“…My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.”
Psalms 139:14-15 NKJV
‘Tip-toe-ing along the backbone of the island…’— that was how the loquacious Jamaican meteorologist described the path of the devastating hurricane, Gilbert, that traversed the island of Jamaica in the Summer of ‘88. That backbone, the ‘Cockpit Country’, takes its peculiar name from its equally peculiar arrangement of hills and deep valleys, covered in lush tropical foliage, at the island’s heart. The mountain ranges and foothills flanking it, span most of Jamaica’s breadth, West to East, incorporating mineral rich rivers and landscape, underground aquifers, vital ecosystems and, most significantly, historic communities dating to the early Spanish and British colonial periods of this third largest Caribbean island-nation.
It takes an extremely inattentive heart to not be deeply moved by the palpable beauty of the Cockpit Country, seen from above. Crossing by plane from the Norman Washington Manley Airport on the South coast of the capital city, Kingston, to the northern tourist port of entry, Montego Bay, can stir tears unbidden, as the soul is prompted by its beauty towards that distant yearning for its erstwhile home in Eden. Here, maybe, one could hope and pray, that nothing of our brokenness and rebellion would be able to trouble…but that scenario has already been cast and played out.
“”He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He doesn’t live in man-made temples. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and He determined their boundaries. “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though He is not far from any one of us.”
Acts of the Apostles 17:24, 26-27 NLT
‘First Name, First People, First Light’
The One who forms the boundaries of nations, and establishes the appointed times of peoples, has written in His book that out of humanity’s interaction on this pleasant land would emerge a unique country. The name Jamaica is a derivative of that originally given by its first inhabitants, the Arawak/Tainos peoples, Xayamaca— meaning ‘land of wood and water’. A later generation, capturing a renewed spiritual purpose for Jamaica’s existence during the troubled political period of the nineteen-eighties, interpreted that meaning to connote ‘the wood of the Cross and the water of the Word’ of God. This was historically appropriate since the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ had come in varied waves to her mixed population, over the course of decades of its equally varied social and political transitions.
As far as true Christ followers who first saw and related to the enslaved Africans who always formed the bulk of Jamaica’s populace as fellow humans who bore the imago Dei, were the Moravians. They came as missionaries, who having indentured themselves as common laborers, were enabled to have direct access to the colony’s black majority populace. As the missionary movements grew in England, other denominations including the Anglicans and Baptists became involved, simultaneously advancing the abolitionist cause across the British Empire. They catechized, advised and engaged in actively educating the populace alongside their evangelistic goals. Having been initially driven from the island after the British won the Spanish-American War, the Catholic Church, by its vast resources and humanitarian history and practice, did its part under British colonialism, by establishing hospitals, schools, and orphanages on the island.
Even as the colonial economic endeavors of European powers have left their mark on the island’s landscape and its people politic, so have these various religious endeavors, contributing significantly to the cultivation of the Jamaican personality. Consequently, Jamaicans are traditionally a religious people; the island has been listed in editions of the Guinness Book of World Records as the country with the greatest number of churches per square mile. My own childhood neighborhood was illustrative of that fact: less than half a mile long, our avenue boasted a large Assemblies of God church across the main road at one end; an indigenous syncretistic expression known as Pocomania was sequestered in an alley across the road at the other end; and tucked between two homes, half-way down our road, a subdued Brethren congregation plied the Faith.
‘Hungry, Angry and… “Easy like Sunday morning”’
Singing and various other sounds of more ‘customized’ religious activity wafted casually on the tropic breezes through the avenues of my childhood memory and literally of my Kingston/St.Andrew working class neighborhood all week. They testified of real spiritual hunger and heart-cries for divine intervention in the face of challenging human struggles, but also told of a strong opinionated bent in the lay populace. The Jamaican culture has been so thoroughly irrigated with the water of the Word that every small farmer, market higgler, DJ hopeful, or civil servant knows ‘how true church is to go’ and can recognize a religious ‘hypocrite’ a mile off… never mind their own shortcomings. My own mother was early schooled, in a rural parish by Quaker missionaries to her community, catechized in an Anglican church, pursued by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect throughout her young adulthood, yet married my father, son of a pastor-overseer of a small indigenous evangelistic denomination to which they faithfully sent us but never themselves attended.
An astute observation concerning the prevailing Jamaican character was made in recent times by a young Dutch visitor to the island. She described Jamaicans as dashing around to get everywhere, but who, when they arrive, are “easy like Sunday morning”, a pleasing, though dubious description for sure. For equally true was the description given by a Jamaican local, interviewed during the recent ‘Emanci-pendence’ celebrations, who labeled Jamaicans as ‘aggressive’. Though a very musically gifted people, we belie the adage that “music soothes the savage beast”. Not that we were ever a savage people, but some of the earliest enslaved African forebears, brought to our shores, early established a resistance to subjugation, escaping and setting up encampments in the very heart of the island’s Cockpit Country. They became the Maroon tribes who basically waged guerrilla warfare against the slavery plantations until the British cried ‘uncle’.
This pugilistic means by which we contributed to our emancipation from slavery has marked our national personality— a raw and impatient sense of justice often finds us taking the law into our own hands often with violent results. Where this angst is curtailed, it finds expression in the local popular musical forms which were propagated from our early plantation-culture’s musical precursors. These included the quadrille, mento, ska and others, which gave birth to and shaped the development of reggae music. This latter was taken to the world stage by reggae artistes such as Robert (Bob) Marley his famed back-up musician/singers, ‘the Wailers’, the ‘I-Threes’ and others.
Influenced by the Rastafarian religious sect’s veneration of Ethiopia’s late Emperor Haile Selassie and his affiliation to Eastern Orthodoxy— reggae, and the now more earthy dance hall pop artistes, produce lyrics invariably laced with Biblical and other Christian themes and references. These popular musicians, often cast as prophets, invoke judgement, and prophesy imprecatory outcomes on the real or perceived evil reigning oppressive powers. While aspiring to make it big in the music industry like the famous Marley, they give voice to the lot and frustrations of the poor and underprivileged, offering solace through promise of the better day sure to come.
“Like selling your blood to save your life”
Trying to walk the narrow line between tapping sources of income to support a fragile economy—without being neglectful of the natural life-sustaining functions of the island’s topography, to the small farming communities, the rare flora and fauna, as well as the underground aquifers which she preserves— has been tricky for Jamaica’s leaders. This explains why the current Jamaican government has found itself in the crosshairs of the ubiquitous eyes of social media, and under accusations of betrayal by many of their oldest constituents. Foreign, aluminum-seeking corporations, previously satisfied with mining the aluminum yielding bauxite from the red soil in parishes on the fringes of the Cockpit Country region, have now turned their sights to the hill sides and ravines closer to the heart of the region itself. One local bauxite executive from a previous administration, poignantly compares the situation to “selling one’s lifeblood in an ironic bid to stay alive”; to harm the environmental balance of the Cockpit Country through bauxite mining is described as a virtual death sentence for the island.
Jamaicans have seen what bauxite mining leaves behind (other than the paltry, unworthy income negotiated into the struggling economy’s coffers)— Vast red mud lakes and ponds of sodium hydroxide-laced sludge, drying and eventually blowing everywhere, as an unhealthy dust that renders the land poisonous, unproductive, and unsightly. Run-off from the processing plants that poison the rivers and streams, strew the banks with dead fish and ruin the livelihood of those who depend on them. Many, other than those directly affected, are awaking to the fact that the price is not worth the costly environmental and humanitarian toll.
This current hotbed existential environmental battle has been ploughing and turning over the ancient soil of our less godly national traits. A face-off has been brewing between the previously mentioned historic Maroon communities and the Jamaican government’s foreign partners in the bauxite industry. This is all well-documented in a now viral Vice News report.
A Facebook group, colorfully named ‘The Cockpit Country Warriors’, aids in the bid to save this tropical heartland of Jamaica by keeping current news highlighted. However, a huge boon has been the wealth of human interest stories which, other than presenting the human face of the environmental struggle to the Jamaican diaspora and the rest of the interested world, have exposed the legacy of Jamaica’s spiritual heritage. This is the priceless vein running just beneath the surface of the soil of the Cockpit Country that has nothing to do with bauxite and aluminum. It’s the hidden, humble, core of the nation’s people who patiently walk the Sermon on the Mount… the Cockpit Mount, that is.
“Of such is the Kingdom…”
These featured stories reveal a people shaped by the Gospel, who though poor in spirit, and pocket, display patient, forgiving and long-suffering hearts— their small hillside farms seem to be the place where the Husbandman has hidden the nation’s finest treasures, and cultivated the choicest fruit of the Spirit. Venturesome home-grown Youtubers have been proving excellent ‘miners’ of these stories. However unintentional their reports forge an eternal connection and lift the current hotbed issues high above local politics, the financial greed of multi-national corporations and even debates over revered ancestral land claims. The experiences of these traditional, Jamaican folk who deserve a moniker stronger than hero or heroine, are souls forged in the fires of earth’s deepest furnaces and form the links to that bigger Story. Their humble grasp of simple wisdom, common sense, self-sufficiency, and plain big-heartedness is nothing short of the fruit of the Spirit, lately borne of the sowing done by the faithful ones who came long before, bearing the Good News on the mountains:
They are of the calibre of the ninety plus year-old woman, who is still farming in the Cockpit, urging her less industrious progeny to follow suit; considering that, “the Government has so many people to take care of that they need everyone to do their part.” Her wizened arms still firmly wielding a machete, she was pictured mulching and weeding her crop. The only thing that briefly clouded her peaceful and pleasant features during the interview was bringing to light the reality of the persistent praedial larceny she suffers from idle, unconscionably impoverished souls in the community. She thanked her Maker for sustaining grace and apparently had no request for assistance by donation from the listening audience.
Another is that of the double amputee, made so by a tragic railroad accident. When the meager compensation by the railway company evaporated in face of his recovery process and medical bills, he did not sit around in self-pity. He was humble enough to admit that he had expected to be abandoned by his wife and confessed that were their roles switched he probably would have left her. Nevertheless, he wrapped his stumps and looked to the land of the Cockpit country. He figured out ingenious methods of mounting his ‘dainty foot donkey’ and, without aid of prosthetics, has managed his small farm and few livestock, machete in hand and faithful wife by his side. He also displayed that largeness of soul, refusing to curse the railway company for insufficient compensation or the warped individuals that have stolen his cattle and crops over the years; his only stated need— a new refrigerator.
Third, was a three-foot-short woman, an optimistic, spunky dwarf farmer of the Cockpit Hillsides. She it was discovered, had researched and figured out that all she needed was a certain type of gas-powered pump, a large water storage drum and a certain length of drip irrigation hose to make her piece of farmland viable, and herself self-sufficient. Prior to the donations that quickly streamed in, once her story hit the social media platform, she had been trudging an arduous twenty-five minute trek, over sharp craggy limestone, to and from a water source each day, walking with buckets of water on her head, eight trips a day. Nary a word of complaint, but a simple telling of her journey and offering up of prayers. Her facial deformity disappeared into child-like smiles as she stood by her new pump, waving at the camera and giving the donors and God thanks for answered prayers.
Is it any wonder that God promises that in the fullness of His Kingdom, the first shall be last and the weak made strong; or that both Hannah and Mary, in their magnificats, rejoice that in that Day, the proud will be cast down and the lowly exalted? And even the islands of the sea will rejoice, for ‘He comes to rule the peoples with equity and justice’. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
The featured image is courtesy of Yves Alarie on Unsplash.
We appreciate Yves’ fine eye and generosity in sharing his work with so many!
I am Denise Stair Armstrong; born and raised Jamaican. I received all my formal academic education in the land of my birth at Shortwood Teachers’ College and the University of the West Indies, specializing in English Language & Literatures in English. The remainder I’ve gained home educating our three wonderful children – Joseph, Charis and Timothy, parenting them with my husband Claude, and in caring for my wheel-chair bound mother. I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening, theatre and ballroom dancing with Claude (only!) and digging into the Word of God.
My passion is worship expressed primarily through writing inspirational pieces that urge readers not to miss how much the Lord has “cramm’d earth with heaven”. My heart is to encourage them to traverse the gap between all our hearts and the cultures that shape them, via the Bridge that is Calvary’s cross.
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