On January 23, we were trying to find a Jamaican poet; or rather, a school named in his honor, in the place where he grew up.
However, we were lost…in May Pen, as soon as we turned off the highway. It’s a town we don’t know well, and Google Maps sadly let us down. Our visit to Claude McKay High School in James Hill, Clarendon (just below Bull Head Mountain) was turning into an adventure – confusing at first, but ultimately completely enjoyable.
After driving uphill for what seemed a very long time – my usually reasonably good navigational skills failing us badly – we found the town of Chapelton. Time was getting on. However, we were coordinating with the team from Lasco REAP, the environmental group that was launching its school program – this year, for the first time, in a high school. So we had time to stop and eat breakfast in an unpretentious restaurant near the town square. Now, I’m not sure why country food always tastes so good, but the liver, dumpling, yam and green banana was… Umm!
We pressed on, and at a small place with the evocative name of Trout Hall a group of men pointed us in the right direction. Clouds were gathering, but it was clear as we drove further on that there had been a drought. As we climbed, we saw what looked like bush fire smoke curling up from the forested hillsides. However, would there be rain? The staff of the Claude McKay High School (which seemed to be just round the next corner, and then wasn’t) had decided, perhaps with optimism, that it might very well rain. So the launch had been moved to the school hall. The first person we met was a cheerful U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer from Texas, who led us up a narrow staircase to the school library. There I found books by Jamaica’s poet of the Harlem Renaissance in glass cases, and a large display of photographs on the wall – of his family, his church (the Mount Zion Baptist Church) and his grave (in Calvary Cemetery, Woodside, Queens, New York).
Now, back to the business at hand. Firstly, who and what are REAP? Well, REAP stands for Releaf Environmental Awareness Program. It is a recycling, conservation & tree planting initiative in schools, supported by the local manufacturing firm Lasco. The project started off in primary and preparatory schools but the project is being piloted in high schools, including Claude McKay. It is the personal passion of Stephen Newland, who is the lead singer of a reggae band called Rootz Underground. Along with Idea Factory and supportive friends, he founded the Lasco-Rootz Releaf non-governmental organization in 2012 (the 50th anniversary year of Independence). It is competitive: schools vie for prizes in several different areas: tree planting, recycling, school gardens, anti-litter and so on. There is also a creative element – recycled fashion and dance, dub poetry and songs can win prizes too.
The project offers generous prizes in cash and kind (one young man from Glenmuir Preparatory School let out a loud gasp as Stephen listed them) – over J$10 million worth to date. So far, REAP has collected over 1.2 million plastic bottles; created over 100 new school gardens; and planted over 15,000 trees. So, there was “nuff excitement” in the assembly hall, which was fluttering with buttercup yellow shirts (the school uniform). Other schools were represented, including the aforementioned Glenmuir Prep and Edwin Allen High School.
The Member of Parliament for the area, Senator Pearnel Charles Jr., spoke after the School Principal, Mr. James Smith. In his role as State Minister in the Ministry of National Security, Senator Charles usually looks quite solemn; however, he made us all chuckle when he talked about the girl students “fixing their hair” in the tinted windscreen of his car before the event, unaware that he was on the other side. Senator Charles revealed that his first degree was in Biochemistry and Zoology – and that studying the sciences can lead to a good career.
Senator Charles made a strong point, however, about responsibility and respect. Just as in matters of national security, he pointed out, we must be responsible for our behavior towards the environment; and this comes down to self-respect. “Be responsible for you,” he emphasized – “What you think and what you do.” If you throw down a plastic bottle in the road, your action shows you have no respect for yourself, or for others. Respecting the environment also means you are protecting it. “We are trying to create good citizens,” he added. The young citizens in front of him looked serious (for the most part).
I was rather touched and pleased to see that the group of girls near the front were actually taking notes while I was speaking. I gave them a few topics that I hoped they would go and research afterwards – aspects of climate change, microbeads and the problem of plastic waste. There is so much to learn about. I also tried to suggest things that we should, and should not be doing to protect the environment – for example, stop burning things! Incidentally, I prepared a similar talk for the launch of the St. Catherine leg of Lasco REAP, due to take place the very next day, and you can read it here. However, due to a broken fan belt en route to Spanish Town, we never made it. I am so sorry that I did not get there – St. Jago Cathedral Preparatory School is a great school right in the middle of the town, but with a strong “green” focus.
We left the school, nibbling on packets of cookies kindly provided by Mr. Smith, and headed downhill, pausing to admire the views, the trees covered in brilliant red flowers. At the beginning of my speech, I quoted from a poem called Flame Heart by Claude McKay, which Mr. Smith murmured along with me. The few lines mention ground doves, pimento trees, and “the poinsettia’s red, blood-red in warm December.” Indeed, poinsettias were still blooming in some yards we passed. And we found McKay’s Sukee River – the little river that he missed so much and describes in one of his most famous poems. We had passed it, on the way up.
I picked up on something which Senator Charles said, which by coincidence I had already incorporated into my speech. Everything connects; if we hurt our environment, we hurt ourselves. We instinctively know this.
I wish we could have spent more time at the school, exploring the area and learning more about Claude McKay. It was beautiful up there – cloudy, but somehow bright and happy. I was so pleased to be invited by Stephen and his team. They are doing good work. I really hope to visit James Hill again, soon.
And now we know the way. Just follow the poinsettias, and the Sukee River.