JG - The dream of return
The dream of return
published: Sunday June 25, 2006
Part V from the forthcoming book which chronicles the lives and experiences of Jamaicans in the diaspora, Jamaica, Hands Across The Atlantic, by Elaine Baur and Paul Thompson. The book will be published by Ian Randle Publishers in June 2006.
FOR THE great majority of migrants their original dream was to do well enough to make a successful return in later life to Jamaica.
Dick Woodward thought his family, who came to London in the 1950s, were typical in originally hoping to return within three years, and for long after living in a state of readiness to travel back, with 'grips under their beds'. And indeed still among our interviewees, despite the passage of time over half still cherish this dream, and these would-be returnees come from right across the occupational spectrum. However, among the older migrants, especially those with modest resources, many have come eventually to accept that they will live out their lives in the countries where they are now settled.
David McNeep, retired London railwayman, cited the proverb, "Where the tree falls, it lies there." Conversely, among the younger migrants there were many who felt that it was too early for them to return, although "if I could afford it tomorrow, I would. "Robert Lynn, New York highway maintenance man, does plan to return, "but not now. We have to make a foundation here first. Basically, like my own home, and then go down there and build a nice house." It was important for a migrant to be able to return with pride, so that paradoxically, the worse their situation the harder it became for them to return. Stella Wadham had some very rough years in New York after her husband left her, earning so little as a caregiver that after paying for the rent and sending money to Jamaica for her daughter she had not enough to eat. She would stand and cry in the shower: "I cried, cried until I had no voice." She only survived because her Jamaican landlady insisted on giving her free meals. Why didn't Stella return to Jamaica? "It's this pride thing I couldn't pack up and go back home, that would be admitting that I'd failed."
STANDARD OF LIVING
There was also a minority who had decisively rejected any thought of return, principally for two reasons. The first was that they were too put off by the lower standard of living in Jamaica than they had become used to in have to change 360 degrees." The second was their fear of violence.
"Jamaica was a very very good country that you could go any part of the country, and nobody interfere with you, nobody trouble you," remembered David McNeep. "When we was growing in Jamaica, you could leave your house open and gone a bush, gone do anything." Many older migrants regret the passing of 'the old-fashioned Jamaica' they knew as children.
Now, fanned by the press, rumours are constantly circulated of returnees who have been robbed or murdered, even on the way from the airport.
For some would-be returnees, the answer is to be pragmatic, to avoid provocative displays of wealth. For others, fear has put return out of the question: as Arnold Houghton, Canadian accountant, remarked," don't want to be living in Jamaica behind some barbed wire fence, six guard dogs."
However, rumours and fear have been so stimulated that even some well-educated migrants have developed fantasy views of current life in Jamaica. Thus a health professional in England asserted that in Jamaica today "everybody lives in a prison, locked gates, burglar alarms, bad dogs in the garden." This is not remotely true even of Kingston, let alone the smaller towns and countryside. Hence other migrants are arguing for a more balanced view. "I want people to understand that Jamaica's not all about guns and violence and drugs," says Belle Dickens, a writer who has recently returned from New York. "There's a side of Jamaica that's warm, that's friendly, where people can sleep with their door open, where people can walk late at night."
Of our Jamaican migrants, 12 have returned to Jamaica for substantial periods, and six of them are still living on the island. All of them, whether they stayed or not, were positive about their decision to come back. "I love it. I wouldn't trade it!"
Nevertheless, for half of them the return proved only temporary. Not surprisingly, most of the reasons for not staying on are similar to those for migrating in the first place. Although all those who were of working age found suitable jobs with little difficulty, one reason for not staying on was economic: "It's very hard to make an honest living in Jamaica." Of the others who have left, one man came back to Britain to give his children better educational opportunities; and another as a way of splitting up with his wife. "My wife and I just couldn't see eye to eye," and he could see that the children were taking sides," So I said, "Well if that's the case, I'll go. If you don't want to live that way, you get out of it. That's what I did." The main difference with younger initial migrants is that some older returnees are forced back because they need the free health care to which they are entitled in Britain.
These few returnees are part of a much wider migratory current which is changing the face of Jamaica. It is having a crucial impact on the Jamaican economy too, for the pensions and other incomes of returnees are now second only to tourism in their contribution to the island's foreign currency earnings. The pioneers of return migration have principally been English, who constitute ten of our twelve returnees. This is partly because the English Jamaicans migrated earlier and so are closer to retirement age, but also because those who bought their own houses can now cash in on a very substantial capital appreciation. And while some Jamaicans have returned from England to Florida, for them this is a much less easy compromise alternative than it is for Jamaicans in New York. So it is above all the English Jamaicans who are changing the face of Jamaica with their new houses.
You can find clusters of these new houses right around the Jamaican coastline, and they also climb up to the cooler heights of the central spine around Mandeville and Spaldings: walking the side roads there, their grey concrete frames thrust up through the bright green foliage like a regatta of dinghy sails in the Caribbean sea. When you look more closely, quite often they are unfinished, great three-storey frames with yawning unfilled gaps, sometimes half-abandoned with trees taking over the structures, somebody's abandoned gothic dream. More often with time they are finished, painted sparkling white, doors and windows filled with elaborately twisted metal grilles, and rooms inside big enough for a complete family reunion.
These houses are the fruit of years of struggle, first of all in Britain or America, but then in Jamaica too. It is very difficult to get a house built satisfactorily at a distance, so that it often takes months of visits stretched grey concrete frames thrust up through the bright green foliage like a regatta of dinghy sails in the Caribbean sea. When you look more closely, quite often they are unfinished, great three-storey frames with yawning unfilled gaps, sometimes half-abandoned with trees taking over the structures, somebody's abandoned gothic dream. More often with time they are finished, painted sparkling white, doors and windows filled with elaborately twisted metal grilles, and rooms inside big enough for a complete family reunion. These houses are the fruit of years of struggle, first of all in Britain or America, but then in Jamaica too. It is very difficult to get a house built satisfactorily at a distance, so that it often takes months of visits stretched over several years before it is completed. When we met Esau Blackett, a tailor from northern England who also runs a wedding car business, he had a load of drainpipes for his house, sticking out of the car windows. He comes out for a month twice a year to push the building on, meanwhile, letting both floors which he has finished, keeping only one room for himself.
PLOT OF LAND
Winnie Busfield, a nursing assistant also from the north, used to come to Jamaica once in every two years to visit her mother, and in the early 1990s, with the help of a niece, she found a plot of land for a house close to the sea, part of a cluster of returnees' houses. Three years later the house was partly built: "We finish the downstairs, the lower part of the house, and my husband came out to help look after my mother." Her mother died before Winnie could follow. For another six years she kept working in the hospital, but raised substantially more cash by selling her house there and renting a flat, "because the children now grown and they taking their own paths and working in London." Once her house was sold, she sent out her furniture: "Well, things came out from England shipment of all our house, household goods, furniture and things." But the upper part of the house was still little more than a shell, and it was a good ten years before it was completed. Finally Winnie and her husband could relax in their very spacious house, with guest rooms for their children and a glimpse of the sea down the valley.