Today is the most important national holiday in Senegal, Tabaski, the Wolof word for the Festival of the Sheep, known elsewhere in the Muslim world as Aïd-el-Kebir. It is a celebration of an event that is also important to Jews and Christians, that is, the sacrifice by Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) of his eldest son. If you recall the story, Abraham, aged 80, was still childless, and so promised God/Allah that he would sacrifice his firstborn if He would grant him a child.

(Don’t interrupt. I know it doesn’t make sense.)

A single child is born, Ismael. Years later, God reminds Abraham of his promise. Abraham is a man of his word and so prepares to sacrifice his son to God. At the moment Abraham’s knifeblade touches Ismael’s throat, the Angel Gabriel does a quick switcheroo and in the place of the child, puts a ram, whose throat is promptly slit.

As a reminder of Abraham’s act of faith, Muslims reenact the sacrifice of the sheep each year. Every head of the family (male, of course), is obliged to provide a sheep for his family. The obligation is not enshrined in the Koran, rather it is a social pressure to “keep up with the Jones'”, or the Dioufs, perhaps, here in Senegal.

Sheep envyWith the cheapest, scrawniest sheep costing about 2 weeks’ pay for many people (50,000 FCFA or 75 euros), I asked an acquaintance of modest means why he didn’t just buy a leg.

“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s not for us, the adults. It’s for the children. They can’t show their face at school if their father didn’t have a sheep for Tabaski.”

So 2000 years after the sacrifice of the son by the father over a point of honour, today’s fathers have to sacrifice themselves, often running themselves into debt for the rest of the year, in order to preserve their children’s honour. Sweet irony.

Of course, such subtleties are lost on the sheep. For him the story ends the same way.

Le mouton qui pleure

Cross Roads

While other place spellings may vary in Jamaica (Savannah-La-Mar, Savanna-La-Mar or Savanna la mar; Acadia or Arcadia), Cross Roads in Kingston is defiantly two separate words. A few years ago, it was considered to mark the frontier between uptown and downtown Kingston, although these days, one could argue the urban decay is still creeping northwards.

Uptown refers to the main commercial district of New Kingston and the affluent suburbs of the Liguanea Plain and the foothills of the mountains to the north. Downtown is the old heart of the city, now largely abandoned and derelict. To give an idea of the separation in the city, there are uptown folk who have lived in Kingston all their lives, who fly to Miami to shop at the weekend, go skiing in Colorado, and who have never crossed Cross Roads.

Historically, the name “Cross Roads” has only been in use for about a century, but its association as a place of danger or death is much older.

It was formerly known as Montgomery Corner, supposedly after a Lieutenant Montgomery, who was thrown from his horse while near the west gate of Up Park Camp and dragged to this spot, where he died. But long before the episode of Lieutenant Montgomery, this location was a busy cross roads, and a place of public hangings.
(Source: Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage by Olive Senior)

Crossroads are often associated with transition or changes of state, and can be considered as liminal or threshold places through which travellers must pass and make important decisions or undergo radical changes. This is a very widespread theme, stretching across time and space, from Oedipus meeting and killing his father at a crossroads, to blues pioneer Robert Johnson supposedly selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in return for musical talent. (Read more examples …)

Crossroads therefore seem to have some powerful symbolic association in the human psyche … and also give me enough ideas to waffle about while you wait for the QuickTime panorama to load!


Photos taken on Easter Sunday, around 2 pm. The relatively low volume of traffic meant that I only had about a dozen artefacts and ghosts (moving objects crossing overlapping photo images) to correct, and the errors that remain are almost invisible at this resolution. For a handheld panorama of a street scene, I’m pretty pleased with the result.

… although the hotspots seem to have shrunk.

Gun Street Girl

Best headline of the year so far:


(source: Jamaica Observer)

It’s a fairly typical report of street crime in Jamaica, relying on unsupported interviews with the nearest person at hand, vague and incomplete police statements and victims that disappear, never to reappear.

I’d been scanning the local press since last Friday for more details about a murder that occurred near my house. It got a two-sentence mention on the television news on Friday evening but was not reported elsewhere.

I was driving on Barbican Road, just as it enters the rundown, ghetto neighbourhood of Grants Pen, and passed a single police car blocking the entrance to one of the no-name lanes lined with rusting and discoloured zincs (corrugated iron sheets). Last year the National Works Agency sent in a bulldozer and pushed out the carcasses of abandoned cars. They were neatly stacked by the roadside and left rusting in the weeds for a further six months. The lane received better treatment — a smooth, glistening coat of tarmac, the envy of all the more important roads running by, pocked with craters and erratically cambered.

When I passed the lane, there were few people on the street; police cars have that effect in this neighbourhood, despite having recently been celebrated as a model of community relations. After being murder-free for one year, the serious crimes seem to be creeping back.

I drove on down to New Kingston to pick up Mr B and came back up the same route about an hour later. By that time the traffic was crawling, the police were out in force and hundreds of people were standing round peering towards the lane. I thought about taking out my camera as we drove past, but was glad I hadn’t. The scene was familiar in any case — a corpse, police idling with their machine guns, photographer staring at the ground, blood in the dust.

The body was lying diagonally across the lane, plump round bottom in black shorts — it’s a woman! I gasped. In another place at another time she might have been stretching languorously, in a look-how-long-I-am pose. But this was how she must have fallen, running from the gunman.

Who was she? Why had she been killed? Drugs? Love? It’s hard to comprehend the ease with which guns are fired here in Jamaica. It’s hard to understand how there are so many guns in the hands of the wrong people. Jamaica’s gun laws are as draconian as those in the UK, and yet … At a street dance last weekend, the police arrested 128 men and confiscated four pistols and 69 knives. The TV camera panned back and forth over the pistols and their unloaded ammunition, carefully arranged in triangles. The camera spent less time on the knives, but to me they were even more impressive. Apart from the bad boy’s favourite, the ratchet, or clasp knife, most of the others were straight out the kitchen drawer. Can you imagine going to a dance with a bread knife stuck in your waist?

I passed the no-name lane again this morning. The tarmac was still smooth and glistening after the morning drizzle. On the nearest zinc, writ large in yellow and red, were the letters T L C .

Not much of that going around.

The man who was buried twice

Photo taken at Port Royal, Jamaica.

Tombstone of the man who was buried twice

In fact, this tombstone marks his third burial place, because after his death, he was buried in a nondescript area, then around 1953, at the time of a visit of Queen Elizabeth II, his remains were moved to a more conspicuous resting place in the graveyard of St Peter’s Anglican Church in Port Royal.

Lewis Galdy’s survival of the 1692 earthquake was rightly celebrated; many other victims fell into fissures and were then crushed to pulp when the second tremor closed the holes. The initial report printed in England pointedly mentions dogs eating the heads sticking out of the ground and has a lively illustration to accompany the text, which shows that tabloid-style journalism is nothing new.

The 1692 earthquake marked the end of Port Royal’s claim to being the “wickedest city on earth”, a reputation based on the drunken and depraved behaviour of its buccaneer citizens. The buccaneer king was Henry Morgan, who sealed his own reputation by sacking Panama City in flagrant contravention of a recent peace treaty between England and Spain. His cronies razed the city to the ground and stole everything of value. Apparently only one gold plate was left, and that because the owners painted it black. The haul of booty from this single raid came to 750,000 pieces of eight.

The authorities frowned upon Morgan’s breach of the treaty with Spain and ordered him to return to England to answer charges. Morgan had a force of luck rare to any man, however, and by the time he had crossed the Atlantic, England was once again at war with Spain and he was welcomed as a hero, knighted, and returned to Jamaica as Governor of the island!

His new mission on returning to the island was to rid the Caribbean of the pirates he had sailed with previously, a task to which he applied himself with his customary zeal, leaving the bodies of his former comrades to rot in cages by the harbour. The huge earthquake of 1692 destroyed much of Port Royal and with it went the pirates.

Nevertheless, as one Port Royalist remarked this morning,

The pirates are still here … only now they wear suits and ties!

Tombstone detail, Port Royal, Jamaica

Statutory rape ha-ha

17-year-old sentenced to 3 years probation
for carnal abuse

Judge tells him to skip Biology lessons for a while

Paul Henry

Justice Lloyd Hibbert made the comment after Attorney-at-Law Jean Barnes informed him that her client – a former Calabar High School student – was furthering his studies.
As Barnes mentioned the subjects her client was pursuing at his new school, the judge interrupted when she listed Biology among them.

“Biology?” Hibbert asked.
Hibbert then told the youth to drop Biology for a while as he had already “done the practical before the theory”.

Source: Jamaica Observer

What a joker, M’lud!

From the article it seems clear that the sex was consensual; therefore the charge of statutory rape (the equivalent of Jamaica’s antiquated “carnal abuse” charge) would be applied in its mildest form. In addition, the accused was also a minor.

Nevertheless, the defence lawyer’s final argument was hard to believe:

Barnes told the court that the 13-year-old was introduced to her client by a mutual friend, and that the girl had expressed a desire to have sex with him.

Barnes added that adults find it difficult to control their sexual urges, much more a “boy his age” – and that under the circumstances, it was difficult for her client to refuse having sex with the 13-year-old.

Difficult to refuse?!

Let’s see where this line of defence leads, shall we?

My client robbed the bank because it was difficult to resist all the money sitting in there.

My client murdered her husband because he was difficult to live with (gruesome example).

My client … add your own suggestion for a brilliant defence.