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Tumpa Foot Dance

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

End of Week One Oct. 6, 23

"If you go tumpa foot dance, yuh fi dance tumpa foot." Jamaican proverb

I tell you, Jamaican Patois (Patwa) is fun. Its roots are in English, so right away I catch some of the drift, and its origins are in song, so its kind of like slam poetry for the masses. It is constantly evolving, frequently used to some degree by all Jamaicans, and is the normal dialect in lower income neighbourhoods.

The above saying sort of translates to - If you go to a dance where everybody is stomping with one foot, don't jump in and dance with both feet - which means, in a new environment, adapt and behave according to the local ways. And, Howdy come from out a door - means the person who enters the room is responsible to initiate a greeting, and greeting everyone is absolutely necessary. But speaking Patwa? Ha! Trickier than you think! My first mistake was saying Yaaa Mon. Wrong. It is ye ahman. According to Shellian, if you hear an actor in a movie saying the former, that's how you know they are not Jamaican.

English is the first language, so learning Patwa is a bonus (and good for making friends of course). When Cuso Jamaica Shellian, Melissa and Mesha use it in the training sessions, security issues, history, form filling, mandatory rules ... Patwa just makes it way more fun to learn.

However, while English may be the first language, word meaning and nuances can be very different than in Canada. For example, common labels and nicknames attached to friends AND strangers include:

  • Brownen, Blackie - based on skin tone

  • Chin - Chinese person (apparently Chin is a common Asian last name here)

  • One-arm amputee - Onnie

  • Big nose - Nose

  • Skinny old woman - Slimazz

  • Elder woman - Aunty or Momma

  • Fat person - Fluffy

  • Short - Shorty

And just like in Tanzania or Myanmar, people have zero problem telling you if you gained weight (what a way yuh belly get big!) or look bad (a weh yuh get da ugly dress?) At the same time, compliments are regularly given too, and flirty talk can be normal and not provocative.

While in Canada, the banter may be considered hurtful or racist, it is normally not the Jamaican intention. The nation motto is Out of Many, One People and refers to the multicultural roots of the Jamaican people. People may be labelled by their appearance, but judged by what's on the inside.

Just have a listen to One Drop, by Bob Marley - whose mother was black Jamaican and absentee father was a white British ex-navy officer. In the US in the 1800s, one drop meant that even with a minute bit of African blood in your system you are considered Black, which was used as a derogatory racial classification and discrimination. Not with Bob. He uses it to show that one drop unites us all.

Better yet .. watch the brilliant documentary on Marley's life (which is the basis for the video presentation at the BobMarley Museum in Kingston. You may end up converting to be a Rasta Man, ye ahman.

(Photo above is taken near Moshi, Tanzania and is me and some of my Mobile Fema team mates, in front of Mt Kilimanjero. I promise eventually the photos with this blog will be of Jamaica, but I figure we danced a lot, and language and culture in TZ also needed to be redialed in my brain.)

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