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How Cuban Yhordanka Akwanza found life & love in Jamaica

By Nicanor Gordon

“My story is quite peculiar,” Yhordanka Akwanza starts. “A lot of people think that for a Cuban coming to Jamaica, you have to be an expat. I came to Jamaica because I fell in love.”

Yhordanka is the Chief Operating Officer of Eyeland Eyewear – a mega eyewear company she owns with her husband, that has 14 stores across Jamaica. She’s also the co-founder of Essential Solar, a bit of an Instagram star, a wife, and a mother to three boys. She seemingly does it all. But for her, it always comes back to love.

She met her husband – Jamiacan, Ketao Akwanza – when she was only 18 years old. “I saw him and said to myself, ‘This is the guy I’m going to spend the rest of my days with,’” she gushes. Unfortunately, he didn’t get into the medical program in Cuba he wanted to, and eventually had to return to Jamaica. This left Yhordanka with a difficult choice, and the lovers knew long distance was not going to work.

Leaving Cuba, especially back then, was no simple endeavor. You either had to prove you had family living abroad, or you were going to get married. Yhordanka and her husband chose the latter. Even though it was more planned than the kind of sweeping romantic event that you might picture, they still made a ceremony of it…  He came back with a ring and got down on one knee, and she said yes. 

But, even marriage wasn’t so simple. 

“A lot of people used to pay students to marry them so they could leave the country and from there, go to the U.S.,” Yhordanka explains. To curtail this, the Cuban government enacted a fee, $1200 USD. That’s impossible for two students to afford – Yhordanka was barely making $5USD a month. So, instead, she had to write and submit the story of their relationship, find witnesses, and do just about anything to prove that they had a real relationship.

A month later, she was on an airplane for the first time in her life. A Cuban woman, barely understanding any English, completely uprooting her life. It was a lot, and anyone would be terrified. 

She vividly remembers her interaction with the immigration officer. In a routine check, the officer asked what Yhordanka’s profession was. She told the truth. She was a professional dancer — an answer that conjures up suspicious imagery and a raised eyebrow from the officer. “She asked, ‘Who is here waiting for you?’ I said, ‘My husband’. She looked at me like mmhmm and raised her other eyebrow.” If the officer had any doubts, they melted when she watched Yhordanka see her husband for the first time since landing. “There was a glass window. I saw him and my heart just…,” she sighs. “I felt like I was home.”

If her husband was the first time she fell in love, Jamaica would be the second. 

“Not one time since I came to Jamaica when I was 19, did I feel homesick,” she states. For sure, she missed friends and family, but she didn’t really miss home. For Yhordanka, Jamaica was just so beautiful. “I felt like I’d been here before and I just returned home.” 

She was struck by the beauty of everything – all the buildings were covered in colorful paint, and there were so many trees. She loved how people dressed, how perfect the beaches were, and how many rivers and waterfalls there were. “The fruits are the sweetest fruits I have ever tasted – it come in like it have sugar inna it. Cuban fruits nuh sweet so!” she exclaims in Jamaican patois. 

She also fell in love with the ways the island was like Cuba. It had the same feel; the same vibe. People in Jamaica were outside playing dominos, drinking at the bar and sitting on the sidewalk. It was also the way people dance and how music played loudly everywhere. “It’s just like Cuba, but in English.”

Of course, Yhordanka explains, there are things about Cuba that are very unique.

Firstly, education is completely free, from daycare to getting your doctorate. The only thing you have to pay for is the uniform and even then, most of the children use hand-me-downs from their family or neighbors. According to Yhordanka, because education is free, there’s an emphasis on talent and effort. 

Healthcare is also free. No ambulance charge, no consultation fee to see a doctor or specialist, and no surgery fee. The only thing you have to pay for is to fill a prescription and even then, it’s not much money.

Yhordanka’s final fun fact about Cuba is the most interesting. “We mature very young in life,” she reveals. Despite getting married at around nineteen/twenty years old, she considers it a late age to start. “My friends already had kids and everything.”

It’s also practically impossible to separate Cuba from discussions about communism. 

Despite the freedom to practice religion in present-day Cuba, it was a completely different story when Yhordanka was growing up. “It was very illegal. You could lose your job. People would get deported.” 

She’s referring to the Mariel boatlift. In the 80s, the Castro regime allowed all Cubans wishing to emigrate to leave via the Mariel port. “The Cuban government shipped out everybody who went to prison. They also shipped out homosexuals. And, they shipped out everyone who practiced the African religions.”

A quick aside… Like most Caribbean countries, Cuba has a combination of European and African cultures. Sincretismo, or syncretism, is a combination of Catholicism and the Yoruba religion found in Nigeria. This combination allows for simultaneous worship of Yoruba figures like Oshun, the goddess of rivers, love, maternity and sensuality, with La Virgen De La Caridad Del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity) – think, the Virgin Mary.

Eventually, Fidel Castro would renege on the ban on religious practices, coming to believe that religion was ultimately not at odds with the ethos of communism. In 2006, he declared, “If people call me Christian, not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian.” 

Yhordanka remembers the celebration that came with the lift on the religious ban. She believes it was a very important move for the country. “It brings us closer to our roots, and it makes us stronger and more confident in ourselves,” she explains.

So that’s Cuba, but life in Jamaica has not just been paradise. Overcoming a language barrier was the first hurdle, which she cleared with aplomb, but adjusting to the violence was another story. 

Cuba is an extremely peaceful place, more so when contrasted with Jamaica, which regularly places in the top 10 for most murders per capita worldwide. 

“I remember going to Pricesmart (a local supermarket) and there was just a dead body on the roadside,” she laments. But, Iit didn’t end there. Yhordanka would also experience even more personal horror. 

“I had a stalker. There was this guy who just basically took ‘set’ on me,” she reveals. It got so bad, that she used to hide in the attic of her workplace and wait for her co-worker to let her know the coast was clear. Eventually, through the combined efforts of police officers and private security, the stalking threat ceased. But, all of it took a toll. Yhordanka soon started experiencing heart palpitations, dizzy spells and vomiting — all telltale signs of anxiety attacks and depression. Eager to help his wife, her husband made a tough call, and together they took a break from Jamaica. They spent two years in the States. 

“I guess I matured, I was very young then – 23, maybe 24,” Yhordanka explains. “I look at the violence differently now. It’s there, and it’s not going away. But, I wish I could do something to make it go away. Jamaica is beautiful, it’s paradise. But, nowhere in the world is perfect.”

Follow Yhordanka Akwanza on IG @florkubana.style 

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