Many Rivers To Cross In Kingston Town

'You're white," the small, black Jamaican girl whispered as she touched my arm. "How did you get that way?" Feeling slightly uneasy, I said I wasn't sure. Did she know? "Yes, it's because you stay indoors too much," she answered.

Back in Kingston, Jamaica, after 10 years, I see one thing hasn't changed: The poor still reach out to touch my skin, or they holler "Hey, Joe" to get my attention, inevitably trying to sell me coconuts, beer, or something illegal. Women ask to touch my fiance's blond hair. Not many tourists wander into this gritty Third World metropolis, with its zinc-roofed slums and streets where goats wander and browse. A white man walking through the busy intersection of Half Way Tree--or even sitting in a taxi--stands out.

I feel as out of place as I did in 1983, when I was 22 and came to Kingston as part of a program sponsored by the Jesuit-run University of Santa Clara. There were 10 of us who spent that summer studying Jamaican history and laboring through hot, sweaty days on various development projects. I helped an electronics cooperative in the tough Kingston ghetto of Jones Town apply for a loan from the Dutch government, an active investor in Jamaica. But in the main, we passed our days talking with the co-op members and neighborhood folks, sharing icy colas, and trying to understand each other better.

I left Jamaica deeply marked. Over the next three years, much of my intellectual life was taken up with the island. I cobbled together a resource book for the Data Center, a progressive research library in Oakland, Calif., and wrote my first published articles, which described the island nation's travails. Later, at the London School of Economics & Political Science, I earned a master's degree with a thesis on the aluminum industry's impact on the Third World. Jamaica's mountains are scarred by reddish, open-pit mines of bauxite, the principal ore of aluminum.

After I became a professional journalist, however, I lost touch with the place: Other stories came first. But I kept wondering what happened to the people I'd known, to their projects and the political causes they had espoused. It wasn't difficult to find out, largely because the priest who had helped organize the program, Father Gerard "Gerry" McLaughlin, a Jesuit who has been helping Jamaicans start small businesses since the early 1960s, was still in Kingston. Gerry not only helped me locate old friends but also put me to work organizing the financial records of a forklift cooperative he was assisting.

Gerry's experience reflects much of what has changed here over 10 years. In 1983, he helped Stax Electronic Cooperative, where I worked, obtain a low-interest, unsecured $40,000 loan. But Stax never repaid the debt, in part because markets didn't materialize but also because members spent the money on such scarcities as clothes, or, in one case, a car. Today, Gerry and his employer, the City of Kingston Cooperative Credit Union, insist on collateral and charge interest on loans, though the 12% rate is well below the 40% charged by local banks. Gerry has become an advocate of self-reliance, as well.

BUSINESS FIRST. To that end, he teaches classes in basic business. Often, it's just a matter of getting people to put business first. At one of his classes, a woman insisted that she needed more money for her small food shop--and announced plans to buy a TV set. "You must be kidding," said Gerry "I know you're kidding. You can't afford that television now. Go watch the neighbors'." "I'll wait, Father," came her reply, and the other small-business owners in the room applauded.

Maybe Stax could have used such a lesson. I found the co-op and its leader, Wilfred "Val" Talbert, where I had left them, in a second-floor work space just outside Jones Town. Decaying stereos and electronic gadgets sat next to an expensive high-tech sound system, which the co-op still uses for disco dances it holds. Plans to start manufacturing amplifiers have all but faded. But the dreams remain: These days, co-op members scratch out a living by fixing the ancient TV sets that light the living rooms of Jones Town. And Val is trying to start a technical school. "We need about $10,000, though," he says.

Truth be told, it's hard to see how anything might have been different. A plunging Jamaican dollar--from J$5 for each U.S. dollar in 1991 to J$26 now--has rendered the imported components needed to manufacture electronics equipment too dear for Stax. Middle-class Jamaicans don't feel comfortable driving into the impoverished slums of West Kingston for any reason, let alone to buy stereos. And the struggle of getting through the day--buying food, finding money for a child's schooling--further mitigates against building a business.

But people try, and try hard. Walking down Jones Town's dusty streets, I spot six or seven small shops that weren't there 10 years ago. "Too many sellers, not enough buyers," moans one local. Bev, a woman who sells coconuts, oranges, and cigarettes, says she makes about $15 a week from her small stall, hardly enough for rent. Herbert Smith, who owns a local bar we used to frequent, really a doorway with two seats, wears the same tattered shirt he wore 10 years ago. "Things are hard," he says. "It's hard to make a living."

CHICKEN FEED. Government policies don't make it easier. Here was the greatest shock for me: The People's National Party, the bedrock of democratic-socialist thinking in the Caribbean, has abandoned efforts to insulate Jamaica from the harsh realities of the global economy. To spur investment, two years ago the government let the local currency float. But prices skyrocketed: A chicken costs J$100, toothpaste J$20. Jamaica's weekly minimum wage is just J$300. "The poor can't take no more" remains the popular refrain it was 10 years ago, but now it has a more desperate ring.

Even the middle classes are pinched. One afternoon I visited Enid Dixon, with whom I stayed in 1983. She still lives in Harborview, a little enclave of single-story homes far from Jones Town. Enid, 66, collects a $50 monthly pension and earns about as much working at a nearby pharmacy. "My light bill is $40 a month," she says. "Water is another $11. I can't imagine I'll ever be able to afford to retire." She wishes the program I was on, which paid families $500 for a summer's room and board, still existed.

How could the government let things come to this? I wondered. What happened to the commitment PNP leader Michael Manley, a socialist, made to the poor? In the 1970s, Manley's government tried to tackle social and economic problems in a fairly aggressive way, often using state power to start new businesses or legislate a minimum wage. But flight of local capital to the U.S. and opposition from the Carter Administration helped do him in. When he returned to power in 1989, he wasn't about to repeat his mistakes.

RUGS AND SUGAR. I met the grand old man of Caribbean politics on my next-to-last day in Jamaica. Manley retired on account of illness 18 months ago. In 1983, he was one of the few politicians I admired: charismatic, intelligent, caring. That hasn't changed. But he says his approach did. "I am an activist," he says. "I didn't want to get left behind by history." So he sought accommodation with local businesses and the U.S. and set out to build an economy that worked. To encourage small business, he set up a government loan program. He privatized state industries and floated the Jamaican dollar to foster investment at home.

Walking through Kingston, you can sense that Manley hit on something: This is an island of entrepreneurs. Little stalls crowd the streets, selling woven rugs, sugar cane, and home decorations. One of Manley's former aides, Paul Miller, has started his own business growing oranges. But Jamaica's wealthy still feel more secure investing in the U.S. And the rest of the country is just struggling to get by.

When I leave this time, I feel the same sadness that overcame me when I left 10 years ago. And it's about the same thing: that people I admire, people I came to feel were my brothers despite our skin colors, have to fight so hard just to live. But it's more than that. Jamaicans have enormous pride. This is not a nation of gripers. It remains a tiny land of extraordinarily talented people trying to forge lives of dignity against the huge odds set by both its colonial past and its present humble place in the world economy.

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