Dear President Obama

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Dear President Obama,

I have written many letters to you in my head but, for various reasons, I’ve not published them or otherwise shared them.  But I feel a bit strange today: seeing you, the leader I helped elect, visit Jamaica, the country that birthed and molded me; I am compelled to publish this letter.  At some time today, April 8, you will arrive in Jamaica for a working visit.  You’ll stay overnight until April 9 before heading off to Panama for The Big Deal Meeting.  Welcome to Jamaica and while you’re in Jamaica, I hope you enjoy yourself.  Let us reason.

By the way, I must admit I did giggle a bit today when I read about DC’s power outages and that the White House lost power…I thought this ominous timing yet good practice for your visit to Jamaica because power cuts and “load shedding” sometimes are the norm.  Growing up it struck me that the power almost always went when it was stewed peas for dinner.  You see, we’ve had a bit of trouble managing our aging power grid and oil dependency; free from foreign oil we are not.  Try as we might we just can’t seem to get new and energy-efficient power stations built.   We have an exuberant Minister of Energy but he does not, it seems, have the Midas touch with his energy portfolio.
But let us reason and do pardon my meandering! 
Jamaica is excited to have you.  You’re the first sitting U.S. President to visit since Reagan did in the ’80s.  The visible preparations for your visit began about 3 weeks ago when Prime Minister Simpson-Miller appeared in Parliament to make the announcement.  I must admit it was strange to see her there as around the same time a large fire was ripping through our main garbage dump (despite many announcements and pronouncements we do not have a landfill) turning the air for almost 50% of the island’s population living in three parishes into a toxic smoky soup, and she’d been strangely mum about it.  To be clear the fire is a yearly event but this year’s edition was quite bad.  By now I expect the air is refreshed — after 2 weeks the fire was put out and there’s been rain though of what kind we do not know — but I confess I do worry about what lingers so please, do be careful not to breathe too deeply.  As I’m sure you can understand, a burning dump releases all manner of substances into the air.  I wish I could tell you exactly or even approximately how much of those substances were released or linger, but we don’t have that information.  Jamaica isn’t exactly solvent at the moment and public health (yay U.S. National Public Health Week!) isn’t our forte or priority, so ongoing or even episodic emergency air quality monitoring is not a priority.  Nevertheless, I am glad you’re not visiting during The Great Riverton Fire.  It would have been very embarrassing for you to be there and have your day turn bleak because a wind change brought choking smoke your way.  But I’m sure the residents you do meet or your Embassy personnel can tell you all about those 14 days.
Jamaica's Blue Mountains.Jamaica’s Blue Mountains.

Your view from Air Force One and Marine One as you arrive and move about should be breathtaking.  Jamaica is a verdant, hilly, paradise.  Often I worry that we do not take its unique and breathtaking landscape seriously…we don’t care for it as we should.  We have not quite gotten around to declaring national parks (and meaning it) and enjoying them or holding steady about our endangered and protected areas but, you know, we trudge along to the IMF tune.  From the air, Jamaica is undoubtedly beautiful, and at street level it presents much architectural complexity.  Some of our historic buildings aren’t in great shape and some simply do not exist any longer, replaced by modern behemoths.  Do you know I was at the White House recently for a general tour and I was touched and awed that so much had been preserved and that it was open to the public? Truly amazing that one can walk through living history like that and  know that the preservation is in good hands.  Anyway, as you absorb the complexity of Kingston’s streets, be sure to remark to your hosts just how scrupulously clean they are, some now lined with flowers expected to bloom in a matter of days; you’d think we do not use them!

Of course, you may be accustomed to host countries (and maybe even U.S. cities) breaking out a new broom and a can of white paint just to give things the once over.  But don’t take this for granted and please know that we are Jamaican and so don’t do things by halves.  No, we go all out and, as our slang goes, we guh hard.  You’ll notice that unlike in D.C. where you live, there are no homeless people on Jamaican roads (we call them street people and plain ol’ mad men by the way…Jamaicans are a frank and descriptive bunch).  Now, I know you’re no stranger to homelessness issues, after all you and your family have long made it a point to volunteer at and that you know the work of DC Central Kitchen.  Well, in true hide-the-crazy-uncle-because-the-fancy-neighbour-is-visiting fashion, it appears that much of Kingston’s homeless have been swept away in the dizzying clean up.  Yes,
A homeless person sleeps on DC Streets, in the heart of downtown.A homeless person sleeps on DC Streets, in the heart of downtown.

I understanding making things all presentable but this particular aspect of the clean up does give me cause for concern because you see 16 years ago other homeless people were also swept away during a town clean up.  Somehow, many of them just happened to appear several parishes away where they were apparently taken to be dumped in one of the (red) mud lakes.  O, the mud lakes, you may not know about them.  These mud lakes are part of what’s left after out land is stripped and mined for bauxite ore in another of our foreign-dependent escapades.  There managed to be an agreement to reclaim the land and return it to a state for future agricultural use, but until that happens the mud lakes remain as caustic pools of more harmful substances. Back in 1999 when that other clean-up happened, it appears that someone or other tried to deposit, from the back of dumper trucks, the rounded up homeless people into a red lake.  Yes, I get chills thinking about how we treat the apparently disposable people among us, but I scarcely think that we’ll have a repeat of 1999.  Instead I’m quite hopeful that the homeless who’ve been rounded up this time, some allegedly chased, bound, and dragged away, will be properly cared for, assessed, and then directed to the care and facilities they need.

As you well understand I’m sure, affordable housing is one of the root causes of homelessness.  It’s a big issue in Jamaica too. We have ample room for our almost 3 million people but wages and salaries are low and you’ve been a bit too clever in office so your dollar’s value far outstrips ours.  So that and many things combine to make affordable housing for young professionals — kinda like you and Mrs. Obama were back in Chicago  — to afford a first home.  We do have our very own National Housing Trust (NHT), an agency dedicated to addressing housing needs and funded by a mandatory housing-specific paycheck deduction; it has a huge surplus of funds, some of it allegedly being used to fund shelters for street people; one wonders why those shelters are not yet available.  But these days, despite the surplus, the NHT isn’t doing much (affordable) housing building.  In fact, the NHT has diversified its interests to include, among other things, investment (or purchase, it’s a bit muddled) in tourist attractions owned by close political associates.  But I mean, why not; tourism is, after all, another of our foreign-dependent escapades that is quite sustainable and doing so well. taste of what a sound looks like… (Image credit:
I am actually glad that you won’t be doing the usual tourist rounds while you’re in Jamaica.  Though your schedule will be tight, I am hopeful that you’ll be able to sample some authentic Jamaican food.  Hopefully you’ll get a taste of Jamaica’s national dishes: ackee and saltfish (served with fried roasted breadfruit, fried dumplings, and boiled bananas) and fried chicken with curry gravy (just trust me, the curry gravy makes fried chicken taste even better).  Be sure to have some coffee too…you may never have Sbux again.  Unfortunately you won’t be able to nip over for crab or roasted corn or roasted yam when you visit National Heroes Park.  The crab vendors usually do snappy business, especially on Friday nights.  Although Friday night crab business should be roaring and lively with tales of who saw President Obama visit National Heroes Park, that is doubtful because the crab and other vendors’ stalls are gone; they say it is temporary…I have learned to mark deeds not words. I understand of course that there are security reasons for many of the activities surrounding your visit to Jamaica but I confess myself disappointed at how the Heroes Circle clean-up happened.  Now, to be fair many Jamaican streets are choked with vendors and it can be overwhelming and dirty but I’ve often wondered whether part of Jamaican culture is, simply street culture…living a healthy portion of our lives public spaces.  From physical outdoor parties used by patrons to claim a figurative space as their own (loosely the birth of Dancehall, the close cousin of your friend, Hip Hop and even Brukins and its cousins before) to blissfully loud, hot, colorful markets (not the pop up, take down Farmers’ Markets of DC), many Jamaican revel and thrive in public areas.   It is part of us. Sure we could better organize our spaces — keep them cleaner, for example — so I wonder why the crab vendors’ stalls weren’t removed (not demolished) or why the vendors weren’t simply prevented from being there while a security bubble must be in place.  Surely you’ve seen stalls before; surely you are sharp and well-travelled enough to understand and appreciate the realities of developing country island life.  So, dear President Obama, I am sad that you’ll miss the crab but I’m even sadder that you’ve been deprived of an opportunity for a whiff of authentic Jamaican life.  Perhaps once you’ve left we will find it within ourselves to do for ourselves, to fix up our home for our own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness; perhaps we will find the political will to get things done without partisanship simply because it’s the right thing to do.  Then again, there have been attempts to build proper vending spaces for some vendors but things went awry with collecting the rent due.
Another bit of authentic Jamaican life that you’ll miss out on is dodging potholes large and deep enough to name and call friend. Whew, The Beast is safe!  The rapid and disciplined road work that’s happened since your visit was announced really is something to marvel at.  O, well, maybe I should not make that link as the Government of Jamaica is resolute that the road repairs are merely coincidental.  Wink, wink.  (I wish we could find some coincidental money to fix a hospital or school or two…quick, change your itinerary to visit Kingston Public and Bustamante Children’s Hospitals and a few schools.)  Of course we’ve done the rapid road repair business before the Queen or some prince or other but this time the scale of things seems quite different. Hmm.  I do hope it doesn’t rain though because we may have gone gangbusters on making the roads smooth but I have this feeling that we skipped out on fixing some nagging drainage problems.  Unless, of course, The Beast can swim?
To be honest, when your visit was announced I was not happy. I feared that your trip would be considered some kind of endorsement for the current Government of Jamaica, or — worse — it’d be explicitly used as such or turned into a weapon to gleefully display poor behaviour and crassness.  But it’s been a relief to see members of the Government and other officials who are members of the ruling party fall in line with the expected and accepted youthful exuberance.  

A bit of gleefulness from the Mayor of Kingston, eh?A bit of gleefulness from the Mayor of Kingston, eh? Translation: My aren’t folks be envious that we, the PNP, and our leader, the PM are hosting President Obama?
Just a bit of fun and gibing, don’t you think?
By the way, would you mind saying a supportive word or two about marijuana legalization?  As you well know, criminalizing young black men for minor drug offenses has harmful consequences on society and these are effects Jamaica can ill-afford to continue to bear.  Folks like Garfield Coburn bore the ultimate cost.  I mean, you have, after all, been supportive as extensive marijuana reforms have swept across your country so it seems only fair to extend even tacit support for Jamaica’s late but budding efforts.  
Jamaican boyEnjoy your time in Jamaica, President Obama.  I’m sure you’ll meet our true stars and heartbeats like Bolt, Shelly-Ann, and Alia.  They are the ones who time and time again lift our spirits and make us proud.  They save their best and brightest performances for when our nation seems the most dispirited, and they achieve great things through their own hard work and despite the odds.  I told you that Jamaicans don’t do things by halves.  We are a proud, bold, feisty, determined, and resilient people.  We love deeply but will quickly and clearly let you know when even your big toe’s edge approaches the proverbial line.   We are kind.  We are passionate.  We are creative.  We are warm.  I hope you get to meet Jamaicans who show you these qualities.  I hope also you feel the warm admiration that many, many Jamaicans have for you; we watched your ascendancy, agonized over That First Debate Performance, look askance (as I’m sure you do) at Congress wondering why they won’t give you a break, and — it is true — celebrated your wins as if they were our own and as if we made them happen. This is an odd thing because many Jamaicans are more conservative than folks realize.  But somehow, and yes in part because you are black and became leader of a country that most thought would never elect a black President, you have earned the respect of more than a few Jamaicans.  This is not something to take lightly because this respect is hard-earned but once lost, it’s near impossible to regain..and we will not let you forget it.  Like I said, we are a bold and frank people.  You awakened, in many Jamaicans, a political attentiveness and engagement that too many of us do not have with our own politics and governance. Perhaps it is that this hurried sprucing up for your visit shows Jamaicans what our Government is capable of when required to act…and maybe, just maybe, we will begin demanding and requiring consistent sprucing up for ourselves.
p.s. Wear good mosquito spray.
p.p.s. Engage the stiff arm: avoid all hugs.

Filed under: jamaica, musings