Jamaica punches way above its weight. An island of about 2.8 million people, its name and influence reaches far and deep.
There are the well-known facts. Jamaica gifted the world with reggae music and before that, ska; the Rastafarian name and culture is widely known, largely due to the intertwining of Rastafarianism and reggae music, a global phenomenon; Jamaica is a track and field sprinting powerhouse and, next to the United States, has the highest number of sprinting medals, of all colors, among Olympians; Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is among the most prized, and expensive, in the world, fetching upwards of US$30 a pound.
There are the lesser known facts. Jamaica was the first country to impose economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa; Jamaica was the first country in the tropics to enter the IOC Winter Olympics; Jamaica was the first colony England acquired by conquest rather than settlement; Ian Fleming wrote 10 of his James Bond novels in Jamaica, where he had taken up residence; Jamaica has the highest percentage of women managers globally; Jamaicans are the largest group of American immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean; during the 1970s and early 1980s about 15 percent of the population left the country.
There are the facts that are almost never known: Jamaica has more multiple (two or more) live births than anywhere else in the world (lots of twins and quite a few triplets); Jamaica is the first country to sign a Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria grant agreement; Jamaica was the first British colonial territory to establish a postal service, in the year 1688; Jamaica and Mauritania are the only countries whose flags do not share any of the colors of the American flag; it was the first country in the Caribbean to have a website, www.jamaicatravel.com, launched in 1994; chocolate milk was invented in Jamaica; 200 species of wild orchids grow in Jamaica, 73 of which are unique to the country; it is claimed that AT&T, the American company, copied Jamaica’s telephone system.
And there are the facts that are mostly forgotten. Jamaica was the first country in the Western world to construct a railway, even before the United States; Jamaica was the first commercial producer of bananas in the Western hemisphere; Jamaica gave birth to Caribbean tourism; the Manchester Golf Club in Jamaica, established in 1868, is the oldest in the western hemisphere; Jamaica, it is alleged, had electricity and running water before the United States.
I never knew how big a deal Bob Marley was until my graduate studies in the US in the 1990s. Upon learning I’m Jamaican, students would invariably mention Bob as the one identifying feature of the country they know. His name and fame has not diminished. At a global event in Hawaii a few years ago, I and a Bangladeshi, in our quest to find a food court, solicited the help of a kind young woman whom we met during the search. Recognizing we were not Hawaiians, and likely not Americans, she asked us where we were from. “Bangladesh,” my companion said. She puzzled a look, “Where is that?” After he informed her that Bangladesh is in Asia, I said to her, “Well I’m sure you’ve never heard of my country, Jamaica.” She expressed surprise at my ignorance. “Of course, Bob Marley.”
Bangladesh has a population of almost 170 million people, the eighth most populous country in the world. Jamaica, with 2.8 million, is ranked at 139.
That Marley has made a significant, unique, and decisive contribution has been supported by scholarship. Masa-Hide Kato, in a doctoral dissertation done at the University of Hawaii, found Marley to be a revolutionary figure “in the age of global transnational capitalism.” Marley’s music and message, he argues, was part of the “trans-popular culture” that was part of the decolonization process that challenged “the age of global transnational capitalism.”
Harold Preston Coleman’s 1998 PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa finds Marley to be a charismatic authority “within the social and cultural milieu of the period during which (he) was recording and performing 1973-1981,” and even after his death.
And Grant Aubrey Farred’s 1997 Princeton University PhD dissertation declares Marley on “Organic and vernacular intellectual” in the struggle for “black liberation and political independence.” Farred’s claim that Marley made an important contribution to the struggle for “black liberation and political independence” is of course not related solely to Jamaica. It is well known that Marley’s music and message served as an inspiration to various independent movements in Africa in the 1970s, most notably in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, as well as struggles in Mozambique and Angola.
It need not be said that Marcus Garvey is deeply revered by Africans and elements in the African American community. A Ghanaian immigrant in the US felt, upon meeting me, that he was in the presence of someone special, not because of me of course, but because of Garvey. “Africa would be very different today if we had followed Garvey,” he said in reverential tones.
Jamaicans are everywhere. It is an arresting experience, a very pleasant one, to deplane at an airport in Dubai or in Singapore and one of the first things you see in the arrival terminal is a huge photograph of Usain Bolt.
A group of us Jamaicans were walking in Amsterdam when we saw a fellow, on his cell phone, speaking, in not very soft tones, in clear Jamaican lingo. We all walked up to him. “Whey yah do yah so?” We asked. Ending his call, he recalled for us his family’s journey from St. Thomas in Jamaica to Coventry in England to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
At an event in Jordan, (Jordan!) I noticed a woman on the outskirts of the audience, trying to get the best camera angle of my Jamaican colleague, the main speaker. Accompanied by her daughter, she made sure to find us at the end of the ceremony. Having not a clue who the speaker was, she discerned, upon hearing his voice, that it must be a Jamaican. She had been living in Jordan for more than 20 years, where her daughter was born.
We attended meetings in Panama whereupon one of the Ecuadorian delegates made it a point to introduce herself. Her grandfather, she said, got converted, many decades earlier, under the preaching of a Jamaican at a railway station in Ecuador, a Spanish speaking South American country. That fateful encounter changed the course of her family’s trajectory and history.
We were at an event in Havana, Cuba. Our translator had a very English maiden name, “Lawrence,” whereupon we made known our curiosity. “My father’s family is from Jamaica,” she said, explaining that she still has relatives in St. Mary.
We likkle but we tallawah. We small but we big. We are a dot in the ocean that has sent ripples across the globe. In boxing parlance, we are of featherweight size but punch like a super middleweight.