FLUFFY chicks skip across Shelly-Ann Crossdale's toes, as she stands in a corner of her chicken coop reading lines from a book she has been writing for years. The page of the blue exercise book titled My Life's Story is illuminated by a single bulb.
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains recollections of abuse, including childhood abuse and physical violence that may be triggering for some individuals.
Crossdale is a chicken and cash crop farmer making a living in the hills of St Thomas with four of her six children and partner. She farms and sells chicken meat, coffee, cucumber, corn and tomatoes on three plots of land.
But the book she is writing is stirring the memories, good and bad. It's why she says she must often stop, to ease the surge of pain.
The most painful of those memories that dips her voice to a whisper, starts in the inner-city community of Waterhouse in St Andrew when she was still a teenager.
It was the late 1990s and she was serially abused by her adult live-in boyfriend and babyfather. On that fateful day as he chased her in their house with a screwdriver, she told herself, 'Mi nah run no more'. So, when he stabbed at her with the screwdriver, she stabbed him back and ran for her life, without looking back.
Frightened and alone, the 17-year-old hid in a gully before begging a neighbour to hide her in a backyard shed. When the angry mob discovered her, "I gave up right there". As the mob kicked, shoved and cut her, one woman spoke up and said, 'let the police handle it'.
It was the sister of her boyfriend who then informed her, 'He's dead'.
"I fainted," Crossdale said, as she went silent.
Charged for murder, she spent five months in the remand centre before a life-altering intervention. "His son spoke on my behalf, and [told the court] it was self-defence," she said. Unbeknownst to her, the attack was witnessed. "The case was dismissed, and I did not get any sentence".
Two years later, after taking construction, bar and other odd jobs to feed her newborn son (she was pregnant with the deceased's child unbeknownst to her), and sleeping on friends' couches, "I heard I could stay at my grandparents' house, and I started farming". This was 2001.
She saved some money and started with 50 chickens in a coop she built with her daughter. "That helped my kids through high school," she said. But theft caused the business to run down.
Hearing about the European Union-United Nations' Spotlight Initiative-funded business and life skills training programme for domestic violence survivors, Crossdale enrolled so she could acquire skills to rebuild her chicken business. "I told them my vision is to extend the chicken business, do my cash crops and get a vehicle where I can get to distribute," she said.
The women's economic empowerment programme implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi Country Office in Jamaica in partnership with municipal corporations in Clarendon and St Thomas trained 80 survivors like Crossdale.
With financial support from Spotlight Initiative, she purchased 250 chickens, spray pans to fertilise crops and seeds â€” an important input for women farmers like Crossdale who account for roughly 32 per cent of registered farmers in Jamaica.
"It helped me a lot," she said of the grant. "With 250 chickens, I got 500 and 600 pounds of chicken meat. Before, I harvested on average 200 pounds of chicken meat."
That's a threefold increase in production from her modest chicken enterprise.
Crossdale said she was most impressed with the business planning guidance and budgeting training which is helping her to assess her true earnings from her business. "I never knew, for example, that you should deduct costs for phone cards and taxi fares used in the business. So, it helped me a lot to kind of understand how to run the business and make the business productive," she said.
The book she is writing will one day unveil the journey to her hard-won victory. It starts, she said, when she was a little girl.
"I was sexually abused from when I was five. My stepfather tried to rape me, but it didn't happen because I ran. I was on my own from about age 14, boxed [moving around without support] from one place to the other, [experiencing] every abuse you can think of."
While living in Waterhouse with her aunt, she forced her to cook, clean and wash for the entire household, Crossdale said. But the folks at St Patrick's Foundation tested her and found that she was far more advanced than the teaching being received. She later moved to Ocho Rios to live with her father before returning to Waterhouse.
It was then that she said her aunt forced her to cohabit with a working adult male who showed her interest. She was 15 years old. He was the sole breadwinner and she cared for the home and their first-born child. Her life of abuse under his thumb was built on a foundation of exploitation and abandonment.
Fast forward to 2023 and Crossdale continues to channel her pain into her book while forging new paths to express her personal vision. "One of the things I achieved which I can be proud of, is I sent myself to nursing school and got my diploma in practical nursing. My children say, 'mummy, mi proud of you. You never give up'."
She has similar words of encouragement for those in abusive relationships. "Don't give up and keep towards the goal because even now I tell myself I'm not finished yet. As long as I can afford it and mi a work towards it, I'm going to get the CXC subjects and move on to either enrolled nurse or registered nurse. I'm not stopping".
The above story is the last of three from the UNDP on domestic violence survivors who did business and life skills courses funded by Spotlight Initiative under a programme run by the municipal corporations of St Thomas and Clarendon. In stories told exclusively to All Woman, these ladies have come through much, successfully and triumphantly, and their stories could help others do the same.