Columns

The last stone

BY LANCE NEITA

Saturday, December 07, 2013    

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THERE is a story about Marcus Garvey that has not been told before and deserves telling and retelling. In fact, it is a tale that should create reverberations across the continent of Africa. It is a local story, home-grown, from authentic sources, and known only to a few who were directly involved in its origin.

It is not a legend, in that it is factual, but it has a tinge of wonderment and folk tale material that will very likely reshape and create additions to the narrative as time goes along.

But, before I tell the story, let us first look at how legends transcend international borders and are retold as miracles, duppy stories, folk tales, and myths.

In my youth. duppy stories were a delightful but scary pastime, best recounted at sunset; sending us to bed to have nightmares about rolling calves, moonshine babies, the three-foot horse, and that hellish Ol' Hige.

The legend of the mysterious passenger who disappears from the back of a taxi at Flat Bridge when she is supposed to be on her way to Bog Walk is a common one. What makes it worse for the poor driver is that he did not stop and only discovers she is missing when he arrives at the gas station and turns around to collect his fare.

A delicious addititive to the story is that when he asks if anyone has seen her, the locals describe her down to a 't' and then assure the taxi driver that "is a duppy, she turn up every full moon night, don't worry, is not you alone". Interestingly, this same story is repeated in similar circumstances abroad.

The story, which is not true, is nevertheless believable, as it is of the stuff of which legends are made. And for weeks after, the driver's head will "raise" whenever he enters the gorge, and he never fails to take a quick count of his passengers before and after the turn at Flat Bridge.

But Flat Bridge, my dear drivers, is home to many a duppy story. The bridge was built by slave labour in the mid 18th century. The plantations in the area were obliged to provide one slave out of every fifty to work on the River Road Bridge, as it was first named, with the road later to be known as the Sixteen Mile Walk. Many a slave died or was drowned during the construction and from the severe beatings and tirades of their masters.

It is said that every Good Friday at noon the ghosts of the departed slaves gather at the western corner of the bridge. So when you next see the sign 'Flat Bridge closed, take Barry or Sligoville', take it. For more reasons than one.

The case of Mr Brown and the famous coffin that travelled around Jamaica in the mid 1960s is well remembered because so many people were deluded into believing it as a fact. The story goes that a coffin, with a John Crow circling overhead, would suddenly appear unscheduled in a village or town square, drawing huge crowds who would rush to the spot only for no one to produce any evidence of having seen the thing. But, for appearances' sake, having to swear for days after that they saw it. Bob Marley immortalised the legend with his big hit "Who is Mr Brown?"

Some of the most famous legends of Jamaica circle around the golden river tables that have emerged, so it is said, in diverse places all over our map: Spanish Town, Discovery Bay, and the Moneague Lake being the most notable.

Jamaica has its tales, but so do other countries. Great Britain probably has the most unbelievable but popular folk tales. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster, the adventures of Robin Hood, and the great deeds of King Arthur of the Round Table to name a few.

African legends are whispered among Jamaicans as we share both cultural and historical backgrounds. Shango of the Oyo clan is a well-told historical story in West Africa, which has been taken beyond realism, but nevertheless plays an influential role in action and consequence. Shango was thought to have mystical powers as Sky Father, Spirit of Thunder. He was one of the principal ancestors of the Yoruba people.

Here is where we get close to Jamaica. As the story goes, he initiated the style of plaiting men's hair long before Rasta. Yes, he saw how beautiful his favourite wife Oya looked with her elegant hair, so he ordered her to plait his in the same fashion. This caused a major scandal, as hitherto no one was allowed to touch the king's head.

Legends are delightful things because they sometimes take us out of the doldrums and boring ordinariness to heights of heroism and dreams of accomplishing the impossible.

But let us come back to Marcus Garvey and his hometown, St Ann's Bay. Cynthia Graham, former secretary/manager of the St Ann Parish Council, is a repository of facts and history regarding the Bay. Cynthia has produced a story board which she calls the Santa Gloria Trail, which leads to 10 important historical sites around town, dispelling any notion that St Ann's Bay is a boring town.

The trail leads from the remains of the first Christian church built by the Spaniards, past Columbus's statue, going by an old Spanish jail built from a 1771 fort, the St Ann Oval or ball ground, the Northview Church of Christ built on an old wharf site, the Burrowes Printery where Garvey worked as an apprentice, the Anglican church hall, the Methodist church dedicated on the first Emancipation Day, and the Baptist churchyard with a large tomb in which the slaves buried their chains on Emancipation Day 1838.

The Trail comes to a stop at the foot of Garvey's statue at the front of the St Ann's Bay Parish Library in Lawrence Park, and therein lies a tale of prophecy, vision, and conviction.

The statue was scultptured by Alvin Marriott and was unveiled on October 17, 1976.

An imposing cut stone wall was constructed behind the statue with Garvey's words "we declare to the world Africa must be free" affixed.

Over time, and with several public functions held at the park, observers noticed that one stone at the top of the eastern section was missing. Questions were raised, and when the contractor, Hezekiah Green, was quizzed, he said that the humble workmen who built the wall had asked that the stone be laid only when all of Africa became free.

In the face of this moving demonstration of a determined alliance with and loyalty to the African cause thousands of miles away, the request was upheld and gladly supported by the parish council.

On Sunday, February 11, 1990, we watched with the rest of the world as Nelson Mandela walked hand in hand with his wife Winnie from his imprisonment at the Victor Verstor penitentiary.

And on August 17, 1994, following the first multiracial elections held in South Africa electing a black man, Mandela, as president, a small ceremony was held at Garvey's statue in Jamaica. The Nigerian High Commissioner, His Excellency Professor Emmanuel Ugochukwa, did the honours. Prayers were said. Garvey's message was repeated. And the last stone was laid.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communica-tions consultant. Comments to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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