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**

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yes We Can! Oh No We Can't.-REDUX

When I wrote my previous post (Yes We Can! Oh No We Can't), I had not been aware that March had been Disability Awareness Month in Barbados. Not that much passes me by, but this had. Nevertheless, I was even more intrigued that my mind had moved on the subject, when I read a poignant article in today's Nation, which I reproduce below (see link also).

Questions still to be answered

Published on: 4/28/2009.

ANOTHER MONTH of the Disabled (March) has marched into eternity.

Another set of activities: a cruise, a concert, a few features in the papers, and so on have been held. But what of the fundamental changes that have been requested by persons with disabilities for years.

Why is it that those persons who are wheelchair users still cannot access public transportation?

Why are the wheelchair-friendly buses still sitting on the lot at Simpson Motors, tied up in red tape?

Even though they are side loading, won't the lay-bys help to alleviate the threat of impatient drivers running over the wheelchair-mobile?

Why is it that people with mobility issues still cannot access most Government buildings?

Why is it that almost all the new buildings at the University of the West Indies are inaccessible to wheelchair users, even though they were built within the last five to ten years, and with taxpayers' money? Why is it that those students with mobility issues still have to hobble up two flights of steps if their classes are on the second floor of these buildings?

Why is it that persons with certain types of physical disabilities still cannot have access to a life insurance policy, since they are seen as a liability to the insurance company?

Why is it that persons with MS (that's multiple sclerosis), spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and suchlike, still cannot hold an insurance policy, much less medical insurance, at some of the same companies which have enough assets to build huge glass-fronted buildings all over this island? I used to think people mattered. Now I am old and cynical.

Any why is it that to this day there is no comprehensive data as to the number of disabled children currently attending private or public clinics here in Barbados?

Why is it that the Ministry of Education still does not know how many students with physical or cognitive disabilities they will be expected to cater to within the next five years?

Why do doctors fail to either document, refer or counsel parents of children with disabilities, or share this information with the relevant Government agencies?

Why would nurses at a hospital give a baby with an obviously at risk APGAR profile to a mother with the words "Good luck with the baby?"

Why have successive governments not compelled doctors to submit these data?

Why are we still fighting this battle? Why do we still only have one Children's Development Centre with only one developmental paediatrician?

Why do we still have no speech or occupational therapist attached to our education ministry?

Why are there still only one social worker and one- and-a-half psychologists?

Why are we going to international conferences and pretending that our citizens with physical, intellectual and specific learning disabilities are enjoying equal status in a first-world setting? Why don't we come clean and stop taking the donor countries' aid money under false pretences?

And finally, why is it that persons with certain 'severe disabilities' are still only given $33 per week to live on?

What are they supposed to do with that, since not even the Government is willing to employ them?

How can they access dental care when they are not given free dental care as adults at the polyclinics?

Am I mistaken? Then someone please correct my misinformation. And if I am not wrong, then extract every reference to "disability" and replace it with "black". Reads differently now, doesn't it?



The reference to "Why are the wheelchair-friendly buses still sitting on the lot at Simpson Motors, tied up in red tape" is especially disturbing. Over recent days much comment has been made about medical treatment in Barbados with claims (not so far contradicted) that significant pieces of equipment lie unused in the nation's main hospital. Before someone accuses me of saying something else bad about Barbados, this is the kind of comment made by Bajans that should always be worrisome. This is a very small nation and claims like this by locals should be taken seriously: they are either true or they are widely believed, and without counter claim must be taken as true. Caring is not the veneer of concern that comes from signing conventions and having lists of things, if in reality nothing much is happening on the ground.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Yes We Can! Oh No We Can't.

When I think of disabilities, I have a very wide definition in my head. However, I imagine that other people think mostly of those who are unable to walk (at all or well); the blind and partially sighted; the deaf or hard of hearing; those who have mental problems (from the thoroughly insane to those who have acute mental difficulties, such as the autistic, that make it hard for them to cope with the rest of society); and those who have speech impediments (who cannot talk or talk with problems such as a stammer); and so on. Some of us will also think of persons such as those who suffer from dyslexia. I am not trying to be exhaustive, as I understand the list could be very long if one regards a disability as a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual or group. So, if you are far away from the norm you qualify. It's ironic that President Obama has popularised the phrase "Yes, we can!". In many respects, he is one who could be said to suffer from a disability, being a left-handed person in a world of right-handed people. He struggled to find people to teach him how to write because he was one of the rare group: physically able, but backward when compared to others. "Yes, he could, but with difficulties." I remember the first time I saw a right-handed friend trying to use a standard potato peeler--impossible; now, he could buy a left handed peeler.

Those who fall into such categories have a hard time fitting in. Or, maybe it is better to say that those who do not fall into such categories have a hard time accommodating those whom we see as disabled (or less able, or 'challenged' in some way, if one seeks some sort of politically correct adjective).

If you walk around and just try to figure out how people who are not normal, or standard, can cope, it is not hard to wonder how they can get through a day. Go to store or almost any building here in Barbados. Does it have a ramp for those who cannot step up? Is there any sign in Braille or with an audio function for those who cannot see? Imagine a blind person trying to use an ATM machine. Once you can see the slot for your card you can figure out how it should be inserted. Once inside the booth are the keys fitted with Braille? If you want to make a deposit how do you do that if you cannot see or read the instructions that come on the screen? And so on. I was crossing the road to school last week and after pressing the button at the traffic light to allow me to cross, I realised that unlike in many countries there was no sound to tell me that it was time to cross. I started off carefully as I saw three lanes of traffic stop but noticed a fourth lane with a car hurtling on. I waited in the middle as the driver sped through the red light. Oh, I was so glad that I was not blind and somehow just stepped on the crossing regardless of danger.

Some would say that the world as designed by normal people cannot cope with everyone who is not standard issue. True enough. Most people don't care until they start to have problems themselves when trying to do something simple.

As I try to teach my daughter to read and write, I'm glad as she starts to cope with recognizing letters and form and say them in a way that is familiar. As she starts to recognize words on signs, I can breathe an inner sigh of relief that I will not have to deal with a child who may need to learn differently. I had that sigh pushed back down my throat as I spoke yesterday to a friend whose granddaughter has now been diagnosed as dyslexic. Now, that child's inability with reading while coping well with arithmetic has some basis. The child was not being difficult or lazy, as she could often be labelled. She could not understand. But, what to do next? Special school? Special teacher? Deal with it at home?

In Washington DC, every road intersection has a slope so that anyone who is in a wheel chair can cross easily. In Germany, every road crossing at a traffic light has a sound signal. Is it only richer countries that will spend to cater in this way?

Once your good faculties start to falter you start to understand what some have had to deal with for a very long time.

Friday, April 24, 2009

This Sarah Is Our Hero

National Heroes Day will be celebrated on April 28, and like many a school student, it was over breakfast this morning that my daughter told me that she needed to take a picture to school of one of the heroes.

She had been mentioning 'heroine' all week, but with no particular name. "Daddy are you a heroine?" she asked me. I told her that I could be a hero, but her mummy would be a heroine. Check that. She and a class mate conversed about Sir Garfield Sobers, who happens to live near the friend, so he say (I need to check). I mentioned that I had seen Sir Gary play cricket a long time ago in England, and had seen him at the re-opening of Kensington Oval, and also at Sandy Lane, after he had played golf, and a good friend of mine had met him and they had been photographed together. All that led to wide eyes and the sense that I was becoming a hero.

But, Miss Bliss needed to focus. "Sarah Ann Gill," she piped up. So, off I went to do the modern thing and find a reference and picture on the Internet (see Government website). So, I found out that this heroine was a prominent Methodist who fought hard for the acceptance of that faith, made harder in the 19th century by its stand against slavery.

Printed picture in hand we headed off to school. "Methodist. I read the word," Miss Bliss yelled from the back seat. Maybe this weekend we will take a trip to Gill Memorial Church at Fairfield Road, Black Rock.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are We Being Served?

Barbados' Health Minister, Donville Inniss, has thrown down the gauntlet to public sector workers (see Nation report April 21 2009), stating that they really are a shambles and great time wasters with little sense that they are both of these things. The Minister of Water had already sent out a warning salvo two weeks ago to those supervisors who basically appeared at work to start and end the day only (see previous blog post). Now, Minister Inniss has added some salient observations. I list the most significant:
  • The pace of a lot of the work in the public service is "frightfully slow"
  • The tardiness in the public service regarding many things, including appointing people and paying people; "... a very frustrating process to many individuals inside the public service and those outside of the service"
  • Generally, time did not seem to be of major importance. "People don't seem to realise that time is money"
This comes on the back of reports that the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners may strike for not receiving payments for work done for some three years and doctors still awaiting contracts.

Pay in the public sector is clearly not related to work performance. I heard this week of a person who called a government office and got no reply. He let the phone ring and went to the office to find the line still ringing and the staff having a good old time chatting. I guess they were hearing challenged. I personally have little daily interaction with government departments but I have heard some horrible stories.

The problem of poor service is not confined to the public sector, as I have noted many times before. Interestingly, in this tourist-dependent economy, some of the most visible instances of poor service are in the hospitality industry. The columnist Stephen Alleyne expressed his frustration this weekend at going against his own better judgement, having "...vowed never again to patronise a South Coast restaurant following two separate instances of egregiously poor service that was dispensed to me and my guests." (see Advocate report April ...) It is instructive to read his whole story, and try not to boil over along with his retelling. Just a few extracts:
  • The waitress said “Good night. Wuh you’ll having to eat?” keeping her eyes fastened to the notepad on which she was writing the order. No name (she wore a name tag that did not show her name). No smile. No comforting words.
  • He marvelled at the style in which he and his guests were served their drinks: “Who ordered de rum ‘n’ coke? Who ordered de rum ‘n’ soda water? Who ordered de gin ‘n’ tonic".
Those of us who have lived here a while are quite familiar with this kind of story on one or several occasions in a restaurant. Either enough patrons are not making it clear that service like this stinks, or they are just not returning but being replaced by enough new customers, or the owners just don't give a whole heap of shaving cream.

I wonder if a psychologist needs to take a look at what is going on in the heads of people here. One argument I know may apply is the confusion about service and servitude. Coming from a slave history, it's understandable that the idea of voluntarily doing something well for someone else may not sit easily with many people. Is there a sense in which those who are supposed to serve feel that those they serve are beneath them? Is there the sense that providing service gives a considerable amount of control, by being an important 'gate keeper'--go through me or go nowhere, my friend.

My friends and acquaintances seem to think that the level of service offered by nationals is much poorer here than elsewhere in the region.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Penny For Your Thoughts

Why did I think that my thoughts would run together more easily once I got back to Barbados? Was it the foolish notion that I got inspiration from the breezes that course across the veranda where I have made my office? I am no longer distracted by the birds whistling in the garden, or the monkeys dancing on the branches, or the intermittent flow of people calling to do something. I balance my trading with all forms of other things. I knew that I had some commentary to make on the radio, but somehow, the thoughts for that never got into gear.

First, I read about an armed man who had taken a Canadian plane and its passengers hostage in Montego Bay, Jamaica, just the same day as Canada's PM was visiting. The man wanted to be taken to Cuba--the plane was headed there, anyway. Soon, I heard that the passengers had been freed but the crew as still with the gunman. A friend called to tell me that the person concerned had a Facebook page which contained some bizarre postings. Within an hour, she gave me another bulletin to say that the siege was over (see CNN report), but also that the Facebook page was no longer available. I shook my head and hoped and prayed that one more disastrous nail was not going to be driven into the coffin my country has so carefully built. The politicians will try to cement in the world's mind that this was the work of a "mentally challenged" man not an act of terrorism--in a land that already has its own special brand.

Then, my little daughter decided to disappear from every one's sight 15 minutes before she was due to go to school. Calling high and low, looking in cupboards and in shower stalls, checking every bathroom, looking in the pantry, did not unearth the child. Not a whimper or a giggle. Did we miss the door opening and someone perhaps stepping in and out quickly downstairs? I had just been lying with her sharing a story after breakfast. Then, when all wits were at their ends, the lid of a cloth suitcase opened and out poked a face. Shock was replaced by a bit of frustration and her glee at being so clever turned to tears as she understood that fear had been pushing itself into our hearts. Fiendish is the right word, not devilish. When all was calm again, I hugged her and told her that the trick she played was the best ever. She was still a bit confused as she went off to school.

I tried to gather my thoughts as I listened to comments on the radio call-in. I just could not muster the energy to engage in another piece of explanation to people whose views were clearly set. I toyed with ideas about the separation of church and state, all brought on by the fact that a visit to another Anglican church yesterday had given us the distinct pleasure of listening to a government minister explain housing policy (see Advocate report). Minister Michael Lashley could almost single-handedly restored my faith in lawyers and politicians with the wit and relative brevity that he delivered his comments. He took Reverend Maxwell's invitation to say a few words as a lawyer and politician should--to make an hour long speech. As the quarter hour mark passed, he used "Finally" cleverly to introduce yet one more comment before he at last came close to the end of his remarks. He got laughs and applause that were deserved. All of which almost detracted from the reason my family and I were there--to be with one of my wife's colleagues, who was now retiring.

I reflected on the way that a child can capture the attention of adults, recalling how my daughter held court over lunch yesterday at The Crane, and went toe to toe with all comers in conversation.

I thought a lot about the way the Bajan church organizations seemed so off beam. Jumping into the fray about un-Lenten like celebrations during Lent and Easter, but only at the last moment (see Nation April 13, 2009 report and Nation commentary). Why did they not make their objections clear at the start of the season, by when it was already clear that later on the reggae festivals and other things they did not like would be occurring? Instead, the vociferous condemnation came on Easter Sunday, the day of one of the shows. I cannot believe that they had not seen the full page newspaper ads or heard the radio promotions. By making clear their position early it could have sent at least a clear signal to Christians who wanted to be of the same mind that their institution had a position. Instead? Supine. How can the so-called church leaders command respect if they tend to offer guidance and support always from behind and rarely from in front? As one person stated, during the Lent and Easter period is the time when a Christian must show that he or she is afraid of no one and no thing.

Fortunately, I have lots of inspiration and don't feel doomed. My daughter's amazing antics help. Today, so too did the news that my wife's niece won a gold medal at the CARIFTA swimming championships in Aruba.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Taxing Times In Barbados-Redux

No sooner had I published the previous post than I noticed in today's Advocate that Barbados' Inland Revenue Department (IRD) has extended the tax deadline to May 15, "to facilitate...filing online", but covers those filing in paper and electronic form.

Likewise, another friend sent me an interesting note. The company for whom she works attended a meeting last autumn where the IRD exposed the etax system to employers. Offers were made to the IRD to test the site for them (as employers and as personal tax filers) since there were aspects that they had not taken into account and the testers could identify the kinks. The IRD reportedly told those making the offer that they had to launch and that there was no time for testing. The IRD employees present took copious notes on issues raised, so you can imagine how many kinks were identified on the spot at first exposure.

The company's payroll department has made several attempts since January to register the company's information, then gave up because efiling was not working. He submitted the company's information manually as he has done in the past.

My friend spent a quarter hour this morning waiting to save her draft filing but gave up and will prepare the manual form tomorrow and mail it on Monday.

I think this is a subject I would like to raise or hear raised during the radio call-in programs in the coming week. Let's see what the IRD have to say for themselves.

Taxing Times In Barbados

A friend mentioned to me some weeks ago that he was at his wits end. Tax filing season was coming and the Inland Revenue Department in Barbados was making the change to etax (electronic filing), but did not seem too well set up. The new website boasts, "The online service will become available on January 1, 2009. Barbados will be the first CARICOM country to implement such a comprehensive and modern tax administration system." Not everyone has a computer or access to one and the Internet, yet it seemed that paper forms were not available from the IRD. In a place like Canada or the US, e-filing is easier by having plenty of free access to computers at local libraries, or by the IRD equivalent having terminals in their offices, or by having 'tax agents' complete forms for people for a fee. In Barbados, public access to computers in less (and the 30 minutes slots at the main library wont cut it), and I am sure that the idea of a tax agent is both new and relatively untried--no HR Block here. As Iunderstand it, the IRD is not geared up to handle people visiting them to do the online filing.

I have been off the island for a week but have been hearing and reading about continuing problems with this change over. Another friend, shared with me his continuing horror story.

The e-tax site is just not working properly. Sometimes you can log on but it is very slow and when you get to the actual form certain areas will not allow you to enter information. Some personal information that I managed to update doesn't seem to get updated to the tax return form and just now when I tried to move from one page to the next it told me: An exceptional error occurred. The service has been placed in maintenance. And then even more scary...."Server Error in '/eTaxIrd' Application. User should be assigned before anything. Description: An unhandled exception occurred during the execution of the current web request. Please review the stack trace for more..." Etc. etc... Damn, I hope I didn't break it.

Anyhow, one of my wife's colleagues tried without any success, called Inland Revenue who explained that the site was very busy and it was probably good to try it around midnight. I did that last night but it didn't make any difference. Maybe my technical skills are just not up to this level – I’m going to check and see if other people had more luck using the site. Needless to say that if I had done this manually the form would have been in the IRD’s mail box since yesterday.

Someone commented at a meeting yesterday that in Barbados there is a tendency to reinvent the wheel and then claim that the expertise does not exist to deal with some change or other. Yet, other countries, bigger and smaller have implemented similar changes with no, or few, problems. Is there a mind set that says "We have to do it, or it's no good"? Or is there the annoying, self-serving of bureaucrats who are doing things on the cheap and leaving the poor public to struggle with their penny wise, pound foolish approach? Whatever, the system needed to have been tried and tested well ahead of tax filing season. Most countries run pilot programs first and make sure that teething problems and glitches are ironed out before letting the public loose onto the system. My understanding is that the local administration did not want to do that, but wanted to go live directly. Oh me, oh my.

No doubt, the website is beautiful and attractive (see link), but note that the frequently asked questions pages reports "This section is under construction and therefore its content could be incomplete. We apologize for any inconvenient this may cause." Duh. That couple featured in their cozy pad, supposedly making their easy-peasy tax submission are doing nothing more that updating Facebook, or Twitter, or playing Scrabble on line. You don't feel very inspired when you look at the tax calendar and it states "due dates for 2005".

You can't fool us IRD. You ain't ready. Go back to the drawing board and get it right first.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Write Your Heart Out. Tell Your Stories.

While passing a week in Jamaica, I thought a lot but somehow did not write much. A lot of things got in the way, some of them banal some of them comical. Wherever I stayed, there were dogs or cats around, making a blessed racket all night. At my Dad's house, two tom cats competed for the attention of his three queen cats. The mewing seemed like real talk: "Come out to the veranda. Let's go rustle in the leaves. You know you want to." I spent a night listening to the sound of 6 Labradors barking outside my window much of the night, more for sport than to ward off any criminals. That alone messed up my sleep and during the days I had to just recapture rest.

I thought a lot about some economic issues that affect Jamaica and will get to them soon. But I also thought about writing, as a process. I regret that I did not get to meet and chat with a friend who writes for one of the Jamaican newspapers and is also a pundit on TV, when he is not running a chain of pharmacies.

I thought too about the way that meetings just happen. I went to a BBQ hosted by the daughter of a famous Jamaican politician; I'd only met her once before during the summer but now 'knew' her because I helped empty water from her flooded house several months ago. At the eat-in, which her husband cooked (and included roast yam and salf fish) I became quick friends with someone who seemed like a kindred spirit--ready to eat from each other's plate--and whose father I had met once when he was Ambassador for Jamaica and also when he was Finance Minister. I met on my flight a good friend of my friend Thesophone, but someone I had never set eyes on before till earlier in the day, when I saw his picture in The Gleaner that same morning.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder why people read so much and write so little themselves. That sounds like someone who has discovered the pleasure of writing, right? The process of gaining ideas and images is an odd circle and interesting writing should and does capture our imaginations. Yet, so readily, many rarely see that they too have interesting stories to share. Of course, not everyone can write with the style of Shakespeare or Camus or Naipaul or Gandhi or Churchill or Tolstoy or Nietzsche or Mao Tse Tung or Nelson Mandela or Danielle Steele or Agatha Christie, or a string of authors that I have never heard of. But, why feel that that is reason not to write. Having tried to eke out a story with a five year old, I realise that the very simple telling of a tale is very enlightening to those who take time to read and listen to it.

When I wrote for work I was often challenged to get the 'story' right, and I did in my terms. Of course, someone else saw the story differently and revised my drafts. That alone is proof that we all want to tell our stories.

I have enjoyed writing for what it allows me to do with my own thoughts, but also to share what I see and experience with friends. I'm very interested to see a lot of people who read are not great listeners to story, preferring I imagine to take the story on their terms and in their time, that at the pace of an orator. There's an interesting psychological balance at work here.

Before I pick up a book or newspaper this morning, I have had so many things to read from friends who have told me a little story. I share just the essence of a few of them, as much to say that reading may be treated to the minimalist attitude: one in, one out, that way clutter is minimised. In other words, for everything read try writing something yourself.

-A French journalist I met through work in Guinea and found again recently on Facebook told me this morning how her husband had left her with their baby when the child was less than a year old. The mother went to another African country and worked on contract, but now has to think about searching for new work or heading back to Paris. No journalism anymore of the old kind as that involves too much travel.

-My tennis partner told me that I posed for him a triple threat: first, he likes me as a person and friend; second, he adores my wife and her spirit; and third, he adores my little daughter, who seems too self assured for her age. I told him that I had never been described as a weapon of mass destruction.

-I read a story of a Jamaican emigrant returning home and then being totally overwhelmed emotionally after heading back to America and realising that home was left behind, and bawled and bawled. Oh, what a feeling!

-I thought about the feelings I had this week when I saw my father (80, and a stroke survivor) go rigid for about 10 minutes as his blood sugar levels dropped and he could not speak or blink and just sweated (a sign that he was living), until he had two glasses of sugar and water. He had 'burned out' from sharing stories with my uncle (75 and with a brain tumour) about their lives together over 50 years. My feelings did not involve fear or panic. I just thought what an appropriate way to go. My dad is still alive and kicking and told me that he has no plans to go see St. Peter anytime soon.

Not being a great follower of fashion, and someone who fights hard not to be defined by others, I can see that writing helps in that process of self-definition. There's a wonderful contentment in telling the story I see. Sure, others have their stories to tell, and they should do it more often. Let's all listen to and read each other's stories more.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Recession Jamaica

Data only tell part of any economic story. Jamaica has officially been in recession since March 2008 (see STATIN report in Jamaica Observer), with annual growth in decline since December 2007. But, what do you see in the street? Holidays are usually festive and full of well-attended events. But, an anecdotal glance suggests that maybe things really are heading down. Not scientific, I agree, but interesting, nevertheless.
  • Plenty of Easter bun in the stores, but more left behind than in previous years.
  • Companies used to give each staff member a bun, but now employees complain that a group of them was given a bun and each person maybe gets two slices.
  • Churches on Easter Sunday in Kingston were often not full because people would go away to the hills or the beach for vacation. This weekend, they were having to look for extra seats.
  • Traffic on the road is usually light but the end of the holiday would see much more as people return. This Easter Monday, traffic remained light.
Sadly, Jamaica seems to have no downturn in murders: 11 killings, bringing the month's total to 33 (see Jamaica Observer report).

Many things have hit people's real ability to spend, the world and national recession, but also special factors such as money no longer available through so-called 'alternative investment schemes' such as Cash Plus and OLINT, and a reduction in money coming from relatives' and friends' remittances from abroad.

Hard times hit we!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Mate, Marty

I would be lying if I said I remember exactly when I met Marty for the first time. But, I remember very well things that I have done with Marty and things he has said that I will cherish.

If Marty lived in the Caribbean, he might be called a reverse Oreo: white on the outside and black inside. Marty is cool and is a dude. Marty loves ceegars.

If Marty could grow locks he would be a real dread.

Marty is chili peppers; fresh, hot, green or red; growing in the kitchen or simmering in a pot.

Marty is eating Chesapeake Bay crabs on the deck: hammer, newspaper, Old Bay seasoning, beer, jokes...more crabs.

Marty is faith and religion and easiness with God. A loving spirit and an open heart.

Marty is beer and getting used to Jamaican rum, neat, with ice: "Phew! You guys like strong stuff."

Marty is Kensington, Maryland. Think: I lived in Kensington, London. I now live near Kensington Oval, Barbados--the shrine of West Indies cricket. Are we brothers or cousins or linked by blood that flowed before?

Marty looks nothing like me and looks just like himself.

Marty is 60 and does not look a day over 30. I guess that makes him timeless, May his spirit live on forever.

In a season of blessings how appropriate that his 60th birthday will fall on April, 13, Easter Monday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Whe' De Bun?

Many Christian countries have their Easter traditions. Jamaica has a few that are still well-known and followed.

On tradition is to put the white of an egg out on Holy Thursday night and to see what shape it has taken after the sun has risen on Good Friday morning and cooked it. After several hours, some older person will come to 'read' the egg. The shape of the egg will indicate future, for example, a ship or plane may signal travel.

One myth is that if you cut a physic nut tree (see its properties) at midday on Good Friday its sap runs red, while the rest of the year it is milky. It is believed that Jesus was crucified on such a tree.

The origin of eating bun or small cakes can go back to several ancient practices. In England, there are hot cross buns, with its not so subtle symbolism. In Jamaica, the eating of a larger spicy bun with (processed) cheese is the norm. For many people, this allowed people to eat without making a fire, which was not supposed to be lit before 3pm (when Jesus was supposed to have been brought down from the cross). Some parts of the country, like St. Elizabeth, where my mother came from, still make small 'hand' buns, which tend to not have fruits inside.

Many people do not eat meat during the 40 day Lenten period, and at the very least always eat fish on Good Friday, and some do not cook on that day (having prepared beforehand). But, fish,done many ways (fried, roasted, steamed, grilled, escoveitched and jerked) is very popular and is the main staple of nearly every household.

In Barbados, where I have never spent Easter, one good friend, tells me that church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday are musts, so too is a big lunch on that day to celebrate. For today, people are not supposed to go into the sea; she does not know why, but just grew up with that tradition.

Anyway, we will be having picnics, and flying kites and going to carnivals and all sorts of things, I know. Or, just resting that body that always seems tired. Some one just brought me some potato pudding (I was excited when he said it was duckunoo) and a plate of fresh papaya, water melon and bananas. So, my own cooling out continues.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Your Smock Is Smoking

For all the unease that women express about men's clubs, and being excluded from key corporate decision-making that takes place at the urinals, women are very effective at organizing support systems. Men, when they encounter these, often feel threatened that they represent some front organizations to make an assault not only on so-called male bastions, but simply on males.

Why am I not surprised that a group of three bright, beautiful, and intelligent Jamaican women, would form a thing called the 'Single Mother's Club'? Ostensibly, it's there so that the members can organize trips away. From what and whom, I was not told. I think, there are only three members, though I have met two. The 'leaderene' is petite, but clearly brassy, if not a bit sassy: "I'm the president because I did not go over to the dark side and marry my baby's father. My vice-president went that step too far, and must be punished by never reaching this top position." Can't touch that. The VP looked on with a sort of 'whatever' glance. But, even if destined to be no more than VP, Treasurer, Social Secretary, the permanent second seemed happy.

"Does your group have an acronym?" I asked, stupidly. So, I suggested SMOC (pronounced 'smock'), but immediately found that a little on the condescending side, with its overtones of permanent pregnancy. How about SMOC (pronounced 'smoke')? They did not seem in need of such an appellation, even though I had gone on in my mind to creating logos, and sportswear, and organizer bags, with the letters boldly showing. I got the impression that they were humouring me by not crushing my idea like a hazel nut in a cracker.

But, like with many things, its time may not yet be ripe. Let's see how they feel in a week's time.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Keeping A Job Is Hard Work

We are reaching the point in the current economic downturn that many people fear most. It's easy to be sanguine when you are still in your job while those around you are losing theirs. But that comfort quickly changes to fear and even panic when the job losses touch family and friends. In a small country like Barbados and many others in the Caribbean, such losses quickly take on a personal tinge.

Much discussion goes on in different places about living through the recession. I am not going to offer advice because personal circumstances are so different, that no sooner have I flagged my belt tightening that it indicates perhaps the excesses I practised before and perhaps how little real pain I am suffering relative to others. But sacrifice is sacrifice and it should not really be graded; everything is relative. It is a little ironic that we are in the Christian season of Lent, when the notion of personal sacrifice is perhaps most pressing.

Over the past year, I have been in touch with many who have left their employment, but all were like me, choosing to do that as our organization 'restructured'. For me, it was a formalization of something I was living: I was not on the payroll anymore, and living off my savings, which were supplemented by a severance package. I added to my savings by finding other ways to make and earn money. Many people took this change badly, having never imagine leaving their job until retirement age. Now, they had to deal with that departure some 10 years early. Each makes his or her adjustment to the new world. I personally like the freedom to do lots of things I want to and without the suffocating presence of a boss who can neither give direction or make good decisions. Having been my own boss for most of the preceding four years, it was perhaps easier for me. Now, the institution is rethinking the need to shed jobs and many are relieved that they can defer their departures; defer, not cancel. One such visited Barbados last week and asked about life 'in retirement'. I pointed out politely that I was still working. Some, who really retired, are looking wistfully at overtures to get them to come out of retirement.

In the past few weeks, I have heard from no one who has been fired, but I have spoken to friends in London, New York, and Kingston, who are now looking at empty offices and chairs where colleagues sat a few days ago. In some cases, it is the boss who has been axed. They feel lucky, but very uncomfortable. They have comments about 'how people were treated'. No one is telling any positive stories about the atmosphere in the work place. Whatever good employers feel is being done, it seems to be theoretical and not one that people feel they share in on a practical level.

In Barbados, the sense of fear expressed in public commentary about job losses has increased in recent weeks. Most dramatic was the lay-off of some 700 workers at a hotel/villa project on the west coast; this was indicated to be temporary, yet time has moved on but the work has not restarted. Several important companies have also reported job losses locally, after showing good group profits in the previous year (One Media Communications Group, Sagicor). Does that job shedding highlight problems with the Bajan entities? A major bank, FirstCaribbean International (with some 700 workers in Barbados) is rumoured to be due to lay off many workers: they acknowledge that they will be restructuring but that jobs cuts will be "small" with "no major one-time reductions" (see Nation report).

The number of jobs shed may be large or not, but they are all bad signs for many people. Many policy makers and business people are urging that job losses be a last option. We know that the lost job is part of a long chain of support and income and pride and self-esteem, and once the chain is broken much else may then have to be let loose. Someone asked the pertinent question last week whether welfare payments were a small price to pay for social stability. A similar question is often asked about the cost of cutting jobs. But, most companies are not social clubs or there to provide social welfare. These are not the days of Rowntree's and company towns with employers who cared from cradle to grave. So, how far should corporate concerns stretch beyond doing business well and trying to satisfy the needs of all who own them?

Without knowing the process that has gone on, we cannot say that the companies have not been creative before they decided to lay off staff, and we do not know if they have not indeed used their last option. What we need to probe generally and specifically is what else the companies have done. We often hear as companies fail of the spending excesses in their past--gold-plated executive latrines, junkets for staff, etc. How much of that has been pared before people have been shown the door?

Unemployed people may be visible but are not necessarily the first or only steps taken. But companies seem reluctant to make the case for the options they have taken. Is this a failure of public relations or is it that they really are being savage and heartless, and therefore do not want to show that clearly? Job losses are emotional and to be regretted, but I think we should make sure that employers fulfill a duty of painting the full picture. The absence of frankness tells us many things, some bad, some good. In the absence of fact, people will speculate, naturally.

Are people being dismissed because functions have been reduced or can be done as efficiently with fewer people? If machines have been made idle as well as labour shed, what implications might that have for others who depend on the business?

Yesterday, Minister of Environment, Water Resources and Drainage, Denis Lowe, went on the war path about the ethics of some public sector workers. He warned supervisors for lapses in their duties, and asked for a day’s work for a day’s pay: he flagged the practice of the morning arrival, identifying of areas to be worked on, then returning in mid-afternoon often when workers had gone. Sounds like executives taking taking work time to go and play golf or watch a baseball or cricket game. The Minister made clear that while the ministry's programmes may go, on they may be without some of these people. Clearly, some have not realised that their jobs are a privilege not a right.

This did not sound like a criticism of workers as a whole, but is an indicator of how the ‘social contract’ between employers, workers, and government is playing out.

In the tourism sector, the sighs of relief are loud because no major hotel closures have been announced. But, are some inevitable? If foreign arrivals are due to decline, and if spending by foreign tourists is due to fall, how is the sector going to stay afloat? Air Jamaica's cutting its New York-Barbados service is not in the face of overwhelming demand on the route, and comes on the back of its earlier cut of the service between Barbados-Jamaica. Advanced bookings are reported to be at their lowest. This stung me personally as I tried to book a trip to Jamaica for Easter, but left me with at least a very acceptable alternative using Caribbean Airways. My family are headed to New York but almost never used Air Jamaica for that route, because of the lack of daily options, preferring American Airlines. Will those lost customers ever feel ready to go back to Air Jamaica?

Where will the ripples end?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

How Green Is This Pleasant Land?

Has the irony been lost on Barbados? It has two famous landfill sites. One is called Mangrove (see Nation report) and the other is called Greenland. Hardly anything natural can grow in the Mangrove (see how the bulldozer works). The Greenland site is notable for not being a green sight in the midst of what could be some green and pleasant land. Eye catching, isn't it.

Much as I would want to applaud the sensible treatment of waste, I am not a lover of landfills. Like for many things, we have an answer that is a palliative for a problem and not dealing with the underlying problems. Barbados has grown quite quickly in the past 50 years and people have become very acquisitive. But, most new goods are not natural and do not decay; they linger longer than we do (plastic bags, metal items, rubber goods, etc.). We have therefore gone for the easy route of legalised dumping, not that which challenges core behaviour.

People complain that this country is too small to house its population adequately and at the same time oversee giving large swathes of land to garbage. Much noise (dare I say it) is made about waste and garbage and disrespect for the environment and littering. You only need to drive a short distance anywhere, from the gritty, downtrodden housing areas near the south coast, to the areas adjacent to the stooshy mansions on the west coast, to see dumping and trash piling up. A casual drive will see at least a few missiles flying from moving cars as people jettison what is left from their meals (polystyrene food boxes, or plastic drinks bottles).

I applaud Mr. Paul Bynoe (owner of B's Bottles) who has now developed a car compactor at his existing recycling plant. Sure, it's business but it is a least an attempt to make less from the more that is there. Sending the compacted metal off to be melted and reworked somewhere seems like good sense to me. Until we get bio-degradable fridges and cars, this has to be one of the better options, not filling holes with used Hondas and Frigidaires.

Digging holes and filling them with trash is not a good environmental solution. Last time I read there was plenty of evidence about how toxic material leaches into water systems and then take decades for their bad effects to show up.

Do we really give two hoots about the next generation? More whistling in the wind.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Wants A Pun? It's Time For Word Play.

I love puns. I probably see them too often, if such a thing is possible. Take a simple parting yesterday. My tennis partner was rushing home so that he and his wife could walk on the sand by the sea. "Go ahead. See you week after next," I said. His reply of "I'm glad you understand that I must satisfy the beach," made me blurt out with laughter. He looked on perplexed.

I enjoyed the latest Saturday's Child column, by Tony Deyal in the Nation (see article), which was about puns. One of the better ones was when he was talking to a friend attending an environmental conference, and the friend said: "Sounds like you're having a hail of a good time. However, remember that hail hath no fury like a woman stoned. All hail. Tony." His friend was raining supreme.

I sometimes think that people take themselves too seriously and certainly see too rarely the humour in what they say. Last week, at the market, we had almost a good half hour that was based on puns, double entendre and other word play. Two friends were telling us about their night together at dance class; one friend's wife was listening intently. What we got was "We spent the night in each other's arms, with our bodies close and our legs often tangled. It was so tiring and sweaty." Needing elaboration, we heard from the lady. "He never took his hands off me." Asked how they stayed the course during the night, they gladly told us "We were not going to let the other couple lick us. They would have to be satisfied with the bottom place this time." We laughed ourselves silly.

Every time I see a picture of Barbados' police commissioner, Darwin Dottin, I cannot help quipping to myself "Are Dottin's eyes really crossed, or is it just his tease."

If you really need a laugh you can check the 'A pun a day' website. Today's was a well-worn one: “I once worked at a factory that made boat paddles. The starting pay was ten dollars an oar.”

Some of the Barbadian politicians are good for a laugh when you repeat their errant mutterings. But, they also offer play time with their names. Former PM, Owen Arthur, and the current leader of the Opposition, Mia Amor Mottley, each lend themselves to good word play. "Me, a mere motley collection of Bajan parts ...", "Owing half a [term of your choice]..." With the House of Assembly having a cast including Blackett, Best, Lowe, Marshall, Paul, Payne, Toppin, and Todd, there's plenty for the witty to play with.

I am not going back to the US presidential election campaign, and we had a good time with Gov. Palin, who is now paling back in the cold of Alaska after truly paling in comparison to Sen. Obama.

So, now I have another outlet if I get frustrated with how events are turning out. I wont just play dumb and gripe.

Just Thinking. Just Thoughts. REDUX

As I thought further about the way people often jump to say "Get up and get yourself a job", I read in today's papers how Appeals Court Judge, Peter Williams, said yesterday "The Courts must denounce strongly the sexual exploitation of [young working women and girls]... by their employers and supervisors" and that a "rape culture" must not be allowed to develop (see Nation report). I cannot speak from experience of low wage work, but have heard enough anecdotes on this subject and also am aware of its manifestation in higher-paid work areas. One can even get rid of the adjective 'young'.

What then should a young mother think if caught without a job and wondering what sacrifices to make to earn money or if she should take welfare assistance? Try a little thing on your own, that may pay poorly, but keep you away from the clutches of some rapacious boss? Or look for a job and then find that next time you are on a step ladder stacking the shelves that said boss is looking up at your handiwork?

When I think of advice to give my three daughters (ranging from 5 to 21+) about a working life and what to prepare themselves for, I must remember to warn them that for a woman getting a job sometimes comes with literally some unwanted attention and attendant personal risks.

So Much Whistling In The Wind

If one were to listen to the call-in programs only or read some of the local blogs only, it would be easy to get the impression that Barbados is seething with discontentment. That may indeed be the prevailing sentiment. In which case, you would have to wonder about the sort of saccharin-like coverage of many topics in the print media; I cannot talk much about TV, as I rarely watch Channel 8. I have yet to read an in-depth analysis of a local subject over an extended period. True, topics get touched upon but that contact is very much in the kiss-and-run variety. I have noted before a tendency to make noise and do little. In keeping with the Greek tradition of never finishing your house, it means that you can always go back to complaining. But I wonder if people never tire of the huffing and puffing.

As a quick example, take the blasted African snails. Bajans seem to hate them and worry about the ravages they are reeking. The standard means of attack, bait pellets, don't seem to have done the trick (seen it, and went to plan B). In part, this is because not everyone has bothered to get bait (I cannot control my neighbours, and snails though slow, can climb); or the bait was not available for those who wanted to try it (been to the office, told to come back after lunch; went back and 'the man' was still not there; went again the next day and was told that I needed to go to Carters (they do it right, right).

Another example, concerns the tragic killing of a Canadian tourist and some late-in-the-day government measures to beef up security on the beaches. What do we see a few days after the news comes out that Ms. Schwarzfeld died? Centre-fold colour pictures of English tourists, imitating lobsters, and lying on the sand and saying "We luv Ba'bados, mate. Is really safe 'ere." Is that as serious as it can get? Wonderful, that the local police will have Segways to troll along some of the walking areas. I can only see them being useful if not on the sand, but I am glad to be corrected.

It may be the inability to arrange a drink-up in a brewery syndrome, as is evident each time there is cricket at Kensington Oval, and the plans that worked so well last time have been eatn by the dog. So, someone tries to remember what was done, but forgets key steps:

"You 'member to fin' de key for de toylet? No? Let's hope dat no one get lock' in, eh." Or,
"Did one of you fix that problem with the tickets? We dont want five people fighting over one seat and them all having the same ticket number."
"I hear dat de English comin' wi' plenty fans. We gine mek a killin' at de concession stan'. Lookee, how dey does all line up in de hot sun trying to buy dey ticket."

Problem is, everyone concerned can duck responsibility because the limit for complaining is usually 48 hours, then move on.

Thankfully, as soon as a real problem of major national importance has to be dealt with and the image of the country saved, there is either the national or West Indies cricket team shaming everybody. Then, Bajans can really let loose, and talk and talk and talk...about creeket. Better still, there may be a Rihanna sighting at the airport. Quick! Let's jump up and hail to our queen: "You all need leev de girl alone fi decide if she gine stey wid Chris. Lovers does have dere fights."

So, I will also bury my head in the sand and see if I can look into the caves underneath. No need to worry that I cannot see any pylons that might stop the house falling through the ground and into the void beneath.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Just Thinking. Just Thoughts.

Honestly, I have not been able to focus on a single thing for the past few days. Not because my mind was wandering, but simply that the things I thought about kept on bumping into each other.

Good friends were off the island in London: he was gallivanting around as a kind of financial 'wonder boy'; she was was hoping to follow his tracks at least to London and catch up with friends; their children hoped to have a good time. I, on thinking about them, could just visualize north London's hilly charm, Hampstead Heathand the great view of the City of London. 'Wonder Boy' was whistling around airports and on trains under The English Channel, and getting undeserved grand treatment in various European capitals, including Bratislava. I still like him, but just a little more than before.

The G20 Summit was taking place in London. Having been in the 'think tank' part of the IMF, I knew what was going on behind the scenes in terms of trying to craft a draft communiqué that would reflect most of the key points important to the various leaders and their 'camps'. It is always amazing that the communiqué then seemed to please the leaders and indicate commitment to make changes that would help move out of the current financial crisis (see communiqué). I know all too well that commitment and action are very far apart.

Associated with the Summit was a series of protest 'against' many things. Many violent acts took place outside my former place of work, the Bank of England, and again, I could visualize people with bandannas around their faces, facing off with the police, who with little else than their funny helmets, tried to keep order.Reports I read indicate that one person died during the 'peaceful' protests and that at one time, the police medics were under a hail of bottles while trying to aid the person concerned.

I thought a lot about the effect of the recession on people's lives. I was asked to make comments on the radio about living through the recession, but had had so much fun screaming for West Indies on Sunday as they put on a good show against England, that I had no voice. In fact, I had no good voice for about three days. My writing seemed to dry up because I could not speak. But, I know the recession in Barbados is not the same as that being experienced by friends of mine working for financial companies in London or Jamaica, who told me how the axe came close to their heads, but not quite onto their necks. I had to offer my comments and observations in writing, and I suspect that they seemed flatter for that. It's an ironic situation, where those who are still afloat and with some funds can do well: upscale restaurants in New York are offering low-cost fixed-price menus; foreclosed homes now make good investments for some first-time buyers; many banks are available for purchase. Yet, some odd downsides are appearing: one instance is that people seem less willing to take options to work at home or telecommute, fearing that this shows a lack of commitment (an old chestnut) and makes them easier to chop.

I eventually found voice for a discussion on the radio on the local welfare system, and to ask for more consideration for so-called able-bodied people who are on welfare. Being able-bodied seems to be some standard synonym for 'should be in a job'. An able-bodied single mother spoke about getting B$250 a month for two children, and that she did not like that welfare payments had been cut. The children's father was not providing any support. The lady said that she was 'selling juices' etc. locally to supplement her income. She did not want to call it a business because she felt it was a very small undertaking. No one seemed interested in knowing what was her cost of living: the possible cost of child care if she was not at home; whether she might have other dependents, etc; the cost of rent/lodging; her own food costs. A lot of 'she needs to get herself a job'. This in the same week when we read of profitable companies in Barbados (One Caribbean Media Group and Sagicor) laying off staff. We have heard how the welfare department's officers are overloaded, so seem unable to either verify who should still be on welfare, if some should get more welfare, what options welfare recipients should be offered, etc. I could not help but have a wry smile and shake my head as I remembered the old Welfare Department Office, standing derelict on the main south coast road.

I spent a lot of time arguing with various people about what is going on in the Barbadian economy. Some see everything as the 'fault' of the new government: as soon as they took office, everything went sour and the company went to the dogs. This would suggest that the country has an on/off switch that is flipped as the old administration leaves and the new one takes office. A lot of statements are so baseless as to be ridiculous, and seem to come even louder and strident when the evidence is clearly to the contrary. I am not a partisan so I cannot have the mindset needed to blame everything I dislike on my political adversaries, but it's been exercising my mind to try to thing along with partisans. It's really tiring.

So, the week has gone.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A Sudden Change

The Government of Barbados begins its financial year on April 1. However, for some time now, officials have been concerned that the calendar and financial years do not coincide. In an executive decision made today, the financial and calendar years will be brought together with immediate effect. As the calendar year is already under way the Government will make a transitional arrangement for the rest of 2009. To that effect, from today, April 1 will be regarded as January 1 for transactions with the Government, and this will be reflected in all official documents henceforth. This arrangement will last for nine months so that from January 1, 2010, the financial and calendar years can truly coincide.

The Government realises that this change is abrupt and may cause some disruptions. However, they are prepared to be understanding and deal with all queries. Those who feel that they need further help may call the Government Online Transition Year Authority Hot-line (G.O.T.Y.A.H.) on 426 264 3468 or (I-A-M-A-N-I-D-I-O-T on your keypad).