My journey start morning after I arrive in Kingston. I met RH and took a bus downtown. She’s a couch host and pen-pal, and we’ve been talking for couple of weeks about Downtown and the Ghettos of Kingston. That piqued my interest immensely, as did she. I was fascinated to meet her. She is a French Journalist/Photographer of 27 of Algerian descent, that came to Kingston to cover life in the Kingston Ghettos. Questions about why, how, and especially how does she manage to stay safe in one of the most dangerous places in the world. I saw her photos in Washington Post covering the Dudus affairs, and was blown away. Her commentary insightful. Her photos are striking. Respect!
She says don’t worry you’ll be safe with me. I think okay dying in a company of a pretty girl in a foreign place is not the worst way to go. My life is in your hands!
So we met, and went downtown, to the infamous neighborhoods. Our path snaked through all the Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens. From the outside they resemble every other poor neighborhood, in Central America or Caribbean, brick houses, wood houses, with steel roofs. Poorly maintained, unspectacular. All these places have stories, stories of daily struggles, of sadness, children playing, people making sacrifices and getting on with life. But these have few more stories then the usual. And these stories bore into you a little deeper.
So we walk and talk of the Violence, the rules. The way that the gangs are structured. With the neighborhood being controlled by Dons who both serve as the arbitrator of justice, vengeance, peace keepers, distributors of charity. These men are affiliated with Political parties. The parties that distribute money, for which in return they provide them with votes and support of the neighborhood. People are born into political party controlled neighborhoods. You do not follow your ideology as the parties no longer represent Socialist/Capitalist roots from which they sprung. Now they’re simply spheres of influence. They do little to change the general direction of the country instead the winner is a beneficiary of kickbacks/power and money. The political war is fought as an actual war on the streets of West Kingston.
These wars are not something new. This violence is something that the current generation was born into. The cycle of death and suffering started decades ago, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight . The parties are entrenched. The political machine has no desire to dismantle the system, cause as horrible as the conditions are in the Ghettos their votes and allegiance still counts so the parties continue to play one neighborhood against the other. As for the rest of the people.. Isn’t everyone enraged by what happens in the center of their capital? It seems not. Those that have are relatively safe in New Kingston and show very little empathy for those that suffer and die, even though their business contracts depend on successful election of men that manipulate and secretly support this civil war. No one is being brought to account for Government actions that resulted in 70 people dying in their capital for hunt of a man that was until weeks before protected by the Government in power. This is hippocracy in the worst way.
And as expected even here, American’s played a role. One that few know of. But a similar story that took place across Middle East, and Central America in the 70s. US finds greedy men that are willing to take up arms against Socialist movements and shower them with money/power/guns and immunity from persecution. And as usual it blows up in their face. Though more accurately it blows up in teh face of the manipulators more then the puppet-masters. When will US learn that state building is not a game of Risk. And the true consequences are usually far from the expected. But that’s for another day.
Walking down Spanish town road we come across a cemetery. Which I always love. This one was so overgrown one could hardly see the stones. The one ironic thing is that even in death this stupid party/gang affiliation doesn’t end. Each neighborhood, has a section of the Cemetery to bury theirs.
RH knows the streets and people intimately as she spends most of her days downtown. She has friends among these people. Knows everyone from locals, to hired killers. Has interviewed the Dons, and Political honcho behind the gangs. On two occasions we encountered couple of guys that she informed me were hit-men. We met Rasta guys that served us delicious vegetarian meal all the while the joints didn’t leave their hand. We walked through the streets where Bob Marley lived, where he played. The neighborhoods are filled with Murals of gangsters, heroes, stars. Political Graffiti and tagging simply stating one party or the other owns this place.
In Tivoli Gardens we walked through streets where the government declared war on people. Came in forced their ways into houses in their search for Dudas Coke and shot whole families of civilians under the guise of enforcement. There were grenades and bombs that fell upon the houses. Six months later people are rebuilding collapsed walls and covering inciting tags, and painting bullet ridden walls. We meet people that have been through generations of this violence. and those that were born into it. Cause whoever could have left this country has done so long ago. The ones that remain, will stay, rebuild and continue.
Though it wasn’t all just violence, it’s the one I ponder more as Death/Murder are irreversible injustice that should bring tears to anyone’s eyes. But there’s much more to Kingston and Jamaica. Even if this country has lived with violence for a long time. People themselves are are quite resilient. In the ghettos I find markets, and businesses, kids dressed in crisp uniforms, boys with ties, and girls in pink skirts walking to and from school on their own. playing, laughing. people I met were happy to exchange words with me and RH. They were open, shared stories of what has passed. Human soul has an amazing ability to bounce back from hardships. Which is especially true for Jamaicans. They laugh, and argue with each other and strangers. Conversations spark up everywhere, they have a great sense of humor. They of course love to party, and dance the night away. My great disappointment was missing Weddy Weddy. Which are sound system wars. Where streets are permitted to have giant sounds systems setup on the streets with throngs of guys and girls dancing/grinding away to Dance-hall music. Which has replaced Reggae as the popular music genre of young Jamaicans.
As we leave the Ghettos we walk through sort of time warp of Orange street, that shows that it used to be a place who’s glory has long passed. There’s many places like that all over Jamaica where one sees that there was something more one time, but has since fallen into dereliction. Such as train lines that have stopped running decades ago. Georgian mansions/houses on the coast with roof/floors collapsing. it’s sometimes a more direct evidence of degeneration of a place then you will see in people. People forget, people are born and they never know what was before, or they become used to it. But buildings hold scars, and show their past with perfect memory.
We wind down the evening at Devon House in New Kingston. which is a mansion of the first Black Jamaican billionaire. There for first time in six hours we see some white people enjoying their 5 dollar ice creams.
We end the day by talking about her life, and Jamaica.
I ask her, “Don’t you miss Paris, don’t you miss museum and the culture? “No, Museums don’t make people happy”. ” And as a matter of face this place is a museum”. “this is the home of countless musicians” There is art everywhere. And from these streets that present obstacles and hardships that few people ever face comes amazing talent. People asked did Bob Marley put Trench town on the map, or did Trench Town make Bob Marley. Think those that know Kingston would surely say the latter. I go back and forth drawing parallels right or wrong between Bronx and Kingston. I didn’t grow up in the projects of the Bronx, but I’ve been there, I had friends from the projects, and from these projects sprung up a music movement that eclipses even Reggae. The Bronx in most turmoil filled years became a wellspring for new Musical genres like Hip Hop and Rap.
I spend the night in hostel drinking Rum and Coke again. Chatting with some people. One came from Haiti, the other from Monterrey Mexico. Both seen the results of lawless failed government, with cities controlled by narco terrorists and gangs. it’s an incredibly frustrating idea. I’ve contemplated anarchy as an alternative to what I found to be a corrupt and rigged political system in US. But finds appreciation for an even semi-functioning government once you spend few days in West Kingston.
The next day I walk around on my own a bit more, and head to Port Antonio and the Portland Parish. A place that is world away from Kingston.