This week is the anniversary of Jamaican independence plus it’s the week of track and field at the Olympics and Jamaica is expected to do disproportionately well, consequently there’s several major articles about Jamaica on the front page of Sunday’s Guardian. I had very mixed reactions reading them and they caused me to to reflect on some of my own experiences there, most of which took place in the ’70’s and ’80’s. In 1982 I took my VW camper there and travelled throughout the island for 3 months, as I reflected on that trip this morning I found myself thinking of a man I met in the north coast parish of St Anne, he was just a very simple young rasta fisherman.
The Blue Mountains rise from the caribbean up to about 7500ft on the north shore, they are generally covered with what might simply be described as rain forest and are typically inaccessible. You know what a sheet of plywood looks like, it’s 4ft by 8ft; the man I’d met wanted to show me the house that he’d built and where he lived, I followed him up a trail through the woods. We came to a leveled area where he’d placed a sheet of plywood, it wasn’t new, it was well worn and when I asked him where he’d got it and how he’d transported up there I didn’t understand his patois answer, I don’t think he wanted me to. He’d cut and trimmed 4 slim trees and used their trunks for his corner posts and then cut more similar trees for the cross pieces which were lashed into position. When he had a sturdy box frame he then started covering the walls and the roof with ferns until he had an impervious layer. He’d framed a doorway which he’d covered with a piece of fabric and he had a ‘mattress’ against the back wall and a simple chair; that was his home.
Up the hill from his house was a small spring of water bubbling up out of the ground, he’d created a pool about 2ft diameter which the spring filled, he’d then ‘acquired’ about 150ft of half inch garden hose and inserted it into the pool and on the other end at his house he had a stopcock; running water on tap! He was so proud of that, he told me that this was the purest drinking water anywhere in Jamaica. We went for a walk and it started to rain, with his ever present machete he cut two stems from a plant, the stems were about 2ft long and each opened to a single leaf that was about 24″ wide; natural umbrellas! As we walked he pointed out numerous plants and described how they were used for common ailments and others that were commonly eaten. He also had a small vegetable garden at his house. The only clothes he had were a pair of cut-off levy shorts, he went barefoot.
I met him because I was living in my van on the beach in that part of Jamaica, another person that I met there and became friends with was an old rasta woman called Sister Mommy, she was probably in her 70’s, she had waist length dreadlocks and she ran a roadside stand on a country road where she sold cigarettes [individually] soft drinks, and some vegetables, plus she always had ganja. Sister Mommy used to tell me stories of how it was as a rasta under British rule and about country life during the 30’s and 40’s. Times were always hard, the small amount of money that she made at her stand was all she ever had and I always saw several small children hanging around her, I never discovered who they were; grandchildren perhaps? One night I was at her house, a pathetic structure, it was a tiny two room concrete block house and it looked as though it had survived an earthquake. There was a large crack which was in places about 4″ wide running from floor to ceiling. She sat across a table from me with her back to the wall, no electricity just a candle on the table as we sat chatting. Suddenly I heard a voice, Sister Mommy motioned me to be quiet and she said ‘who’s dat?’ the voice responded and sister Mommy said ‘Show yer hand’. A hand appeared through the crack with a Jamaican dollar bill in it, she took the money and replaced it with a small amount of ganja pre-wrapped in newspaper, that’s how she made her living.
With Sister Mommy and a Redstripe.
A short distance along the coast road there was a curve with a wide spot on the ocean side of the highway, many years earlier another rastaman who’s name was Bongo Sylly and who made his living as a basket weaver had set up a stall there to sell his baskets to passers by. The edge of the road was a cliff that dropped about 60+ feet down to a pure white beach where there was a very de-luxe hotel. I don’t know the details of how, but over a period of years Bongo built a house at the top of that cliff looking down at the hotel! He told me the story several times and the only thing that remains in my memory is ‘squatter’s rights!’ Apparently, possibly from the British rule era, there existed in law a rule that if someone occupied a place that wasn’t being used then after a period he was able to claim ownership, and that’s what Bongo did! Much to the consternation of the hotel owners who hadn’t noticed what was happening up above their heads.
What Bongo did was amazing, he created a large 2-3 bedroom house, bathrooms, kitchen, living rooms, everything ENTIRELY woven out of bamboo and basket canes! plus there are carved wooden sculptures throughout, he even has hanging armchairs suspended from the roof. It’s an amazing structure, nothing cheap or insubstantial about it, it’s first class all the way. Being obviously aware of the significance of the lion in rasta culture he called his house ‘the lions den.’
I met Bongo when I pulled over to take a look at this fantasy and we hit it off, he like to talk and I liked to listen so I’d usually stop in whenever I was passing. One day he told me a tale about this rich French woman that he knew, she wanted to take him to Europe and show him all the sights and he really wanted to go but he was afraid that if he left his house something terrible would happen, he didn’t trust the government nor the owners of the hotel so he was stuck. That is until one day he came up with a solution, he proposed that I should take over the house and move in thereby maintaining occupancy, I had to tell him no, it wasn’t possible, I’d come to explore Jamaica and I couldn’t be tied to one spot no matter how beautiful it happened to be.
On impulse I just Googled Bongo Sylly and found the following item:
“The Lion’s Den is a fascinating bar and restaurant embellished with elaborate wickerwork and intricately carved columns created by the former proprietor, the late Bongo Sylly.”
Bongo’s gone and his house is now a bar. So it goes.
Here’s a song written to celebrate independence in 1962, unfortunately it was written by a Trinidadian calypso singer, but still, it’s a good and appropriate song.
And then there’s Briggy, a favorite of mine from years ago, here he takes you on a tour of all the Jamaican parishes.