Jamaica's 2.5 million people form a spectrum of types that bespeak the island's heritage. Most Jamaicans are black, but there are also people of Chinese, Asian Indian, Middle Eastern, and European background. About 75% of the people are classified as black African, and about 15% as Afro-European.
Jamaicans are generally friendly, funny, opinionated, talented, and nearly impossible to forget. Their sense of humor is dry and understated, yet robust. National pride is specific -- beating the British at cricket, winning gold medals in the Olympics, or attaining world boxing titles.
And Jamaica is more diverse than one might imagine. The British brought slaves from the west coast of Africa, notably the area of modern Ghana, who belonged to the Fanti and Ashanti ethnic groups. Others are descended from the Ibo and Yoruba people of present-day Nigeria. When the forced laborers were freed in 1838, most deserted the plantations and settled in the hills to cultivate small plots of land. They founded a peasantry that is still regarded as the backbone of Jamaica.
After slavery was abolished, the British brought in Chinese and East Indians to work the plantations. You can still see pockets of these immigrants here and there.
Jews are among the oldest residents of Jamaica. Jewish families have been here since the time of the earliest Spanish settlements. Though small in number (about 400), the Jewish community has been influential in government and commerce.
In 2003 the birthrate in Jamaica was about 17 per 1,000 persons; the death rate 5 per 1,000. Life expectancy at birth was 78 years for females, 76 years for males. There was a net out-migration of six persons per 1,000 inhabitants. The annual population growth rate was 0.61%.
Nothing shaped the modern culture of the Caribbean more than the arrival of slaves from various parts of Africa. They brought gods, beliefs, superstitions, and fears with them. Although later converted to Christianity, they kept their traditions vibrant in fairs and festivals. Jamaican cultural and social life revolved mostly around the church, which was instrumental in molding a sense of community. Storytellers helped maintain ties to the past for each new generation, since little was written down until the 20th century.
Some folk beliefs are expressed in music, notably in the lyrics of reggae. Others are expressed in rhythmic chanting, whose stresses and moods once accompanied both hard labor and dancing. Other beliefs can be found in fairy tales and legends about the island's slaves and their owners. The telling of oral narrations is a highly nuanced art form. Repetition and an inspired use of patois are important features.
Healing arts make use of Jamaican tradition, especially in the "balm yard," an herb-garden-cum-healing place where a mixture of religion and magic is applied by a doctor or "balmist" of either sex. Some medicines brewed, distilled, or fermented in the yard are derived from recipes handed down for many generations and can be effective against ailments ranging from infertility to skin disease. A balm yard is usually encircled by a half-dozen thatch-covered huts, which house supplicants (patients). Bright-red flags fly above each hut to chase away evil spirits. Ceremonies resembling revival meetings are held nightly, with a "mother" and a "father" urging the crowd to groan ecstatically and in unison. The threat of damnation in hellfire may be mentioned as punishment for anyone who doesn't groan loudly enough or believe fervently enough. It is believed that prayer and supplications to Jesus and various good and evil spirits will help relieve the sick of their ailments.
The two most famous spirits of Jamaica are Obeah and the jumbie. Originating in the southern Caribbean, Obeah is a superstitious force that believers hold responsible for both good and evil. It is prudent not to tangle with this force, which might make trouble for you. Because of a long-established awareness of Obeah, and an unwillingness to tempt it with too positive an answer, a Jamaican is likely to answer "Not too bad" if asked about his or her health.
There's no agreement on the nature of a jumbie. It's been suggested that it is the spirit of a dead person that didn't go where it belonged. Some islanders, however, say that "they're the souls of live people, who live in the bodies of the dead." Jumbies are said to inhabit households and to possess equal capacities for good and evil. Most prominent are Mocko jumbies, carnival stilt-walkers seen in parades.
One folk tradition that can while away hours of a Jamaican's time is reciting Anansi stories. A notorious trickster -- with a distinctly Jamaican sense of humor -- Anansi manipulates those around him and eventually acquires whatever spoils happen to be available. In one well-known story, Anansi steals sheep from a nearby plantation; in another, he pilfers half of every other person's plantain. Among the funniest are episodes in which Anansi exposes the indiscretions of an Anglican priest. Anansi's traits include a lisp, a potent sense of greed, and a tendency to be wicked.
These stories are sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, and sometimes sexually suggestive. They often are parables, teaching a basic lesson about life. Each narrative has a well-defined and often charming ending, which tends to be followed by an explosion of laughter from the storyteller. Several collections of Anansi stories have been published.
Marijuana use is the island's biggest open secret, and you'll no doubt encounter it during your vacation. (To be honest, it's the big draw for some visitors.) Vendors seem to hawk marijuana at random, often through the chain-link fences surrounding popular resorts.
Ganja is viewed with differing degrees of severity in Jamaican society, but it's still officially illegal. We should warn you that being caught by the authorities with marijuana in your possession could lead to immediate imprisonment or deportation.
Marijuana and Jamaica have long endured a love-hate relationship. The plant was brought here by indentured servants from India in the mid-19th century. Revered by them as a medicinal and sacred plant, and referred to by the British as "Indian hemp," it quickly attracted the attention of the island's plantation owners because its use significantly reduced the productivity of those who ingested it. Legislation against its use quickly followed -- not for moral or ethical reasons, but because it was bad for business.
During the 1930s the slow rise of Rastafarianism (whose adherents believe marijuana use is an essential part of their religion) and the occasional use of marijuana by U.S. bohemians, artists, and jazz musicians, led to growing exports of the plant to the United States. A massive increase in U.S. consumption occurred during the 1960s. Since the mid-1970s, after more stringent patrols were instituted along the U.S.-Mexico border, drug trafficking has slowed. Still, today between 75% and 95% of all marijuana grown in Jamaica is consumed in the United States.
Cultivation of the crop, when conducted on the typical large scale, is as meticulous and thorough as that of any horticulturist raising a prize species of tomato or rose. Seeds, sold illegally by the quart, must first be coaxed into seedlings in a greenhouse and then transplanted into fields at 60-centimeter (2-ft.) intervals. Popular lore claims that the most prolific seedlings are raised in Jamaica's red, bauxite-rich soil and nurtured with all-organic fertilizers such as bat dung or goat droppings. As the plants mature, tattered scarecrows, loud reggae music, fluttering strips of reel-to-reel recording tape, and slingshots manned by local laborers are used to fend off the birds that feed on the seeds.
Even more feared than natural predators, however, are the Jamaican police. The constables periodically raid fields and destroy the crop by burning it or spraying it with herbicide.
Marijuana plants reach maturity 5 to 6 months after transplanting, often with a height of about 3m (9 1/2 ft.). Stalks and stems are then pressed for hash oil; leaves are dried for smoking, baking into pastries, or use in herbal teas. Most seeds are saved for the next planting.
Various types of ganja can be grown in a single field, each identified by names like McConey, Cotton, Burr, Bush, Goat's Horn, Lamb's Breath, and Mad. Bush and Mad are the least potent of the crop, while the strongest are acknowledged to be Lamb's Breath, Cotton, and Burr. The last three are marketed in the United States under the name sinsemilla (Spanish for "without seeds"). Rastafarians typically prefer specific types of marijuana, much the way a gastronome might prefer specific types of caviar or red wine. To each his own.
Smuggling the dried and packaged final product is disconcertingly efficient. A small plane lands at any of the country's hundreds of outlaw airstrips, which are sometimes disguised immediately before and after use by huts and shacks moved into place by crews of strong-armed men. The planes then whisk away the crop, much of it to Florida. Undoubtedly, in a country with chronically low wages and constant fear of unemployment, the temptation to accept bribes runs high among government officials in both high and low positions.
Despite its widespread presence, marijuana is illegal in Jamaica and drug-sniffing dogs are employed at all airports. Our advice? Don't end your vacation in jail.
Dance & Drama
A sense of drama and theatrics is innate to most Jamaicans, as shown in the easy laughter, irreverent humor, and loose-limbed style that are the island's pride and joy. In Kingston in particular, everyone is a star, if only for a moment, during one or another of any day's interpersonal exchanges.
The natural flair of Jamaicans has been channeled into many different drama and dance groups. One of the most visible is the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC), whose goal is to assemble a body of dancers, actors, and singers to express and explore the Jamaican sense of stylized movement. Applauded by audiences around the world, the company offers abstract interpretations of the Jamaican experience, going far beyond the parameters of a purely folkloric dance troupe. Members are mostly volunteers (lawyers, secretaries, laborers, and nurses by day, highly motivated performers by night), and the troupe has usually refused to accept funds from the government. Among the troupe's most famous performers are Rex Nettleford, a dancer and cofounder, and Louise Bennett, pantomime artist, storyteller, and an early proponent of Jamaican patois as a literary language. Established in 1962, NDTC holds a season running from July to December, with most performances in August. It performs at several locations, so you'll need to inquire about where to attend on a particular day.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.