Children can too easily fall prey to a culture of defeatism, however they must continue to fight for the right to dream, writes Craig Dixon, 24, aka Juleus Ghunta, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Jamaica.
I remember eating a meal with my sisters and brother when I was about seventeen. I will not say what it was, but it was known then as ‘the meal of the very poor’.
My elder sister, who is a few years older than I, looked at us and said, “We don’t need more than this, we have food and a place to sleep. Life is good, what else could we want?”
Many Jamaicans live and die believing those words. It is a terrible thing to arrive at such a conclusion, for one’s belief in one’s right and ‘need’ to dream loftily, to be hamstrung to the point of making peace with such needless abjection.
In the true story below I recount how some of my boyhood friends and I fell prey to this culture of defeatism and the active role that some central agents of socialisation played in belittling our existence and condemning us to persistent poverty, and how we, in the midst of all the oppression, continue to fight for our humanity and our right-to-dream. I hope it will inspire you.
“WI CAAH LIE DUNG AN’ DEAD” – A Jamaican Narrative by Juleus Ghunta
As boys, (about ten of us) we did not think of more sophisticated dreams than roaming. We were certain of death and we didn’t ponder the idea of leaving autobiographies or eminent inventions behind. We were content with eating mangoes and catching birds, with running full-speed down hillocks until the wind drained our eyes of our tears or with corrupting the colour of rivulets with our wild rooting, mud-flinging and splashing.
By age nine we were already imbibed with histories and community rites which illustrated our inborn frailties and ghastly destinies. “De whole a yuh a go a prison, an’ soon”, was a sentence which pealed with the consistency of Pell River’s old Presbyterian Church bell.
With the evidence everywhere, it was hard not to believe. Police were in constant search of our uncles who gave us five and ten dollar bills and told us to stay in school. We could not depend on them to do what they requested of us and therefore had no reason to believe that it was worth listening to what they said. The smothering of our intellectuality and our thorough self-mutilation began there. A cruel reality to beset children!
The influential people – mulattoes and dark-skinned uncle-toms – institutions and cultures we encountered daily, created divisive shibboleths and sanctioned norms which served to deliberately exaggerate our defects. We felt as though their acceptance of our humanity was predicated on their validating and sanctioning same – when it suited them. They expected that by fourteen we would begin gathering the leaves in their yards and disposing their garbage. Some families’ implicit purpose was to simply produce a cadre of garbage collectors and grass-choppers for them to choose from.
Amidst this, I was certain that we were normal lads biologically and socially. We were born as atheists like any other kid, as blank slates, free and frisky like the young *Kents and *Deans, with wellsprings of cocooned talent. But there was and still is something about where, exactly where, we were born, about the arrangement and aura of the place that rendered us congenitally condemned.
A queer paradox yes – this was in the late 1990s, Jamaica – perhaps that’s why it didn’t matter. We were like children born to slaves, and by virtue of that, were expected to collapse in the rutted cane-field tracks of our grandfathers, to work for bones and breadcrumbs, to kneel before our peers, our kingly enforcers of the neo-Code Noir, and to retire to supper that wasn’t good enough for them and their offspring. Yet we had to survive.
When my mother brought home twenty-five pounds of dampened rice one afternoon, I asked her where she got it from. She told me that someone left it outside at the *Kents residence and the rains came down on it. My sisters ate dampened rice for a couple weeks after that. I didn’t want to because she told me that no one else wanted it, so she took it. I ate it and hated every grain and hated myself, my home, clothes, plate, spoon…even more. She had cleaned the Kents’ yard for years, yet they never gave her dry rice, the kind that they purchased for themselves and their children.
Most of the villagers in Kendal and Pell River, (Hanover) where I lived alternately, survived on cheap parcels of fish-heads, chicken-back and neck and layer hens that were too old to produce eggs, whose bones were too tough to chew, but were cheap enough at US$ 1 for four. Not everyone could afford these delicacies and when we couldn’t, we ate ground provisions and dumplings with thin slices of Grace Kennedy’s solid-rectangular-butter-bar, like everyone else. That was fine, I suppose, if one was uncomfortable and tormented by one’s position in life and any thought, however fleeting, of its possible permanence. But that was hardly the case for the greater portion of the villagers.
The *Luton family for instance have been burning turmeric fields in preparation for digging season for many decades and still do so. They hold Mr. Davis’s property in usufruct, dig without his permission, bag the turmeric and sell them to the curry factory in Lucea, Hanover. Digging turmeric, especially in dry season is a mighty task and the rewards don’t ever seem to justify the labour sacrificed. Yet Mrs. Luton’s children skipped classes at Pell River Primary and Green Island High to do it. And I have no reason to believe that their kids won’t do the same. They have accepted their wretched state and quite simply fall below the psychological threshold that may inspire one to questioningly resist such persistent abjection. Even so it is hard to deny that Mrs. Luton loves her kids and desires the best for them.
It is quite terrible for a mother who is close to giving up, to see her slouching reflection in her children. By giving up, I mean to finally accept her social status as an immutable caricature of her servile nature – for her body to be used as a mere vessel to get by or survive, but never to create anything new and distinctly better. She sees this in her children and is too battered to continue fighting for their dignity and autonomy, the upshot of which is that they become her clones, and their children become theirs’ and generation after generation are denigrated in this way.
I saw this cancer of insidious self-mutilation in my friends *Lenny, *Jeffery (who was publicly haunted by ‘duppies’ and descended into madness) and *Ranford (who is twenty now and in prison on charges of rape) and it had metastasized before they could form an assertive opinion on any aesthetic truth. It was inevitable that we despise ourselves from early, because whatever was unique or special about us, whatever talents we had were somehow attenuated by a culture that did not encourage our individuality nor defend our right to dream beyond the lure of fish-heads and rubber-chickens.
No one outdid the basic and primary schools at this and this is not an impulsive overstatement. These institutions of ‘freedom and tolerance’ were simultaneously, and most effectively, instruments of segregation, stratification and ‘selective’ dehumanization.
I remember – a bit nervous, slouching and with my arms between my legs – asking and subsequently begging *Ms Sterling, my teacher, to permit me to go to the restroom. I had waited a long time so she could complete her lesson, because I knew how much she hated to be disturbed. She said “No go to your seat!” I could feel my pee creeping down my legs, so I headed toward the door. Then, without any warning, she threw her duster which crashed like a hammer into my forehead and knocked me sideways unto the concrete. An enormous lump quickly sprouted, which remained for two or three days. She then allowed me to go. I was seven years old and in grade two at Kendal Primary.
At a moment like this, one becomes pregnant with feelings of hatred and rage and fear. Now, the latter is the emotion that she had intended to evoke. This fear is like an infected organ that one doesn’t want, but somehow needs, in order to continue living. Like a diseased heart or a weak lung. Fear and unquestioning subservience, therefore, become an Apartheid-like pass book that the congenitally condemned must constantly present to society if he is to make a livelihood.
We see in his posture an anchored droop, shakiness in his speech and a revolting disbelief in the majesty of his own intelligence. The struggle to relieve one’s self from this dungeon of terror is a disorienting psychological warfare that in the end, unleashes very few victors. The balance of power is maintained in this way. One family stays on the hill.
*Ms Sterling made no effort to dissemble her intention to make me yield like a chattel. To muzzle me like a bull. She wouldn’t as much as think about doing to three-quarters of the class what she unhesitatingly did to me. So by the time my circle of friends reached fourth grade, we were lacking self-confidence to the point of social retardation. I believe that this early awareness of his ‘rightful’ place accounts for why my friend *Beppo never learned to read. He was so severely damaged that he simply couldn’t bring himself to believe he was that special.
It fascinated and horrified me when our teachers divided us into groups based on our ‘abilities’, and especially how they pointed out the ‘dunce-bats’ to each other as if we were not looking-on and listening. We were afraid to be our best. When a teacher publicly accused me of cheating after I achieved full marks on a spelling test, whipped me and sent me to stand on one leg facing the blackboard, I had all but given up. I wanted to set alight Kendal Primary that evening, but fell a bottle of kerosene oil short of massive fireworks!
The simple matter of mastering basic literacy and numeracy skills became the only goal of many of my friends, and those who had given up by age eight or nine redirected their energies to carving profanities into classroom benches, to lunchtime gambling with ‘elastic bands’, fierce fist fights, truancy and other forms of school-boy malefactions. I was found guilty on all score and was a regular prisoner in the principal’s office.
We somehow turned out to be, for the most part, what our schools, churches and communities prophesied: scammers, scalawags, scapegraces, subsistent farmers, prisoners, gangsters, womanizers, handymen, and I a rebel, write this brief note from the confines of my own mental bars.
I was four or five and midway through my third year at Pell River Basic School when I decided that I had had enough of my teacher’s vile beatings. The school which was kept in an old Presbyterian church was surrounded by Guava trees, which she stripped of their breakable branches daily and beat me in particular, for reasons unknown, senseless. So when I removed my belt from my khaki shorts and smacked her three times, grabbed my lunch-kit and bolted across the church yard unto the main road, I felt she got what she deserved. I never returned to Pell River Basic after that. I was never timorous about asserting my humanity or declaring that I breathe and bleed too and that kept me alive.
Last year, I saw my friend *Beppo riding a bicycle in Kendal. He is the most affable person I know. He stopped and smiled, exposing the small blackened cavities in his incisors. He had a partially shredded crocus bag perched over his right shoulder. Beppo said that he was going to ‘bush’. We talked for a while, shook hands, after which he mounted his bike and left me with the words: “wi caah lie dung an’ dead, wi haffi duh supp’n,” as he rode into the wind.
Juleus Ghunta is a pseudonym for Craig Dixon
* Names have been changed
“De whole a yuh a go a prison, an’ soon” (You are all going to prison, and soon)
“Wi caah lie dung an’ dead, wi haffi duh supp’n” (We cannot lie down and die, we have to do something)
OUR OWN REBELLION – a poem by Juleus Ghunta
Let us not devolve our duties to
The dissidents in Tahrir Square,
To overturn the septic cauldrons of our fears;
Our afflicted souls though widely strewn,
Bold resolve exceeds the moon.
We note the broken ribs; the tears-gas,
The blood curdling in the cracks
Beneath the dark roofs of their ashen cities;
The hymns that keep the limbs of their dead moving-
We honour Egypt with our own rebellion.
Our defiant screams will crush the hands of greed
Until their skeletal claws release our sacred dreams
And if they do not allow us to dream
We will not allow them to sleep
“I grew up in a small bucolic village called Pell River, in western Jamaica. I have been to many mountain tops – seen many things, tasted many things, conquered many things.
“I studied public relations and history at the University of the West Indies, Mona. I am an intern at the moment in the Spice Isle, Grenada, working the Roving Caregivers Programme which provides early childhood stimulation for economically deprived infants and toddlers. I want to be an anthropologist, focusing on literacy, peace and reconciliation.”
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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