Jabari’s First Impressions

For as long as I can remember, Jamaica has been the one place in the world I wanted to go.

My mother was born here, and ever since I was a child she has told me stories of what it was like living on the island and how much she misses it. While growing up, I created these fantastic images of Jamaica as I tried to envision what life must have been like for my mother.

I was so envious of what she had experienced and where she came from, and I wanted nothing more than to actually be able to say I am a Jamaican, not just the son of one. I spent two decades imagining this sprawling paradise but within minutes of leaving Norman Manley Airport I realized that the expectations I had couldn’t be farther from the reality.

My first few moments in Jamaica were not a beautiful walk through the country, a bath beneath the falls, or a dancehall party that I would never tell my parents about, but rather a drive through downtown Kingston. The dream I had built of Jamaica over the course of my entire life could not be further away than what I was experiencing in those first few hours.


Every building seemed like it was in some need of repair, almost all the cars were in terrible shape, and it did not take long for me to notice a foul smell. I was witnessing levels of poverty I had only seen once before, and it broke my heart to see not only how these people lived, but also realizing how incredibly ungrateful I, and many of my peers can be on a daily basis back home.

Over the course of that first afternoon I kept thinking as to why my mom spoke in such a grand manner of her home country and how I had been so naïve for all these years in what I thought Jamaica was. The next morning as I walked around my yard, I slowly began to realize how my initial impressions of the country were misguided and way too critical. I could see a clear level of wealth in the neighborhood, and it was truly amazing looking at all the mango and ackee trees, tropical birds, and large homes all shrouded by the mountains in the background.


During my next few days as I traveled more throughout Kingston, I was constantly seeing beautiful homes, smelling great food, and hearing dancehall and hip-hop blasting from every corner of the city. There was so much life coming from these people, and despite my initial impression, I noticed this vitality even more as I traveled downtown.

Where I am from, most would immediately cast these people out because of their wealth, their condition, and their race. In spite of this, I saw so much life everywhere beaming from people that place no value on how the rest of the world thinks they should act or feel, but are simply happy with being themselves.


In those first few days I began to see more and more of the community and also managed to get to know a few people living in downtown Kingston. Uche, an artist living in Allman Town, was one of the first people I met when I got to the island. When I first spoke to him, I barely understood a word he said but the first thing I could see about him was that he was truly happy, and grateful for his life. As I got to know him more and saw where he lived, learned about what he enjoys, and heard where he came from, his attitude and love of life began to amaze me even more.

One thing that I have definitely learned thus far in Jamaica is that trusting a first impression is not always the right thing to do. Out of some of the worst living conditions I have ever seen, there lies a sense of community and vitality that I have never felt anywhere back home. While I am really looking forward to travelling throughout the beautiful country and beaches that attract millions of tourists every year, right now I am just enjoying the people and the streets that my mother misses so dearly, and what truly makes this island Jamaica.


–Jabari Johnson is a second year bachelor student at Princeton University, currently enjoying his summer internship with Metabolic Foundation in Kingston, Jamaica.