I never know what to expect about countries anymore.
When visiting a new place I have my set of preconceptions and associations in mind, just as everyone does. This time, in Jamaica, I’m hoping to discover more than just the stereotypical land of sun, sea, sand and reggae.
As a nation brand specialist, I’m constantly aware of how my perceptions shift and develop during my time in-country. On my third day here in Jamaica, I’ve already started to build new layers upon my pre-existing ideas. Here are some of the things I’ve picked up so far.
Jamaicans tend not to view people in terms of colour. Jamaica is 98% black, with another 2% or so of the population made up from Jamaicans of white, Chinese and Indian heritage. The latter two groups are descendants of the indentured servants that came over to Jamaica after the end of slavery. Today, all are considered equally Jamaican. The Jamaican motto, ‘Out of many, one people’, rings true.
Jamaica is often perceived as a place severely affected by crime. That part of the image – particularly in Kingston – is true enough. In the past, people were forced into crime through problems such as poverty and hunger. But today, crime has become a common response to an environment where many feel unable to get anywhere in life.
I also learned about the Jamaican attitude to modesty and interaction with the opposite sex. I found out about a notable dichotomy that exists between the way people behave in the dancehall setting (i.e. sexual, less inhibited), and on the street (where married couples may be reluctant even to hold hands). This is an interesting cultural quirk and one that I wouldn’t have expected to find in a hyper-masculine society like Jamaica’s.
In terms of entrepreneurship, I learned about the approach to education in Jamaica, which tends to encourage young people to go straight into a career that relates strongly to their choice of degree programme. This often funnels them towards jobs in ‘traditional’ fields such as medicine, law, and the civil service. But the trouble is, Jamaica’s economy is not doing well. Unemployment is rising.
One solution to this problem could be fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. Jamaica has a lot of desirable products, such as its Blue Mountain coffee, rum, and a range of foods, yet limited efforts are made to market these to the outside world. Sellers tend to focus solely on the domestic market.
Conversations with other professionals brought up contrasting views. Others told me that Jamaica’s informal economy is strong, and is in fact producing many examples of innovation in small business.
During this trip, I’m mixing with a certain kind of educated and privileged people. So my picture of Jamaica will reflect their world, not the world experienced by less advantaged sectors of society. That’s a side of Jamaica that I’m unlikely to see much of. But then I suppose the same could be said for many foreigners who visit here.
Social class is another contentious issue in Jamaica. The society is heavily stratified in terms of class, reflecting the long-ago attitudes of colonial times. People move in their own little ‘bubbles’, consisting of their personal networks of family, friends and acquaintances. Within that bubble is where things get done. Those who move within privileged bubbles have access to the top levels of society.
Perhaps they went to a good school with a classmate who later became part of the Jamaican government. That’s an important member of the bubble right there. Those from less privileged backgrounds still have bubbles, but they don’t have access to the influential classes. Getting a decent education is their best chance of making it.
Jamaica has a population of just 2.7 million. That’s a mere drop in the ocean. Thanks to the country’s small size, many people know each other. There’s a strong sense of community here.
That’s my initial picture of certain aspects of life in Jamaica, based on what I’ve learned and experienced so far. As the famous Jamaican saying goes: ‘Wi lickle but wi tallawah.’ To me, Jamaica already feels like a small place with a huge character. In nation branding, having bags of personality means you’ve already gotten off to a good start.
More to follow based on my observations over the coming days in Jamaica.