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**

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mountain Tensions Calmed Spirits

If you have never visited Jamaica, you cannot begin to imagine what the Blue Mountains are like. If you have never driven up toward Catherine's Peak from Kingston, you cannot begin to imagine how a city could have such breathtaking beauty casting its shadow from on high. People who live in those mountains retain much of the simplicity and generosity that one finds in many rural areas in Jamaica. Young children walking from school idle their time away pulling bushes; older ones will pick berries and guavas. Old ladies who work in one of the large houses that dot the mountainsides or little valley will tell you all of their business if they feel that they know you or that you know the people for whom they work. They will love you more if you know the church to which they go and the recent funerals that have taken place. The water you drink is so sweet and refreshing. The mango and ackee trees that overhang the road offer fresh fruit all year round. But there are dangers, or apparent dangers.

I took a drive up to Newcastle and then to Hollywell National Park today, both situated about 4000 feet above sea level. Newcastle is the site of a Jamaican Defence Force training camp, established nearly 170 years ago by Field Marshal Sir William Gomm (see Jamaica Defence Force site). Gomm pressed for years for the construction of the camp, believing that its location in the cool environment would help reduce deaths among the soldiers. He pressed ahead to start building without government approval, but with the approval of the Governor. After the camp was built, the declining death rolls at the camp vindicated Gomm's actions. the camp is now filled with young recruits.

As my friend drove up the hill we were startled by a young man in fatigues and floppy hat coming out of the bush to stop the car. "Please. There is shooting. You will have to wait." I misheard him to say "There has been a shooting..." My antenna went up fast. I asked the young man what ID he had and how we could be sure that he was not a bandit waiting for us to stop and then become his latest victim. He understood how things could be construed, but politely explained what was going on. He explained to us that other young recruits were having target practice some 100 meters away. We asked where the bullets were heading. He said "Up there," pointing further up the road. You cannot see flying bullets and we were scared that a stray bullet might hit us. We looked at the red flag draped from a tree. Red means danger. We argued no more. So, we parked and waited and talked to Taxter Kay. After 10 minutes he heard the all-clear whistle and allowed us to go on. We moved on and drove through the camp. We watched the marching drills briefly before heading on to Hollywell, passing many fine, large houses nestled off the road. Young men walked along with their cutlasses on shoulders and knives in hand.

When we reached Hollywell, our breath just went into the air. So quiet and so lush. We enjoyed the gazebos. The solitude. The falling mist. The cool air.We walked around and looked at the many varieties of trees. Not a soul was there and we heard no birds. We imagined how it was at weekends or during holidays, when people would take the long drive up from town to have picnics. As the mist descended the light faded fast. We decided to return to the city as it was now late afternoon.

On our return trip we passed the camp again and wanted to picture the recruits. They wanted to be pictured too and some posed. I also took some video clips with my mobile phone. We were mesmerised by the way the instructors treated them. Roughly but kind would be a good description. "Look, you tall piece of wood. Make those arms move." "You know what you are? A de tall man dem a mash up de platoon. You are just one LBW. Long, big, and wutless." "When I say left, I mean left. Left is not right. I want to meet your teacher." The instructors hummed the tunes to which the recruits would march. Tum, Tum , Te Tum, Tum, Te Tum, Te Tum, Te Tum. They walked alongside then behind the recruits, along the parade ground, again and again. Like sheep dogs corralling the flock. The young soldiers looked awkward but never uttered a word.

We left the recruits to their fate and proceeded down the hill. The target practice was still going on and we were met by another halt-who-goes-there young recruit, this time named Dominic. I asked him if he was a priest. "No, sir," came the reply. We asked more questions about the shooting practice and he told us the same story as had Tasker. I asked him what he had done before and he said that he had worked as a customer service agent for a calling centre. I quipped that he was now customarily serving as an agent of his country. He smiled. I asked him what he was being trained to do. "Protect the country," he said. I asked again what he was being 'trained' to do. He got the idea: "Kill, sir." I asked him if he looked forward to shooting people: "YES, SIR!" I asked him who would he shoot: "Who ever needed shooting, sir." There. I had it. He was very polite about how he was treated at the camp. He slept when he was allowed to; yes, sometimes he would not have sleep. He said that discipline was good. I asked if the recruits had contact with families and friends during their 3 month stints. No. Did they get to sneak in 'people of the opposite persuasion'. "NO, SIR!" It was lock down. Fatigues. Being fed. Drills. Target practice. Discipline. I wondered about ideas for national service for Jamaica to deal with the errant youths. Dominic got the all-clear. "Affirmative, sir!" We could pass on. He thanked us for our patience and wished us a good day. How quickly the young men had absorbed the demeanour of a soldier.

We had taken lunch at a hillside cafe and the baked chicken and rice and peas tasted sweeter than usual; so did the water. We realised that food cooked with the spring waters of Catherine's Peak, which is up near Newcastle, gave a special flavour. We drank glasses of the water as if they were nectar.The coffee and tiramisu likewise tasted special. We had promised to stop again for a glass of water on the way home. The sweetness had increased. Delicious, fresh water.

We picked up an old lady who wanted a ride to town. She told us all we needed to know about people whom we barely know. She was comfortable with our kindness. We dropped her at Red Light, her village, and she looked at the rum shop and then up at her church alongside. "Bless you," she said. "Walk good," we said.

We rolled down to the hill to Papine, the little market area at the top of Hope Road, near UWI. For many who lived up the mountain, Papine WAS town. For them it was always Kingstown, not Kingston. These people lived in a world apart. I wished I could join them.

1 comment:

Drey said...

You love that country.