Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, August 6, 2010

Finding independence when fingers stop quarreling

If the fingers of one hand quarrel, they can't pick up the food. (East Africa)

Dear Zayda,

The British let go of Jamaica 48 years ago. Mostly we think of 1962 as the year when we got independence, but we still seem to be working out what independence means. So far, we seem unable to “pick up the food” because the fingers of the hand keep quarrelling.

Jamaica copied Britain’s habit of having two main political parties. The ideal is that people can vote for the party they choose, but after that the two parties work with each other for the good of the whole country. What actually happens is that the parties fight with each other and the country keeps losing.

When Jamaica became independent, one Jamaican dollar could buy more than one US dollar. Today, one Jamaican dollar can buy about as much as one US cent. We became independent when we left a federation of Caribbean islands. At that time, we were doing so well that we felt joining up with other islands would slow us down. Today, some of those other islands own pieces of Jamaica. I chose my bank because at the time Jamaicans owned it; today Trinidadians own my bank. Barbadians own at least one major insurance company that used to be fully Jamaican-owned.

Countries like Trinidad and Barbados have their differences, but they seem to unite when the fingers need to “pick up the food.”

Jamaicans seem to find all kinds of reasons to quarrel with each other. The two political parties, one with green shirts and the other with orange shirts, seem most united about splitting up the country between them. If green is in power, then green will eat. The same thing goes for orange. No politician seems to think we could have a system where all can eat: green, orange, or people who don’t care about either.

Both parties hardly ever work together for long, unless in a matter where politicians as a whole win and the people as a whole lose.

The people will unite for a little while. However, that is often about what they don’t want, rather than what they want. For example, in May the people were all angry with the Prime Minister for telling a lie and trying to cover up for a wrongdoer. So the Prime Minister had to apologise and try to correct his behaviour. That was like the fingers rejecting the food they do not want, but not being able to agree on what food they want. The people will come together at election time to vote out the party they do not want, but fail to demand what they want of the other party.

Some groups of people will also unite around other negatives. For example, far too many wish death on gay persons and persons who speak to the police (“informers”). Many are united in wishing extreme punishment (such as death) on those who break the law, or are even suspected of breaking the law.

But Jamaicans can unite around positives as well. We were one nation when our football team played in the 1998 World Cup. We are one nation when our athletes (especially Usain Bolt) do well. We are one nation in our love for the food of our ancestors. Many times Jamaicans return overseas with suitcases packed with roasted breadfruit and fried fish. Christmas is not the same without sorrel and dark fruit cake laced with rum. Easter is not Easter without spicy bun and cheese.

Let us hope, my grandniece, that Jamaica can find ways to bring the fingers together to pick up food by the time we celebrate our half century of the end of British rule. Perhaps we may then be truly able to claim independence.


Your shangazi

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

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Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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