Archive | January, 2012

Go Ask Your Mother

31 Jan

As you know, one of my favorite and most consistent rituals in Jamaica is going over to Mama’s house for dinner. Every evening around 5pm, I walk into the sunset down my gravel road. With a clean tupperware in hand from yesterday’s meal, I pass four houses to get to Mama’s yard, Tyger and Goose bounding ahead of me. I’ll exchange my clean dish for the dinner on the fire tonight. Sometimes when I arrive, dinner hasn’t even started cooking. On those days, I end up spending time in the yard, hanging out with the family, helping prepare food, or doing some kind of cleaning. While the pot simmers, Mama and I chat.

Simple Pleasures

During Molly’s visit, she of course joined me in the nightly walk to Mama’s yard, and was immediately accepted as Mama’s newest daughter. One Wednesday evening, while waiting for our serving of ackee and green banana, Molly got the hiccups. When Mama heard Molly hiccupping, she laughed.

Mama: A wa dat? Marly ave eekup? (She laughed again) Mus be sumting did tief.

Though Patwa is sometimes referred to as “broken English,” I would consider it its own beautiful, hilarious language. “Tief” or “tiefing” is how Jamaicans would say something has been “thieved” or stolen. With Mama’s mention of hiccups and stealing, you can imagine our confusion.

Sammi: A what tief, Mama?
Mama: Mi nah no. Mos be di suga.
Molly: What?
Sammi: Wait, your sugar’s missing?
Mama: Nooo. Marly mossa teif sumting! Like, ef yuh tief sumtin? Like yuh madda suga? A dats how dem seh yuh get eekup.

Oooh. Okay. Apparently, getting the hiccups in Jamaica means you’ve stolen something, probably your mother’s sugar. We understood. So I started teasing Molly.

Sammi: What did you tief, Mol, huh? Am I gonna be missing something at the house?
Molly: No, no, no! Mi (hiccup) didn’t tief nothing!

Mama laughed as I gave Molly a hard time.

Molly: Mama, what can mi do to get rid of these hiccups?
Mama: Jreenk wata. Jus yuh count it, “one, two, tree,” an by di tree, no more eekup.

Mama’s unexpected perspective on hiccups gave us an idea for this January blog: What other stuff did Mama believe? What secrets of Jamaican culture could we uncover? Which practices would be the same across Elim, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh? So when we got home, we set about writing interview questions in order to discover the world according to Mama.

We conducted the interview a couple days later, with Molly typing Mama’s responses as she spoke them. The words below are a few of the silliest and most heart-felt responses she gave, and we tried to spell Mama’s answers as they would be written in her native tongue (with help from Joan Andrea Hutchinson’s Patwa book). If you don’t know Patwa, hopefully you can at least get the gist of what Mama said. 🙂

The interview started off simply.

Sammi: Mama, what are your favorite jobs around the yard?
Mama: Wash [hand-washing clothes]. Mi love wash, cook, an iron.

The fact that Mama’s favorite task is hand-washing clothes just baffles me. Hand-washing clothes is one of the most unpleasant ways I spend my time here. It takes forever, it’s monotonous, it ruins my delicates, and when I’m finished, my clothes still don’t look or feel clean. Because of this, I make sure to get every bit of use out of each garment before laundry day. This is how I discovered the practicality of wearing my undies inside-out. Shhh. Moving on.

S: Mama, what’s the best job to have?
Ma: Like, yuh wuck into a office whey sun nah burn yuh. People need people fido dem seketaries. Dem are di bes job to have rite now.

So, apparently the grass is always greener on the other side. To us, a secretary job sounds sterile. For sure, the air conditioning would be a perk, especially when living here, and joining the white-collar world sounds a bit glamorous after living inna di bush, but the freedom and reward of a lifestyle like Mama’s–to grow her own food, raise her own fowl, spend time with her family, make her own hours, breathe the fresh air, be in touch with the land, and have a direct relationship with her survival—seems much closer to Molly’s and my dream job than a cubicle and steady salary.

Mo: Mama, what would you say is the nicest country in the world?
Ma: Wat yud say, Eengland? Or Canada.
S: What do I think? Oh, they’re both really nice, yes. Mama, what other countries are there?
Ma: Eengland, Canada, Nasuh, Kyaman, Caraso, Bahamas. (She pauses, thinking) A fi which country Charmane live? [Charmane is Mama’s daughter.]
S: Barbados.
Ma: Yes. Barbados.
Mo: And if you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?
Ma: Mi? I wud live…mi nah no. Mi love Jamaica.

We were tickled by how, to Mama, the important countries of the world were nearby and personal. It is refreshing to hear connections to places based on family vs. CNN headlines.

So, anyway, since Molly and I have been on this intense diet and exercise plan, we thought we’d include a set of questions related to health.

S: Mama, what’s the healthiest thing you can eat?
Ma: Vegestaba.

Yes! Vegestabas! That’s what we think, too, Mama!

Mo: Mama, what’s the best food for your eyes?
Ma: Fi yuh ie, yuh jus get a lickle honey, a weh yuh go to sleep inna di night? Yuh put it (points to her eyelid). Een di mawnin, sumting comes out. Di honey teck it out yuh ie.

[For the record, we tried this. Before bed the night after this interview, Molly and I washed our faces well and then applied a thin layer of local honey to our eyelids (and licked our fingers). We slept in fear of ants on our face, and woke up distractingly sticky.
“How’re your honey-eyes?” Molly asked me, first thing.
“Well, I certainly never forgot that I had honey on my eye.”
“Yeah, me either. Did anything come out?”
“I don’t know.”
Molly followed me into the bathroom so we could rinse our ‘lids. We toweled off and blinked a few times.
“Anything?” Molly asked me.
“No. You?”
“Nothing came out of my eyes.”
True, the experiment hadn’t worked, but we still ended up coming to the unanimous conclusion that Mama’s suggestion was worth it. After we washed off, our eyes felt great; they didn’t have honey on them anymore.]

S: Mama, what’s the best food for your blood?
Ma: Carrot juice. An beet root. Even di watacrish–(she looks up at us, remembering) Yuh know mi have a lot today. Yuh wan sum? (Pointing to the outdoor kitchen) An yuh kyan stem sum ef yuh wan calliloo. Yuh kyan stem it. It green an pretty an nice.
Mo: Yes, Mama. Thank you. We would love some watercress and calliloo. But just a lickle. Yuh always give wi too much.
Ma: Oh-kay, oh-kay.

S: Mama, sometimes the food yuh cook is so good, we eat too much of it. What you kyan do for that?
Ma: No, mon! Yuh jus eat wat yuh stomuk kyan teck. Yuh kyaan do nutten to it. Yuh walk it out.

Dang. We were hoping for a Jamaican miracle cure for over-eating.

S: Mama, what should you do when you don’t have any food around?
Ma: (Responding confidently) All yuh haffi do? Siddung an pray. An aks di Lord to provi fi yuh. (She looks to the sky and raises her hands) God is good. God is real. God is wunderful. (With relief) God! (Back to us) Look how menny places wi go an im kyarry wi back safe!
S: Yes, we always do seem to get back safe.

Mo: Mama, what if you have a cold?
Ma: Like a kof? Ef it trrible? Eeda yuh kyan pick (searching for the word)–yuh see dey have sum tree? Dem bloom some white ting? (Remembering) Kotton! An yuh jus pik di kotton leaf, an pik it, an bwoil it, an jreenk it–even da gully bean. Yuh kyan pik di gully bean leaf, and bwoil it, and jreenk it.


Then — because this question was personal and my ‘brothers’ Lucky or Dicky were nearby –I asked in a whisper,

S: Mama, what happens if you kyaan poop? Like you try fi poop but yuh jus kyaan?

Comically, she didn’t understand what I meant. Instead of “what to do if you’re constipated,” she thought I meant what happens if somebody just never poops, ever.

Ma: Nuh, mon! Dat sound reedikyulus.

Giggling, we tried to help her understand what we were saying.

Mo: Like you eat something and it gets stuck–
S: Constipated. If you’re constipated.
Ma: Ooooh kay. Yuh see like yuh have milk? Like yuh get inna di mawnin? (Nodding) Jus jreenk it an it mecks mos gas paas. Yes, milk meck gas paas.Yuh know Miss Valda?
Mo: The neighbor?

Ms. Valda

Ma: No, no.
S: There’s two Miss Valdas.
Mo: Oh, the other one.

Ms. Valda

Ma: Mi tell yuh, Sunday mawnin wen wi go a church? I hear Miss Valda let go sum! Mi haffa seh, “A so! Dat’s how yuh gwan inna church today?!”

Ha! That was a bit more information about Miss Valda than we were looking for.
We changed the subject.

Mo: Mama, when is it appropriate to hug somebody?
Ma: (For this one, Mama answered immediately) Entime yuh feel like. Love di person, an yuh wan meck much of him? [In Jamaica, “him” is often used to refer to girls, too.] Yuh jus go an hug him.

Curious to see if the concept of soul-mate existed in Jamaica, we asked the following question:

Mo: Mama, how do you know when you’ve found “the one”?
Ma: Well, how yuh will know yuh have fine him? Dat man a concern? Yuh will do sumting like wa him doan like. An him doan show yuh na bad face. Him a jus laf wid yuh, an fren yuh up, an seh, “Why yuh do so-an-so?” Him jus fren yuh up an laf.

Aw, sweet.

S: And so mama, what should you do if you want to look sexy for “dat man a concern”?
Ma: Bathe.


After a pee break, we felt comfortable enough to ask mama something a little unladylike.

S: Mama, do Jamaican women have a preference about a man’s penis size?
Ma: Mmhmm. It meck a diference. Becaw a man? Ef yuh are close? Di man penis big and long? It kyan hurt yuh. Not so good. Betta dat it’s odinary.

Apparently some stereotypes are true. In a big way.

S: And mama, when you’re on your honeymoon, what should you do?
Ma: You kiss. Or, ef like yuh go to a hotel? Oonoo go to di pool together. [“Oonoo” is collective “you.”]

Mo: Mama, mi know lots of people dem have babies before dem get married. Why that happen so much in Jamaica?
Ma: Well, mi doan really know dey wan baby before marriage becaw ef yuh are a Christian? Yuh haffi get married before yuh have sex. (Mama looked away and shook her head) But mi na agree widdat nyther. Suppose yuh married to a man an den yuh fine di man have no use! So mi haffi try him firs.

If Jessica Simpson had chatted with Mama before marrying Nick Lachey perhaps her life would have turned out differently.

S: Mama, when you’re pregnant, are der tings you should or shouldn’t do to make the baby healthy?
Ma: Aright. (we hit the jackpot) Wen yuh pregnant, yuh mosly feed on banana. (She pauses) Yuh know, yuh kyan eat enyteen doa–enyteen yuh feel like eat. (She nods emphatically) Yes. Like, yuh feel like yuh wan peesa bammi? [Bammi is an English-muffin-like Jamaican favorite, made from cassava root flour] An yuh doan get it? yuh get an itch pon yuh bawdy. (Mama points to her face) An if you wan fi scratch, doan go into yuh face–better yuh put it on yuh batung (smacking her butt). Anywhere yuh put dem scratch yuh get a mark. All a my pickni? Afi dem mark rite here (she smacks her butt again).

[To recap: When you’re pregnant, eat bananas. Or whatever you want. And if you don’t get what you want, and then notice an itch somewhere, know that they’re correlated. At this point, Mama suggests you redirect your itch to your butt, so your baby’s birthmarks will end up there, and not where your itch actually was ie. your face.]

Mama continued…
Ma: (The following was said with gravity) But wat yuh na to do wen yuh go enywhere? Yuh not to sorry fi people o mongral. Like, dey are defaultid [disabled]? Yuh na to look pon dem an sorry fi dem. Yuh na to sorry fi nuting, becaw yuh baby will born sick. Ef yuh pregnant, an yuh easy sorry for people, please don’t sorry for nobody.

Are you pregnant? Don't feel sorry for me.

Okay, got it: When I’m pregnant, all scratches go on my behind and I will entertain no sympathy — lest my child be defaulted.

There must be other things that we can learn so I asked this next question for fun. And because my birthstone is Alexandrite.

What is your birthstone?

S: Mama, when’s the best time of year to be born?
Ma: June is a good munt. Lucky munt. Janawary is a nice munt again, an many people are lovin, kine, and genkle.
S: And the worst time to be born?
Ma: April people dem doan nice.

Sorry, April babies. Mama said it, not us.

Mo: Mama, sometimes people feel sad. What should you do when you feel sad to make yourself feel better?
Ma: (Mama paused a little while to form this response) Wen mi feel saad, all mi do? Mi jus try fi do sumting. Yuh jus git up inna di house an star to do sumting. An as quik as yuh start yuh feel betta. (She smiles) Yuh feel good! (Laughs) Move yuh blood. Yuh feel okay! Yuh feel alright.

Speaking of feeling good…

Mo: Mama, What would make you feel proud of yourself? Like what would make you say, ‘I lead a good life’?
Ma: (Mama didn’t have to think at all before she answered this one) Becaw yuh keep yuself uprite. Yuh na waak an stumble. (She looked us both in the eyes) Keep yuself uprite, keep yuself natral, know yuh are a woman, an know yuh haffi lead a woman life.

Know you have to lead a woman’s life. If “woman life” means loving to wash, cook, and iron then I think that Mama can feel like the most successful life-liver in all of Jamaica; she is the epitome of her values, and acts in each moment with God in mind.

Mama, or her given name, “Miss Dasmin Sinclair,” is renowned in Elim for her skills as a relentless home-keeper and natural cook. She always cooks on quality wood in iron pots and never uses powders, mixes, or packaged flavorings. Practically every item in her pan comes from the family farm just over the hill.


Across the island, the traditional Sunday meal is rice and peas and chicken. So of course on the Sunday after the interview, that’s what was on Mamas fire; the fowl in the dish was a rooster we had seen yesterday and had been watching grow in Mama’s yard.

Molly and I had been strictly vegetarian for her entire trip and had enough food in the fridge to last a family through the weekend. But after our interview instead of refusing to eat chicken like we had been, we sat down with a full tupperware and dove into Sunday dinner “like yuh suppwos to.” We ate our hot, dead, delicious rooster brother over a bed of hand-grated coconut rice, and carefully shelled local gunga peas infused with the essence of logwood.

Maspunus, Mama’s sick husband, yelled from the bedroom, “Deh chicken so sweet dat yuh wan yuh bwayfren sem time!”


He doesn’t speak often but when he does, listen up!

Back at the interview, it was close to 4pm, and Mama was getting impatient to start cleaning the river fish Lucky had caught earlier that day. We had one final question.

S: Mama, do you have any advice you would give to your grandchildren?
Ma: (Completely deadpan) All wat mi wuld seh to my granchilrin? I would seh, “Take care of yuh granmadda.”

Good one, Mama. Good one.

Sammi and Molly signing off.

'mi and 'ly