Here in Kingston everyone is waiting for tropical storm Tomas, the supposedly softer gentler brother of Nicole, to blow in today and tomorrow. As I write, in the University of the West Indies library, staff are beginning to secure the computers from water damage. As if it hadn't had enough it looks like Haiti will take the brunt of the weather: people in relocation camps - tents hardly equipped for the expected deluge.
My fieldwork site covers two sides of a valley that acts as a boundary between the city and the countryside. The shanties on the other side thin out up into the hills and the mountainside peasant farms. Two days ago I took a long walk round, down and up the valley with a friend who travels that route every day to sell the Star and Gleaner newspaper to people who can't make it into the nearby urban market. She showed me the damage Nicole had caused. The water coursing down the valley, plus the softening of the hillside earth, had cut huge slices out of the hillside; and with that tens of little concrete houses and wooden shacks had been carried away. Most of the concrete bridge between the two gully-sides was destroyed; the dreadlocked driver of a large excavator, who was trying to fix the mess, proudly stood up by his cab and asked me to take his picture. We skipped over the boulders to the far side. I had noticed something new as we walked down past the tin and concrete houses - every so often there were painted murals of young men with dates of birth and death on the street walls. One message, below a painting of a standing youth read - 'only death can say if life worth losing'. People passed by and sat in the shade. There was a certain cheerfulness in the air as my friend passed shouting 'Star and Gleaner!'
Watching TV in the family yard at night. One of those quiz programmes that I take to be a hang over from British colonialism is showing. Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding has just been telling the nation about Jamaica's state of preparedness for Tomas; the saturation of the eastern parishes caused by Nicole, the possible role of the World Bank in helping rebuild infrastructure. Here instead are some fresh faced children being grilled for the greater glory of their primary school. Since the friends I am sitting with speak basilectal Jamaican Creole, much of what is being asked and answered passes them by; but they enjoy watching anyway. 'What is the past tense of "go"?' demands the prim but glamorous quizmaster in her precise middle class tones. 'Went', I think to myself as I see the khaki uniformed children conferring. 'Went!' pipe the children in chorus. 'That answer is incorrect' intones our host; 'the past tense of "go" is "gone"'. The khaki team proceed to lose the contest, trounced by their blue-pinafored rivals. The trouble with post-colonialism is you can't win either way.
By morning, albeit that a lot of rain has fallen, and ground level clouds drift through the valley, we know that Tomas has passed by without much event - in Kingston at least. We have to wait for the news from Haiti and Cuba.
Over the weekend we hear that Barry Chevannes has died after a period of illness. It is a shock if only because, even though he was 70, Barry looked twenty years younger. Apart from all the grand titles he held in the University here, Prof. Chevannes was the preeminent ethnographer of, and commentator on, Rastafarianism (and other aspects of Jamaican religion and society more generally) as well as a great friend and host to anthropologist colleagues and visitors to the island.
I am thinking about him as I visit 'Guzzum Power', an exhibition about obeah (witchcraft/sorcery) held at the Institute of Jamaica. I had been told by a colleague that some have found the presentation sensationalising. Sensational or not, I seem to be that morning's only visitor to the Institute - a moderately grand set of buildings down by the harbour. What is on view is a broadly sensitive folkloric treatment of obeah as a set of ideas, objects and practices used both to cure and harm (albeit that the information boards consist of white letters on a lurid shimmery red background). The story being told is about obeah as a dimension of Jamaica's African inheritance. What the exhibition can't show is obeah as just one strand of the common sense weave of everyday life for ordinary people. As I go back into the foyer there is another exhibition that I had missed. Here the Institute is questioning its own ability to curate its collection - what will future visitors think about how it has classified, displayed and narrated the materials gathered since its foundation in 1879? - it asks. Considering the fact that I was its solitary visitor that morning and that every second student sitting around me in the computer room here is looking at photos on their facebook account, and that few people who practice or fear obeah will visit the show; it seems the question is a fair one.
The story of this peri-urban market place - I will call it Cerosee - has at its core a myth of sorts; the rise and rise of Mr B. The signs are there - B's hardware, B's supermarket, but it takes a little time to see through the constant traffic of rusty Japanese saloon cars, bar side rum drinkers, ramping school girls and boys, speeding trucks and M16 wielding police to the fact that Mr B owns most of the rentable land here. Once, Mr B was a bottle washer in a Chinese owned business downtown, but then - so the myth goes - he impregnated the boss's daughter. Realising how things would look, the boss decided to 'lift B up'; and give him control of this more or less empty corner of outer Kingston. First - we are talking about the early 1970s - Mr B bought the property of a white man, Mr M, then a Chinese business and so on until he owned key properties on each side of the main road - an arterial road running into Kingston. You used to be able to walk right down the hillside into the valley, but now B's Plaza stands in the way. Then? Then Mr B disappeared. He is still around of course, looking after his many businesses, but he is a rather nondescript type. If you ask what he looks like you never seem to gain a definite impression: and there is more than one Mr B of course...
It is hard to say that anything is pivotal to how Cerosee functions, but barmaids must come close. Barmaids work in pairs in the Cerosee rum bars - one week one comes on, the next week the other and so on. Each week, by Friday, the rum drinkers must pay up their debts: each 'Q' of rum, each beer, every Craven-A cigarette has been marked down by the barmaid in a big jotter. She has to account to her replacement and to the boss for losses, and the switch-round makes it harder to steal money from the bar systematically. In fact, banknotes are simply thrown into an open draw under the fancy liquors shelf. Barmaids are usually fairly stockily built and, either way, they develop a noisy boisterous personality with a wide register. They need to be able to take the 'chat', including the lewd remarks, of the largely male customers and give it back. They can switch from gaiety to violent abuse. Here someone has not repaid his debts; he is subjected to a poisonous stream of invective and complaint but delivered so skilfully that almost noone else notices, then she quickly bounces over to two wealthier customers to join in some repartee. And she has to be able to measure out half a quart of rum into a small bottle with exactness of eye: maybe not an entirely nugatory achievement because 'her rummies' are judging her as she does it. They have brought their work partner, their friend or contact into the bar to 'drink a rum' as part of some ongoing quid pro quo - but inevitably there is someone else there whose cup they will throw some rum into - to the reciprocal gesture is added one of sharing. That is what rum (as opposed to beer) is for. And in no sense is the barmaid the psychologist of her customers as in the familiar cliche; instead she is there to things happen, make the rum flow; make the scene work.
Moussu is standing behind the bar arguing with a stocky man about the female condom. Moussu is a small chubby light-skinned woman with long black plaits. There are ten rum drinkers round the bar including two women.´Me no believe in female condom; that cannot work´ insists the man. ´But how you mean you don´t believe in female condom?! Female condom is more safe than the male one´. Moussu moves round the bar enlisting support for her argument from individual drinkers, but finally she has had enough and she slams her open hand hard on the bar - ´bam, bam, bam´. ´Listen here!´, she shouts: and she begins to expatiate on the use of the female condom. Ít have a ring inside and you pull it out and put it on the man´ wood´. She demonstrates with an imaginary female condom. ´It are safer than the male condom, but you must wash it out´. As she talks, she bats back various lewd comments, but most of the drinkers are awed by Moussu´s eloquent flow and nod approvingly. ´You know say, you have three size of condom - small, large and medium - and most men don´t know them size; and it cause problem because if you use the wrong size it can pain you´. Now she mimics a man in pain, grimacing because he is wearing the wrong size of condom. Ýou now´, she says pointing to her stocky adversary: ´you now most likely are "medium" and all the while you think you were "small"´. Everybody is laughing, but by now Moussu is triumphantly listing the best known venereal diseases - gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV.´And if you catch into that you dead´ comments my neighbour. Ýou know what´ shouts Moussu above the noise, ´Sometimes me think me are in the wrong job... if me did set my my mind to it me could... ´
Then she changes tack. ´Everybody want to leave Jamaica, everybody want to see someplace else, but me no want to leave Jamaica: me want to stay right here´ and she points to her feet. ´People should be proud of this place; they should be proud of Jamaica. The problem is we don´t have discipline. Look! The Chinee people have discipline. The English have discipline (pointing to me). All ten Chinee people live in one apartment and they share them food, eat of out of one pot: all ten soap up one time´. But we black Jamaican; you couldn´t put ten of we in one house, we must quarrel!´ This causes great delight, everyone is ecstatic, celebrating and feasting on this image of black Jamaican dysfunctionality. ´Like crab in a barrel´ shouts a policeman feared in the locality for his psycopathy. ´Crab in a barrel, - one of them push out him hand and the rest try to draw him back´. His face is lit up with elation. ´Yes, man!´ Moussu tells a story about going to visit a rich Indian family (part of her own family come from India ´me no know which part´) she dressed herself and her children in Indian clothes ´´the people hug me, but the only thing was me can´t dance fi them style´. But by now the conversation has swayed and fragmented - everyone is talking to everyone else excitedly, noone hears the last part of Moussu´s discourse.
(written in an internet cafe in Santo Domingo, Ciudad Colonial)
Santo Domingo. It is a curious linguistic-political contingency that the only way to reach the short distance from Jamaica to the Dominican Republic by a commercial flight seems to be either via Panama or Miami. What might be a journey of 50 minutes takes six hours. Once upon a time, Santo Domingo was the political and mercantile nerve centre of the world. As the guide books tell; in Ciudad Colonial are the first European stone house, the first European Fort, the first monastery, the first University, the first Cathedral in the 'New World'. From Las Casas Reales in Santo Domingo the entire Spanish empire of the Americas was administered by Columbus and his lieutenants and inheritors. Jamaica was always a minor and unprofitable offshoot, but with its capture by Cromwell in 1655, its language and politics diverged: hence the lack of any real communication between the two places (except for the occasional dancehall-influenced Dominican pop song).
In Santo Domingo I am unequivocally a tourist, and in the museums of the Ciudad I see two striking sets of objects. First is an aged wooden 'trapiche'; a mill, well over ten foot high into which cane was fed and crushed and out of which flowed cane juice. It reminds me, innocently enough, of some of the cider-making equipment in the farm I grew up on. Colombus brought cane to the Americas in 1493, it took hold quickly and sugar was being imported to Seville in Spain from Santo Domingo by 1517. It was the Dutch, the English and the French, though, who invested in sugar production - and in the transportation of African slaves that shaped the next five hundred years of Caribbean history.
Then there is porcelain; brought to Santo Domingo from China via Manila and Acapulco. The fineness of the Chinese product versus the heavy Spanish earthenware is glaring. The trade had a strange side-effect; a kind of cultural twinning between the Philippines and Mexico that began in the late 1500s.
But the things engaging Dominicans are quite different to these: mainly twofold. One is the Cholera epidemic that has killed or sickened thousands of people in Haiti and which perpetually threatens to cross the border. The other is the legacy of Trujillo: sympathisers want to make the dictator a museum. Novelist Vargas Llosa comments that as long as it is a chamber of horrors he agrees. Meanwhile Trujillo's daughter has written a book which is banned due to laws which proscribe 'adulation' of the fascist. Meanwhile again, the current leader of the country, Leonel ('the lion') Fernandez , wants to change the constitution so he can run for President indefinitely. On to New Orleans...
The American Anthropological Association has been hosting its annual conference in New Orleans. So; days of travelling the escalators of the Sheraton and Marriott hotels seeking out 'ballroom B' or 'Bayside C' in search of anthropological enlightenment. As I wonder around from deck to deck, I can't help noticing how drab these expensive hotels are. As if to alleviate its lack of any aesthetic claim on the attention, the Sheraton has in its lobby, a large ceramic, cow-sized, blue-and-flowery statue of a cow. Hundreds of anthropologists mill by this cow chatting or checking their official AAA conference manuals.
If New Orleans is also a Caribbean city, its news media haven't noticed. The cholera epidemic a few hundred miles away is relegated to a column inch or two about a Haitian migrant screened at customs: cholera is unlikely to spread into the US, we are told, due to 'better sanitation'. Of far more interest are the 'pat downs' - intrusive body searches by airport security officials.
During the conference, anthropologist Brackette Williams points to the duality that governs American thought 'there is black and there is white'. In an earlier session, Ulf Hannerz had indicated a polarity between
the theatrics of US political life versus the desire and demand for sincerity. Perhaps Caribbean chia oscura would be hard to comprehend even if it could pass through the cordon sanitaire.
It is the advertising for pharmaceuticals that intrigues me most: the romantic potential of a chemical that treats erectile dysfunction is enacted glamorously by a handsome middle aged man and his highly compatible female partner (romance only). But then, due to some legal requirement, the same man tells of the potentially lethal side-effects. This goes for a slew of other expensive pills too; each aggressively advertised for its life-lengthening properties, each advertisement bathetically undermined by a statement that, amongst other things, it could kill you.
(written in Mona campus, Kingston, Jamaica)
Sometimes something stands out in the visual field but what does it indicate? For the first time I notice the great number of shipping containers in this corner of Kingston, recycled for all kinds of purposes. These 20 foot long metal boxes are used as miniature warehouses, as dwellings and as shops. Taking a refreshment in one of them, a little street side store and bar, the owner complains about the heat when the sun hits the steel wall. He has cut some vents with a welding torch, but I doubt this has had much effect.
Randall is selling his three acre blue mountain coffee farm for, he hopes, 3000,000 Jamaican dollars (35,000 US$). He blames a market dominated by Japanese buyers for the dramatic drop in the price over the last few years; from 3500 J$ per box of cherry coffee to as little as 1500 J$ (17.50 US$). With wage costs at 700J$ per box picked, plus labour for clearing the ground (about 1000J$ per day) as well as fertilizer, the business is in decline and he is hoping to start again somewhere else. For Randall, much of the price drop has come about because farmers have been mixing low quality lowland and high quality highland coffee together (lowland coffee is only worth 750J$). 'Once the buyer realise what a go on; they take their business to another country'.
(The rough equivalent of a single box of cherry coffee - 9lbs of blue mountain coffee worth around 17.50 US$ to the buyer - sells in Euro-American shops for around 400 US dollars)
In the late afternoon, Marshy and I take a robot taxi to Liguanea to see an old friend of ours. Mouse has owned a lawnmower mending business since he left the army about thirty years ago. As I open the car door, his workplace reveals itself: it is made out of fairly battered corrugated iron with a scruffily painted number, 104. Under the shade of the entrance, a middle aged man is solemnly taking apart the filter of a bright orange, now very eroded, American machine. Around him another older individual and two youths sit and watch. We ask for Mouse. 'Mouse in there' - he gestures into the cave-like darkness of the interior - 'Mouse!', he calls. 'Mouse are sleep', he explains. The scene is mesmeric; the slow pace of the workman's probing into a hollow brass bolt with a customised piece of wire; the careful rinsing of the bolt in a buckled tin full of dirty petrol. Looking beyond the seated group into the dimness of the shed old hulks loom up - rusting lawnmowers, wheels and metal tubes: they all seem to have achieved the same dust brown colour.
Mouse appears, groggy from sleep, staggering slightly in his stained brown trousers and equally tattered dust coloured t-shirt. Now Mouse is sixty nine, blinded in one eye by a shard of metal, almost blind in the other from a cataract: white and grey hair and still handsome face with its always neat goatee beard. I look at this shipwreck of a man and think back to him as a strapping eminence in his fifties: something of a bully to Marshy and the others; a street rhetorician and, in the nature of things, a heavy drinker of white rum and smoker of Matterhorn cigarettes. I have come down here so that Mouse can tell me the history of Cerosee from his point of view, but he brushes the task off, and I know too much about him to pursue the the matter. Instead, he talks about his ECT tomorrow, how the doctor has told him not to smoke or drink white rum. Mouse disappears again, and returns in beautifully ironed denims, crisp and clean. Then he sets off with us to a local bar with the intention of doing both the things his doctor proscribed. Mouse is amusing as ever, but subdued and defiant as he sucks on his cigarette and stares at the bar. As my friend Jeanette said of another old acquaintance - 'fi him curry boil down now'.
Reading David Graeber's paper on the 'Moral Grounds of Economic Relations'
makes me wonder about what I know in the concrete about these matters. I think about Marshy, a very old friend. Marshy runs a small cooked food vending business, 'Marshy's Fish and Bammy': I have written about him elsewhere. Every day while I am here I go down to eat Marshy's breakfasts - stewed chicken with boiled plantains, yam and callaloo, salt mackerel, steamed fish, fried egg. Here are some of the transactions he is involved in and some of the ideas about the morality of economic relations that feature in Marshy's daily life:
'Buy' (1) - Go to the supermarket and buy, say, washing up liquid and paper towels. A relatively anonymous exchange of money for commodity. Modest moral component; wish the woman 'Good afternoon', maybe swap some news.
'Buy' (2) - Go to the street market to purchase plantains, yam, salt fish, callaloo. Go to the harbour to buy fish. There is a 'Pratik' dimension (Mintz): the seller knows Marshy 'from long time' and may drop the price in return for good custom or may extend credit. Maybe the seller will buy cooked food from Marshy, maybe Marshy will extend her credit or gift her something.
'Sell' (1) - Simple street-side transaction. Marshy sells a cup of soup or a plate of food to someone passing through Cerosee for cash.
'Sell' (2) - Marshy sells to one of his street corner friends or a member of his wider network. There is an expectation that Marshy will later 'drink a rum' with this person alongside others. These people are part of the 'good life' or 'good living' for Marshy (below).
'Trust' (1) - A member of Marshy's 'corner' network is extended credit based on good will related to the above.
'Trust' (2) - Credit is extended unwillingly to someone Marshy does not in fact trust. Typically the client gives Marshy part of the money withholding the rest. Marshy looks disgusted and sucks his teeth as he takes the money.
'Gi way' (1) - Giving away. Marshy buys a 'Q' of rum for a group of drinkers or he gifts some fish to someone who has lent him her freezer while his is not working. At a more ceremonial level he gifts a bottle of rum to someone migrating abroad. There is an underlying quid pro quo in view. The migrant is expected to give away gifts when he returns, the drinkers are supposed to buy another bottle sooner or later.
'Gi way' (2) - When he buys the rum, some goes to people who will never reciprocate - it is simply dispersed or shared. Both 'Gi Way' 1 and 2 are aspects of 'good mind', good will or 'living good'. 'Gi way' tends to be initiated by ongoing quid pro quo between friends or well established consociates; but dispersal or sharing follows in its wake as the good will is extended to others. Individually, Marshy gives an 'out of luck' person who is 'a good guy still' a glass of rum or a soup. Marshy gives away money to his adult sons or other family dependents without expecting a return.
'Pay1' (1) Marshy pays various relatively poorer friends or consociates small amounts of money to help run the shop when there is a lot of business such as during holidays and pay days.
'Pay' (2) - Marshy gives small amounts of money or cups of soup to local indigents or 'cokeheads' in return for small services offered by them. It is hard to distinguish this precisely from a form of 'giving away'.
'Thieve' (1) - Someone steals Marshy's money, or part of his shop, or pots and pans, or other functional necessities. One of Marshy's occasional workers sells a soup etc. and pockets the money.
'Thieve' (2) - Someone uses sorcery (obeah) to lift money out of Marshy's change pan (Marshy puts green limes in his pan to stop this happening).
'Good mind' and 'bad mind' - People have 'good mind' if they want others to 'live good': they have a good spirit toward others. They have 'bad mind' if they set their spirit against others, are envious and try to 'mash them down'. 'Good mind' is a positive spiritual force. 'Living good' and 'good mind' involve giving away: 'you must gi way', says Marshy. Every once in a while in the bar Marshy throws some of his rum on the floor as a gesture of generosity to departed friends (like our good, now long dead, friend Cudjoe); those 'lost along the way'. Living good is measured in terms of the ability to 'make a money', build oneself up, the good feelings associated with 'drinking a rum' in company, the ability to give away something and still have enough. 'Good mind' is minimally evidenced by a person's capacity to 'pay other people mind', to show them 'good manners' and to acknowledge their presence.
'Bad mind' when turned into a method is 'obeah' (sorcery). The 'bad mind person' sets their spirit against someone else, which in itself is dangerous. But in the form of obeah, items like grave dirt are used to direct the spirits of the dead to attack the person in question, to destroy their livelihood or health. People vary in how much they 'pay mind' to obeah, though: 'me no pay the bad mind people no mind, man - me just go on good same way', says Marshy. All the economic transactions Marshy is involved in present aspects of 'good' and 'bad' mind - good and bad willing - which emerge from the interactions involved and how people read them. The objects entailed, the rum and the soup or the gravedirt carry good or bad mind with them. Marshy sees things within an overall model of the good life, which involves being of good mind. 'We just here for a time; we have to just try to live good'. To achieve the good life somewhat distinct kinds of relationships come into play; but a central dimension is the imperative that you must 'give away'.
Marshy asks me to write out a sign on cardboard for him:
Lunch Will Be Start here
The First week of December
On Friday and Saturday Jerk Pork
and Jerk Chicken and Bammy, and
Festival , and Soup.
All so, Fry Fish and Steam Fish.
In the evening an argument breaks out at Jeanette's yard. Jeanette has heard that a little disabled girl, a frequent visitor and friend here, has been sitting outside the Chinese owned wholesale up the road since 3pm while her mother works inside. It is now 7pm. The boss would not let her sit in the shop. Jeanette has gone to 'trace after' (shout at) the owner. She comes back talking about how the little girl was left sitting with her school bag in the dark outside the bicycle repair shop while a local madman stood next to her. But now, the girl's mother has lost her job, paid off on the spot and is complaining to Jeanette about her interference.
'But how you let the little girl stand up a road, man?, shouts Jeanette angrily, 'She there a stand up with one madman. You can't do that! Me don't care if it is your job, you must know where your little girl is. How X don't let the little girl sit down in the shop! And if the police come she (X) will say it is you leave her there and then you gone to jail!. Look how she (X) pay J$800 (US$9.50) to work the whole day from seven in the morning until seven at night! And you tell me say that you can make J$800 by walk and sell bag-juice and finish by three o clock. So, how you stay there and are work?!'
The shouting goes on for several minutes. Meanwhile Angel, Jeanette's daughter reads from her school book in the dark 'Caribbean food is a unique mixture... Each of the races who came...'. She stumbles over the word 'ingredients'.
The next evening, the sacked woman appears. She is small and timid and quiet: she looks a little desperate. Jeanette talks to her in a mild way about Miss X and the impossibility of continuing to work there. The conversation is friendly. After a while the woman drifts away into the darkness.
When I flew into Jamaica I puzzled, glancing out of the window, how all the rivers leading down from the mountains had come to breach their banks - the thick ribbons of brown silt standing out against the green vegetation, becoming wider and wider as they reached the sea. All this I discovered was the result of Hurricane Nicole. In my fieldwork site, industrial quantities of sand scoured from the river banks had been dumped on the, now largely dry, river bed. And the trucks racing up the hillside evidence a lucrative trade that has come into being; digging out the sand and taking it to building sites round town. Down river, the Kingston gangs have seen an opportunity to dominate this trade and have been shooting it out with each other, and with the police, in a war to control of the valuable commodity.
Upstream in 'my' site, the construction work on the broken bridge is complete: a rough and ready but functional new crossing is in place. And there is an attractive side effect too. Just below the remnants of the concrete bridge, the excavator dug out a deep wide hole - to stop the bridge silting up again, I suppose. Now the hole is full of lovely clean mountain spring water constantly refreshed. So people come to this pool - in the middle of the shanty town - children and adults, to swim and sunbathe. I am told that some large fish have arrived too and locals are trying to devise a way to catch them.