Fifty-five years have come and gone since I set foot on the airport tarmac in Port au Prince and looked around for a stranger named Bernard Diederich who was to be my new boss. Bernard owned a weekly newspaper, The Haiti Sun, and he had asked Evon Blake to find him a young Jamaican who wanted to be a reporter.
Evon ran a magazine called Spotlight, and I used to pester him for assignments, so he decided to ship me off to his friend, Bernard. That was the beginning of an improbable career in which I have managed to earn a living as a journalist not only in Jamaica and Haiti but also in Canada and the United States.
Looking back on those years, the pervasive anxiety and the small triumphs, the missteps and the lucky breaks, I wonder how I survived. And I think of the hundreds of thousands of my fellow-Jamaicans who have set off for foreign lands in search of a living.
However have we managed?
Landing in Toronto in 1957, with the fifty American dollars my Uncle Alvin (Burnett) had slipped me as I ended a visit to his Manhattan apartment and boarded a plane for my new home in Canada, I immediately headed for the Toronto Star. The receptionist made a phone call and pointed me to the elevator. The Newsroom was on the fourth floor, she said, and the City Editor was expecting me.
After the usual formalities, the City Editor asked if I had ever worked as a reporter, and I told him yes I had spent three years at the Haiti Sun. He covered his amusement with a cough and summoned the Assistant City Editor, “Tell this guy where you worked,” he said.
“The Haiti Sun,” I replied.
Not just the City Editor and the Assistant City Editor but even a gaggle of reporters who had assembled nearby burst into laughter. The merriment spread as word got around. For some reason, these Canadian newspapermen thought the idea of working at The Haiti Sun was hilarious.
I was advised to “go out into the province and get some experience then come back and see us.”
And that was what I did. I found a reporting job in Timmins, about five hundred miles north of Toronto, and I learned about frostbite, earmuffs and thermal underwear. From there, I traveled to Sault Ste. Marie with a new wife and a baby on the way. I learned about snow tires and snow shovels and I ran out of heating oil one Christmas Day when the temperature was thirty degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). I also learned how neighborly Canadians can be. The couple next door noticed there was no smoke coming from our chimney, and brought us some oil.
After three years in the hinterland, I was able to get a job at the Toronto Star, as the City Editor had promised.
I cite these experiences to illustrate the hazards – and rewards – of emigration. I am sure many of our readers can tell even more colorful stories. Jamaicans have traveled far and wide to seek their fortunes, and many have achieved success beyond any reasonable expectation. While I was in Timmins, I interviewed a local official who told me he had met another Jamaican. It was farther north, near James Bay, and he had taken the man for an Eskimo because of his somewhat Oriental features, but this was no Eskimo; this was Jamaican artist Jerry Dunlop’s brother. I don’t remember what he was doing in the frozen North, but I have a vague idea he might have been a photographer. And I heard about another Jamaican, I think he was a DeSouza, who was an editor at a newspaper in Kirkland Lake, just south of Timmins.
Jamaicans have achieved success in many countries and in many fields, and I marvel at our adaptability. I think back to that mango tree in the schoolyard at Guy’s Hill, where – as eight-year-olds – we would sit in the shade and recite interminably, “Cincinnati, pork, pork; Birmingham iron, iron; Sheffield, steel, steel…” On and on through the long afternoon, gaining some idea of what went on in that big world beyond the shores of our tiny island. And I wonder whether our Jamaican education equipped us to adjust to other cultures. In secondary school, we studied the geography of Java and Sumatra, and the history of France and Germany, as well as our own geography and history. Perhaps we emigrants were also prepared for our new lives by Jamaica’s diversity. I have relatives and friends from so many different backgrounds – not just black and white, but also Jewish, Lebanese, Chinese, East Indian… I learned to accept our differences as well as our similarities and to accept various nuances of religion and culture.
In Haiti, I was able to get by with the French I had learned in high school – not well, you understand, but adequately. In Canada, I had some idea of what to expect of the climate and the culture. I had learned about Canada in school. And here in the United States, I was prepared for the differences I found – from spelling and politics to the way you use your knife and fork.
I learned about those things in school. I have never been to school in Canada, of course, but I don’t believe Canadians learn about Jamaica. At least I don’t think they did back in my Timmins days. Why else would a City Hall employee tell me – after learning I was from Jamaica – that her sister had gone to live in Tahiti?
And from what I read in American newspapers and see on TV, I don’t think education here is the same as it was back in Jamaica. I find most Americans blissfully unaware of the rest of the world.
So when I look back on my life and ponder the miracle of my survival, I thank my Jamaican teachers for preparing me to face the strange and frightening world across the sea.