I’m walking along a dirt lane in the Jamaican bush when I meet Franklin. We’re beyond the end of the paved road, miles from the closest phone or electricity. The only running water flows beside us in a little mountain stream. Franklin and I chat for a few minutes, long enough for him to give me a message for “the people in America.”
What Franklin wants me to tell them is this: “Our skin color doesn’t matter. Black or white, we are all the same.”
I’ve come to this remote area two hours southeast of Montego Bay to see the parrots and other rare birds that live in the jungle mountains. It’s known as Cockpit Country because its precipitous mountains and deep valleys are so rugged that
maintenance of the only road through the area was abandoned years ago. The mountains spring out of narrow valleys leaving little tillable ground for crops. Self-sustaining farmers spend their days laboring to uphold an uneasy truce between their postage-stamp fields of sugarcane, coffee, and root crops and the ever-encroaching jungle.
Franklin sits by the road all day in a small wood-frame shack and sells snacks and directs tourists to the nearby bat-filled Windsor Cave, which has beautiful limestone formations. I’m staying in Windsor Great House, a plantation home, built in 1795 from immense blocks of slave-quarried limestone. Like Franklin’s home, we have neither electricity nor water.
After our brief conversation, Franklin strolls down the lane to begin his day, and I wind my way along a tangled forest trail to search for parrot nests. But I have trouble concentrating on the wildlife. The contrast between our lifestyles and standard of living distracts me.
A Comparison of Lifestyles
Little has changed here in the last 100 years. People still bathe, wash and haul drinking water from the stream. On the drive in, our small group of birdwatchers passes young boys fetching the day’s water in plastic buckets and a woman soaping down a little girl standing in a bucket of water. We see men carrying stalks of bananas, bundles of bamboo and sugarcane, and even an empty 55-gallon steel barrel on their heads. Donkeys still carry loads too heavy for human transport.
In contrast, I carry several thousand dollars worth of binoculars and camera gear around my neck. I suspect a list of Franklin’s entire personal possessions wouldn’t fill one page of my notepad. Despite the disparity in our material possessions, Franklin and I stood chatting amicably on the trail. I didn’t feel like he looked at me with envy or anger. He looked me proudly in the eye, man to man, and told me that the differences exist only in our minds, that we are all the same.
That’s a powerful message from a man with missing teeth, ragged clothes, and little opportunity to improve his living conditions. This morning, I used six kitchen appliances to prepare breakfast. I imagine Franklin peeled a mango or banana from a nearby tree as he walks to his little shop on the roadside. After breakfast, I turned on my CD player and put on some world beat music while I sat at my computer. Birds serenade Franklin each morning as he visits with neighbors who stop and chat.
A Mutual Understanding
Franklin’s apparent acceptance of his impoverished conditions doesn’t negate the hardships of a third-world standard of living. Poverty denies him adequate health care and education. His government can’t provide food assistance, welfare payments, or subsidized housing. Despite this, he seems to understand what we in a more affluent society often miss, which is that what is important in life is not how much one can materially accumulate, conspicuously consume, or lavishly spend, but the basic human value of first respecting and valuing our selves, and others. His world view accepts all people, regardless of color, creed, or wealth.
“Why is it so hard to understand that we are all the same?” he asked me. I had no simple answer.
We cannot choose our heritage, and poverty in any country limits one’s choices and opportunities in life. But a low standard of living doesn’t limit spiritual development. We choose our beliefs and our attitudes about ourselves and our community.
A Shared Philosophy
I can relate to his vision because of my own experience with I the Baha’i Faith, which I embraced and joined several decades ago. The pivotal principle is unity. This independent, worldwide religion teaches that there is only one race, the human race; only one source of truth, so all religions must agree; and that any belief that causes disunity, hatred, or bigotry is not from God and should be discarded.
Just as the problems created by prejudice cross all national and cultural lines, so does Franklin’s solution. He painted a sign on the side of his ragtag little shop for all to see. The scrawling letters read: “Jah love is like burning fire.”
As I pondered my encounter with Franklin, I thought about how his choices and his Rastafarian faith in Jah (Jehovah) transcend his impoverished standard of living. His beliefs and values and attitudes toward life spring from one immutable spiritual law: we are all the same.
Cover Image: Small coffee farms in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains sell their coffee to Mavis Bank and other producers. Photo by George Miller