I have lived more than half of my life overseas. Outside of Jamaica where I am from. I am not that young anymore, so you can imagine it’s been a long time living in foreign lands. But, I miss Jamaica like Day One. After all these years. I imagine only those who have lived overseas will understand my emotions. When I left Jamaica first for good, it was for a posting to Brussels by the company I was working with at the time, right after Hurricane Gilbert did a number on Jamaica. And I have lived abroad ever since. So, it’s been a while. Gilbert mashed up my beloved island in 1988.
Tonight, I am listening to music online, being played by a Jamaican bredrin who lives a few minutes away from me in South Florida. Lounge Live. Religiously every Tuesday night, but with surprise editions on a Sunday evening or Friday night like tonight. Always a pleasant surprise to kick-start the weekend. I am not sure he realizes how powerful his musical presence is in our lives, mine and the other listeners’, but it is super special. The accompanying chatroom session is filled mostly with Jamaicans, at home and abroad. The banter tonight is humming and jamming and makes me feel homesick. Homesick for Jamaica. We talk about how the 80s and 90s music of our generation is the best. How life was sweet in Jamaica. We kind of knew back then that Jamaica was special but being overseas now heightens our appreciation. Only Jamaicans outside of Jamaica will understand.
Jamaica has its challenges, yes. But sometimes I feel I have cheated myself by having moved overseas permanently. Not that I am ungrateful, or that I regret having left, for I think I have prospered immensely. I have lived a life worthy of great appreciation. Sometimes I don’t even realize until it is pointed out to me. I close my eyes and try to understand why friends tell me I have been fortunate. And yes, when I run the thoughts through my mind with my eyes closed, I do realize that they are right. But, it doesn’t hide how I feel about having left Jamaica. I feel I may have missed out on things that I will never be able to recapture. Putting things into perspective, material gains are good, but they are only part of the full picture of the wholesomeness of life. Emotional connections are equally, if not more valuable, because they round out our existence. At least for me. My emotional ties to Jamaica complete my existence overseas.
Nostalgia is a hell of a thing, and that is what helps me stay grounded to Jamaica. The clichéd expression of being physically outside of Jamaica but mentally there applies to me. I think it was made to describe me. Listening to my bredin’s online selections or listening to music on Kool 97FM all day on a Sunday whenever I can tune in is emotional. The DJs and the music take me back to times at home in St. Thomas. Funny, I used to hate Sundays, for they were so quiet. Only religious music on the radio all day long. And classics in the evenings. I didn’t have a television at home to break the monotony by watching Bonanza on the Ponderosa. So, I had no choice. But now I listen to music from back then, and it’s all different. I listen, and I am transported back to those years, and it makes me realize how blessed I am to have been born in Jamaica. How blessed to have had wonderful parents and siblings, and friends and neighbors. Really, it was a combination of all the factors of my little district of Norris. We were all family.
We have a lot to be grateful for by simply being Jamaican. Challenges in the country, yes, but we are revered abroad. And this reverence dates to long before Usain and our other outstanding athletes started blazing stadium tracks. Long before Colin Powell managed the state affairs of the most powerful nation on earth. Before our Jamaican beauties started turning up the heat in international pageantries. And even before my personal experiences living overseas.
Before I left Jamaica for good, I spent a year at university in France doing a master’s degree. Right after I finished my first degree in Jamaica. Upon arrival in Paris I took the train to Grenoble, my school town. I was checked in at the loge of my residence for the year in Grenoble by Farida, and shown my room. Farida was Algerian. We became close friends over time. She told me she was excited when she had received the call from Paris that two French government scholarship recipients from Jamaica were arriving that afternoon. At round about the appointed time, she saw two young folks coming in, laden with luggage. I am expecting Jamaicans, she told me she had said to herself. But these can’t be them, she had further told herself. Why, they don’t have dreadlocks, so these cannot be the students from Jamaica. We had an interesting conversation after, because it was then I realized that Rastafari were held in high esteem. And so was Jamaica by extension. Not so during my formative years in Jamaica. A new beginning started for me then. The place I had up to then thought about as a pinhead on the map was a huge player on the world stage! Our culture was a transcendent power! It had given us prominence exponentially beyond our physical size. This realization transported me to a realm of unbridled pride.
Years later after I had wended my way to settlement in America, I was doing charity work in Costa Rica for the company I was employed to in the US at the time. My fellow employees and I were painting a school somewhere on the outskirts of San Jose. One of the schoolkids, realizing I was Jamaican, struck up a conversation with me. Luckily, I had paid close attention to my high school and university Spanish teachers. The kid told me there was a Jamaican song he loved but did not understand the lyrics. He proceeded to sing. Rather, d j the song. It was just about when dancehall had started cementing itself as a musical genre beyond the borders of Jamaica. Amazement. He did it in perfect Patois, and then asked me what it all meant! Did I say amazement? That was the first time I had realized the real power of Patois! And of Jamaican music to a certain extent. The popularity of Bob Marley I had already known, but his songs were mostly in English. Understood by the masses. But Patois! The kid did not even speak English!
A few years earlier I had spent some time with a friend’s family in Burkina Faso, West Africa. I had taken some Bob Marley cassettes with me – yes, it was during that era – which I would play now and
again. I would sit outside the house often during the day with the friends I had made, chatting about a bit of everything and nothing. Tea was always a central part of the socializing. The teamaker would hold the teapot high, pouring it into tiny clear glasses so that the tea frothed. And my cassettes blasting Bob Marley. They always wanted to listen, and I had to interpret the lyrics for them into French while we sipped the tea with hisses that my mother would not have approved of. They knew that Bob’s messages were powerful, but now they could get the full meanings from a brother of Bob Marley. From the land of reggae. From the country they felt closely connected to because Bob sang of their struggles in Africa, and of their redemption. I was king!
My years of living in Europe and traveling the world have been full of revelations for me. Revelations about the sentimental position that Jamaica held, and still holds in the world. Brand Jamaica is powerful! But, although the reverence of Jamaica is powerful, and instills fervent, sometimes obnoxious, pride in us, it is more so the nostalgia about life on the island that makes me feel the way I do. Why I love that place. And the music, like tonight’s, brings me right back home. Home to Jamaica. Can someone pass me some tissue? My allergies have started acting up again.
Reprinted, with permission, from petergeorgesmith.com