What We Must Do to Survive

“Governments aren’t supposed to do this.” That’s what my granny said. She’s long gone now. Caked and cemented into the earth, rotting, and disintegrating like our economy and the other people who died poor trying to survive it. I’m thinking of leaving too. Not dying, but going somewhere that isn’t here and never coming back. I’d miss my mother, but she understands. Rather she knows. She doesn’t want life to stress me the way it stresses her. She knows, and I know she wishes she didn’t have to stay, but she must because my father is afraid of airplanes and change and US capitalism and she loves him. All her sisters are gone. She’s the only one still walking around this place with her dead mother’s face hoping it won’t kill her like it did my grandmother at fifty. She’s almost that age now. 

The minimum wage in this godforsaken country is seven thousand dollars a week. Sure, that seems like a lot but things like this call for perspective and an understanding of exchange rates. Seven thousand dollars here is equivalent to forty-six bucks in the U.S. or eighty-seven US cents an hour for every mother or sister or daughter who isn’t qualified enough to earn more than minimum wage.

Governments aren’t supposed to do this but this isn’t a problem that concerns the people in Parliament who make the rules and pay their housekeepers and gardeners in little white envelopes at the end of the week after the workers have washed all their laundry and cooked all their meals and cleaned the floors the members of Parliament then tread dirt on with their classy name-brand shoes because to them, once you’re poor and uneducated in this country, you might as well be grateful for anything. So you work and when you get your $7000, you best not take your children to the beach; yes, this is an island but not even the beaches are free. Just do what you have to, never what you want to. Pay your bills, feed your children, figure out how you’ll afford to get to work on time or at all when that money is done so they don’t cut your pay for being late or absent. 


“Governments aren’t supposed to do this,” my granny had said. Still, she was a die-hard party supporter. Blowing vuvuzelas and laughing it up with politicians who promised to help her out when election time came around. My mother used to be the same. Wearing green all the time. Pledging allegiance to corrupt politicians. Inking her fingers for the cause. Telling eight-year-old me, “This? This blue finger? This is freedom.” Watching our 10-year-old chunky-backed colour TV fizzle in and out as we awaited election results. Watching as the map turned green. Watching as my mother clinked pot covers together and screamed. Watching my mother anticipate change. Watching her watch and wait and wait and suffer and watching her catch her suffering in her hands when the bills came. Still, there was no politician in sight. No one to be held accountable. Just the phantom ink resting heavily on my mother’s finger and the sound of celebratory pot covers taunting her, telling her she should have known better than to expect change. The last time an election came, my mother stayed in. She said it didn’t feel right. That was my first time voting and even as I stood in line, hoodie over my head, hat pulled far below my eyes to shield me from anyone questioning my political preferences with their own, I could tell, this was not a vuvuzela-blowing, handshaking, revelry-keeping moment. I felt no pride in being able to exercise this long-awaited democratic right. Just sadness and shame because I knew nothing would change. Wipe the ink from your fingers. Don’t let anyone know you voted for any of these two evils. 


“Governments aren’t supposed to do this,” my mother said one night as we watched the news. They aren’t supposed to exploit their lands and peoples the way this government does. They call it the ultimate tropical paradise in those ads you see but ain’t nothing sweet about it when all you do is work and still after all that work, there is nothing to show. No house to call your own, no savings for a rainy day, no health insurance. Only work; in sickness and in death, for worse and for poorer and poorer and death. We know governments aren’t supposed to do this. They sell us for money we don’t even know we are worth. They sell us, sand, sun and sundry to whichever white man wants to develop a twenty-story paradise for lovers to escape to on eroding beaches so they can watch our one-of-a-kind sunset and take pictures to show the folks back home what a good time this country is. You should go there sometime. They sell us and when they do, it almost always makes the news and every time the headline reads, White Man Creates Boundless Opportunities for Unemployed Citizens or White Man Says 10,000 Jobs Will Come with New Hotel Development. We see this and suck our teeth good and dry because we know the government just sold us, but because we are hungry, our mothers and sisters and daughters will clamour in their good skirts and button-downs with resumes and high school diplomas gripped in sweaty palms and manila envelopes hoping they will be hired to do something, anything because time too hard not to at least try.

And soon, when the hotel opens and everyone is stuffed into freshly starched uniforms, they, too, will hear that, “The people in the hotel don’t always tip and whatever you earn in a fortnight couldn’t even pay for a night in that hotel and if you break it or don’t do it right, they take it right from your pay. Still, you have to ensure the rooms are spotless, the food is done well, the guests are happy and your No problem mon, we gatchu is authentic but understandable to the guest’s ear.” This is what my cousin told me. 


I feel like our government knows that they aren’t supposed to do this. That the people are hungry and tired and the cost of living is too high and food is too expensive and then there is rent and water and electricity and bills, bills, bills. Still, nothing ever changes. There’s something everyone here learns at a young age.  Our country’s economy is fuelled mainly by two things: tourism and money our relatives send from foreign. You learn that Western Union lines are always long, and white people are always looking to get away. Get away from what, we don’t know, because why would you want to get away from money when so many of us wish we could leave here and go towards it. Towards good hourly wages and the all-fulfilling gains that make you love capitalism: Towards cheap clothes, and food and other nice affordable things.

I feel like our government knows that we don’t want to stay here, that we realize there are no opportunities for us to become much of anything. That the opportunities that exist are already signed, sealed, and delivered to family names that feel like Listerine retribution being swished around on your tongue. They complain a lot about brain drain, about us not using our skills to develop the country but what should we do with our brains if there are no opportunities here to use them or if the jobs here require ten years of experience and a Master’s degree that we do not have and cannot afford to get. I don’t think this government knows nor do they care that I have been unemployed for over a year. That I gave them all the money I had for 3 ½ years for a piece of paper that is doing me no good. That this is not only happening to me. That my friends also struggled and still struggle to find jobs. That if it weren’t for my mother, I’d be homeless and hungry. That it isn’t a coincidence that over 80% of its tertiary-educated people, leave because there is nothing here for us to do. 


One of my aunts called from the U.S. the other day. She’s a citizen there now. Right there in the land of the free and low-cost living. She left in 2015. From what I hear in whispered conversations with my mother, it hasn’t been easy; easy being an understatement. She complains about the cold and how it makes her knees ache and her skin cracked. She doesn’t like the food either. There’s no fresh ackee where she is and she’s tired of fast food and imitation jerked chicken. My mother asked her if she’d move back here to sit with her in this place that killed their mother, if the food and warmth were enough to make her come back. She said no. She said she’d rather suffer there than in this country with this government and her mother’s spirit uneasy and in pain for her. Another aunt sends us postcards and pictures of her two-story cottage. She shows us the remodelling and tells us how much it costs, and I think about how in this country some people don’t make that in a year. How my father has been saving everything to build the ground floor of our home for twenty years. Another aunt complains all the time about the things she had to go through when she first got there. Even then, she lets us know, she is never coming back to work in another hotel.

Governments aren’t supposed to do this, but I suppose the damage is already done and my grandmother is already dead. And no, this isn’t a white flag or a complete loss of hope in what this government may eventually do for its people; I love this place, but I cannot wait until first, my mother, then I, am tired from pot-cover licking and vuvuzela whizzing and eighty-seven cents an hour. And I cannot wait until we are caked into the deep, dark brown earth, dead and disintegrating wishing we had done more. I will miss my mother, but she understands that this is what I will have to do to survive.

Devonae J. Manderson (she/her) is an aspiring Jamaican writer whose work explores themes at, and within, the intersections of black womanhood, queer sexuality, spirituality, religion, and Jamaican culture and society. She uses fiction and poetry writing as tools to share the stories of and to meet herself as the many different women she is, has been, and hopes to become. Her work is forthcoming in Lucky Jefferson and (ang)st magazine, among others, and you can find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/soulandmelanin and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/soulandmelanin/

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