KINGSTON, Jamaica – Comments by an African leader portraying the men of Jamaica as chronic drunkards and unambitious pot smokers have become the talk of towns across this Caribbean island. People are debating the matter on street corners, in letters to the editor and on radio talk shows.
In unscripted asides during a roughly three-hour speech last week at a research exposition, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said Jamaican "men are always drunk," have no interest in higher education, and people freely smoke marijuana.
"The men want to sing and do not go to colleges, some are dreadlocked. Let us not go there," Mugabe told the crowd at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. His comments in a mixture of both English and the Shona language were corroborated by The Associated Press after speaking to several reporters who attended the gathering.
Over the years, Mugabe has repeatedly made disparaging remarks about dreadlocked Rastafarians, whom he once described as having "moths and mud" in their hair. Rastafarianism, best known for its ritual use of marijuana and the dreadlock hair style worn by followers, emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s out of anger over the oppression of blacks. A small minority of Jamaicans are adherents.
Reggae singer Cocoa Tea, a Rastafarian who performed in Zimbabwe last October, told The Jamaica Star tabloid that Mugabe's comments were "not a true reflection of us as people."
"Jamaicans are way better than that and we are leaders, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion," Cocoa Tea said.
Glen Harris, a laborer and father of two children, said he felt irritated when he heard about the Zimbabwean president's chiding remarks on a local radio program. Like the large majority of Jamaica's population, Harris is black.
"This is an African leader talking like this? Black man should stick up for each other. We're all Africans," he said on a Kingston street of low-slung concrete buildings and sheet metal fences.
Although some foreigners have an image of Jamaica as a laid-back, sun-soaked slice of paradise where unhurried people smoke marijuana without a care, marijuana use is illegal and many islanders are socially conservative churchgoers who quietly endure stereotypes of their country.
Still, a few Jamaicans aren't aggrieved with Mugabe, who received a top government honor during a 1996 visit. They note that their island is the largest producer of marijuana in the Caribbean and that far more women graduate from university than men, and say Mugabe may have a point, even if he was being overly broad by disparaging Jamaican men.
"Is President Robert Mugabe really on to something? Certainly, his observation that our 'universities are full of women' while our 'men want to sing and do not go to colleges' is a truism, which none can deny," Northern Caribbean University administrator Vincent Peterkin wrote in a letter to the editor of The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper.
The government's political opposition has also waded into the debate, urging Jamaica to demand an apology from Mugabe.
"If true, it is startling that someone who has himself claimed that his country is a victim of imperceptions fed by the international media should be using these misconceptions of Jamaican society to describe our people," said Olivia Grange, spokeswoman for the Jamaica Labor Party.
Jamaican Information Minister Sandrea Falconer said Wednesday that the foreign affairs ministry, led by A.J. Nicholson, was still trying to confirm if Mugabe made the remarks.
"I know his ministry is still trying to authenticate the source, and after we will respond," Falconer said in a brief phone interview.
In a written statement, Nicholson stressed that "Jamaican men and women from all walks of life have made valuable contributions to national development and have made their mark on the world stage."
Associated Press writer Gillian Gotora in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.