On Thursday we four new Cuso volunteers, plus the new Cuso regional director and his wife, were taken on a selective tour of Trench Town. Trench Town is both famous and infamous – it is the neighbourhood which raised Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and many other of Jamaica’s most famous Reggae artists as well as several notable Jamaican athletes. It continues to birth artists of several genres of music – ska, rocksteady, reggae (of course) and dancehall – and is home to two of Jamaica’s Premier League soccer teams.
Trench Town has also been one of the most violent and destitute neighbourhoods in Kingston, with political riots of the 1970’s resulting in hundreds of deaths, the razing of housing developments, and the creation of a ‘no man’s land’ that continues to be barren to this day. Also continuing is the violent crime that always accompanies rampant poverty and the drug trade.
What we were given, however, was a tour of hope led by a former Cuso volunteer who chose to stay on and work in Trench Town after his placement ended. While we were given the brief history, and stopped in the middle of no-man’s land, we were also shown the regeneration that is slowly taking hold in Trench Town and that seems to be driven by the residents themselves.
I could have spent much longer at our first stop, the fascinating Trench Town Culture Yard, which is somehow both a museum and a living community. Of course the main sell is that it was once home to Bob Marley. The ‘yard’ itself comprises a government-designed tenement from the 1930’s. The U-shaped complex includes 16 bedrooms that each housed a family. These open onto a courtyard where the tenants shared an outdoor shower area (stalls – not one giant shower), outhouses, and one kitchen. It’s the place Marley learned to play guitar and shows up in many of his songs, including ‘No Woman No Cry.’
As I said, the culture yard is both an interactive museum and a living community – while we were there two German musicians from ‘Musicians without Borders’ were blissed out and waiting to teach music to neighbourhood children; an elderly woman was selling her handmade crafts; and three reggaemen were perfecting their recordings in a small but technologically adept studio. It was a bit disorienting to see the lead singer mixing music on his Apple computer with Bob Marley’s first VW van rusting away in the yard. As an aside, the Culture Yard was also the first place I have smelled weed since I arrived. I smell it more walking in downtown Victoria.
There is an official “Bob Marley Museum” close to where I live that was his home in later years, after success off the island gained Marley both fame and the chance to move uphill. Our tour guide at the Culture Yard says that both are worth visiting – one to see where Marley started, and one to see where he ended up.
From there we walked just up the block to the Trench Town Reading Room. I could have stayed here all day. The volunteer who gave us the rundown of this library/ad hoc out-of-school care/tutoring centre showed us a picture of herself as a young girl the day the Reading Room opened. Her passion for teaching, for reading, for children, and for the organization was evident in everything she told us.
I struck up a brief conversation with the other volunteer in the room who perked up when he heard we were Canadians. A very Prairie (a.k.a. nice, if a little tentative) man from Saskatchewan, when I asked what brought him to Kingston he said his wife is a diplomat. I don’t know if that means he isn’t employed himself, but I do know he visits the Reading Room weekly, and listening to him tutor a young boy learning to read was smile-inducing.
While not a huge collection of books, what the Reading Room has is well edited to cover every grade level of learning-to-read, math and science, general interest, fiction and non-fiction (with a fantastic emphasis on black writers telling black stories), young adult, and adult books. There’s also a large shaded area outside – though I can’t say for sure if the goats in the yard belonged there or not. The Reading Room clearly has a commitment to raising up Trench Townians who love learning and who continue to learn for a lifetime. As the sign out front says, “Knowledge is the key to success.”
Our last stop was the Trench Town Ceramics & Art Centre, where a ceramicist and an artist are using clay ‘mined’ in the neighbourhood in a social enterprise that, again, passes knowledge and opportunity on to children. While we were there four or five children came and went, some sanding pieces, some checking on another’s work, and all clearly happy to have somewhere to go and a skill to learn.
I’ll be honest – I missed a lot of what Garfield (the ceramicist) was saying because his amazing biceps distracted me (seriously – they were Aristotelian models of what a bicep should be). I also might have been on the verge of heat exhaustion by this point. What I do know is that this is another example of someone from Trench Town either staying or returning with an intention to use what they know and love to make a difference for their community.
The things they create at TTCAC are not to my taste, but I hope every tourist through the ‘Things Jamaican” airport shop buys one of the souveniers they produce so that Garfield and his team can keep showing the children of Trench Town that they have options – they have reason to hope. I wanted to stay and help him with a business and marketing plan. I hope they get the organizational support they so need and deserve.
I may not spend a lot of time in Trench Town while I’m here, though I can see returning to visit specific sites and to take in a soccer game. Regardless, spending an afternoon there was of immense value – more than hundreds of PowerPoint presentation in an air conditioned office could ever hope to be.