A friend on facebook recently wrote that he was sitting down with a cold Red Stripe listening to some Marley some Tosh and some Cliff. For a brief and surreal second I honestly didn’t know if he meant Jimmy Cliff or Cliff Twang, and then I suddenly thought it strange that both Cliffs should have signature songs about the difficulty of crossing rivers.
Well, maybe it’s just part and parcel of the Jamaican condition – that we always face rivers, and they are always hard to cross. I have written elsewhere that this is a curious metaphor when you consider the island’s landscape. We do have rivers, but they are not very wide. Not like the Mississippi or the Nile. Jamaican rivers only pose problems when they have ‘come down’ or to say it as we say it, when dem come dung.
Yet, this is how we have imagined our lives – always facing a ‘come dung’ river, wishing for the saviour’s longs arms to bear us over, or a magic bus that can swim. Life in Jamaica has been plaintively sung by Jimmy Cliff, or else it has been accidentally sung by Cliff-Twang.
Of course I’m being precious. This isn’t a unique Jamaican condition. It is the human condition. Shit happens every day, and we face it. But speaking of landscapes and how they prophesy to our situations, one of my favourite Caribbean proverbs comes from Haiti. It is ‘Deye mon genmon’. Translated: behind the mountains there are mountains. It is such a fantastic description of the landscapes of both Jamaica and Haiti: not full of impassable rivers, but full of mountains. Our hills roll on forever. Our mountains never end. Whenever I am on a plane to Jamaica, it is these mountains that I look out on and am always amazed.
I remember going to America for the first time and discovering that landscapes could be flat. I felt exposed. I was so used to mountains, and to knowing that behind every one, there was another. Of course in Haiti ‘deye mon genmon’ is a metaphor for the trials that keep on coming. Having faced dictators and corruption and earthquakes and cholera outbreaks, Haiti knows damn well what it means to get over one mountain only to see another.
There is such a profound sadness, if not truth, to these ways of understanding our lives. And so here I am on a Sunday, allowing myself to feel this sadness a little. I am taking my friend’s advice. I am sitting down with a Red Stripe that I don’t particularly like. (I’ve never liked beer, and I’m out of late-harvest wine). I am listening to some Marley, and some Tosh, and some Cliff (both Mr Jimmy and Mr Twang). And I’m thinking to myself, I don’t quite know how to describe tomorrow – whether I expect it to be a mountain, or a wide river, or a dry desert, or a storm – but of course, it will be something else to get over.