One love, One mission – Vicky Baker talks to Jamaican women fighting for positive change

‘Concrete jungle…Where the living is harder,’ sang Bob Marley of his Trench Town home in the 70s. It hasn’t got any easier. Corrugated scrap metal creates a never-ending patchwork of rusty fencing. Hiding behind them, rows of bland, concrete shacks. Ever so often the monotony is broken by a colourful mural. Sometimes you recognise a portrait of a reggae star; other times it’s an unknown – a young man with his dates inscribed below ‘in loving memory’.

Trench Town may be the most famous of Kingston’s ghettos, but life is equally challenging in the nearby area of ‘Kingston 13’. Poverty and unemployment have always been a problem here, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that gang warfare became an issue – when politicians supplied guns to their supporters in a bid to intimidate the opposition. When police and politicians became the enemy, people turned to the local gang leaders for help.

In 1988, Margaret Bolt took over as headmistress of Kingston 13’s St. Peter Claver Primary School. It was just days after Hurricane Gilbert had wreaked havoc across the island. Morale was at an ultimate low and gangs were running riot. Miss Bolt found herself having to phone ahead in the morning to check it was safe for her to come in. Sometimes she’d need an escort from one of the local gang members just to ensure she made it through the gates. Truancy was a major problem, as was disruptive behaviour. Weapons were brought into the classrooms; pupils tried to stab each other with pencils. One of the pupils was a son of a gang leader, the local ‘Don’, and rebelled when he couldn’t get his own way or command the same respect he did on the streets.

Miss Bolt admitted feeling out of her depth at the beginning and much of her progress came through trial and error. As in many Jamaican schools, there was just one room, like a desolate warehouse, divided into age groups by chalk boards. The first thing she did was create a more motivational working environment by forming separate classrooms. “But then I realised that the problems ran much deeper,” she recalls. “It was the attitudes that needed changing – the pupils’ and the staff’s.” She can pinpoint this realisation to an exact moment, when she was called to pacify a particularly disruptive Grade Six class. Despairing, she asked why they behaved so badly, what did they want, what could she do to help. She was horrified to hear a 12-year-old girl say, “Nothing. There’s no hope for us.”

Miss Bolt realised just how low the children’s self-esteem had sunk. She thought of Bob Marley’s lyric, ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery – none but ourselves can free our minds.’ This was the message she wanted to relay: equality, hope and, above all, self-improvement. So they began to use the songs of Marley and other Jamaican musicians, such as Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’. They were lyrics they could relate to and, gradually, they were encouraged to write their own songs and poems. Miss Bolt also encouraged staff to take walks with her in the community to increase interaction. Within five years, the attendance at PTA meetings rose from 25 to 350 – including fathers, who in Jamaica are notorious for leaving education to the mothers. “Now parents are too involved,” Miss Bolt jokes. “I have one father who comes in almost every day now and asks – what can I do for you today Miss Bolt?”

By inspiring the children and involving the parents, Miss Bolt has dramatically reduced truancy, violence and illiteracy. The number of pupils has grown from 300 to 1,200 and attendance has risen from less than 50% to 94%. The school has earned itself the reputation ‘the oasis of the West’ and even inspired a Canadian docu-film, Change from Within. Most recently, they have set up a Knowledge Centre, where pupils have access to computers for developing projects. The room is unobtrusively decorated in the colours of Air Jamaica – whom Miss Bolt convinced to sponsor the project. The school also gets help from a Canadian NGO to pay the wages of the PE and Music teachers.

But however many positive influences the children are surrounded by, Miss Bolt can’t keep all the negative forces at bay. When I asked the children about their favourite musicians Bob Marley is among them, but so is Bounty Killer (aka ‘the Warlord’ or ‘the poor people’s governor’); the artist who has recently been under scrutiny at Scotland Yard for his violent and homophobic lyrics. His songs include ‘Kill for Fun’, ‘Gun Thirsty’ and ‘Blood Bath’. Bounty Killer claims his only ‘victim’ is the ‘riddim’ and his lyrics should not be taken seriously. But Judith Bodley, programme director of Zip FM, Kingston’s fourth biggest radio station, argues, “People may not be literally killing each other as a result – but the language used breeds hostility.”

On Zip fm, Judith devotes one day a week to non-violent music by local, female artists. “I tend to find that on the whole female musicians do more to promote peace,” she says. “They make more ‘message songs’, which are positive and full of advice. [Aggressive] music has its place, as it reflects the way people feel, but it shouldn’t be forced on everyone. If people want to listen to it, they should have to make a conscious effort to seek it out on the dancefloor.” Two female musicians dedicated to promoting ‘good vibrations’ are Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. Along with Rita Marley, they formed the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s legendary female backing group. Since then, they have both achieved hugely successful solo careers and received Orders of Distinction for their services to music and Jamaica.

I visited Marcia and Judy at their homes in Kingston’s Beverley Hills, which is far less ostentatious than its American counterpart. Their homes are respectable, but modest – at least for international stars renowned as the ‘Queens of Reggae’. In their early days, Reggae musicians saw themselves as revolutionaries, not anarchists. They were socially conscious singers, full of hope and wanting to make positive change. They used metaphors of war, hailing music as a weapon, but they were pacifists through and through. “Bob Marley was a warrior,” says Judy. “He fought with his guitar, his pen and his vocals and the message traveled to the four corners of the world. It was never about money or fame. It was about getting the message to the people. We didn’t even know there was money in music.”

Judy and Marcia are not surprised that schools used Marley’s music as a teaching aid. They traveled the world with him, witnessing the positive effects. They saw him unite the hands of Jamaica’s political arch-rivals during a concert in 1976; they saw a Zimbabwean Minister of State, moved by his music, visit his home on Hope Road; and they were personally thanked by young fans across the globe. “I have always thought that music should be used in schools,” says Marcia. “Kids grab on to the songs so fast,” adds Judy, who has recently turned to gospel singing, “Music is not a solution, but it can increase awareness. We can use it to destroy or we can build peace and self-esteem.”

Building self-esteem is a constant struggle for Miss Bolt at St. Peter Claver. “There’s still an issue with colour here,” she confides with serious concern. I realise this when a young girl crosses the playground to hold my hand. She gazes at my white skin with awe. “Wow, that’s so beautiful,” she
mumbles dreamily. “They will look at you today and see wealth and success, and it will seem very ‘foreign’,” says Miss Bolt as she takes me to visit Grade Six.

But ‘foreign’ or not, I feel welcomed and accepted by the class of 12-year-olds. They rise out of their chairs as we enter, chanting ‘Good Morning Miss Bolt… and friend’. They patriotically sing the National Anthem and explain their flag: yellow represents the sun, green the land and black the strength and creativity of the people. (Black used to equate with hardship until the Government officially revised it last July.) Miss Bolt listened to her pupils and encouraged their ambitions. With beaming smiles, they enthusiastically tell me what they want to do when they leave school. There are aspiring lawyers, teachers, genetic engineers, nurses, surgeons and real-estate agents.

As for the rebellious boy who was the son of the local ‘don’, Miss Bolt was strict, but fair – and he responded. He joined the Boy Scouts on her insistence and learned to put his natural leadership qualities to good use. He went on to be voted ‘Most Improved Pupil’ by his peers. He’s now at school in Miami, following a family move, but he still takes the time to write to his former headmistress. A new letter arrived that morning. In the land of plenty, he tells her he misses St. Peter Claver, he misses Jamaican music, he misses his home.

Vicky Baker, Assistant Editor
Overseas Magazine