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Understanding the Jamaican People and Culture

Thinking of coming to Jamaica? Wondering what the culture and people are like? If you have heard about the trademark warmth and friendliness of Jamaicans, you probably already have an idea.

Plus, you most likely have experienced a bit of the country’s strong culture while listening to some good reggae or dancehall songs.

But you can only get the “full hundred” (Jamaicans’ way of saying the total experience) about our culture and people by visiting the island and immersing yourself in all that it has to offer.

Before you pack your bags and book that flight, read the following overview of Jamaica’s immense culture and why you will be charmed by its people

The Basics

Jamaica is an island in the West Indies with a population of about 2.8 million people. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, it is blessed with year-round sunshine, beautiful white sand beaches, and lush vegetation. It consists of 14 parishes and some of its main cities include Kingston (capital), Mandeville, and Portmore, with Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Negril making up the main tourist destinations.

The official language of the island is English, but Patois (a mixed dialect) is what you are most likely to hear in unofficial settings. Also, although the majority of the population is of African descent, there are also Jamaicans with European, Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry.

Jamaican People

As the popular saying goes, “being Jamaican is not just a nationality, it’s an experience.” And while I am not blowing my own trumpet – being that I was born and bred on the Rock myself – there are good reasons why millions around the world consider Jamaica as one of the world’s cultural power players, despite its small size, and why its people are commonly described as being among the friendliest and easiest to get along with.

The culture of Jamaica is as much tied to the people as the people are tied to it. To begin with, Jamaican ethnicity is as diverse as you can get on an island with approximately 2.8 million people. Of course, the dominant grouping is African, but then there are Indians, various flavours of Europeans, Chinese, and Middle Easterners, all calling the country their home. Add to that the religious/spiritual differences, mainly along the lines of who is considered to be ‘Rasta’ or ‘bald head.’

By the way, Jamaica is known as the birthplace for Rastafarianism, a religion practiced mainly by dreadlocked individuals who follow the teachings of the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Some of the most famous  musicians are/were Rastafarians, including Bob Marley, his sons Stephen and ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer.

On the other side of the religious coin, Jamaica is known as one of the countries with the most churches per square mile and includes many that fall under the umbrella of Christianity. Despite the differences, don’t be surprised to find dreadlocked individuals attending Christian churches or people without dreadlocks who say ‘Jah, Rastafari’ (the chant of many Rastafarians).

The interesting combination and intermixing among Jamaicans is the main reason why the country’s motto is “Out of Many, One People” and why visitors from all parts of the world tend to fit in as a part of any Jamaican family.

More on the Language

Apart from the kindness and warmth of the people, one of the things that will pull you in is the unique Jamaican street language, Patois. The Queen’s English is what is used in business, academics, and in international communications.

But for day to day interaction, Patois is king. This sing-song, slang-laden way of talking combines English words with terms extracted from many African languages and even words of Portuguese and Spanish origin.

At first, you’ll probably have no idea what is being said, but if you’re interested, Patois is a delicious and attractive unofficial language to learn (and all your friends will think you’re cool if you managed to successfully pick up its accent).

Jamaica’s Culture

Sure, you’ve probably heard a Bob Marley song or two and maybe you’ve seen the great ‘LightningUsain Bolt burn up the tracks on a global athletic stage, but Jamaica’s cultural imprint runs much deeper than those feats. Jamaican culture is rooted in the indomitable spirit of its people who are always reaching out for something more.

From Marcus Garvey’s ambitions of boosting the image of black people, which went on to influence many African Americans, to pioneering musicians who have helped to contribute at least eight different genres of music to the world (tweet that), the Jamaican culture has always been a pulsating one. It lurks within the very DNA of its people and is almost as tangible as the naturally beautiful landmarks the country is equally famous for.

When you are on the island, you can soak up much more than sun and sand, depending on which coast you wind up on, or how far in the rural interiors you happen to wander. For instance, you can learn the latest dance moves at one of the nightly street parties that are held in many communities across the length and breadth of the island, or you can discover how one of the world’s most famous coffee brands is grown and produced on the slopes of the Blue Mountain.

There are also cultural practices originating from different ethnic groups that will fascinate you, like the lifestyles of the Maroon community, which operate under their own laws, or the traditions still adhered to by many of the descendants of the East Indians who settled on the island over 150 years ago.

If you really want to be immersed in the Jamaican way of life, a trip to its cultural mecca, Kingston, is a must. It’s the most vibrant part of the island and is overflowing with art, music, and food that are distinctly Jamaican.

Be sure to check out places like the Bob Marley Museum, Half-way Tree Square, Emancipation Park, Hope Gardens, the Trench Town community, Devon House, the National Gallery, the town of Port Royal, and many other landmarks around the city where Jamaicans gather to have fun.

If you’re lucky to be on the island during the hosting of a track event, international football game, or Twenty20 cricket tournament, be sure to get tickets; the atmosphere in the National Stadium or Sabina Park (for cricket) will be one you won’t forget anytime soon.

By the way, if you’re interested in experiencing what a mini-Olympics in Jamaican style looks and feels like, check out the Boys and Girls Championships which are held yearly, a week or two before the start of Easter. I guarantee that you won’t be prepared for what unfolds in the stands and on the track.

Kingston too bustling for you? Not into sports? No problem, ‘mon’. There’s always something else going on that will leave you with a new appreciation of the depth of the culture.

Go rafting, mountain climbing, cave exploring, or just have a beer at a local bar while watching a game of dominoes. Whatever you do, the heft of the Jamaican culture and the lure of the people will be as unmistakable as the distinct flavours of foods such as jerked pork or ackee and saltfish that you can enjoy in many of the country’s restaurants and roadside eateries.

Oh, be sure to try out pan chicken, which is basically jerked chicken cooked on a grill that is built into a half side of a metal drum and can be found on many street corners across the island.

There is much more about the Jamaican people and culture that cannot be covered in just one article. Besides, there is no better way to get the full experience than by being in Jamaica. So, make a date and get ready to feel irie.