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, July 28, 2009

On The Trail Of The Snark

I'm not afraid to say that I have only a shallow understanding of Barbadians. You cannot say you know a people just from the contacts you have with those people, and two years is no time to get to know a lot of people. I've been married a total of 30 plus years and understanding is still a work in progress.

You get to learn a lot from those personal contacts, but it's important to remember that sometimes you are shown what people are prepared to let you see--and that can be both the good and the bad sides. The good can draw you in, if that is desired; the bad can ward you off, if that is preferred. But I am on the trail to get to know the inner Bajan. I get a sense of it dismissive side even when I do not have on my hunting gear. "You are a Jamaican. What can you tell us? Your country is so full of killers and killing and drugs and filth. Go back to where you came from!" Or a variation on the theme. Sometimes mere observation on my part can lead to an assault that is like a fusillade from a hunting rifle: "Why are you telling us what to do? You just came here? What do you know?" Or variations on that theme. It does not take much wit to say that because I have travelled a lot and seen a lot that I may know a lot more about what happens in the greater world than I see on this lovely rock of 166 square miles.

But that sort of observation comes from someone who is clearly an 'uppity educated newcomer'. That's some insult. As I would retort, let's hear it from the cobwebbed, know your place dummies of the world. You get a sense why some Americans cannot deal with the likes of Barack Obama (too educated and definitely very uppity, a newcomer of many degrees--not counting those he got from the Ivy League schools) or Louis Gates (super educated and so uppity that he does not let a policeman just walk into his house uninvited; and what is he doing coming to live in that stooshy neighbourhood?). Here's to progress. Onward! I doff my cap at that well know 'uppity educated' Barbadian, Errol Barrow, who once called Ronald Reagan "a cowboy" and a "zombie". He also ushered in free education in Barbados. What was he thinking? He could have saved taxpayers billions and put on a few good wuk up shows. Tschoupse!

Someone offered me alternatives to 'uppity' in good Bajan parlance and said that I was perhaps 'poor great' (a person of modest means or circumstances who may or may not have achieved a higher level of education/financial means/influence and acts and speaks in a haughty manner; this person avoids his or her old friends and may claim not to recognise common Bajan utensils, e.g. cou cou stick). I confirmed that I was not 'poor rakey' (of no account e.g. the West Indies Cricket Team or like a mongrel dog). I thought that I may be poor (but only in a relative sense), but neither 'great' nor 'rakey'.

I had a couple of weekend encounters with some deeply concerned and highly expressive groups of Barbadians, plus a passing encounter with their opposites--some highly charged, post-partying Barbadian youths. Both gave me some sight of the inner Bajan. My expressive friends--Bajan to the core and fiercely proud of themselves and their nation and compatriots, and experienced with life in the US or England. One lady told me the essence of "see me and don't see me" and "keep my name off your mouth". Her basic point was that foreigners need to understand that for many Bajans their observations come like needles into a thin skin, and the more the observations are made, the more the skin gets pierced and gets sore. See and don't see. Come here but do not do more than be respectful visitors.

Some other acquaintances told me of their own frustrations when trying to discuss things that they saw as in need of improvement. Having come back from England and gone back to live in their old local areas and near their families, it was somewhat like needing to pretend that things had not changed over the decades and carry on regardless. Please do not come and tell us how it is done in England. This is Barbados. Part of that also extends to less willingness to expose oneself to social comparison, which means a certain willingness to remain isolated even within a community setting. I've discussed this before in the context of how people view neighbourliness, but I had not had it presented to me by Barbadians who were living with the exclusion.

I am going to think more about my close encounter with the youthful kind. It was harmless and interesting but it had its troubling undercurrent, but I need to not jump too fast or too far.

The vocal moods of local people often leave foreigners with the distinct impression that any comment that does not drip with syrup and praise is taken as unwarranted criticism. In fact, the reaction to comments seem programmed and before any time could have been taken to read correctly, the conclusion is made that a criticism has been made and the autopilot starts to fly off the handle. People like me find this very irritating, especially when what is being said is merely a repetition of what some Bajan or several Bajans of note have written or said? Why can Tony Marshall say "What are the facts?" but I cannot. Why can some prominent Bajan say "We love to complain but we do nothing" but I cannot. Why cannot I share the observation that no one follows rules and everyone expects things to somehow get better at the time? Where does this sense of denial start? It certainly extends beyond a reaction to foreigners' comments as David Ellis found when he had the temerity to ask the PM a question in Guyana, about immigration policy, whose answer did not reflect the country in a positive light. Oh, now I get it. The PR machine that everyone oils is that which says all that is good we claim as our work and all that is bad is the work of the devils from other shores or those ungrateful nationals who are doing nothing to build this country into the superpower that it is destined to be. If Barbados had gone through a period of communism this mind washing would be more understandable.

I sense a lot of tension in the lives that people now lead--that is not unique in the modern world. Some of this is the understandable dislocation that comes from losing a simple way of life and dealing with a complicated one. Barbados has many trappings of a truly rural society, but it has passed rapidly toward an economy and society that has dispensed with agriculture, but yet cannot stand firmly enough. Barbados has no major income source except its tourism and offering mainly financial services. It cannot feed itself and so must earn enough to import its needs. I spoke about this when I was at a local eatery and some people agreed that moving from the 'old' Barbados to the 'new' Barbados has been an uncomfortable journey. The simplicity of life has gone. People do not want to grow sugar but they do not want to grow food either. So, when I walk the beach and see men casting lines and pulling in one or two fish, I see something very normal, but now also very rare.

Industry is not something that Barbados has in abundance. I do not mean the ability to work, but the presence of factories and places that make many things. The discipline of modern life is often reflected in the rhythm of the factory. But, much of Caribbean life is based on a different pattern and is much looser. Part of that, I have often argued, is a reaction to the days of being 'yoked' to a plough or consigned to hours in the sun working cane (or cotton) as slaves. People go to the other extreme and taking it is easy is now our right. After 400 years, people deserve a break. But, the modern world does not buy into that. A corollary of the easy life approach comes from no sense of obligation to be at work. I have heard some stories about people needing to take time out of the office but not seeing that there was an obligation to advice their employer or supervisor (just not coming back after lunch, say) or taking umbrage that they needed to verify the reasons for the time off. I spoke to a manager of a gas station some weeks ago who explained how a bit of rain or a heavy night would mean that his staff did not show up for work. But this is institutionalised: how can the frequent radio announcements that parents need to come to collect children from schools because there is no water or some hazard make sense with their implied acceptance that people can just leave their places of work and deal with this 'situation'?

Barbados is a beautiful island. My Yardee friends need not skin up their teeth and roll their eyes. It does not have the lush beauty of Jamaica or even Dominica (to which I hope to make a first stopping visit this weekend, having only seen it from the air or from the tarmac of Roseau airport). Its beauty ought to offer solace. It is not the harsh environment of a granite covered wasteland, or the mind boggling emptiness of say the Sahara Desert. But do people feel soothed?

A people is also its food. The French know the importance of food (Napoleon was reflecting that when he said "An army marches on its stomach".) I have discovered a little of the Barbados that food-driven, as in the lime and pudding and souse on a Saturday. That is when pressure is off and life seems good. For people like myself who have the opportunity to work at a very flexible pace it's easy to see such times as the norm. But they are not. Although the industrial rhythm is not what dictates here, the office life and school life rhythms are important and both are demanding--subject to time off for water leaks, etc. Time for food has become an after thought. Chefette and KFC are places for meals taken in haste, and are to be avoided at all costs for that reason alone--the nutrition issue is a red herring (sorry for the mixed metaphor). So too is the van parked on the street, dispensing meals to those who are in the adjacent buildings. Sitting down and eating during the day should not be a luxury. There is a good reason why most of France and Spain come to a grinding halt in the middle of the day. People go for lunch--home, restaurant, wherever. For a good two hours, too, and then for a nap. I tend to have my meals at home. Whenever I go out to eat I only see people walking around with polystyrene containers in white plastic bags. Those sitting down are either tourists and expats (by that I mean white Europeans) with very few locals (by that I mean black people). The only exceptions I have seen tend to be at places like Ackee Tree or Kingston 10, but both are small. Roads are not packed at lunchtime, which suggests that people have not moved to go and eat; most places do not have canteens on their premises. By contrast, come lunch time in Jamaica and you cannot move on the streets. True, many people are in a patty shop or in Island Grill. I was shocked to find Muster's. Not for its food but for how few people seem to go there. It's like taking lunch in the British Library, it's so quiet.

So, my pursuit of the inner Bajan continues. I am nowhere near bagging my target. No matter how elusive he or she wants to be I will keep on the trail.


islandgal246 said...

I have lived in Barbados since 1967 and today am still considered a foreigner. I speak almost like a bajan but that dosen't make a difference. I realize that Bajans do not like anyone except for white people from over and away. They hate islanders and Bajans who have lived abroad. They even dislike the young ones who have gone to school overseas and have come back to look for work. To sum it up they do not like themselves, they do not like to be called black and deny that they are descendants of slaves. They treat their own with contempt and are not an enabling society. You invite them to your house for a meal and they will never reciprocate. They have a standard of living for white people and one for black. When a black person aspires to move up and live in a well to do area they say that that person wants to be white. I get cussed by neighbours for cutting my grass and keeping around me clean. I have learnt to live my life and choose my friends carefully. I have created my piece of heaven and many would say to me 'you got nuff work to do in your garden'. This is small island life and sometimes we are lucky to find a few gems amongst the locals. I am still hoping to meet persons who are of similar mind like myself.

venturemike said...

Barbados is not alone - both you, Dennis, and islandgal246 could be describing Scotland, Ireland or many other places with an identifiable indigenous community where some citizens practice a sort of reverse snobbery - if you leave us, travel and return or move in from elsewhere, don't think you can bring your smart ideas with you ! It's even true of country towns where to head for the big city, means you're a 'stranger' when you return.

Is it a sin to be proud of the community of which you feel part (however you define 'community')? And, a sin to be defensive to the point of giving offence to those who criticise? Even if that appears "cobwebbed"?

(Isn't it strange that Jewish, Polish or Irish people tell the best Jewish, Polish or Irish jokes but resent it when a 'stranger' tells the same joke?)

I'm part of a community now which seems to want to open the door to all comers - leaving a minority group wondering just exactly where their identity can be found. I can't tell whether that's good or bad. (There's a sneaking feeling in me that says that some 'outsiders', with little to contribute, are taking unfair advantage of a society which my ancestors have worked hard to build)

I've long admired Australians for their ability to be fiercely defensive of their national identity, proud of their convict past (even to the point of boasting which convict ship their ancestors arrived in!), remorseful and rectifying about their past treatment of the aboriginal community, and yet welcoming of in-comers who can add to the 'common wealth'. How do they do it - and are they getting it right?

Is it good to be proud of who you are and where you hail from? Or is it bombastic and boorish to defend what you have against what you percieve as threatening change from the outside world?

Keep going Dennis, but you'll probably disover that the inner Bajan has the same look as most of the rest of world ! Like a stick of rock - it'll have the words "human being" running right through the middle !


Anonymous said...


You are spot on! And I truly thought that someone like Denis (who I only know from his writing) would understand this.

I urge Denis to read a little piece by John Hearne (a perceptive, thoughtful Jamaican writer) writing in the New World Journal at the time of Barbadian independence that investigates in a forthright way what the Barbadian means to him. This inquiry by Denis is not new or perceptive. It is as old as the Dominica Hills.

I find Denis' treatment of this subject to be a superficial, weak and surface dismissal of the real strengths of Barbados and Barbadians.

We have had little but we have done alot with it and those who don't like it can go and jerk chicken!

Dennis Jones said...

Anonymous, Mike is not spot on, in the sense that no two places are the same, and sense of community needs to have an openness especially when its basis is a total accident, as is the case of the islands that are the legacy of slavery.

My time living in rural north Wales showed me a side of small community life that is not the same as in Barbados, nor is it the same as on small Bahamian islands that I have visited. And yes it may be shallow, but I indicated as such at the outset: "I'm not afraid to say that I have only a shallow understanding of Barbadians." I've read Hearne, and like those who have done a deep study, his work will get the credit that is due. I have also read Gordon Lewis' work on The Growth of the Modern West Indies, and I suggest a study of his views too. His opening lines are "It is difficult to speak of Barbados except in mockingly derisory terms..." Why would a history scholar open with that? He views Bim as having the structural configuration of Victorian England. He adds that 'Educational culture...meant...the ornamental development of the privileged individual, not the general enlightenment of a community".

North Wales was fascinating for the fact that antipathy toward outsiders was mainly directed against the English or English speakers: I was not English in local eyes, and I also learned to speak Welsh. By the same token, Japan, a much bigger country has some of the most insular attitudes one can encounter, so there is more to the whole story than size or location.

Anonymous said...

I'm not arguing any of those points. Gordon Lewis' comments are conditioned by little known prejudices in relation to Barbados for almost the same reasons in your lead. Errol Barrow explained in an article - edited by Gordon Lewis himself - and published by the University of Florida - why Gordon Lewis (his great friend) passionately and unobjectively despised Barbados. I will get the reference for you.

The point I am making is the same point you appear to be making but then immediately shoot down with references to other countries where you have lived.

The point: no two places are the same. No two slave societies are the same. No two people are the same.

Your investigation is futile because you start with inherent prejudices about Barbados. Following your writing for a while, listening to you on the radio (especially after the Budget) and picking up your trend of thought generally make you most predictable on this issue.

That doesn't mean you are wrong. You are just human.

In relation to Barbados and the Barbadian: it is better to have an abundance of good qualities, some of which may sour than to have none at all (apologies to Hearne - a Jamaican).

Your comments, for example, on Barbados Underground about immigration are really ahistorical in nature. They fail to appreciate certain historical facts that differentiate Barbados even from its closest historical parallel - St. Kitts. Or Guyana from Trinidad. Or that tiny island that houses both the English and the Welsh.

There are those who love us and those who don't. Do the Welsh care? Or the Japanese? Why should we?

Dennis Jones said...

Anon (you need a handle or I have to figure out how not to violate my own policy. I can make one up, but I prefer not to). I look forward to the Barrow points. My investigation is like many things about living, an exploration, from which I hope to learn. I would not say it's futile unless I accept that I have no interest in people, which is not at all true.

I would argue that to say 'ahistorical' is not right. If you mean I ignore a certain context, then maybe. Many comments are also 'locked in history' as if nothing can or will change. I think that is as bad or as good.

The focus on 'do we care?' is somewhat different if you are basing an economy on 'hospitality', which I would argue means you better care or pretend you do.

Sargeant said...

Are Bajans any different from Jamaicans or Trinidadians or any of the other islanders? What do you think would happen if I e.g. went to Jamaica or Trinidad and jumped with both feet into their local politics or social interaction, do you think I would be welcome with open arms?

People don’t mind criticism when it comes from their own but they hate it when the critic is perceived to be an outsider even if the criticism is valid. That’s why in the eyes of the Bajan public Tony Marshall can ask questions and you may be pilloried for asking the same. Sometimes even criticizing one’s own is fraught with danger- ask John Kerry- by the end of his Presidential campaign he was portrayed as a reluctant soldier and foreigner (French) to boot.

As someone who lived in Quebec during the early days of the PQ and Rene Levesque I certainly knew when to keep quiet (not that my voice was sought or important). Other critical voices from the other provinces were dismissed as “maudit anglais”. One certainly was aware of one’s status as an outsider.

I don’t mind your commentary or criticism but don’t be surprised if others feel otherwise