Wah Gwaan?

That means “What’s going on?” in Jamaican Patois. Over the course of my first few weeks living in Kingston, Jamaica, I’ve heard this friendly greeting countless times.

My coworkers at the Jamaican Network of Seropositives (JN+) will frequently deviate from Standard English and break out into this somewhat familiar-sounding language. Developed during the years of slavery in Jamaica, Patois is a hybrid of English and West African languages. Although Standard English is taught at school and is the only official language of Jamaica, Patois is the first language that most children learn growing up.

I’m just beginning to understand a few phrases in Patois, but I can only assume that I’ll be a Patois pro by the end of my six months here. For now, I just smile and nod whenever my co-workers switch over to their native tongue.

Despite this minor language barrier, I have been enjoying my time at JN+ so far. JN+ is the only Jamaican organization devoted exclusively to people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. They convene support groups across the country, assist with the reporting and redress of discrimination on the basis of HIV status, and partner with local organizations to provide training and workshops on HIV-related issues.

Before moving to Jamaica, I was under the impression that I would be working with a different organization and had signed the lease for an apartment near the original office. My relocation to JN+, although unexpected, has allowed me to explore the crazy Jamaican transit system here in Kingston.

Every morning, I wait outside my apartment complex and hope that a “route taxi” will honk at me to indicate that there is room in the car for me to hop in. These cabs are usually nearly full, and I have had to squeeze into the front middle seat more than a few times, paying careful attention not to hit the gear selector with my knee.

I hop out at Half Way Tree Square, a hustling and bustling area in the city, and transfer to a “Coaster bus.” Some very persuasive men stand by the doors of these small buses and try to usher passersby into their particular bus. These men have an important job because the buses do not leave at set times; instead, they leave when the bus is full. As a result, the time it takes for me to get to work every day can vary by quite a bit.

Route taxi and Coaster bus drivers can be really aggressive on the road. I am constantly cringing and gasping as the driver speeds and erratically (but apparently, skillfully) switches lanes. I suppose my fears are unwarranted since I have yet to witness a single accident on some of the busiest roads in town.

These driving patterns are in sharp contrast to the general way of life in Jamaica, since almost everything else seems to happen on “island time.” One of the main topics at a staff meeting was punctuality. The next day, I arrived at work promptly at 8:55 am, but the next employee didn’t come in until 9:15 am, with some employees rolling in as late as 11:00 am! I guess “on time” is subjective over here.

That’s all for now. Wish me luck as I continue to build on my Patois skills, navigate the hectic streets of Kingston, and maintain my title as the most punctual person in the office (for once in my life)!


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One Response to Wah Gwaan?

  1. Danielle Bourque says:

    Many fond memories of navigating the streets of kingston, and Half Way Tree. Miss the craziness. Take it all in while you can! so jealous 🙂

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