Mark Wignall: Jamaica, Where Poverty and Plenty Dance Together

Jamaica News, March 28, 2018

Jamaica, Where Poverty and Plenty Dance

In the 1980’s when I lived in Havendale, 50-something  year old Wally was the regular lawn man for me, you know, the kind of relationship where he just shows up with his lawnmower because he knows that it is time.

During times of drought, Wally suffered but he never failed to keep his woman pregnant. In time the many girl children he fathered grew up and they too began to have children in their mid teens.

Whenever I kept functions at my home, I would invite Wally. When he showed up he was quite content to sit quietly by himself with three or four or five drinks of rum, a plate of food and then later, extras to take home as he walked unsteadily up the road.

Fast forward to 2015. I see Wally’s big daughter and she tells me that ‘him well sick.’ A few days later I follow the directions up the narrow zinc fence lane off Mannings Hills Road and visit Wally. All around me is persistent poverty.

Wally is lying on one of two beds placed beside each other in a room that can barely hold them. There is hardly any space to walk in the room. Immediately outside the room, is the kitchen which is basically two tables on a crudely paved area outside. On one table is a small pile of dishes and dented pots. On the other is a small two burner gas stove. The bathroom is outside.


And that was the extent of the house. Two beds sleeping about eight people including a terminally ill Wally.

The week after that I am invited to a New Years’ Eve party. My rich friend has a house in the hills. Ten minutes from the stark, bare poverty of Wally’s narrow dirt lane and his stuffy room and the kitchen outside the house by his door.

My friend has six cars parked beneath the lower floor of his three-storey mansion on the hills in upper St. Andrew. I eat barbecued lobster and beef tenderloin and vegetables on wooden skewers. Whisky, wine, cognac and other expensive fare. Everyone there has a brand name.

I steal a moment to wonder why during all the time Wally was fit to cut my lawn it never occurred to me to find out how he lived. Could I have helped? Probably not. But, at the very least it would have moved my heart  in the direction of more empathy and understanding.

In an article from New Scientist- The Inequality Delusion, the following is stated, ‘Take the wealth of the eight richest people on the planet and combine it. Now do the same for the poorest 3.5 billion. The two sums are the same, £350 billion. Correct: just eight people own as much wealth as half of the world’s population.’

No studies that I know have ever been done in Jamaica, that perfectly captures the inequality gap here, but it is fair to say from just simple observation of conspicuous consumption of goods and services, that those at the top in Jamaica have reaped most of the economic benefits in this country, in the period from the 1980’s to now.

Another way of looking at it is that, only small percentages of those at the bottom of the pile are actually moving out of that classification and stepping up into lower middle and the middle classes. All one has to do is look at the late model fancy cars on the road and the persistence of squatter communities across Jamaica.

Granted, many people uptown are cross-cultural animals and will readily sit at a two-stool bar on Maxfield Avenue or in the market in Ocho Rios and find fulfillment in their recreational pursuits. Not many of those living in the squatter communities will be invited uptown even though they know of the plenty which exists there.

In the April 1999 riots, those in sections of inner city pockets in the Kingston Metropolitan Area took advantage of a politically inspired demonstration and destroyed as much as what they saw of the things they did not have but wanted. They burned buildings, looted shops and supermarkets and blocked the passage of the cars they did not have and could not afford.

Dancing that way in Jamaica has its problems.

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