Which poor?

When I was eight (8) years old, my grade two teacher taught us a song that we were sure would get us gold at Festival.  “The postman, the paper boy, the piano turner too, they all come the front way like visitors do” we were all perfectly poised and our pronunciation was on point.  Festival was in Black River that year and it felt like the entire school was in one of the several pieces we were practicing in our attempts to win a gold medal.  Somehow on our return from Black River we were so tightly packed in the bus that was taking us home that my kidney was damaged.  By the time I got home I started swelling uncontrollably.  By the time Monday rolled around I was twice my size.  My mother had to wait until Monday despite her apprehensions. So I was heading back to Black River, this time to the hospital on the same bus, I had been packed so tightly in, that my kidneys were squeezed and I developed Nephritis.  Of course I was admitted; I spent a couple days in that hospital and then was transferred to the Bustamante Children’s Hospital where I spent fifty-two days.

My poor mother was stressed and tired all the time.  Travelling from St. Elizabeth to Kingston was only possible once a week, I was in that hospital by myself most of the time, except for an occasional visit from a family friend or my sister who was at school in Kingston.

When I came to Kingston, to attend UWI, I was terrified at the idea of living next door to August Town, I had heard about ghettoes where poor people lived and that they were ‘bad’ areas with a lot of killing and people who were not afraid.  I imagined the poverty and imagined sheer horror and constant torture, when I visited August Town I was in shock and awe, the people looked so affluent, they had taxis and buses and they were right next to UWI.  They were near a hospital, schools were nearby, and they had running water and road.

Just after the Tivoli incident I volunteered with a group of people to do outreach work in Tivoli Gardens.  I promised I would never do outreach in a Kingston community again.  Tivoli had skills training centre, community centre, a HEART Training centre.  As I walked through the community I saw children who were well dressed, homes furnished to the hilt and people living well.  I thought longingly of one of these opportunities in Kilmarnock.  On the day we were there several groups were competing to go into the community, they were on a schedule and we were competing for space.  I could not help but be amazed by their good fortune.

When I was in Teacher’s College my sisters lived in Montego Bay and I spent most of my time with them.  One holiday I came home and a friend of theirs from St. Elizabeth was planning a dance in her community, she had invited them but my sisters were and still are not the dance going type, I was young and restless and every time I look back I say ‘damn careless’ because I went.  At the time the train was running so we took the train from Montego Bay.  It was a community called ‘Breadnut Hill’ there was no road, no water, and no electricity.  I left that situation, thanking God for the Rural Electrification Programme; it had reached Kilmarnock, we had light in our homes and the community even had three street lights, there was none in Breadnut Hill.  I felt as if I came from affluence.

When I was pregnant as a seventeen year old teenager in Kilmarnock, I worried a lot.  What if I went into labour and Maas Victor was not in Kilmarnock? (Maas Victor’s Land Rover was available for rental in emergencies) How would I get to the hospital? I was in full blown panic, what if I had to wait for long and then had the baby on my way to the hospital?  Kilmarnock is a hill, with an extremely narrow and windy road, it is about two miles from where I live to New Market and then seventeen miles to Black River.  I did panic and my mother took me to the hospital too early, but the doctors did not send me back home, especially when they checked my records and saw my history of kidney disease.  I waited a week to go into labour, I felt safer in the hospital.

I hate when Jamaicans pretend as if they do not know that some of our people still live in extreme poverty.  I do not like the biased emphasis on the urban poor and the representation of their plight as the plight of the nation’s poor and vulnerable. Poverty in Jamaica cuts deep and sits at the heart of our social ills.  In many rural spaces people still live the same way they did a hundred years ago, people still cannot visit hospitals and doctors because they have no money to.  Public transportation provided by the government covers St. Catherine, St. Andrew and Kingston.   And in those places fare is not cheap.  And some of those people either can afford electricity or they cannot, if they can’t the JPS men cut the light one week after the due date and until you get the reconnection fee and the full amount owed, people buy ice and ‘draw fi dem’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ kerosene oil lamp.

So when we talk about the poor in Jamaica what do we mean?  Who is poor and where do poor people come from? What does it mean to be poor and what are the expectations we have of or poor people?  Why are some of us so horrified at the announcement by the JPS? In this very colour conscious and class driven society we have to be careful about the labelling, some of us are a little too mean with our empathy.  We seem to only save it for people who live in relatively close proximity to each other and are logistically easier to transport on Election Day.

Nadeen Spence

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