It was for me a dream fulfilled when my family and I arrived in Montego Bay, Jamaica on August 17 for a weeklong vacation. Ever since my secondary school days, I had sustained an endearing long distance relationship with that Caribbean island nation.
It was Jamaica’s rich reggae roots that first drew me to that country. Jimmy Cliff’s mellifluent voice was my first introduction to reggae. I was enthralled by Cliff’s rendition of such classics as “I Can See Clearly Now,” “The Harder They Come,” “Vietnam,” “Under the Sun, Moon, And Stars,” “Reggae Nights,” and “Many Rivers To Cross.”
My interest in Jimmy Cliff inevitably led me to such other reggae stars as U-Roy (who deserves credit as a chief originator of what came to be known as rap), Peter Tosh and – the ultimate maestro – Bob Marley.
As a college student in the early 1980s, part of my political consciousness and cultural outlook was shaped by the music of Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. What I learned from Marley’s art and the broad tradition of reggae – as well as from Fela’s afrobeat – was the viability of integrating historical memory and political agitation into captivating music.
The more I fell in love with Marley’s extraordinary musicianship, the more I yearned to physically touch the land whose history formed him and other purveyors of reggae. For years I fantasized about visiting Marley’s country.
My enchantment with Jamaica was far from limited to its music. As a student of great figures in black history, I had also encountered the story of Marcus Mosiah Garvey – easily the most visible, significant and dramatic figure in Jamaica’s pantheon of remarkable political personages.
Marcus Garvey is hardly given his due today, but he was once arguably the most well known black leader, at once flamboyant, enterprising, verbally inventive and an agitator par excellence. A founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914, Garvey led a controversial crusade for a Pan African collectivity that he envisaged as bringing all people of African descent together.
Garvey’s activism inspired millions of followers in the US, the Caribbean and Europe, but did not endear him to all – neither in his time nor in ours. The highly cerebral W.E.B. Du Bois was no fan of Garvey’s. He famously described Garvey as “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head.” For Du Bois, the Jamaican rabble-rouser was “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world.” Du Bois carped Garvey as “either a lunatic or a traitor.” Garvey, ever quick in ripostes, grumbled that his assailer was “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro…a mulatto. Why in fact, he is a monstrosity.”
After much consultation with some Jamaican friends, we had decided to spend most of our visit in Ocho Rios, a bustling tourist town in the northern ranges of the island. Our choice of location ended up yielding a fortuitous boon.
The driver we hired to drive us from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios was a chatty and gregarious man who, after telling us his name, asked that we call him “Oneness.”
Oneness turned out to be highly informed about Jamaica – and, as a welcome bonus, to know a few things about Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Ethiopia and some other African countries. But I was particularly impressed by his grasp of Jamaican history and culture. He was adept at answering my questions about Jamaica’s economy (the island’s economy was in a slide before the global financial tsunami) and its musical heritage.
I inquired about the month-long bloody gun battle in Kingston between the Jamaican police and supporters of alleged drug kingpin, Christopher Dudus Coke, who was wanted for extradition to the US to face drug trafficking and other charges. After offering some background to explain the dynamics of the drug subculture in the capital city, Oneness assured us that Jamaica was safe. “It’s Kingston gives us a bad name sometimes,” he said, roaring in big laughter.
In Oneness’s company, the trip from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios became a quick excursion into Jamaica’s political and cultural history. He showed us Discovery Bay where Christopher Columbus and his band of explorers made a stop, and Runaway Bay, a town whose name immortalizes the African captives who fled from their enslavers, often taking refuge in caves.
Oneness pointed out the secondary school where Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, received his early education. He proudly told us about the wealthy athlete’s investments in improving the school’s facilities and appearance.
Bolt, who currently holds the Olympic and World records in the 100 and 200 meters, is a cult hero in Jamaica. His image is ubiquitous on billboards. And Jamaicans seemed to take his recent loss to the American sprinter, Tyson Gay, as a calamity. Many of them were quick to brag that their superstar would humiliate Gay at their next meet.
“Do you know about Marcus Garvey?” Oneness asked me. When I answered yes, he told me that we had arrived on Garvey’s birthday. He then made my day by promising to make a detour into Garvey’s hometown of Saint Ann’s Bay to show us some of the festivities to celebrate the Jamaican hero who was born on August 17, 1887, died in England on June 10, 1940, and was on November 15, 1964 officially proclaimed Jamaica’s “first national hero.”
Garvey’s hometown was bedecked in cheerful colors. Oneness pulled up at the local library where a crowd had gathered to play music, dance, and reminisce about their hero. Garvey’s larger than life bust, which dominates the front of the library, loomed like a concrete ancestor basking in the gushing attention of hometown admirers. For me, spending a few minutes in the midst of the celebrants was an unexpected and deeply treasured gift.
Much of our time in Jamaica was taken up with water-related activities. My wife (who once represented Nigeria as a swimmer) and our children – graceful swimmers, all – thrived in these arenas. My swimming skills are hardly better than a stone’s, but I was so charmed by Jamaica that I participated in all the aquatic events. We fished, snorkeled, climbed the famous Dunn’s River waterfalls, and rafted down the Rio Grande River.
I am an enthusiast of Jamaican cuisine, and cherished the opportunity to sample a range of it. Knolly Moses, a Trinidadian friend and journalist who once worked for Newsweek and Emerge, gave my wife and me a culinary treat. He and his wife Petrine drove up from Kingston to Ocho Rios, and took us out to a restaurant called Scotchies. The restaurant, which is hidden behind a canopy of trees, served the tastiest food I ate in Jamaica.
Above all, one felt at home in Jamaica. I imagine that most tourists travel to be bewitched by the landscape. There’s no question: Jamaica is a picturesque place, a canvas that reveals nature at the height of its beatific powers. But I went to Jamaica to meet Cliff’s, Marley’s, Tosh’s, U-Roy’s and Garvey’s people. I went to luxuriate in the island’s rich musical heritage. I wanted to be surrounded by the cadence of the people’s speech, and to sample their spicy cuisine.
The trip was the fulfillment of a long dream. And here’s my short answer for friends and acquaintances who ask if Jamaica had met my expectations: “I’ll go again. And again.”