It is an early April morning, 1973, and the sun’s rays are hitting the top of the ridge in 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 the children’s mother is clearing the breakfast dishes. Her husband Clifton is lingering at the table listening to the morning news crackling on the radio.
The year is shaping up to be memorable, although not in the way they had been hoping. Unemployment has now reached a record 25 per cent in many areas and the island is deep in recession. Sugarcane prices are plummeting due to oversupply on the world markets. The ongoing oil crisis has tripled the cost of fuel. Hotels remained empty as Americans and Brits cancel holiday plans. With inflation at almost 29 per cent, everyone is 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 is flooding the local markets and driving 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 will be his first trip away, having signed on to the farm work program in Canada. Although full of trepidation about leaving his family, he is feeling hopeful.
Only a few weeks earlier his good friend Sonny moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake with his wife and four children. The Canadian government had announced farmers who employed men through the Seasonal Agricultural Work Program could sponsor them and their families to become Canadian citizens.
Being away from families and loved ones for eight months was a real hardship, but especially challenging for families with children. He had heard stories from friends on the program becoming estranged from their children and it was heart-breaking to think he wouldn’t be seeing his own children for eight months.
The families who had accepted the invitation were settling well into their life in Niagara. Maybe he and his wife would have the same opportunity as Sonny and his family.
Trip to Niagara begins
After a tearful farewell from his wife and a lingering hug, he put that life behind, 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 decline. They slowed down at the school where they could hear his children’s classes singing in preparation for the Easter program.
After they geared down at the intersection to Kitson Town Main 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 make it big some day,” he said.
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.
Sonny was one of the first men to be hired through the SAWP in NOTL, in the late 1960s. 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-on-the-Lake permanently the following spring.
They arrived on a cold snowy day in March, and once they got some heat on in the old farmhouse they quickly set to unpacking and adjusting to life in their new home. When the weather warmed up weeks later, the four children walked into town on a weekly basis, loading up on books at the library in the old Courthouse basement on Queen Street and lugging them back. It didn’t take long for the family to immerse themselves in the community, with fond memories of making many new friends while attending Virgil Public School and the little Fellowship Chapel on Concession 2.
After about 10 years on the farm Sonny moved on to a manufacturing job in Stoney Creek to ensure his children could receive post secondary education.
Years later when he retired and the children were established with families of their own, he and his wife returned to winter in Jamaica. They purchased a three-bedroom home in Spanishtown, which soon became a social hub for visiting family and friends.
Andres travels to Jamaica
In February, 2008 my friend Jodie Godwin and I travelled for two weeks in Jamaica. It was my second trip and her first, giving us an opportunity to cross the island and meet the families of men who worked on the farms in our neighbourhood back home.
We especially enjoyed the warm hospitality of our good friends Sonny and Lynn in Spanishtown. We had come to know this very generous couple through our involvement at the Caribbean workers’ church services in NOTL. They both enjoyed teaching us about Caribbean culture and sharing experiences about the early years of the farm work program.
Within minutes of our arrival, they quickly made Jodie and I feel at home. They dedicated the next day to taking us up to Ginger Ridge where they had both grown up.
It would normally take about 30 minutes to reach this mountain village. With Sonny at the wheel it stretched into more than an hour. He knew everyone in the area who worked in NOTL, 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 Road.
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,” Sonny 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.”
Despite the fact I wasn’t driving, my foot was continually jamming on the brakes; I was covering my eyes while he geared down through switchbacks and breakaways.
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,” Lynn explained.
“Everyone brought their coffee, cocoa and sugarcane here to be weighed and loaded up for market. It was 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 shrugged her shoulders and introduced us to a few seniors chatting on the porch of the darkened building. Their children left for England or the U.S. in the 1960s, when opportunity beckoned, and haven’t been back since.
We walked down the red dirt road to visit their friend Clifton. It soon narrowed to a rocky footpath, with the mountain rising on the right and a densely forested slope to our left. Below we could see two gravesites — sepulchres they call them — barely visible in the tangled foliage.
Sonny 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 mountain range. Sonny shouted out greetings and a man I immediately recognized as Clifton 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 was visiting from England — Sonny had met him for the first time only a few days prior. Clifton’s face absolutely beamed with pride and delight.
Lynn took me to admire the view, pointing out the place on the adjacent ridge where she grew up.
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 hard-working people. We bid farewell with a new sense of appreciation, and looked forward to welcoming him back to our neighbourhood in a few weeks.
It was the end of the day and we were overflowing with not only freshly-picked bananas and fruit but meaningful memories and conversations we have treasured for many years.
Two months later I invited Clifton and a few of his coworkers for Easter dinner and he was quick to take us up on our offer. We enjoyed a meal together on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, learning about the Easter traditions they grew up with back home. It was an education as the men described economic conditions that forced them to leave home for such extended periods of time. It was through this conversation we heard some wild stories about their families who struggled for survival without them during Hurricane Gilbert and the days following, when the men had no way to find out if their loved ones were among the hundreds of casualties on the island.
I was stunned to learn this was the first time in 32 years Clifton had ever been invited into the home of a local resident, the first time he had been invited to share in Easter celebrations around a kitchen table.
At the close of the evening we packed up hearty portions of leftovers for our guests 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 photographing a mockingbird, 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. They asked me to take a picture 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.