The poor survive on daily 'miracles'
IF there was no 'bad luck' in Keisha's life she wouldn't have any luck at all. As if to confirm it, on the way to her 45th birthday the worst thing that could have happened to her did — she became pregnant and eventually gave birth to a boy. He was her eighth child, three shy of a football team.
Dirt poor, semi-literate, unemployable, bone thin and just generally immersed in the daily hell of finding something to eat, she and her three-year-old son made the trek from her 'yard' in a lane close to the Constant Spring area to a little shop nearby about six or seven times per day.
A few weeks ago when we spoke, my question was simple and to the point. "Keisha," I said while handing her two $100 bills, "how yu an di children dem survive?"
"Bwoy, Missa Mark, mi nuh know. Right now as yu know mi have mi likkle girl and har bredda a go a primary school and mi haffi find $700 every day fi taxi and lunch money," she said.
I didn't want to pry too deeply into her relationships, but seeing her quite often with her young son sucking bag juice I know that she wasn't doing anything to generate even the barest minimum of income. "Yu have anybody helping yu out?" I asked.
"Di wutliss father fi mi likkle yout him wi gi mi a likkle ting, but if mi nuh war him, mi nuh get nutten," she replied. I had given her the money as a 'preemptive strike'. Her situation required that any pride she chose to carry around with her would only be added burden and, most days, the weight on her mind was unbearable. Begging had become more than second nature to her. It had taken on cultural proportions due to her lifelong poverty.
As we spoke and she felt more at ease, she opened up. In an unkind world Keisha's day of being a 'catch' was far behind her. Her sparse, nearly 50-year-old frame indicated more than family genetics. In plain language she wasn't eating right.
"As me mek a likkle hustling mi buy a pound a chicken back or some likkle something. Mi nuh fraid fi tell yu," she said as she lowered her voice. "Yessiday, mi boil a noodle soup wid one tomato and half pound a flour. A dat me and di three pickney dem did have fi wi dinner," she said as she looked away then added, "sometime mi feel like mi a go mad."
A few weeks ago, she bet $40 on Cashpot and her number connected. She must have won about $1,000 and I cannot ever recall seeing anyone so happy over a mere $1,000. "Missa Mark, mi can buy yu a beer?" she asked.
"No man, mi aright," I said.
Two of her adult children live with her. "Mi big son use to live pon him own but him did owe nuff rent money so dem put him out, him woman lef him and him come live wid mi. But sometime all dat a problem," she said.
Little education, dark future
After leaving "all-age school" her son tried to apprentice himself to a mechanic in order to learn the trade. "Him nuh have no behaviour and him cuss off di man and walk wey. Him sey di man nah pay him," Keisha said.
As she explained, her 26-year-old son didn't get much out of school and long before he could even learn the basics of auto mechanics he was demanding to be paid.
"Sometime him get a likkle work on a building site and him a try do stone work." She began to laugh and I asked her to share with me.
"To tell yu di truth, mi neva have any fridge and mi son have, so mi encourage him fi come stay wid me." She laughed out again.
A daughter in her 20s is also there. Her daughter has her own bed but the sleeping arrangements in general are bizarre. "Me and mi big son an mi likkle boy sleep pon my bed. Di likkle girl and boy whey a go school sleep wid mi big daughter but dat again a pure worries because di likkle boy always a piss bed," Keisha related.
"So, what does your daughter do for work?" I asked. She hissed her teeth. "Sometime she jus miss up fi all a week, sometime two, and when she come back she have a nice change. Mi nuh ask har whey she do and she nah talk. She better dan mi yah," she said.
As we continued to talk it became obvious that she 'poached' electric power. I didn't get the sense that she felt any shame in doing so. "What sort of electrical stuff yu have in di house?" I asked.
"Mi have one fan fi run mosquito and a nice likkle flat screen TV. Mi daughter have fi har TV and blow dryer." In all, there were about three energy-saving bulbs in the house. I pointed out to her that based on those few items using electricity, if she was connected legally, her light bill would not go beyond $2,000 per month.
"Missa Mark, if mi have $2,000 fi pay JPS me prefer fi use it fi buy food fi mi pickney dem an send dem go school."
On hearing her say that I pondered the cruelty of suggesting to her that, based on the fact that her older children who attended school did just that — attended but gained little — that maybe continuing to send the younger ones was a waste of time and money. Deep inside I quickly repented, pulled up, and said, "Whatever happens, schooling has to continue."
Some months ago, one of my taxi driver 'bredrin' who lives in a dense inner city pocket told me, "Missa Mark, yu nuh know sey poor people haffi tief light. Whey dem fi do and dem don't have it?" I stared at him, searching for the correct response. After a while I said, "Yu a drink a Guinness?" and left it at that.
Why poor people visit corner shops so often
In the 1980s I saw some research which indicated that so-called middle and upper middle class households shopped mainly at supermarkets either on a monthly basis or every two weeks. The lower down the ladder householders were, the more often they used corner shops or smaller supermarkets.
At first I believed that poorer people shopped often because their 'hustling' activities or odd jobs/quick payment dictated the shopping frequency. To some extent that is true, but Keisha gave a different spin on it and there is some confirmation that what she told me may be truer than many of us may have thought.
"If me even could a find a money fi buy three day food, yu tink sey mi woulda do it, put it down inna di house and mi nuh know who a go eat it off!'
Apart from the fact that living quarters in poorer households are hot and cramped, and that alone will tend to cause gatherings at 'di lane mout', what is also at play is the more important attempt to sequester and control one's own provisions.
Middle-class families take it for granted that the bread in the bread pan on a kitchen table is pretty predictable in its use and every two days another loaf is bought. Not so in many poorer households with too many people often acting on their individual narrow agendas based mainly on the growling of the stomach.
In such situations, an opened tin of condensed milk which feels lighter when its purchaser returns to the house can lead to loud spats or even violent altercations. To avoid it, the provisions are best kept at the corner shop instead of in the kitchen cupboard or the refrigerator.
Whenever dumplings are desired, two pounds of flour is bought. Chicken back in the freezer section of the refrigerator faces a bigger risk of expropriation from the 'wutliss cousin' whose desire for eating other people's provisions far exceeds his energy in seeking work. If dinner is to be had at 5:00 pm the shop is visited at 4:00 pm.
Every unit in the extended household purchases his/her provisions and, to avoid conflict, the amount stored and the time in storage are kept to just the minimum that is needed for the next meal.
In a household as small as mine (three people), discovering that a half loaf of bread has taken on a new shade of green in places is a luxury that many poor people cannot afford.
Last clutch at the logistics hub
Many years ago, this nation stored up a month's supply of food, but dissatisfied with how slowly it was being consumed, we ate it all off in one day.
Now we are hungry and have begun to complain that our cupboard is bare.
Many political leaders have championed the cause of the poor, but they have done so mostly with their mouths. Former Prime Minister Eddie Seaga once made a speech in which he said that in 1989, $100 could purchase food and grocery items for a family of five for a week!
We have come a long way, baby.
Even now I can remember Michael Manley back in the early 1970s predicting an apocalyptic economic end should a tin of milk reach one dollar. Yes, we have come a long way.
We have come this way because our people have elevated men and women to high places when the best that could be factually said of many of them is that their best deeds were performed as they slinked by us in the dark of night. Those men are ideally suited to the dankness of a cold cellar.
There is something fundamentally more honest about a man caught, held and imprisoned for his crimes than those on the outside flaunting their decency only because they have not yet been ferreted out.
Taken along for the ride, at times I am not so certain that the poor among us quite know what they want in the new set of leaders needed to break the back of the present set.
In 2003, it took $900 to fill up my car. Believe it or not, I am driving the same car and last year I did a complete overhaul of the engine. What I am certain I did not change was the capacity of the petrol tank, so how do I explain that a full tank now costs $4,500, which would not be bad had the economy grown (and my income) by at least 500 per cent just to keep me at the same spot?
I have lost track of the many youngsters from financially deprived situations whom I have assisted with cash, either to purchase books or to pay school fees. That was never supposed to be a part of writing regular newspaper columns.
Worse, I have lost track of those whom I made promises to but couldn't deliver. Good grief, I have become a politician!
Our politicians squabble in Gordon House and we are forced to question if they have the maturity to handle having a bar so close to Parliament.
They like to say that they are representing 'poor people's business' and for so long many of them have used that worn-out phrase, we are certain that they have forgotten that poverty is increasing. My pocket is feeling it, and the poor, many of whom I interact with daily, are piling on the stress, though they could hardly be blamed for pressuring me.
The only game in town is the Chinese, and in them we are seeing our last desperate clutch at a straw of hope. Now, tell me, how did we get to this sorry state?
With huge cost overruns likely to ensure that the Panama Canal expansion is delayed, it would seem to me that our plans for the buildout of a logistics hub will also be delayed. Is that really so?
Frankly, I was never of the belief that even if the Panama Canal was reopened for bigger size traffic by 2015, we would have been ready. Assuming that we were really serious, the delay is likely the best that could happen to us.
In the meantime, what do we do for development, game-changing development? On February 10, Admiral Peter Brady of the Maritime Authority wrote Dr Lloyd Cole the following;
'Many thanks for your very kind mail today which I have shared with the remainder of the team who participated in the discussions last week in the presence of the JAMPRO's logistics facilitation team.
'We commend your efforts over the years to sensitise all parties, public and private sector, about the need and the viability of a dry dock in Jamaica. You will not go unrecognised for promoting the concept
'We are committed to search for the interested entities and serious investors which Jamaica needs to establish such a large capital project that is a major component of both the global logistics hub which Government is pursuing and also as a major activity of the shipping centre concept, which is indeed a sub sector of the logistics hub initiative. Your thoughts regarding Cuba's position in the starting blocks are not to be taken lightly and Jamaica must therefore seize the moment. From our side we will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the development of this requirement for Jamaica.
'Once again, many thanks for maintaining an abiding interest in the need for Jamaica to have this type of capital investment which will bring many economic spin-offs, direct and indirect.'
My most pressing concern is the fact that we could have had a jump-start on all in the region when Dr Cole first pitched his idea 24 years ago.
Now, 24 years later, we are all here planning, but one doesn't get the sense that investors and ourselves are on the same page. Our minstrels, troubadours and athletes have done us proud, but in terms of what is left, overseas investors do not seem too impressed with our uneducated population, our undisciplined behaviour and our penchant to commit murder for fun.