The Jamaican brethren sit around a table late at night, drinking in the cool trade wind that was once known as the “undertaker’s breeze,” because it combed the island only after dark. It is a great relief from the hot sun and hard work of the day. The gathering of Rastas, casual and unplanned, people coming and going in the yard, is the way of most evenings here in the small fishing village of Port Maria on the north coast of Jamaica.
People come and go, stopping for a short while to let go of a few frustrations, tell a tale or two, laugh and smoke a spliff, sip a warm beer under the waning yellow moon. The voices, rhythmic as the rolling tide, speak about the day and their part in it. The people call this kind of easy conversation, this talking to one another with the heart, “reasoning.” And they feel that the use of heartfelt words raises common, simple human beings to a state of beatitude, of divine redemption.
Tonight’s reasoning session begins when someone asks a rhetorical question about life; about the things that are important to do in this life. Then, as often happens in a Rastafarian community, people seem to fall out of the night, both men and women, to, as they put it, “Blink up thoughts, come together through the gentle art of reasoning.” By and by there is a large reasoning session, and the voices take on emotive hues. Some grow vexed and strident, others drop, low and wary. However, as the voices are raised and lowered, laughter spills out into the salty night sky, splashing at the feet of those who would argue to no purpose. Where there is laughter, there is no anger. The fire leaps up, finds no fuel, and is put out with laughter.
I am listening, not really participating, just sitting and wondering how long this session will continue; I know, for instance, that it might go on all night. For each person is, in a sense, sending forth a devotional message. Yes, the session has turned, in its own way, prayerful. “This is what Jah give me,” a man professes, “but this is what I need.” He makes a kind of categorical list of things with which his life might move forward without obstruction. He is a fisherman, and he needs a new boat; he needs to catch more fish. He is traveling ninety miles out to sea, touching the coast of Cuba to catch fish and sell them back in Port Maria. He needs a good boat with a strong outboard engine to carry him.
As I listen, I watch the moths that are called bats in Jamaica. They flutter about the open veranda. The small white owl, which people here still call “Patoo,” alights in a Poinciana tree, then drops down without a sound to the bamboo fence that separates the enclosed yard from the road. Occasionally a dog yelps, but the night noises are overruled by the dominant sounds of the sea.
Someone is reciting, at the moment, a vast archive of personal needs. Then a man is saying, “If I just had a car that would run and not break down all the time.” And another says, “I have a car that runs, but no money for gas.” Another, “I have no money, no car, but plenty of gas.”
A young Rasta says, “I have all that I need to finish my house: zinc, windows, so it is just a matter of time before I get a door.”
Now a woman, whose name is Clover, pushes in among the men to have her say: “I need medicine for my children,” she says sharply. “None of this dibby-dibby stuff you all talk about. I need medicine for my ailing mother. I need food for her two children. What is all this talk about material goods? I just want food and medicine.”
A deep-voiced Rasta, Vincent, confides, “Darling, you don’t look well.”
“True,” she says. “I have the jaundice and need some medicine myself.”
One man, sitting in the corner of the veranda, not saying anything, suddenly gets out of his wicker chair and stretches. He yawns. His name is Benji, and usually he has something to say, but apparently not tonight. He begins to walk off, and Vincent calls to him. “You nuh seh nuttin’, Benji.”
Benji turns to face the group. He has what Jamaicans call “the permanent screw,” a deeply wrinkled brow. He stands with his back to the sea, lean and angry, hungry-looking. Benji scowls, his mouth tightly pursed. Once again, he starts to leave. He is wearing a pair of pants and no shirt. His dark, muscled arms and powerful chest gleam in the dark. His eyes flash fire. He glances furiously around the veranda and says, “All this talk a lot of foolishness.”
“Why?” I ask.
He seems reluctant to speak, as if something is tugging at him from the dark hill over the house, some secret magnetic attraction out there among the night-darkened mango and pimento trees.
Everyone waits on his words.
“It a sin,” he sighs, at last, “to ask for what you already have. You see,” he says softly, “Solomon was the wisest man, seen? But, if you check it out, you realize that even so great a man as Solomon, him beg for something he nuh have.”
A silence has fallen over the group of brethren.
“And what was that?” I ask Benji.
“Him want a certain woman. Him want more children. Him nuh satisfy. No, mon. Not even Solomon, the wisest man on earth.”
I add, “He had these things, but he still wanted them?”
“Ahh!” Benji shouts. “No man ever satisfy. That is why I seh talk foolish. Me nuh want nuttin’ but what is given by Jah. And, for that, thanks and praises! For, what Jah give, no man tek way.”