It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon when I arrived in the crystal blue and sepia hued city of Montego Bay Jamaica. When meeting the immigration officer, the first words he spoke to me after looking at my passport was; “Wow! Africa! Welcome my sister”. After which I immediately said, “You know a daughter of Jamaica is my first lady, right?”, speaking of Madam Clar Weah, first Lady of Liberia and a native of Jamaica. Truthfully, I could not wait to say those words, as I somehow feel connected to the Jamaican people because of that simple fact. Little did I know though, our connection transcended everything I once knew about the lovely island and its people.
The purpose of my one-week vacation to Montego Bay was to celebrate my 25th birthday. Montego Bay was selected as an ideal location because of its crystal blue waters and skies. Jamaica in general, was selected of all the Caribbean Islands because I yearned for the freedom I am missing so much from my country Liberia that I am not getting here in America. And by freedom, I mean freedom to be among people who looked like me in a warm place living my best life without having to look over my shoulders each time because I am afraid of the police, or having to be told I cannot get simple activities completed because of such rigid rules and regulations.
The freedom started with my ride to Zoetry resorts, which is where I stayed entirely. The driver welcomed me to Jamaica, telling me of all the fun excursions to participate in, etc. Then went on to say, “You know, we Jamaicans find our fun with just two things, rum, and something else”. Of course, I knew what that “something else” was, but made him say it just to get more of a feel of the amount of freedom to expect. “Marijuana”, he said. Well, obviously, right? It IS Jamaica after-all.
In any case, Zoetry resort was as lovely as expected. An all-inclusive experience with a butler assigned to provide me with whatever it was I needed. Whether it was getting me a coconut directly from the tree, or preparing a hot bath full of rose petals – the real royal treatment which an African princess like me deserves. Although the resort was picture perfect and had everything I could possibly need, the adventurer in me needed to go out and see the city and country for myself.
It all started with a walk through downtown MoBay. Whenever I visit a new country or city, I make sure to visit the downtown area, as I believe cities tell us what we need to know about the way of life of the people who inhabit them. Walking through the city felt like walking through a predominantly White city of sort, with all eyes turned on me. I suddenly felt like a stranger.
Wearing head-to-toe wax print clothes, I looked like I didn’t belong, but then the city embraced me. “African princess!” some voices began to shout. Well, even if they weren’t wearing the prints, at least they recognized it as African. I smiled at them; told the history of Liberia whenever I got a chance, and paraded the streets with my same big strides and neck up high. I felt like royalty. They made me feel like royalty.
Dare I say it; I was hooked! I wanted to learn more, see more, and teach more. And so, I did. I then had my tour guide, Junior, take me to all his favorite spots with the best views of the city. In one of those spots, I met an older man who told me all about the history and strength of the Jamaican people. Like all Black people in the world, they’ve experienced so much at the hands of White people, but they did not let their history serve as a road block for them, but rather fuel for their fight and liberation. Sugarcane and coffee, which were once crops that were used to oppress them has been turned to key sources of employment for the people and income for the nation, whose main source of income is tourism. And then it clicked. Tourism!
I opened my eyes even bigger now. Instead of learning about Jamaica just to learn and write this piece, I needed to now learn what works for the country that could also work for Liberia. Tourism! It clicked again. I returned to my resort with my new eyes and saw the coastline much differently. What does this coastline have that Liberia doesn’t? I asked myself. And the answer was quite simple. The coastline I was now enjoying was a result of vision, which fostered development, patriotism, among others. It’s not rocket science really.
Montego Bay alone, in the area I was staying, had over 20 resorts one after another on the coastline. The resorts worked with the other cities like Ocho Rios, Negril, etc. to market exciting excursions to their guests. Some of which I managed to take advantage of, like going sailing, and visiting the Bob Marley Museum at his childhood home in Ocho Rios. It’s not that the excursions were so extraordinary that it cannot be duplicated. It’s all about marketing really. For example, while heading to the Bob Marley Museum, an attraction along the way was the clothes display hanging on lines for sale, same as it is in parts of Liberia. Only that, the guide joked about the display being called “online shopping” by the people; and just like that, something that simple became a tourist attraction.
On the other hand, I also learned about a dark side to tourism which Liberia would have to greatly consider when trying to generate income off allowing generally wealthy strangers into our home with a majority of our population still living in poverty. A general outcome of increase tourism is an increase in sex tourism. In Jamaica, the men seem to be sought after more than the women in term of sex tourism, as wealthy White women visit looking for experiences with Jamaican men. At my resort, I overheard several conversations from them, young and old, about the crazy sex they are looking forward to having with Jamaican men.
Another day, I visited a resort in Negril which had a nude beach, for the experience of a nude beach, only to be met with sights of White women partaking in sexual activities I never knew happened in actual real life. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say, I left feeling highly uncomfortable with how comfortable they were letting themselves so loose in another man’s country, knowing they wouldn’t and couldn’t do the same in their own, especially not so publicly.
This revelation worried me about how vulnerable Liberian girls and boys could be if the nation focuses on tourism without regulating the inevitability of sex tourism.
Besides the little discomfort I personally felt, my driver and tour guide, Dane, tried to make me understand that those who partake in these acts with the tourists see it more as fun, than exploitation. But internally, I didn’t know if I could accept that they are enjoying it. What I did accept though, is that I cannot force anyone to feel exploited, especially because sex work, when regulated, is a freedom of choice.
If allowed, I could go on and on about the unforgettable start of another period in my life, but I’ll keep it short. I’ve always dreamt about making it to age 25, picturing in my mind that I would have life figured out by now, but that isn’t the case. While I can boast of a great deal of wisdom gathered along the way, I am wise enough to understand that there is so much more ahead of me, and that there won’t be any point in my life where life will feel completely figured out, and that is okay. All I can do is continue to gather all the key learnings along the way, and apply them to my life, and to my country. This African princess not only carries Liberia on her back wherever she sets foot, she carries the entire continent.