what we do. The best way to start that protection is to have them as part of our children's lives. I know my daughter will squirm at the smell and taste of Solomon Gundy, but she will at least have that smell in her memory bank, in the same way that she now has Ovaltine and bulla or the smell of salt fish, dumplings, and scallion.

So, I am going to do my little part to build a culture and expose my children to the traditions before they disappear. That's a small commitment but a big task.

No comments: