It was a golden morning in Spanishtown, Jamaica.
The sunshine and birdsong erased any memories of the dull winter my friend Jodie Godwin and I had left behind in Niagara. We were enjoying our stay at the home of Uton and Linnette Bell, good friends we had met through the Caribbean workers church service back home. It was 2008, my second time visiting friends I had met in the neighbourhood back home and Jodie’s first experience touring the island.
Uton came to Canada originally through the farm work program in 1968, moving to Niagara permanently in 1973 with his young family after being sponsored by Abe Epp. Although he has called Niagara home for the past 47 years, he looks forward to spending a few months in Jamaica each year.
We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of roast breadfruit and fresh oranges, then headed out to the mountains to visit friends who worked on neighbouring farms back home. The drive started off winding through the countryside with Uton at the wheel, his wife Linnette filling in the details while he pointed out places of interest.
Stops were spontaneous and frequent. Every few minutes we would honk at a front gate and someone employed at a Niagara farm would appear at their door, a mix of joy and surprise on their faces.
The home of Earl “Earlybee” Newell, a long time employee at the Epp Family Farm and our keyboard player at the Caribbean workers church service, was the first stop. He gathered family members to make introductions: Clive Brown from Hunter Farms, Checko from Epp’s, Errol, Johnny. After hugs, laughter and weather updates from Niagara we would drive on to the next house, to be repeated many times as we gradually wound our way up the mountain.
Fields of sugar cane and yam gradually yielded to rocky outcrops and feathery stands of bamboo gracing the roadway. Stops were less frequent as the road narrowed and the incline became steeper. Our journey slowed to a crawl as Uton navigated the many potholes and washouts.
It was a marvel to view the terraced fields of carrots across the valley, somehow carved by hand from the steep terrain. No four-wheel drives could navigate those slopes, only sure-footed donkeys laden with sacks of tools could pick their way along the jagged paths.
We were headed to a setup, a large gathering of friends and family honouring the passing of a loved one, in Kentish, a small village perched on one of the highest peaks in the parish of St. Catherine. A setup usually takes place at the home of the deceased, each day leading up to the funeral. Often the funeral will be delayed two to three weeks to allow family members to return home from the UK, the U.S. or Canada. It is one of the most significant events for the community, as they come together to mourn and support each other during their time of bereavement.
As the journey progressed, I was no longer enjoying the view. My foot was jammed down on an imaginary brake pedal and I kept my eyes focussed on the brush scraping the car against the face of the cliff. I was relieved to have reached the summit when Uton pointed out a distant ridge with little specks moving about on the crest. “Look, we’re almost there!”
The road had narrowed to a rutted path, and we inched along. Once on the ridge, the precipice dropped down on both sides, and Uton hunched over, gripping the wheel as he navigated every little bump and rut.
I refused to open my eyes until we finally reached a relatively level area that widened out into a field of sugar cane. More than 100 people milled about in small groups, with a few donkeys tied up on the fringes.
I slid weak-kneed out of the SUV, taking a few minutes to steady myself, while Uton and Linnette jumped out to greet old friends. Jodie and I started to follow but were quickly intercepted by curious locals, who welcomed us warmly. It became obvious Uton (Sonny, as he was known here) and Linnette were well-loved in the community.
Men and women hustled around steaming pots simmering over coals in the yard of a turquoise bungalow. The aroma of fresh pimento and jerk chicken wafted over the visitors, who were arriving steadily on foot, in vehicles and on mules.
Uton introduced me to men who worked on the farms back in Niagara. It felt strange to meet people who were my neighbours eight months of the year on this distant mountaintop a world away.
They guided me through the crowd and we headed through the cane field and beyond with William Rhule, also retired from Epp’s.
Jodie was off exploring, barely visible in the distance, where the far end of the ridge descended into the mist.
Forgetting my fear of heights completely, I caught up to Jodie, where she had befriended a few contented cows.
She threw her arms open as if to start soaring, and sharing our sentiments shouted, “I’m on top of the world!”
The following day we had the privilege of joining in on the final night, known as the nine-night, of the setup at another family member’s home. Uton parked by an overlook that offered a spectacular panoramic view of city lights shimmering over a distance of 30 miles. A group of young boys came over and insisted we take their hands to guide us to the house a good distance away. We were grateful for their assistance as it was impossible to see our way in the dark. Due to the recent downpours, the path was extremely slippery. We had no idea how treacherous it was until the foliage parted and the boys pointed out the tiny lights of a village straight down.
Off in the distance we could hear the sounds of the nine-night band warming up. The warm glow of single bulbs strung from tree to tree illuminated the yard jammed with people coming to pay their respects and avail themselves of liberal amounts of Worthy Park rum.
The band was set up under a loosely configured tent. Impatient for the guitars to finish tuning, the vocalists let loose into their microphones. It quickly became obvious they were not singing in the same key but after a few minutes and a swig or two from a nearby bottle, they settled into a lively groove. It took awhile before I recognized the songs as more animated versions of old hymns. Nine-night bands that provide the music at setups are prepared to play until the break of dawn, typically starting off with hymns and gospel choruses and evolving into reggae and popular music as the night progresses.
People were friendly and curious, but conversations dwindled once the music took off. The drummers alternated every few songs, allowing a young boy of about 12 to display his exceptional talents. Later an elderly gentleman shuffled into the circle of musicians, coaxing some lively tunes from an ancient saxophone. Tambourines, pot lids, and graters rounded out the percussion section as they repeated the choruses over and over, the crowd singing along. Young and old joined in on the dance floor, the senior dancers enjoying centre stage.
After a few songs, there seemed to be a commotion on the far side of the crowd. A Canadian visitor was dancing energetically in her own unique style, oblivious to the attention of onlookers.
An elderly gentleman beside me observed Jodie, then looked at me quizzically.
“She learned to dance like that in Africa,” I offered, and he laughed. It was Jodie’s first visit to the island. Wherever we travelled, she made herself right at home, investing herself 110 per cent in whatever activity we were engaged in. Tonight was no different.
Walking back along the path a few hours later, there was so much to reflect on after the day’s events.
I began to appreciate how painful it would be to experience the loss of a loved one while working almost 3,000 miles from home. I cannot even imagine the struggle to keep the pain to oneself without the support of a community or the ability to participate in the traditions that are vitally important to one’s well-being.
Some of our neighbours working on Niagara farms are able to fly home to take part in family funerals, and others are not so fortunate. Financial responsibilities and often the need to pay off crushing hospital bills and subsequent funeral costs require that they remain on the job.
It has been my experience so many times over the last 14 years to simply “hold space” and listen to someone pour out their grief in a peach orchard, at a picnic table or even in the grocery store. Showing up, taking them out for a quiet meal away from the noise of the bunk house — there are so many ways to let them know they are not alone and that our community cares.
Last summer, some locals responded to concerns about Zenaida’s coworkers after she passed away from the tragic hit-and-run accident. Fran Boot and Betty Houghton Knight invited the five women out to enjoy a beautifully spread picnic table one summer evening at Queen’s Royal Park, followed by a walk in the Old Town. A unique story of friendship has unfolded in the past five months, and the delightful memories they’ve created together are a blessing not just for the participants, but family members back in Mexico.
Last year, a Jamaican man working on a local farm approached me rather tentatively and asked if I had ever been to a setup in Kentish.
When I replied in the affirmative he laughed so hard, and said he would never forget the night that Canadian lady was dancing. I believe he wasn’t the only one!