Sometimes I lie in bed at night and imagine what it would be like to go home to Jamaica, find a plot of land far in the mountains and build a wattle-and-daub house, the way my grandmother, Rosa, did. I think she was in her fifties when she gave up on my philandering grandfather and set off into the hills to make a life on her own. At the time, everyone thought she was mad. But now I wonder.
Maybe it’s the rest of us who are mad. She didn’t have to go to work every day, yet she didn’t starve. She didn’t die of disease. She lived to the ripe old age of 93. In the United States, which is widely assumed to be the most prosperous nation on earth, our life expectancy is in the mid-seventies. And, from what I hear and read, most Americans are quite miserable.
Rosa did not have “health care.” She depended on faith healing, placing “White Wing” pamphlets on her arthritic joints. She didn’t have money. She didn’t have an army or navy or air force to defend her. The nearest police station was many miles away. She didn’t have bars on her windows.
What she did to protect her meager possessions was put a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of her garden, and whenever she left home, she placed the key to her front door in the statue’s outstretched palm. In four decades, not one robber dared to touch that key.
Back in those days, a lot of Jamaicans lived off the land. They grew yams and other “ground provisions,” harvested chocolate beans for their morning beverage, drank bissy or bush tea when they were sick… Everyone had chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner; some had turkeys; some – like Mrs. Knight – also had ducks and guinea chicks. In some parts of the island, where there was a lot of rain, they grew bananas; in other parts, where the mountains blocked the trade winds, they grew cassava. Corn and peas grew everywhere. (A Jamaican scene by artist Milton Messam is shown above.)
Some people had goats, and a few raised sheep. Some better-off people had cows.
Very few people had money. And, from what I remember, the pennies that filtered down did more harm than good. I am thinking of those drinking bouts on a Saturday night, and the fights they caused, the broken homes, the cards and dice, unwanted pregnancies and back-room abortions…
I know that my recollections are probably skewed and my logic most likely flawed. But could it be that money really is the root of all evil? Is the world following the wrong path, as billions of people in China, India, Africa and other “developing” areas aspire to a “middle-class” way of life?
It’s a way of life based on cheap electric power, generated at a terrible cost to the environment. And nobody in the “developed” world today could conceive of a life without electricity. Yet I can remember living without it for many years, and it wasn’t that bad.
I can remember our first refrigerator. It was powered by propane gas, I think. Before that, we cooled water in clay jars. As a child in Jamaica, I ate food cooked on an “American stove,” one that burned wood, and it tasted pretty good. We collected rain water in a “tank,” which was a concrete cistern positioned so the roof of our house acted as a catch basin. We pumped water from the tank up to two oil drums on a wooden platform high enough to flush the toilet and keep the taps flowing in the bathroom.
No, it was not idyllic. We were miles from the nearest doctor and many more miles from the nearest dentist. My memories include a lot of pain from toothache. But, with all the things mankind has discovered since then, you would think we would be a lot happier. And you would be wrong.