It is an early April morning and the sun’s rays are hitting the top of the ridge at Kentish, Jamaica, where the lush green sugar cane is heavy with dew. The sunlight moves slowly, a cascade of gold and fiery orange on the vibrant red soil of the steeply terraced carrot fields.
The sounds of waking life can be heard following the waves of light rippling across the mountainside where the little village of Ginger Ridge is nestled. The crowing of roosters wafts up through the dense fog that drifts over the valley far below, followed by a donkey braying and the occasional bellow of a cow. A small cluster of children feel the warming rays of the sun as they gather friends along the rocky road to school. It’s a long hike down, no time for dawdling. The air is filled with excited chatter. Easter is approaching and the school day is filled with activities in preparation.
A little blue bungalow is tucked into a stand of feathery bamboo where Mrs. Blake is clearing the children’s breakfast dishes. Her husband Clifton is lingering at the table listening to the morning news crackling on the radio. Unemployment has now reached a record 25% in many areas and the island is deep in recession. Sugar cane prices were plummeting due to oversupply on the world markets. The ongoing oil crisis tripled the cost of fuel. Hotels remained empty as Americans and Brits cancelled holiday plans. With inflation at almost 29% everyone was experiencing hardship.
He turns it off with a sigh and takes his tea outside, surveying with concern the meticulously planted terraces. He’s toiled extra long days, preparing the fields as best he can before his departure. His wife will be carrying the extra burden of his farm work for the next eight months, tending the coffee and cocoa as well as the freshly planted carrots and peppers. Heavily subsidized American produce was flooding the local markets and driving their prices down. Could they break even this year? How would she manage during hurricane season? With no phone line up in the mountains how would they communicate in an emergency? How would he send them money from Canada? So many questions!
It was his first trip away having signed on to the farm work program in Canada and although full of trepidation about leaving his family he was feeling hopeful. He had heard positive reports from several friends in town who had been coming up for three years. Only a few weeks earlier his good friend Sonny moved to Niagara permanently with his wife and four children after his employer sponsored him to work for his expanding farm.In his mind he replayed their tough conversations but it quickly became clear they had no alternative. He assured her he would only do this until the financial crisis passed and the prices of sugar cane, coffee and cocoa stabilized. Maybe they would have the same opportunity as Sonny and his family.
After a tearful farewell from his wife and a lingering hug he gathered his suitcase and set off down the narrow path to where a friend waited with his taxi at the road. They headed off, carefully picking their way through the potholes on the steep incline. They slowed down at the school where they could hear his childrens classes singing in preparation for the Easter program.
After they geared down at the intersection to Kitson Town Road the driver reached over and cranked up the volume on the radio, a big grin on his face. “Listen to these guys though– Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley. Gonna big up the Kingston sound!”
“Stir It Up” was the Wailers latest song to hit the radio waves – a fresh sound of hope for the new era that was dawning.
My friend Jodie Godwin and I had been travelling for over a week in Jamaica. It was my second trip and her first trip crossing the island, meeting the families of men who worked on the farms in our neighbourhood back home. We especially enjoyed the warm hospitality of our good friends Uton ( Sonny ) and Lynette Bell in Spanishtown.
Uton was one of the first men on the farm work program in Niagara on the Lake in the late 1960’s. His employer Abe Epp found him to be a diligent, hard working employee and in 1972 invited him and his family to move to Niagara permanently the following spring. They arrived on a cold snowy day in March and once they got some heat on in the old farm house they quickly set to unpacking and adjusting to life in their new home. When the weather warmed up the three children walked into town on a weekly basis, loading up on books at the library in the old Court house basement and lugging them back. The family also has fond memories of making many new friends while attending Virgil Public School and the little Fellowship Chapel on Concession 2.
After about ten years on the farm Uton moved on to a manufacturing job in Stoney Creek to ensure their four children could receive post secondary educations. Years later when they retired, they returned to winter over in Jamaica. They purchased a three bedroom home in Spanishtown where they soon became a social hub for visiting family and friends from Canada and the UK.
Within minutes of our arrival, they quickly made Jodie and I feel at home. They dedicated the next day to take us up to Ginger Ridge where they had both grown up.
It would normally take about 30 minutes to reach this mountain village however with Uton at the wheel it stretched into over an hour. He knew everyone in the area who worked in Niagara so we would stop every five minutes to honk outside someone’s home and make introductions. It was so wonderful to meet the families of the men who passed by our house back home. Some would make as many as a dozen trips a day delivering peaches from the orchards to the Epp’s packing barn around the corner on Lakeshore Rd.
Jodie and I were eager to learn about the history and local economy as we navigated the rugged mountain roads.
“It’s not so bad going up” Uton said. “It’s going down that’s so treacherous because of the loose stones on the road and the corners are so tight. If it’s wet, man, you say your prayers and hope nobody’s coming the other way” he laughed.
Despite the fact I wasn’t driving my foot was continually jamming on the brakes, covering my eyes while Uton geared down through switchbacks and break aways. We finally reached the little hamlet of Ginger Ridge, stopping at a forlorn looking building that dominated what once had been a bustling town square.
“This used to be so busy when we were growing up” Lynnette explained.” Everyone brought their coffee, cocoa and sugar cane here to be weighed and loaded up for market. It’s also where we’d hold barbecues. A social place where we’d get news about what was going on. Now it sits. There’s no money in coffee or cocoa for the next generation. No matter how hard you work, you can barely cover your cost for fertilizer….”
She shrugs her shoulders and introduces us to a few seniors chatting on the porch of the darkened building. Their children left for England or the US when opportunity beckoned and haven’t been back since.
We walked down the red dirt road to visit their good friend Clifton. It soon narrowed to a rocky footpath with the mountain rising on one side and a densely forested slope to our left. Down below we could see two grave sites, sepulchres they call them, barely visible in the tangled foliage.
Uton walked ahead and shouted out, laughing “ Four wheel drive coming!” He clambered aside to let a donkey loaded with lumber pass, sharing greetings with the owner.
Soon we arrived at a brilliant turquoise bungalow overlooking a spectacular view of the surrounding mountain range. Uton shouted out greetings from the gate and a man who I immediately recognized came out carrying a young child. The previous year we had presented him with a certificate at a welcome concert to honour his many years of valuable contribution to our community and the tender fruit industry.
His little grandson Jamal was visiting from England, meeting for the first time only a few days prior. His face absolutely beamed with pride and delight!
Lynnette took me to admire the view, pointing out the place on the adjacent ridge where she grew up and the long winding path she and her siblings took daily to school.
Jodie and I were thrilled to spend time with Clifton and his family, soaking in the splendour of the distant mountains, inspired by the stories of these resilient and very hard working people. We bid farewell with a new sense of appreciation and looked forward to welcoming him back to our neighbourhood in only a few weeks. It was the end of the day and we were overflowing with not only freshly picked bananas and fruit but meaningul memories and conversations that we treasured for many years.
Two months later I invited Clifton and a few coworkers to join us for Easter dinner and he was quick to take us up on our offer. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner together on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, sharing stories and learning about the wonderful Easter traditions they grew up with.
I was stunned to learn that this was the first time in 32 years that Clifton had ever been invited into the home of a local resident. The first time to share in Easter celebrations around a kitchen table in Niagara.
At the close of the evening we packed up hearty portions of leftovers for them to enjoy after work the next day. I had much to think about that night after my husband drove them home.
By early May the neighbourhood was bursting with pink blossoms, the orchards carpeted in brilliant yellow dandelions.
While out on my daily walk with camera in hand I noticed Clifton and his crew having lunch in their work van at the side of the road. We enjoyed a brief conversation, catching up on news from his family members we had met on our trip a few months prior. As they headed back to work they asked me to take a picture that they could show their families of the orchards in bloom.
It made me think back to only a few years earlier when I would have been reluctant to even walk by a van with people inside simply eating lunch.
I think I have a long way to go yet, to fully understand how these barriers evolved and how we as a community can journey alongside to build bridges instead.