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What do John Lee Malvo and Germaine Lindsay have in common?

The first and most obvious thing is that they were both teenaged mass murderers.

Malvo was 17 years old when he joined John Allen Muhammad in the Beltway sniper attacks which terrorised the Washington D.C area back in 2002.

Lindsay was 19 years old when he blew himself up on a train travelling from King’s Cross St. Pancras, killing 26 people, half the victims of the London 7/7 bombings in 2005.

A second, less obvious, thing is that both Lindsay and Malvo were Jamaican-born—something that caused Jamaicans no end of shock and chagrin when those tragedies unfolded.

But perhaps the greatest similarity I see between these two is their mothers. By the time they committed their mass killings, both Malvo and Lindsay had been living away from their mothers for a number of years.

Malvo’s mother emigrated from Jamaica to Antigua, and then on to the United States, leaving Malvo behind with Muhammad to take her chances in the USA.

Lindsay’s mother had brought him with her to England when she migrated there, but then she left him in charge of his younger sisters when he was just 17 years old when she migrated to Grenada with her husband.

This common denominator ties right in with the second—that they are Jamaican. And that this happens a lot in Jamaica. It has become such an ingrained part of the culture that Lindsay’s mother defended her decision to leave her children as being okay because they were “supervised.”

It brings to mind something I was moved to write nine years ago, when I was at university in Jamaica:

“It is one of the saddest realities of Jamaican society. It happens everywhere in the Caribbean, but more so in this glorious and tormented island than perhaps anywhere else—in the Anglophone Caribbean, at least. Many of my closest friends have mothers who live “a foreign” in order to make a living that their country cannot offer them. It is one of the most remarkable phenomena of Jamaican society.”

The spur for that was a friend whose mother had been living and working in the United States since my friend was six years old. That year, her mum was coming home in time for Mother’s Day, and my usually blasé friend was beside herself at the thought of spending the day with her mother for the first time in 12 years.

It broke my heart but she was not the only one. Off the top of my head I can name many, many Jamaican friends whose mothers live, or lived, overseas for years at a time.

Jamaica is unusual in that the majority of its migrants are women—up to 55% of all migrants, most of them women of child-bearing age.

Hence “barrel children” has become part of the lingo in Jamaica, and Western Union is an integral part of the economy—in fact, when I lived in Jamaica, a popular Western Union ad showed a mother calling home to make sure her daughter’s school fees had arrived.

It’s not like I don’t understand why. My own father is Jamaican and I was born in Canada. While I wasn’t raised in Jamaica, I lived there for a number of years and I saw for myself the grinding combination of poverty and violent crime that forces many Jamaicans to leave.

Sometimes I don’t know which is the greater. Poverty is one thing—there are too many Jamaicans who are desperately poor—but truth be told, it is middle-class, educated Jamaicans who are more likely to emigrate.

But the violence . . . My God . . . it is the violence—the sheer, bloody minded, cold and relentless violence—that tests the resolve and wears down the spirit of even those Jamaicans who swear they will stay. Every time you think the criminals can’t shock you more, they do.

It creates this great conflict that exists in the hearts and minds of all Jamaicans, for Jamaica is a Jekyll and Hyde country that can both uplift and depress—as beautiful, vibrant and fascinating as it can be cruel and heartless. Sometimes I think even Jamaicans don’t understand how the same place that can create a Usain Bolt can create a Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

And so Jamaica’s mothers leave and “go a foreign.” After it was discovered that one of the Beltway snipers was Jamaican, recriminations flowed in Jamaica.

Malvo’s mother, Una James, told NBC she blamed herself too:

“I said yes, I blame myself [in] looking back. I said if I never had left him in Antigua.”

Still the truth is, as one sympathetic writer to the Jamaican Star put it:

“Every Jamaican family has a Una James. She is in our lives as our sisters, our friends, our aunts even our mothers, who have made the ultimate choice in seeking to achieve the greater prize of a better life for herself and her child. Una James’ decision to rely on others to care for her child is one made daily in Jamaica.”

And so we end up with Malvo and Lindsay and we wonder how differently things would have turned out if they, and their mothers, had been able to stay in Jamaica.

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  • Thank you very much for this article and raising the issue of migration of Caribbean women. As I read your article and made the connections, the thing that stands out the most to me is the ignoring generally of why people leave the sunny and lush seascapes and landscapes of the Caribbean islands. Yes it is to make a better life; but considering the natural wealth of Jamaica and it’s almost decade of economic advancement after independence, why would a country sign for IMF loans that have forced them to pay interest rates as high as 25%? I hope your article encourages readers to look into how these once, productive and developing countries in both the Caribbean and African continue to struggle economically as other countries seem to benefit from this misfortune.

    I suppose this article also highlights how far we in the diaspora have moved from traditional ways of community. It seems as though the village no longer wants to pitch in and raise the child. My heart aches for the women who have and continue to make such choices. It’s another reminder of the joy and burden women cannot escape of being the vessel to bring forth life.

    I say all of this as a national of Guyana (a country with the majority of its citizen living outside the actual country), a child whose mother also went away for a period, after her mother also went a foreign.

    Thanks again Islandista for sharing.

    • sloane

      the issue that you brought up with the imf loans is fascinating…hell having to pay back france for it’s independence helped to lead haiti into the financial dire straights it’s in today, so i can only imagine what’s been going on with jamaica and other islands. i will definitely look that up.

  • Sachkia wrote: “…ignoring generally of why people leave the sunny and lush seascapes and landscapes of the Caribbean islands. Yes it is to make a better life; but considering the natural wealth of Jamaica and it’s almost decade of economic advancement after independence, why would a country sign for IMF loans…”
    ******************************************************************************************************************

    The political elites rule in their own self-interests (in addition to choosing to accept these loans) and with this has come corruption, higher illiteracy rates, increasing violence etc., but I do believe many of ‘conditions’ the IMF attaches to acceptance of it’s aid money contributes to unemployment, closed factories and other conditions that cause people to leave the island to find work.

    Jamaica is in the funky position of being in debt up to the ying yang yet ‘too rich’ to qualify for debt relief, but I’d place a small *part* of the blame at the feet of Bill Clinton (policies he championed while in office). The poorer the country, the less influence and fewer voting rights it has in the IMF — since those things are based on contributions paid by a member nation; and America held/holds powerful influence on the policies set by the IMF regarding loans to Jamaica as well as those to Haiti.

    Clinton’s NAFTA pushed factory jobs (sweatshops) set up in free trade zones in Jamaica by American corporations to countries like Mexico, Costa Rica etc., and the IMF attached ‘conditions’ to the aid money given to Jamaica which forced that island to compete with heavily subsidized products from America as well as cheap labor markets in Latin America.

    Loans from the WB (World Bank) has it’s own set of ‘conditions’ and that entity has always been big on free market economies (basically, supply and demand) and deregulating so, for example, deregulation cut into Jamaica’s once-profitable chicken industry because it allowed America to dump cheaper low-quality chicken into Jamaica’s domestic market at a price the locals could not compete with. With NAFTA, foods imported into the US are highly regulated with heavy restrictions but, on the flip, there are no restrictions on food exported by the US into developing or third-world (hate that term) countries.

    Another sector destroyed was Jamaica’s dairy industry. American milk producers received subsidies to keep their prices low but the ‘conditions’ imposed and policies demanded import taxes on milk products from the US be eliminated and subsidies to local Jamaican dairy farmers stopped. Again a situation was set up where Jamaican business owners could not compete in selling their products to their own people and this lead to many of them closing down operations, unemployed workers etc.

    Clinton backed Aristide’s 1994 return to power in Haiti under the condition he agree to a program of economic adjustment monitored by the IMF and WB with ‘conditions’ and demands of downsizing, privatization and deregulation (aka free trade). Tariffs on foreign rice were slashed from 50% to 3% in weeks and subsidized imports of rice and sugar from America flooded the country which forced many Haitian rice farmers out of business, off their farms, and into urban slums i.e. Port Au Prince.

    I think tourism is Jamaica’s 2nd largest industry and what’s telling is much of the food served in the resort areas is not procured locally and imported from places like Miami, Florida. Islandista mentioned the out-of-control violence on the island and one has to take into account the impact this type of crime and violence has on the tourist industry’s bottom line (which, again, results in lost jobs and people leading to find employment).

    I know things can be turned around in Jamaica and inspiration for that is Barbados; that island gained its independence a couple of years after Jamaica and also has a past of colonization. However, Barbados’ per capita income is more than twice that of Jamaica and it has one of the lowest homicide rates in the hemisphere, a relatively mature democracy, and a standard of living at the level of (what’s referred to as) the developed world.

    • You are a gal of my own heart! Unfortunately the things you have pointed out can be found in any developing Territory, in the region or in Africa. Mumma goes a foreign because she can no longer take her bananas to market to sell to send a child to the bad school that the Government cannot improve because of mis-guided priorities or paying off loans. In all of the seeming despair – I do look forward to younger leaders emerging throughout the region and perhaps one day CRICOM members will become equal partners in the discussions for assistance when needed.

      If you haven’t already you should check out Parish of the Poor by Aristide or better yet An Unbroken Agony by Randall Robinson

    • Ooh, thanks for the book suggestions, Sachkia!

      I think I read Randall Robinson’s but not the one by Aristide.

    • sloane

      @sachkia- i will definitely be checking out both of those books.

  • Correction: “I think tourism is Jamaica’s 2nd largest industry and what’s telling is much of the food served in the resort areas is not procured locally and imported from places like Miami, Florida. Islandista mentioned the out-of-control violence on the island and one has to take into account the impact this type level of crime and violence has on the tourist industry’s bottom line (which, again, results in lost jobs and people leading leaving to find employment).”

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