by John Wyatt
I guess I was (am?) a child on the dying edges of colonialism, no not the side of grandeur and reckless high life, but offspring of the missionaries, administrators and teachers which that period had with it.
Born in Durban, South Africa, schooled in England and finished off by a couple of degrees from University in Kenya, 1970 found me at my first placement as an ecologist with the National Parks in Uganda …. and declared ‘persona non grata’ barely a year later when Idi Amin gained power, and refused me entry back into the country after a (I thought) brief visit back to Britain.
With no true roots in UK and my father by then in semi-retirement as a church minister in Jamaica, I moved to join my parents without a clue in my head as to where I was going, how to survive, or what my future held.
It was a shock! Whatever anyone might think neither my British background nor my African years prepared me for life on the island in Kingston. It was loud, brash, an un-understandable language, and seemed both “soon come” and anarchic.
But I followed my father around his parishioners and discovered the homes of the well off in Beverley Hills, Red Hills and New Kingston, and equally simple folks off Windward Road, Molynes Road and Washington Boulevard.
Little by little I settled in as all hope of picking up the threads of employment in Uganda receded. Then as a huge step of courage I approached the University at Mona offering myself for work, paid or not, just to keep me occupied. I was directed to the Geography and Biological Science’s departments as a likely start.
OK, so they thought it was highly amusing after introducing myself, to point out to me that there were no Elephants or Giraffes in Jamaica, maybe I should go to Hope Zoo instead – and they laughed helplessly at their own joke. Not funny!
Ivan Goodbody in the Zoology Department was somewhat more serious, and sympathetic to my plight, and in turn pointed me towards FERP in Port Royal. FERP – the name didn’t sound promising but it turned out that the Fisheries Ecology Research Project would welcome a free hanger-on, dog’s body and washer-up with a decent enough knowledge of biological methods. I was off and running.
Days become weeks, become months, and some two years later I was still commuting from Mary Brown’s Corner near Constant Spring, daily to Port Royal. Sometimes I drove my aging Hillman Minx, discovering all the back-roads and short cuts I could to do the journey, and venturing into areas my Jamaican friends looked at in horror and advised me against.
The good law abiding English bwoy started to fade, no stopping at red lights after dusk, slow down, look in all directions, pump the gas, and across the intersection, min’ the pothole, mek I drive pon the other side of the road. If the traffic buck up at the junction I was the first to mount the kerb, and siddle the car half on the sidewalk until I could take the corner and be on my way.
Despite all this, I was dreadfully pale and became used to shopping at Wong’s in New Kingston or Lane’s Supermarket and Liguanea Plaza and hearing the cat calls, "Hey white bwoy, gimme a dollar" or "Whitey, whitey, you want mi fi show you around?"
Without taking offence, but disliking the assumption I was white and rich and out of place, I used to shout back. I was picking up a little patois, and enjoyed their surprise when I stopped and talked. I had grown to like the country, but I knew I was out of place.
By now I was frequently driving an abominably bright yellow Bedford mini bus from Mona to Port Royal for the staff and research students working at the lab. This included Owen, a friendly but genuine ‘ginnal’ if ever there was. We got on well and he lived off Sandy Gully around from Mary Brown’s Corner.
Whenever Owen was with me he would direct me to “stop nuh” as he spotted a friend by the roadside, or good looking woman flagging down a ride! Or else “drive on” as I thought to offer a lift to a school child, but they didn’t meet Owen’s criteria. Everyone seemed to recognise this was a social service and no money ever passed hands, though I suspect this might have been different when others took the mini bus into Kingston supposedly for supplies.
It was on one such journey that I was alone with Owen and heading out to St Thomas, not a regular run for us but with 10 seats in an empty bus I was happy to be flagged down and give lifts to anyone. After about the fourth or fifth pick-up I realised each person was having a quick chat with Owen, then laughter and they sat down and joined the vociferous gossip on politricks or whatever.
Finally my curiosity got the better of me. “ Owen, is wha gwaan? Ow evrybaddy a laff wen dem step inna di bus?”
With great delight he said since nobody recognised the mini-bus or knew it was a university vehicle they naturally took it to be a “robot” mini bus therefore I was the driver. Without asking they were all paying Owen the going fare as he opened the sliding door and let them in, in true mini-bus style.
“They thought I was a mini-bus driver and needed to be paid?”
Owen nodded. At last, I had blended into the country. It was a moment I have never forgotten and I was humbled and delighted.
Thank you to all the passengers that ever travelled with me in “The Banana”!
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