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Disabled MoBay couple robbed 18 times, but pressing on

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large Western Bureau cummingsm@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 09, 2014    

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MONTEGO BAY, St James — Leopold Thompson says that he has been robbed at gunpoint of millions of dollars in cash and produce about 18 times during his almost three decades as a peanut vendor at the Charles Gordon Market in Montego Bay.

But that has not prevented the 58-year-old physically challenged man from making an honest living, and serving his growing number of customers in his quest to provide for his family.

Those who know him well say that he has the "heart of a lion" and have given him kudos for his hard work and perseverance, despite his daily challenges.

Since 1987, Thompson, also known as 'Oney', and his disabled wife of 25 years, Jacinth, have been working assiduously to build a successful peanut-vending business.

This they have achieved to some extent, but it wasn't easy.

Born with poliomyelitis in the breadbasket parish of St Elizabeth, Thompson, from an early age, followed in his father's footsteps and entered the field of farming.

But the scourge of praedial larceny soon forced him to leave agriculture and to try his hand at 'buying and selling peanuts'.

Pretty soon, on the invitation of friends, he found himself selling peanuts at the Charles Gordon Market in St James.

"My mother and father were very, very poor; they could not help me, so I decided to do some farming to make a living. But because people used to steal my things, I decided to buy and sell peanuts instead," Thompson told the Jamaica Observer.

Vending at the market is challenging, he added, but stressed that he had "no options".

"It rough, but it can gwaan, because is that I am living off right now. It is it that feed mi family and send mi two children to school," he stressed.

One of his daughters, he said, graduated from the University of Technology (UTech) last year, while the other is currently in her second year at the same educational institution.

It was while selling at the market that the bulky Thompson met his charming, small-framed wife.

"She used to work at a guest house and every Friday when she get her day-off she used to come and buy peanuts from me, and as a man all over, mi sey two lyrics at the same time, until I finally convinced her; and right now we have no regrets," said a smiling Thompson.

Now, the couple, having made Moy Hall, St James, their home, work diligently as they seek to satisfy their customers.

Most days 'Oney' would make his way on the bus and sometimes even charter a taxi, to sections of St Elizabeth to purchase peanuts, returning most times around midnight, and getting up as early as 5:00 am for another trip.

Though hectic that may be, he also finds time to cultivate roughly five acres of peanuts twice yearly on leased lands in Nain, St Elizabeth, employing two persons permanently, and sometimes as many as 80, when the nuts are ready for harvesting.

His dream, however, is to purchase a pickup truck, which would make the transportation of his produce easier and cut costs.

A dream, he said, that would have long become a reality, had it not been for robbers who have preyed upon his peanut business.

Citing examples, 'Oney' said that just two years ago, thieves broke into his storeroom at the Charles Gordon Market and stole peanuts valued at $300,000. This, he said, was followed by another break-in less than a year later, this time resulting in the loss of peanuts valued at $150,000.

He recalled too, that he was held up at his stall in the market by gunmen and men wielding machetes and brandishing knives, who robbed him of several thousand dollars.

"Plenty of them just come in, put the gun at mi head and just cut off mi apron and tek all of the money," said 'Oney'.

"Several times too when I am going home dem (robbers) hold me up and push then hand in mi pocket and tek out the money and gone with it," he added.

No arrests, he said, have been made in any of the slew of robberies.

"But inspite of this mi nah give up. Everybody sey mi have the heart of a lion, mi is like Job. From mi have life, mi nah give up because better nuh deh. I don't have a trade and I have a family to feed. So mi still give God thanks because mi still alive. Life is the greatest thing, from you have it, you can move on again."

He believes that some of the vendors at the market have had a hand in the robberies because of his thriving peanut business.

"To be honest, there are some guys here (at the market) who a fight against me, saying that it is time I leave the market, so them set up man fi rob me. Some even ask me if I plan to do another 27 years in the market. It look like dem want mi fi leave so that they can get everything," argued 'Oney', who is arguably the largest peanut vendor at the St James Parish Council-owned and operated facility.

Just over a year ago, the St James Parish Council handed over a new police post to the Jamaica Constabulary Force at the market.

At that time, Assistant Commissioner of Police Devon Watkis, who was in charge of Area One, said the facility would be manned by 14 policemen. The opening of the facility came in response to charges of a number of criminal activities in area.

Since then, according to the police, there has been a significant reduction of crime in the market and its environs.

Jacinth, however, feels that more needs to be done to protect vendors and customers at the market, and is of the view that 'Oney' and herself, are targeted because of their physical disabilities.

"Just because we walk a certain way and we are not strong like others several persons would just come up and thief the peanut and run away.

"Everyday persons will pass and beg peanut, while others just come up and dip them hands in there and tek the peanut. Everyday we lose at least five pounds of peanuts that way," explained Jacinth, who walks with a limp.

She told the Sunday Observer, however, that she prefers to give away the peanuts than to be robbed.

"I said to myself that it is better to give them a little than them sit back and watch and try to come rob us, and the more we give God will bless us more. So even though mi feel tired and frustrated at times at how much we have to give away, we still do it," said Jacinth, noting that others sell peanuts in the market, yet they are not targeted.

"We are the only ones, them come beg. I don't know if it's because my husband is selling here for so long why they target us. But it's only we them target," she emphasised.

She said that they also had to contend with what she described as disrespectful behaviour from customers.

"Many times people try to disrespect us. But I have to put them in their shoes and point out to them that it's not because they might see both of us like that (with disabilities), we are human beings, and we come from somewhere and we have families," she argued.

She said that another problem which they are struggling with is the large sums of money owed to them by customers who credit peanuts and refuse to pay.

"The amount of money owed to us is too much. A lot of customers come and credit the peanuts and don't come back. They instead buy from other vendors. It's a whole heap of money owing to us. Believe me, I know one man who owes us about $1 million, and so because of this it is difficult for us to survive," she explained.

Still, she stressed, giving up is not an option right now.

"We are having a hard time, but we can't afford to give up. If we give up, what can we do?" she asked.

"We have our children, and had it not been for the peanuts, we could not school them, so we have to give God the glory, and that's why we can't give up, because under our circumstances where both of us are physically challenged and because of our age, it will not be easy to go out there to get a job," she reasoned.

The 48-year-old vendor added that in spite of the many challenges, her husband still provides his mother and a brother with financial support.

"Even though you see him physically challenged he takes care of his brother, who is epileptic and his mother who is sickly. He also took care of his father for years before he died two years ago.

My husband is really a family man. Trust me, he really works hard for his family. Not even a man with good hands and feet work as hard as my husband. Sometimes he would come in at about 2:00 am and wake up by about 5 o'clock to go to the market," said Jacinth, adding that 'Oney' is not easily discouraged.

"He, 'Oney,' is really a fighter. A lot of people who know us said they would give up and leave the market a long time ago, when they hear about the amount of challenges my husband has encountered.

But still, I have no regrets that we are in the peanut business because when I look at life I have come to realise that had it not been for the peanuts we could not reach where we are now. God helped us that we build a good home, send our children to university; we can pay our bills; we can put food on our table ... we have so much to be thankful for, and we have no regrets," said Jacinth.

"God really answers prayers because when I was a child I said to God: God when I grow up I want you to provide a good husband, so that I will not have to be obligated to my family; so that nobody will have to use me and abuse me and work me out in order for me to get things from them. So, God has really opened a way out for me, I could not have found a better man," an emotional Jacinth added.

'Oney' too, believes that God has sent him a wonderful companion.

"I could never find a woman as good as her in the world. She really, really takes good care of me and we love and take care of each other."

Jason Hall, a peanut porridge vendor, said that the couple treats their customers very well.

"They are good people, they treat us very well," said Hall.

"I am loyal to them and they are loyal to me. At times they credit me peanuts, but they don't have to worry because they know I will pay them."

Most of the Thompson's customers purchase peanuts to make porridge, 'drops', punch and to bake them for sale on the streets and at a number of events.

Viviana Tomlinson, a vendor who has been selling at the Charles Gordon Market for more than a decade, said that the couple is generous and hard-working.

"I even get credit from them sometimes," she quipped.

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