Growing up in Shelter Rock, Spanish Town, St Catherine, Kirt Henry was never sheltered from hard life, crime, and violence.
He said as rough as it was, it was just him, his younger sister and his mother in their household and they made it work.
On weekends, he went to Linstead and Coronation Market to study at night – that is where his mother and grandmother made a living as vendors. His mother migrated when he was 13 in pursuit of a better life for the family, and he and his sister stayed with his grandmother and an aunt.
Today, the 27-year-old is an author, lecturer, curator and researcher. He also works as the assistant curator in education at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and was recently sent by the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport as part of the Jamaica delegation to represent the country at the world Expo 2020 in Dubai.
Henry said despite his circumstances, he never wanted to be an inner-city statistic.
“As one of my high school teachers would say, ‘I lived in the ghetto, but the ghetto did not live in me.’ Despite the notoriety of the area, the community had hard-working men and women that I drew inspiration from. Rather than being sheltered and buried, I used the rock as my foundation – as the medium from which I began carving the life I envisioned; not just for myself but for my family.”
Henry, an adjunct lecturer at The University of the West Indies, Mona (UWI), told the Sunday Observer that “growing up was a challenge.” He said his mother struggled at times to provide for him and his sister. He recalled that one morning, she did not have any money to send him to school, and he went, nonetheless. He walked to school with just enough money to purchase bulla and milk for lunch, which at the time was sold for $6.
“Even though my mother experienced financial challenges, she worked hard to ensure that we were comfortable. Among the many jobs that my mother did, at a point in her life she was a higgler. I would accompany my mother to Coronation Market to sell mangoes during mango season or the main products which were rose and almond and vanilla spices, especially during the Christmas period.
“Sometimes on Sundays, I would accompany my mother to neighbouring communities to sell detergent as a means to generate income. I would also accompany my grandmother to the Linstead Market and Coronation Market. At one point, I would go by myself to these markets to sell.”
One Saturday, a lady in the market said to him, “Where is your mother? You’re too handsome to be selling in the market”.
“For me, higglering is a dignified profession because it taught me how to be disciplined, financially independent, an excellent problem solver, a negotiator and a critical thinker; all skills that have assisted me greatly in my professional life. Higglers have been the backbone of Jamaica’s informal economy,” Henry said.
“Poverty humbles you and it was that humility that allowed me to work hard in silence and develop a great level of persistence.”
Henry attended McAuley Primary School and was later placed at the Jose Marti Technical High School after the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) exam, now called the Primary Exit Profile (PEP).
He said during the initial part of his mother’s departure, he continued selling with his grandmother in the market.
“My grandmother became my source of strength. My mother’s departure affected me greatly especially because of the absence of a father figure but somehow, I found strength in that. After my mother left, I started paying greater attention to my welfare and in my young mind at the time, I had to step up and manage the household,” he recalled.
“I started cooking sometimes even for my grandmother and I enjoyed it. I began managing monies sent by my mother and even paying bills by the age of 15. My mother is a woman of great faith and so she instilled in me the importance of having a relationship with God. Shortly after she left, I got baptised at a church in the neighbouring community where I was actively involved.”
He served as youth president and Sabbath school teacher. At Jose Marti, he served as a prefect, a member of the peer counselling body and was an active member of the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force (JCCF).
When he completed studies at Jose Marti, he had only four CSEC subjects. Through an evening school programme, he did three CAPE subjects and three additional CSEC subjects and passed all.
He then applied to The Mico University but was not accepted. At that point, he said he felt as if his dream was shattered. He told the Sunday Observer that he went into a state of depression and became withdrawn.
But then, a good friend from high school, without his permission, applied on his behalf to The UWI and he was accepted.
“In August of 2013, The UWI offered me a place to read for a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. I was reluctant, but I accepted the offer and started attending classes by faith as my mother could not afford to pay my tuition. At the time, the Jamaica Social Investment Fund (JSIF) was offering a scholarship through my community’s benevolent society of which I was an active member,” he said.
The scholarship was only being awarded to finalising students and at the time, he was in his first year.
“I applied nonetheless because staying home without a job was not an option for me. I was later informed at an advanced stage of the semester that I was exempted because of my service to the community, and I was awarded the scholarship which covered my tuition for the year.”
Henry said he struggled to adjust and at the end of the semester, his GPA was only 2.28. That, he said, was a wake-up call. By semester two, his GPA was 3.60 and he was placed on the Dean’s Honour Roll.
Then in 2016, he graduated with honours and started graduate school. He had started to attend graduate seminars and started writing his research proposal for the PhD before even finishing his bachelor’s degree.
“A part of my wanting to aspire to the highest level of the education system is not only to challenge myself but to prove to young men and women from Shelter Rock and other inner-city communities that it is possible,” he said.
Henry has since delivered presentations on Revival dress in Cuba, North America, and has been featured in documentary films on Revivalism.
“As a first-generation university graduate and the very first in my family to pursue a PhD, it is my hope for members of my family and my community to realise their full potential and follow their dreams to the highest level. I am about to submit my PhD dissertation which focuses on the religious and cultural significance of dress in Revival rituals and ceremonies across Jamaica.
“I intend to pursue my passion as a museum professional and as an academic with a research agenda that unites black religious studies and cultural studies to examine the intersection of race, dress, performance, spirit, and agency as areas of liberation in African-derived religious spaces in the Caribbean,” he said.