Jamaica has a long history of close cultural and spiritual ties to Africa, but now a new chapter in this relationship is being driven by Africans making their homes on the Caribbean island. Leslie Gordon Goffe travelled to Jamaica to find out more about the dreams and challenges of Africans in the birthplace of Rastafarianism, Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley.
Jamaicans have talked about going back, one day, to Africa since the days of Marcus Garvey. But it is Africans, from East, West, and from South Africa, who have come, instead, to Jamaica. There are Ethiopians here, like Yodit Getachew-Hylton, an aeronautical engineer from Addis Ababa, married to a Jamaican government minister. There are South Africans, like the writer Peter Abrahams, who has lived in the hills above the Jamaican capital Kingston for 58 years. There are Ghanaians, like Kodjoe “Benjie” Asamoah, owner of a gourmet catering business.
But most of all, there are Nigerians – almost 5,000 of them calling Jamaica home.
Nigerians have found work here as computer scientists, engineers, and physicians. Several Nigerians own pharmacies, like Benson’s in Old Harbour, in St Catherine parish, outside Kingston. A Nigerian is also the owner of Kingston’s Heart Institute of the Caribbean, which describes itself as the leading cardiac care centre in the West Indies. To ensure they have a voice in Jamaica, Nigerians have set up several organisations here. There is the Nigerian Committee of Friends Jamaica, which arranges parties, dinners and get-togethers at members’ homes. There’s the Nigerian Pastors in Jamaica organisation, which takes care of the community’s religious and spiritual needs and which recently led a prayer rally in Kingston to draw attention to the plight of the more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
“Being a Nigerian is a task and being a Nigerian in Jamaica is a project,” says the president of the Association of Nigerians, Dr Ibrahim Ajagunna.
The largest and best-known of Jamaica’s Nigerian expatriate organisations, though, is the Association of Nigerians. It has hundreds of members and meets on the first evening of each month at the Nigerian High Commission in Kingston, which is around the corner from Bob Marley’s old studio at 56, Hope Road, where the reggae superstar recorded songs like “Africa Unite” and “Zimbabwe”.
“Being a Nigerian is a task and being a Nigerian in Jamaica is a project,” says the president of the Association of Nigerians, Dr Ibrahim Ajagunna.
What Ajagunna means by this is that both Nigeria and Jamaica are complex countries with complicated people, where nothing is simple or easy.
“When I told people in Nigeria I was going to Jamaica,” Ajagunna continues with a laugh, “they asked, ‘Why are you leaving one third world country to move to another third world country?’”
He had no answer for this other than to say it would have been too easy to migrate, like so many others, to the UK, Canada, or the US.
Ajagunna has lived in Jamaica for more than 20 years and is now a citizen of the Caribbean island nation. Jamaica, he explains, needs him and other highly educated Africans. North America and Europe do not.
“If I was in the UK or the US, I could not make any real contribution,” says Ajagunna who, as a lecturer at the Caribbean Maritime Institute in Kingston, trains young Jamaicans to work in the shipping and nautical industry. “Here in Jamaica, I can make a contribution to human development.” Jamaicans, he insists, are “gravitating more to Africa now and Africans are gravitating to Jamaica.”
There is some truth in this. Yet for many Africans on the island it is only a staging post for migration to the US.
The Olasupo family, who live in rural Jamaica, in the pretty northeastern coastal town of Annotto Bay, in St Mary parish, appear to be just passing through.
Abiola Olasupo is a surgical nurse at the local hospital. “I just decided to come because I like reggae and wanted to know Bob Marley country,” she says.
Abiola’s husband, Olatunji, earns his living as a builder and a construction worker as well as a small-scale importer of African foodstuffs such as powdered yams and palm wine. “For now, Jamaica is home for me,” he says, with an eye on a future further north, in America. Abiola concurs, “I like Jamaica, for now.”
The Association of Nigerians says around two dozen of its members leave Jamaica for North America each year. But these, the Association says, are soon replaced by new arrivals from Nigeria.
Travelling back and forth between Jamaica and Nigeria is easier these days than it has ever been, especially since 2011, when direct air flights between the West African and Caribbean countries, with a brief stopover in the US, were begun.
Today, a roundtrip ticket from Kingston to Lagos, on Delta Airways, costs around $1,500. In the past, a traveller had to fly to the US or Europe to get a flight to Lagos. This pushed up the price and made the flight time interminable.
Peter Oyodele, the Nigerian ambassador in Jamaica when the deal to begin direct air services between Jamaica and Nigeria was agreed in 2011, said he was thrilled Jamaicans who, he said, “call Africa the motherland”, would be able to get to Africa “at a cheaper cost and in a shorter and more comfortable journey time.”
Jamaica and Nigeria are closer than ever before. But life in Jamaica for Nigerians is not without its challenges and controversies. When a Jamaican TV news programme broadcast a report claiming a Nigerian doctor had abducted babies he had delivered at a Kingston hospital in 2009, sending them to Lagos as part of a child trafficking ring, the Association of Nigerians protested. When the report was later found to have been false, the TV programme issued an apology to the Nigerian government and to the Nigerian community in Jamaica.
To combat negative portrayals, the Association of Nigerians displays on its website acts of generosity by Nigerians towards Jamaicans and their adopted country in the Caribbean. There are items on the site, for example, pointing to the donation of books to schools in poor neighbourhoods. Other entries show Nigerians donating foodstuffs and household items to a children’s home in Kingston. Doctors and nurses from the Association also provide free medical care for the poor.
“We are doing our part to make Jamaica a better place than it is today,” says Ogasie Odiase, a past president of the Association of Nigerians, who works as a network engineer in Jamaica for the J. Wray and Nephew rum company. “Jamaica is,” he says fondly, “our home”.
And though Jamaica is now home sweet home for some, many Africans here still like to meet up from time to time to eat, drink and talk about what is going on back in Lagos or Accra. A favourite spot for this is Kingston’s Café Africa, which has been described as Jamaica’s first authentic African restaurant. The Nollywood star Omotola Jalade Ekeinde paid a visit to the cafe while on a recent trip to Jamaica. Nigerian chef Prince Ohia cooks up everything from Mozambican piri piri wings to Congolese dongo-dongo, salt fish and okra.
“When I came to Jamaica I moved within the entertainment industry,” says chef Ohia, dressed in a distinctive “I Love African Food” t-shirt. He came to Jamaica from Nigeria to attend college but quickly abandoned his studies to become a cook for the Grammy award-winning dancehall music DJ Buju Banton, who became infamous for the anti-gay song “Boom bye bye”.
When Banton was jailed in the US for 10 years in 2009 on drugs and weapons charges, Prince Ohia began cooking at Café Africa. His life in Jamaica, Ohia says, “has been about food and culture and the people”.
Interestingly, Café Africa is owned and operated by members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a body that Marcus Garvey established and, in the 1920s, helped make the largest black organisation at the time, with over a million members worldwide. The modern UNIA, revamped and restored after years of being dormant, is eager to bring Africa and Jamaica together.
Café Africa proprietor, Jamaican Steven Golding, who is also president of UNIA in Jamaica and the son of former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, believes the café has become a crucial hub for African expatriates in Kingston.
“Well, I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t know there were so many continental Africans in Jamaica until I opened this restaurant,” says Golding, who is preparing for celebrations in July marking the founding 100 years ago of UNIA. Garvey, Golding says, would be thrilled to see so many Africans in Jamaica.
“We serve as a lighthouse, a beacon, bringing Africans here,” he says, “and we are asking African-Jamaicans to remember where they came from, and we can think of no better way to do that than the fabulous cuisine of Africa. You know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
Kodjoe “Benjie” Asamoah, president of the Ghana Association in Jamaica, certainly agrees. He is the owner of a gourmet vegetarian catering business which everyone says makes the island’s best vegetable yatties, ital peanut sip, and fried sprat. When not running this, he can be found at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, studying tourism management.
“Jamaica is like Ghana,” says Benjie, who has a very strong Jamaican accent for someone who’s only been in the country for 4 years. “I don’t feel like I am away from home. Jamaicans are like Ghanaians.”
Benjie points as an example to the island’s produce, its yams and plantains, which were first brought from Africa to Jamaica during the days of slavery as fuel for enslaved Africans on the island’s plantations. “Everything in Ghana is here.”
The number of Ghanaians living in Jamaica, at only around 1,000, is small compared to its 5,000 or so Nigerians. Hundreds of Ghanaians live in the countryside, where they work as nurses and doctors on a technical cooperation agreement Jamaica signed with Ghana several years ago. Still, once every few months, Benjie and the other members of the Ghana Association in Jamaica meet at Kingston’s Redbones Blues Café to talk about Accra and Kumasi and, Benjie says, to talk about how they can encourage greater closeness between Ghana and Jamaica.
There is plenty of evidence in Kingston of a deepening relationship between Africa and Jamaica. There were once no African high commissions, embassies or consulates at all in Jamaica. But now, walking through Kingston, you will come across the likes of the Senegalese Embassy, Liberian Consulate, Ghanaian Consulate, Nigerian High Commission, and South African High Commission.
At the Ethiopian consulate, you will find Yodit Getachew-Hylton, Honorary Consul of Ethiopia in Jamaica. As well as her consular responsibilities, the Addis Ababa-born Getachew-Hylton also holds down a full-time job in Kingston as an aeronautical engineer for Jamaica’s Aviation Authority.
“My appointment is the first for the Caribbean and signals a deepening of diplomatic and consular relations between the two countries,” says the consul, who is married to Jamaica’s Minister of Industry and Investment, Anthony Hylton.
One of Getachew-Hylton’s chief responsibilities as consul is to increase trade and investment between Ethiopia and Jamaica.
To this end, she recently formed Ethio-Global Trade & Consulting Limited. Getachew-Hylton says Jamaican rum and patties would do good business in Ethiopia, while Ethiopian furniture, clothing, and costume jewellery would do well in Jamaica. She says she is in talks to establish a Jamaican jerk business in Ethiopia. At the moment, the shortage of direct transport links between Africa and the Caribbean is a significant hurdle in these kinds of trades, but Getachew-Hylton says this will be resolved when Jamaica’s long- mooted Logistics Hub Initiative, which should see increased air and maritime links between Jamaica and Africa, finally comes on stream.
Asked if there is a “special relationship” between Jamaica and Ethiopia because of the Rastafarian connection and the link to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, the consul agrees. “The presence of Rastafarians in significant numbers in Ethiopia, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s and continuing through today, has significantly assisted in the people-to-people contacts and the consequent deepening of the understandings between the two cultures,” she says. She also adds that her marriage to a Jamaican has increased her “understanding of the Jamaican people and culture and their love and respect for Africa, especially Ethiopia.”
While Ethiopia has its special, Rastafarian link to Jamaica, South Africa has a special connection, too. Jamaica was the first country to declare a trade embargo against Apartheid South Africa, back in 1957, when the island was still a British colony.
“For as long as we [Black South Africans] could not be,” said Manthu Joyini, South Africa’s high commissioner in Jamaica, recently, “Jamaicans knew that they couldn’t fully be, so they took on the struggle.”
Though a small island, Jamaica has played an outsized role in world affairs, especially African affairs. The Jamaican government of Michael Manley in the 1970s was relentless in pressing the international community to limit investment in Apartheid South Africa. Grateful, Nelson Mandela visited the island twice.
In 2009, Jamaica and South Africa signed the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Arts and Culture, allowing for cultural exchange and ease of movement back and forth for artists.
The current South African president, Jacob Zuma, said recently he would like to see increased trade and investment between South Africa and Jamaica. “We are committed to encouraging and facilitating South African companies doing business in Jamaica, resulting in the steady growth in trade and investment between our two countries,” he said. The two countries are currently discussing greater cooperation between their universities on joint research projects as well as expanded student exchange programmes.
The best-known South African in Jamaica is the novelist and political commentator Peter Abrahams, who settled in Kingston in 1955. Commissioned by the British Colonial Office to write a travelogue about the island, Abrahams, who is 95 years old now, fell in love with Jamaica and stayed on, for a lifetime.
“I don’t have to choose between being a Jamaican and being an African,” he told an interviewer a few years ago. “We are, always, silently grateful that Jamaica and those who inherited it have allowed us to come here.”
Jamaica has been a happy surprise, too, for more recent African migrants, such as Nigerian Ogasie Odiase, a former president of the Association of Nigerians in Jamaica.
“Before I came I heard negative things about Jamaica,” Odiase says. “But Jamaica has been good to me. Jamaica is like Nigeria. Both have a bad reputation, and we don’t deserve it.”