Karen Bumi Marks
My father kept the plan for his dream house rolled up in a cardboard tube in the dresser in his bedroom. Blue ink lines with numbers on thin white paper, every time he pulled it out to show me, Daddy always said, “The foolish man builds his house on sand, but the wise man builds his house on rock.” It was his favorite quote from the Bible. Looking at it was boring, but his voice would rise and fall with excitement as he showed you the length of every wall in the house, the size of every room and closet. It was going to be split level and we were all going to have our own bathroom. Daddy had the house all mapped out; he just needed the land to build it on.
Our house at 28 Sea View Avenue faced the street and it was literally built on rock. It was a simple sky-blue wood and concrete structure with a long narrow verandah with coral pink tiles and a zinc roof. From the street, it looked like a one story house just below street level, but behind, it had two stories with tenants living downstairs. It was perched on a steep hill, with a rocky, sloping backyard. Daddy built this house when he was 21 years old, with his own hands. He didn’t have a family then and he had not thought about privacy, he had simply built a bunch of rooms next to each other. Upstairs, Grannie, my sister Melonie and I slept in our room, sandwiched by my brother Hayden’s room to our left, and my parents’ bedroom to our right. The bathroom was next to Hayden’s room and its only entrance was in Hayden’s room. My parents walked from their bedroom, through our room, to Hayden’s room, to the bathroom. Daddy had thought he would have stayed here 10 years and built the house he really wanted during that time. Now it was approaching 20 years. He had a wife and three children, three daughters from his previous relationship living with their mother in Glendevon, and here he was, still grasping for that house.
From our house, you could see green hills on the other side of the valley behind us, and then far in the distance below, the endless blue sky met the sea as it cradled downtown Montego Bay. Our street, Sea View Avenue, was a plateau at the top of a hill and a border between upper-middle class and working poor. Directly across the street from us were big two-story concrete houses with shingle roofs, burglar bars, lawns and flower gardens. Further down the road, on our side, were Mr. Allen’s three houses full of one-room tenants, with zinc roofs and small verandahs, shiny from red polish. Going left from our house, the name of the road changed from Sea View Ave to First Street. Here were long driveways and flower gardens; thick hedges shielded large comfortable homes of doctors, professionals and business people. Continuing right, Sea View Ave became Second Street with a few plain, box-like concrete homes and then a series of tenement yards, long, dingy-looking rectangular concrete blocks, divided into small one- and two-room units, built on red dirt, housing the poorest people in our neighborhood of Albion.
Most of my family’s friends lived on The Hillside behind us. Immediately behind our house were dozens of wooden and concrete houses below us that you could not see from Sea View Ave, they faced the valley behind us. They were homes to people who cleaned hotel rooms, men who carried bags at the airport, people who sold on the street, higglers, young men who hustled tourists, fishermen, security guards, cooks and the unemployed. Some houses were cut up into one- or two-room rentals, with outside showers and people cooking on verandahs, others had families. There was no road connecting Sea View Ave to King Street, the road at the bottom of the hill behind us. Everyone navigated The Hillside by a maze of footpaths.
A tall dark-skinned man with a roundish face and a bald head came every few months on a Sunday afternoon, knocked on our gate and only said, “Call Mr. Marks,” to which one of us kids would run and call my father and Daddy would come, poker-faced, and hand him a small brown envelope, leaving me with a question sign inside. I learned he was either the owner of the land our house was built on or collecting for the owner. He also went to several houses below us. My father had leased the land. It was his deepest desire to find a piece of land and build a house in a nice neighborhood. But money was never enough. After a series of jobs including minibus driver, bookkeeper, accountant, my father had settled into working in the trades he had learned as a youth and he was his own boss. He made furniture on order, mostly dark, mahogany wood, highly decorated with flowers, birds, and shells. Each piece was one of a kind. He was also a plumber, a builder, and a contractor.
Daddy insisted that we should get the education he had not received. In addition to studying the Bible, he assigned all of us kids to watch the 7pm news. I loved to read, I had already read everything in the house, every book he had locked in the bookcase, so Daddy decided that I should read at least the first three pages of the Gleaner newspaper which he bought on Sundays. From the TV and the newspapers, I learned that the capital, Kingston, was on fire. Someone set fires in a place named Orange Lane. Women who were running away with their babies had their babies snatched from them by strange men who threw the babies in the fire. I wondered if their entire bodies turned to ash or if the flesh burned and left the skeleton. The images in my mind haunted me for weeks. There was a fire at a home for old people, killing some of them. The newspapers showed buildings marked with bullet holes, streets piled high with old cars, garbage, stones blocking off territory. The mayhem was from gangs fighting for the two political parties in Jamaica: PNP and JLP.
Michael Manley, the Prime Minister of Jamaica and the head of the PNP, and Edward Seaga, the head of the JLP and the Leader of the Opposition, were on TV nightly. Both political parties were involved in what felt like a death match to win the next election. If by chance you missed them, at the end of the news came the commentary about them. I only paid attention if it was Rex Nettleford or John Maxwell. I loved to hear Rex Nettleford talk. He held his head like I imagined a king would, if there were kings in Jamaica. Mr. Maxwell had thick thick hair brushed back and he had big eyes that stared straight through me. When he spoke it felt like he had opened things at their core. Perhaps because these two spoke about Mr. Manley providing land for landless, free healthcare for everybody, I felt sympathy for Mr. Manley. But, for the first time, there was an attempted coup and there were hundreds of murders since the start of the year, mostly in Kingston. Also, some of the opposition party leaders were in jail. Thinking of my distance from Kingston gave me comfort. The one time Daddy had driven us to Kingston about two years earlier, it had taken about three and a half hours.
There was hardly any violence in Montego Bay, you might hear of a house break-in once in a while. My biggest concern was racing through my assigned chores when I got home after school and doing my homework, so that I could watch TV or read a new book or play dandy shandy with my sister and friends. I ran barefoot, against my stepmother’s wishes, through grassy empty land in the neighborhood, catching butterflies in bottles with neighborhood kids. There had been many early morning trips to Sunset Beach in my father’s van, when the sea was still warm and the land had the early morning cool. My parents would be hugging and laughing in the water and we kids would swim until the sun started rising and we were hungry. Then, driving back from the beach my father would drive on Top Road, high up, where you felt like you had a view from the roof of the world. You could see the hills give way to the sea rolling across multiple shades of blue as it met the sky changing from light orange to blue, as the sun rose. The morning air swept over my wet body as the van moved and it felt like we were travelling through a navel into the womb of beautiful things. Although I had seen it all my life, I never tired of the landscape.
But life began to shift. Chaos began to get ordinary. Sometimes we were watching TV and it suddenly went off and the house plunged into darkness from a power cut, or I was soaped up and the water from the shower suddenly stopped running, locked off throughout the neighborhood. We started to hear announcements of job lay offs and price increases on the radio all the time. Every time the announcement came on, Grannie sucked her breath and said, “Jamaica mash up. God soon come fi him world.” Mummy complained that at the supermarket and in the shops, they had married different goods. You couldn’t buy washing soap without buying cooking oil, rice without corned meal. When I followed Mummy to the supermarket, a lot of the shelves were bare and they were short of things we needed, like sometimes you couldn’t get chicken, only chicken back. One day, two women older than Mummy, pushed each other in the supermarket to grab the last bag of rice.
I also began to hear the word IMF. I can’t remember the first time I heard it, but after a while it was everywhere, like street vendors selling sorrel during Christmas season. People arguing in the street shouted it. It rolled off the tongues of analysts on TV. I didn’t know what IMF was, but it made people angry. It took me a while to find out that it was an organization outside Jamaica that the government had borrowed money from. I began to see JLP and PNP painted on a few walls downtown. One day I saw a new graffiti scrawled on a wall near the post office where my stepmother worked. It was the way the green paint dripped down like text in an old horror movie that made me stop. ESTRADA MUST GO. Who or what was Estrada? Why did he have to go? It felt creepy and I passed the words daily. Some weeks later, someone painted in orange near that sign: CIAGA. I knew it was a reference to Seaga. Finally, I asked my father. Who is Estrada? He said he was the Cuban ambassador to Jamaica. I knew from school that Cuba was our nearest neighbor, 90 miles away. The only Cubans I had ever met were doctors at the free clinic downtown when I followed Grannie to test her blood pressure.
When relatives stopped by our house, the conversation would eventually turn to communism and capitalism. PNP. JLP. One day, Uncle Coolieman, Daddy’s twin brother, came by, upset. He worked as an engineer at Holiday Inn Hotel in Rose Hall. Uncle was the only engineer left on staff, they laid off all the others, and he had to do all the work of maintaining the entire hotel by himself. The hotel was almost empty. For the first time in the 10 years that he had worked there, no tourists were coming because of the violence in Kingston in the news. Uncle was afraid of the hotel shutting down.
“You hear what Michael a plan for we? Socialist. You see now that him is a communist?” He said communist like it was that thing left on the toilet paper after you wiped yourself in the bathroom.
“You don’t hear that the Cuban dem building prison in Anchovy? Them put up a big fence ‘round the place and no Jamaican can’t enter in there. Pure Cuban. Pure Cuban!”
He cut the air with his hands each time he said “Cuban”. I saw a vein in his neck.
“Nobody can see what them doing behind the zinc fence! A Jamaican man was working there and him go ‘round the fence and see that is not barracks dem building as dem claim, is prison dem a build for we! Him talk. And the next day dem kill him!”
I watched my uncle’s face twist with anger until he looked like a big knot. My father sat silently, listening.
Manley want to bring communist come a Jamaica. You hear me. You know what is communist? Everyt’ing you work for must share.
Dem bad mind nigga believe you must work and them must reap. Them want Michael because dem no want work! Communist want you house and want you wife. Everyt’ing must share! Manley is a big head bird. You hear me tell you! Big words. Big talk! But no damn commonsense. America a the mos’ powerful country in the world, you can go ‘gainst America? You don’t see him no have no sense? Him have no damn sense whatsoever!
My father looked on quietly at his twin brother, but I could tell he was growing annoyed from the way he pursed the left corner of his lips. He knew that Uncle didn’t want to hear about theocracy, which is what he believed in. My father does not listen easily to anyone with theories he has already explored and forsaken. And he doesn’t care whether anyone agrees with him. I had heard many times, he didn’t believe in either PNP or JLP because he did not believe in man’s government. He believed that Jehovah God was going to remove governments, wipe out this wicked system of things, turn the earth into Paradise, and only God would rule. The word for it was theocracy. And people would live forever young on earth.
Uncle eventually exhausted himself and left. My father just looked at me and said, “You see what ah mean? We near the end of this system of things.” Every time he, Mummy or Grannie said that, I felt a deep sense of doom. When I saw the pictures of the end of the system of things in the magazines from the Kingdom Hall, the earth was splitting in earthquakes, tall buildings collapsing, lightning coming out of the sky, people running in terror. On the flip side were the images of the faithful few people, Jehovah’s Witnesses like my parents, who were walking on the narrow road to eternal life. I should have been happy but deep down inside, I wasn’t convinced.
It felt like we were living in hurricane of ideas. Manley kept talking about democratic socialism. Seaga kept talking about why we needed capitalism, and America. One night we saw Manley addressing a crowd on TV, and he was holding up a wooden walking stick. The crowd went wild. And there was a song,
Whip them Joshua, whip them.
Whip them with the rod of correction.
Whip them with the maternity leave,
Whip them with the …
The song listed all the social programmes that Manley had created. When he saw this, Daddy shook his head and laughed from his belly, until tears came to his eyes, “You see how politicians take people for eediat.”
Daddy said that Mr. Manley had gone to Ethiopia and met with Emperor Haile Selassie I sometime before. The Emperor had given him the rod as a gift. After Manley returned to Jamaica and showed the people the rod, the Rastafarians, who revered Selassie, and the poorest people, welcomed this. It was like Manley was saying that Selassie had endorsed him.
Daddy said, “When Manley first run for election, I believe him. When he first come to power eight years ago, he sounded good. He had some good ideas, whole heap a people loved him. But now it’s pure foolishness. Prices going up everyday. Jamaica becoming a police state.”
I kept my admiration for Manley secret. I had seen Mr. Seaga on TV addressing a crowd. He was a white-looking man with a weak chin who reminded me of a hawk. His nose looked like a thin, long beak with a hump at the top. When he spoke, his voice sounded like he spoke from his nose, instead of his thin lips. And his eyes were shifty and proud, I didn’t trust him.
“This PNP government has no plan. They associate with communists, they work like communists, they think like communists, and they doing things like communists do. As far as we are concerned, we know that they are a communist government!” The people in the large crowd staring up at him on the stage replied by ringing metal bells. Soon there was just the sound of bells, the symbol of his JLP party. For me, it meant that Manley was still a student and class had ended.
Seaga continued, “Communism is not our culture! Sing a sankey and find your way back home.” I wondered what a sankey was because the comment set the people alight. Some men from the crowd hoisted Mr. Seaga in the air and everyone was cheering. It puzzled me to see them treating such an annoying man like he was Moses about to part the Red Sea and make them cross over.
Grannie sat with me watching the TV. She said that she didn’t trust Seaga because somebody told her that he worked obeah and she believed it. She said that Seaga had his personal obeahman. Somebody who had worked in his house had accidentally opened a door they were not allowed to open. The worker saw Mr. Seaga kneeling down in a room with his head bowed in the middle of about 100 candles burning around him. Grannie had never even seen Seaga’s house, but when she told you a story, her raspy voice rose and fell with emotion on every detail. I could feel the fright of the worker, peeking from behind the door.
“Him get him powers from obeah! Is a wicked wicked man,” she said with finality.
I became deeply afraid but I couldn’t point to one thing that I was afraid of. I was afraid of the fear in the voices of my relatives and the news people on TV. I was afraid of communism, afraid of Seaga, his obeah and his creepy voice.
I noticed my father’s temper getting shorter. Sometimes Daddy would get very angry and rant about money, and my stepmother would say nothing and just glare at him, or she would do whatever she was doing and sigh every few minutes. Then she would say later, “One day I’ll find somebody who loves me.”
Then my father would respond, “My money is to take care of everybody and your money is to buy clothes? What the hell!”
Then he would start again and he would say “shit” and “damn”, words that we were told many times not to say. These days he never took out the drawings of his dream house. He just kept saying, “We are near the end of this system of things.”
I would find my father sitting in the living room in the dark, looking into the darkness, with his hand under his jaw.
“What’s wrong Daddy?”
“Nothing. Just thinking.” He would pat my head and continue staring into space.
I felt like my life was happening on a ledge and we could all fall off at any moment. Almost every week somebody I knew was migrating. I would hear my parents talking: Brother So and So or Sister So and So at Kingdom Hall was migrating. Friends and family were leaving for Miami or New York, sometimes Philadelphia or Canada and once in a while, somebody moved to London or Birmingham in the UK. My parents didn’t have any plans of leaving. I began to daydream about leaving Jamaica for good. I started to pee in my sleep at night, something I thought I had stopped. Even walking home from school, I would sometimes have to run the last five minutes home in order to use the bathroom. I began to wake up in a wet bed several times a week, which made me stressed about falling asleep.
One morning in October, I was awakened by a loud knocking on our front door.
“Jamaica Defence Force, open up!”
My father rushed from his room through our room to the living room, and peered through a window facing the veranda. I followed him. There were three soldiers, with long machine guns, standing on our veranda. I had never seen soldiers in person before, much less at our door. I had only seen them on TV.
“Jamaica Defence Force, open up!”
“What! How can I help you?”
“Jamaica Defense Force. Good morning. We need to search. Open up now!”
My father let them in, as all of us in the house, hearing the loud exchange, came to the living room. Two of them came inside and one stayed at the door. One was a little older and thicker than the other. They looked around the living room at all of us.
“Good morning. Well, I can tell you that you welcome to search, but you won’t find guns or anything here. We are Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“How much people live here?” said the older one.
“Just the six of us. This is my family, my children, my wife and my mother.
As Daddy spoke, the rest of us stared at their big guns. I heard worry in my father’s voice. I felt like my brain was racing but my body was frozen. They searched under the settee, behind the settee and behind the bookcase. When they realized it was really just us, they seemed to relax. The older one enjoyed the look on our faces of surprise at his big gun, but I could see that the young one’s heart wasn’t in it. The younger one went to my parents’ room while the older one searched the living room. I stood at the door between my room and my parents’ room and watched as he took out the machete that Daddy kept under their bed and looked at it, then put it back.
Daddy followed him as he came into our room. First, he looked under my bed, which was still unmade. I was grateful that I had not wet the bed the night before. If I had had to watch him pull back the covers and stare at a wet circle on my side of the bed, I would have been so ashamed. I couldn’t bear to see the question in a stranger’s face of why a girl as big as me was still wetting the bed. I don’t know why pulling back the covers was not enough, but he looked the mattress all over, like he was trying to see how many signs of old pee he could find. He opened all the drawers of the chest of drawers and rummaged through them. I sighed, knowing that I would have to fold all my clothes again. They went all over the house until finally they were done and with a “Thank you, Sir” they were gone.
Later that day, I was sitting in the front of my father’s van, parked in front of the Chinese shop on Albion Road, the road adjoining Second Street. Daddy had gone inside the shop to buy bread. Melonie and Hayden were in the back. I could hear the sound of people cheering in the distance, but it was getting louder, coming in waves down the hill from Paradise, the next neighborhood. Looking towards Paradise, I saw a white car appear from around the bend, coming down the hill towards us. A rush of people ran past me from the tenement yards on Second Street. The car had a speaker on the top and I saw it was the source of excitement. The people rushed towards it, cheering and shouting, each with their right fist high in the air. “Stand firm! Mannas! Mannas! Heavy mannas! Michael we love yuh.”
Daddy came outside quickly, holding the bread and a quart of milk, with surprise on his face. My father stood next to our car, impatiently squinting into the sun at the white car as it stopped a good distance in front of us. In the front passenger seat was Prime Minister Michael Manley. My heart was pounding in my chest.
The people surrounded Mr. Manley’s car, as excited as gamblers who had just struck lucky. Young men were jumping. Old women were clapping their hands. Everyone was shouting and smiling. A woman in a short orange flared skirt kept jumping so high that each time she jumped her skirt rose exposing her floral panties, but she didn’t care. People kept coming from all angles. Mr. Manley opened the car door and got out to face the growing crowd. He was a mocha-coloured man surrounded by black bodies. In person, he was taller than everyone around him. His jaw looked like it had been chiseled from stone, and he had a little sink in the middle of his angular chin, like the sculptor who created his handsome face added that little point for emphasis. His thick, wavy hair was speckled with grey at the sides.
Mr. Manley raised his right fist in the air, his face defiant, and said, “Self reliance!
The people exploded in response.
“Heavy manners! We have them under manners!”
The woman in the floral panties threw herself on Mr. Manley. Smiling, he hugged her back, then gradually eased her off. Other women jostled to hug him.
Comrades, Brethren, I am calling on you all to come out to Sam Sharpe Square tonight! We having a rally, a people’s rally in Montego Bay. To let them know that we are strong, thousands strong and we in Jamaica, we likkle but we talawah. This island will not be silenced!
The men’s eyes shone and women’s breaths seemed to stop on Mr. Manley’s words. They were like congregants in church fired up for a pastor’s healing. The crowd started chanting: “Joshua! Joshua! Joshua! Joshua!”
Despite the people around him, Mr. Manley noticed the quiet of my father, yards away. Daddy was the only calm adult in sight. Mr. Manley looked directly at my father standing next to our car and waved to him. Daddy nodded to him in acknowledgement. After receiving a few hugs and more praise, Mr. Manley got back in his car and drove off. It was only then that I noticed that there were other cars following behind him. Most people scattered and a few stood around looking at each other, smiling.
My father got in the car and drove home, skipping the potholes which had expanded into craters in the road from recent rain. As we were getting out of the car, we heard loud cheering coming from the east. It was a long, continuous roar, ricocheting around the hills. This told me that Mr. Manley had reached Canterbury, the poorest of all of these poor neighborhoods, about a mile down the road, on the same side of the hill where we lived. It was the loudest human sound I had ever heard; a raw cry that felt like it was coming from the very beginning of this hodge-podge, tumble-down country.
That night I heard explosions I had never heard before. I knocked on my parents’ room. Daddy came out and peered through my bedroom window towards King Street below. “It’s gunshots.” He said. “It sounds like they coming from near Canterbury. It’s not near here. Go back to sleep.” He patted my head and went back into the bedroom with Mummy. I lay frozen in bed. The elections had reached us.
Image credit: Window by Nadia Huggins
Karen Bumi Marks is a Jamaican-American independent filmmaker and writer. Politics Time is a chapter from a family memoir that she’s writing about her father, growing up in Jamaica during the tumultuous 1980 election, and her family’s eventual migration. She is currently completing her documentary feature film Gaamaa, about the life of Gaama Gloria Simms, a shaman, healer and groundbreaking woman who is the first person to be installed as Gaaman or Paramount Chief of the Maroons of Jamaica. Previously, she directed, produced and wrote The Price of Memory (2014), a documentary feature film which explores slavery reparations in Jamaica and how Britain became wealthy from slavery. It has screened in film festivals across North America, UK, Europe, the Caribbean and Middle East. It won the Impact Award at Caribbean Tales International Film Festival 2015 and was nominated for several awards including Best Long Documentary at Al Jazeera Documentary Festival 2015. Previously, she produced/wrote award-winning documentary feature Shungu: The Resilience of a People (2009), following ordinary people in Zimbabwe during the highest inflation in history, and political stalemate between President Robert Mugabe and the Opposition. Shungu screened on three continents and garnered international TV broadcasts.