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"Beyond Lofty" Areas in Jamaica

 

posted by Focused on July 11, 2010 @ 9:27 am in SOCIETY

 

In his March 2010 address to the Jamaica College Old Boys Association at their Annual Dinner and Dance in Toronto, Patrick Robinson, President and Judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (based in the Hague, Netherlands), raised important points with regards to Jamaica and excellence. Please read the transcript of his speech below.

 

Address to the Jamaica College Old Boys Association at their

Annual Dinner and Dance, Toronto, Canada

March 6, 2010


“Beyond Lofty” Areas in Jamaica

 

Mr. Charles Francis, the Distinguished President of the most active and best organized Chapter of the J.C.O.B.A., Distinguished Old Boys (and their old Girls), and Distinguished guests, since any guest at this function must be distinguished for the good sense shown in supporting Jamaica College

 

You may question my own good sense in accepting an invitation to leave moderately cold Holland for severely cold Canada. But it is very hard to resist the pull of the College; to forget the evergreen, imposing ficusberry tree, the majesty of Simms House, the serenity and intimacy of St Dunstan’s Chapel, the intimidating and verboten Holy Ground, the equally intimidating and forbidden Fifth Form Path, and the once neighbouring luxuriant growth of Bombay Mango trees providing succour for many a hungry belly.

 

The democratization of education in Jamaica over the past fifty years has changed the status of Jamaica College as a bastion for the privileged. From a student body of 360 in 1954 when I entered, J.C. now has 1800 students from all sections of the society. This is as it should be. The College must instead privilege the cultivation of those values necessary for Jamaica’s growth and development. Something must have been right about J.C. for it to have produced a Premier of Jamaica and two of its seven Prime Ministers. We have to ensure that J.C. continues to produce students who will be leaders in government, in the civil service, in the private sector, in the Church, in the family, and in fact, leaders in the growth of areas of excellence in Jamaica. But that is a challenge not only for J.C., it is a challenge for all of our schools, which have always had an important role in the training of our young people.

 

At this point if you guessed that I am not going to talk about Jamaica College, its greatness, the contribution it has made to Jamaica and its needs, you would be right. If this is a disappointment for some Old Boys, I know, with time, they will get over it.

 

I want to talk about something more important than Jamaica College. For as much as we love the College, we must love Jamaica more, never forgetting that in the name “Jamaica College” “Jamaica” is always more important than “Jamaica College”. As the namesake of this nation, the College must instil in its charges the desire to achieve excellence and impart to us the duty to serve the greater good of our country.

 

At J.C. there were, perhaps, only two boys in my class whose work was excellent – they were exceptionally gifted in academic work, and also in sports. The rest of us would have to be satisfied with report cards that read, Good, Fair or Poor. But we were all upset when Hugo Chambers, Headmaster and Maths teacher, wrote on a boy’s report “Like a cork in the Pacific, he’s lost”. Chief, as we called him, could have found another way to express his dissatisfaction with the boy’s work.

 

The state of excellence is not easily attained. It’s not given to many to attain it. A country’s growth and development is linked to its identifiable areas of excellence; the more areas it has the more likely it is to be a success story and a country in which the engine of growth is functioning at optimal or near optimal level.

 

I would like to suggest that in Jamaica there is a dearth of areas of excellence;

 

You couldn’t say agriculture is an area of excellence. Of course, our products have to compete in a global economy governed by rules that make little allowance for size. But there is no doubt that we could do much better. We shouldn’t have to import sugar.

 

You couldn’t say education is an area of excellence. For years now the division between the few who receive an education and the vast majority who do not is so stark that observers describe the system as akin to apartheid.

 

Nor could you say that our industry and technology are areas of excellence. We are in the process of being re-colonized not by the U.K., but this time by our sister Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.

 

Nor could you say that law enforcement is an area of excellence. In the last thirty years successive governments have failed to come to grips with the spiralling rate of crime and violence; our murder statistics resemble those for a country experiencing an active insurgency.

 

If we speak of law enforcement we should also ask whether law itself is an area of excellence. To that question I reply with a resounding NO! For how could law qualify as an area of excellence when the country has failed to exercise its sovereign right to make our own judges the final arbiter of right and wrong in civil and criminal matters in Jamaica. To surrender your final appellate function to a group of foreigners, the U.K. Privy Council – people with whom you have nothing in common, people who have never even set foot in your country, who know little or nothing of your history and culture - is an abnegation of the freedom and independence for which our enslaved ancestors fought and which they bequeathed to us some 50 years ago. What is the explanation for this strange, bewildering refusal to be independent in our legal affairs?

 

And I suppose, on a whole, you could not say that governance in Jamaica is an area of excellence.

 

So, is there no area of excellence in Jamaica, land we love? – My brief sceptical analysis might lead you to believe that there is none.

 

I have always had my own idea of what excellence means. But for the purpose of this evening’s event I thought I would go to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. The first meaning that excellent book offers is “the quality of being excellent”. When I saw that I said to myself, “now that’s very helpful”. Am I not better off sticking to my own ideas”? But a second meaning was offered: ‘an outstanding feature or quality”. And then, because of a former academic interest I had, I was in seventh heaven when I saw that the word “excel” was derived from the Latin “excelsus,” “ex” meaning “out” or “beyond” and “celsus” meaning ‘lofty”. So in talking about areas of excellence in Jamaica I’m looking for areas in which we are outstanding, exceptionally good or, if you prefer to be more literal than liberal in your understanding of excellence, areas in which we are “beyond lofty”or “beyond limits”.

 

But ours is a country plagued with so many problems and of which there are so many negative images that the question asked two thousand years ago in relation to Nazareth may well be asked again. Can anything good, not to mention excellent come out of Jamaica? Can a country, so small that you almost need a microscopic lens to pick it up on a map of the world, create and sustain a product of excellence? Can a country with a population of 2.8 million, 95% of whom are the descendants of a people abducted from another continent four centuries ago, sold into slavery to work the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, create and sustain a product of excellence? Does the history of slavery, struggle and survival militate against or work in favour of excellence? Can a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world create and sustain a product of excellence?

 

Let me focus on the history of colonialism for a while. The ills of that dreadful condition are well known. But in my view the worst relic of colonialism is the havoc that it created in our minds. Worse than the physical degradation of slavery is the colonization of the mind, the slavery from which Bob Marley urged us to emancipate ourselves. One of the biggest obstacles to the achievement of excellence in our country is the legacy of self-doubt and its psychological partner, the belief that what is not you, especially if it is foreign and white, is better than you. Don’t underestimate the damage that evil has done to our thinking and how it has retarded growth and development in so many areas of national life. We still have many persons in Jamaica who are so dissatisfied with their blackness that they apply chemicals to bleach their skin. And we still have many persons in Jamaica who would prefer to have the U.K. Privy Council remain as Jamaica’s final Court of Appeal rather that a Jamaican or Caribbean Court. The principal explanation for that startling preference is the belief that we are not good enough to be masters of our own destiny, that the body established by Britain in 1833 to hear appeals from the colonies and plantations is better than anything we have. Law will always remain an area of underachievement and will never be an area of excellence while we remain in the imperial embrace of the Privy Council. None of this is to say that we should not be open to foreign influence; we have to be, particularly in the era of globalization. But that openness should not be at the expense of a proper sense of self-knowledge, self-worth and self-reliance. In the meantime let us pray that the independence we have in agriculture, in education, in music, in sports and so many other areas of national life we will soon have in law.

 

You can’t speak about the issue of identity in Jamaica and the Caribbean without mentioning that great Jamaican, who recently passed away: Rex Nettleford. May I recommend that, if you have not already done so, you immediately read an interview of Professor Nettleford by David Scott, done in 2006. David Scott is a Jamaica College Old Boy and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. The interview is entitled “To be Liberated from the Obscurity of Themselves”; Small Axe No. 20, Vol. 10, No.2, June 2006 pp 97-246.

 

In the interview Rex Nettleford said, “I do not subscribe to the view that because Bach, Beethoven and Brahms come from Europe they are necessarily superior to what we have produced. We have been able to produce things of excellence, as well as dreadful things”. The Professor, who knew a thing or two about the interplay of colonialism, race and identity, hit the nail on the head. We must rid ourselves of the complex that the foreign, especially if it is European, American or Canadian, and white is superior. That complex stands in the path to excellence, which every Jamaican and Jamaica as a country is capable of achieving. Professor Nettleford did so well in so many areas that it is almost impossible to rate his achievements. But I would like to cite him for the significant role he played in building the confidence of the Jamaican, particularly the disadvantaged Jamaican. He emphasized that anybody can be somebody. He wanted Jamaica to be, in a phrase he coined, ‘smadditised’, so that every Jamaican would have a sense of his/her self worth, irrespective of that person’s status, wealth, colour, race or station in life. So I would like to put forward Rex Nettleford, the thinker, the educator, the historian, the dancer, the artist, the intellectual, the man who wanted every Jamaican to realize that he or she was somebody, as an example of a person who, albeit at the individual level, occupied an area of excellence, an area that was “beyond lofty, beyond limits”.

 

In the same interview Rex Nettleford speaks of his childhood, and the debt he owes his mother. He tells us that, like 70% of Jamaicans, he was “born without the benefit of confetti”. His mother was poor and uneducated, but she was a strong woman who wanted the best for his siblings and himself. She controlled her house: she ‘ran things’ in her house. And isn’t that true of so many Jamaican mothers – abandoned by the fathers of their children, they are left to fend for themselves and their children. I would like to suggest that Jamaican women – the backbone of the Jamaican family and society – constitute another area of excellence. Considering what they have had to tolerate from their irresponsible men folk, the burden they have had of bringing up a family alone and the success they have achieved in that role, there isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that their achievement is “beyond lofty, beyond limits”.

 

Who is the best known Jamaican? It is not Marcus Garvey. It is not Alexander Bustemante, nor is it Michael Manley. It is in fact Robert Nesta Marley. And if you were to ask what is best known about Jamaica, the answer would have to be Reggae music, principally, through the work of Bob Marley. The next area of excellence I wish to identify is that most vibrant aspect of our culture – our music. The contribution of music to our culture, our heritage, and most important, to our self-knowledge, to our identity as a people, is “beyond lofty, beyond limits”.

 

To understand the significance of music to a society like ours we have to return to our history. May I pause to say that there is no subject that is more important in the educational system of Jamaica and the Caribbean than history – not English, not Mathematics, not Chemistry, NONE.

 

Our slave ancestors brought with them their music from West Africa, and their music helped them to survive the horrors of slavery. Pocomania, that folk worship with its strong and catchy songs, is directly out of Africa. And we know how the Maroons used the Abeng to warn each other of the presence of their enemy, the British soldiers. The early forms of Jamaican music evolved into Mento, which became SKA, which became Rock Steady, which became Reggae, which is now Dancehall. Music is the most popular – using that word in its literal sense to mean “of the people” –element in Jamaican culture. There is scarcely anything more Jamaican than our music; it is embedded in the psyche of our people. The songs, their music, their lyrics, their dances reflect the essence of being Jamaican in a way that nothing else does. When Usain Bolt performed the Nuh Linga and Gully Creeper dances after his famous victories in Beijing he wasn’t putting on a show; he was simply being Jamaican.

 

As bad as things are today in Jamaica, they would be a hundred times worse if we did not have our music. But a word of warning. Our music must uplift our people; it must not debase or degrade them. We must oppose all forms of music that objectify our women and encourage violence. Reject the excuse given for slackness that “is wi culture”; it is no part of mine. We must cling to the solace in Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman nuh cry’ and embrace the pacifism and reconciliation of Burning Spear’s magnificent chanting entreaty, “throw down your arms and come/drop them/put them away to stay”.

 

In 2007 some crazy person wrote “there is no activity or area of endeavour in Jamaica, whether in the public or private sector that, operating on a national level, is as well organized, and applying international standards, has been as consistently successful as track and field athletics. It is, arguably, the highest quality Jamaican product of international standard – a veritable oasis of excellence”.

 

If that crazy person is correct, then track and field athletics certainly qualifies as an area of excellence. What is the case for athletics as an area in which Jamaica has been exceptionally good or “beyond lofty, beyond limits”.

 

Jamaica started winning medals at the Olympics, a genuinely global event, from as long ago as 1948, that is fourteen years before its independence. When the Union Jack was hoisted to the tune of “God save our gracious King or Queen” in that year and in 1952 it was to acknowledge the gold medals won by Jamaica, not by the U.K. Since 1948 Jamaica has won 13 Gold, 27 Silver and 21 Bronze Medals at the Olympic Games, and 14 Gold, 33 Silver and 32 Bronze at the World Championships, first instituted in 1983. From a field of 205 countries we were third in track and field at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It may be that the writer was not so crazy after all. But isn’t it going too far to say that track and field is “the highest quality Jamaican product of international standard – a veritable oasis of excellence.” Since I know who the writer is and that he is given to hyperbolic comment, there may be some truth in that analysis.

 

Track and field athletics does stand out. But the brief analysis done shows that it is not so much the lonely isle of excellence lost in a sea of mediocrity or underachievement that I depicted in my book, Jamaican Athletics – A Model for 2102 and the World”..

 

We have our areas of achievements that are “beyond lofty, beyond limits”. Consequently we would be very appreciative if others would acknowledge that there are areas of excellence in Jamaica and stop portraying the negative image of our country as a place that is drug-ridden and where murder is as common place as the tropical sun. Tell the bad but also tell the good. Avoid what the brilliant young Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of the single story”. And in our laudable desire to see areas of excellence increase in our country let us remember that in the same way that there can be excellence in achievement, there can be excellence in the effort to achieve. Those who strive for excellence but fall short must be encouraged to renew their efforts.

 

If Jamaica is to progress, if we are to experience real growth and development, we must enhance the “beyond lofty, beyond limits” experience; we must increase the areas of excellence at the personal, societal, institutional and governmental levels. Governance must become an area of excellence, and one that gives pride of place to ensuring that there is a meaningful education for every Jamaican. For education is one of the keys, if not the key, to excellence. Without education we will not even be mediocre, let alone be excellent. In addition we cannot build excellence if we are confused about who we are as a people. One can understand Tekla Meftet’s comment in his recent Bob Marley Lecture that “The Jamaican idea of being somebody is being someone else”.

 

To my countrymen I say, “Be somebody and you don’t have to carry a gun to be somebody; indeed, a gun doesn’t make you a man; it makes you a gunman”. We cannot build excellence if we have no confidence in our ability, and we cannot build excellence if we do not trust each other. Let our history of suffering, struggle and survival be an inspiration lifting us to heights of excellence so that the question, “can any good come out of Jamaica; can Jamaica have a Nazareth-like experience”, will only be answered one way: affirmatively. The Association must do its part to ensure that the College continues to contribute in a significant way to that positive outcome.

 

 

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