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A Jamaican Life History

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Flora, the Story of a Jamaican Woman

The following life history belongs to a Jamaican woman that I will call Flora. This is a fictitious name for the sake of confidentiality.  When using the life history method of ethnography there are strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, a very intimate look into that person’s life is obtained. On the other, it is based on the selective memory of only one person. I think we all tend to remember our past through rose colored glasses. If you were to speak to more than one family member you would have two different histories to some extent, but still it gives you great insight into their culture and past.

I met Flora when my father-in-law became too ill to live on his own. She is a wonderful person. She was very accommodating and did everything possible to keep him comfortable in his final days. Her disposition was always sunny and warm. When I asked her if she would tell me about growing up in Jamaica, she agreed and we immediately made plans to meet.

            Flora started by showing me a hand-drawn map of Jamaica given to her by one of her American employers. It was drawn by a Jamaican artist and highlighted all of the important historical moments in Jamaican history. She told me the legend of the Giddy House in Port Royal. It has been called “the most sinful place on earth.” One night the entire town was swallowed up by the sea, leaving only the Giddy House behind. Still to this day anyone who goes inside experiences a spinning sensation said to be from the hauntings of the pirates and sinners who died there.* I asked her if she had been inside and she replied, “No way, I would be too scared to go in there!”

Flora told me of the fruits that are sweeter in Jamaica than any other place on earth. She told me of the beautiful flowers especially the roses that were grown there. She said that when the warm Jamaican breezes blow the air was filled with the sweet smell of the roses, unlike anything we could imagine here. The music of Jamaica has always been reggae and still is today.

            Flora is from the parish of St. Ann where her father was born and raised. He was one of 21 children. She is the youngest of 17 children. Her mother (now age 97 and also living in Rochester, NY) gave birth to a set of twins and a set of triplets. When Flora was just four-months-old, her father sent her mother on a vacation to England where many of her relatives still live today. She didn’t see her mother again until she was nine-years-old. Her father raised her and the rest of the children. Some of her aunts came in to help with the children. In Jamaica all of the adults in the neighborhood looked after the children. If you were caught doing something wrong by any adult in the community your parents would know about it.

            Flora’s family was fortunate to have a large home and a profitable farm. Not everyone was as lucky. The children would get up at 5:00 am to do their chores before school. The girls carried water from the public water reservoir while the boys fed the animals and cut wood. All of the children walked to school. It was about four or five miles for Flora’s family. Often times they were barefoot, but the uniforms that they were required to wear had to be spotless. Coming to school late or dirty was not acceptable. Children were “whipped” at school and again at home.

            Children from the age of three-and-a-half to six went to Infant School. From there they went to Primary School until they were 13. After they completed Primary School they would go on to Comprehensive School, but they had to pass a test to continue on. Comprehensive School took two to four years to complete. There was no such thing as summer vacation. School was all year long. From there, if the parents could afford it, they would go to University Mona or to the school of Art, Science, and Technology. They did not have grants or loans. Today there are more opportunities and help with tuition costs then there were back then.

The number one income in Jamaica was from farming. Flora’s father had cows, pigs, and goats. He grew numerous crops including: coffee, chocolate, sugar cane, yams, and ginger. He owned about 160 acres. The farm had been much larger but was split between the brothers. Animals and tractors were not used for farming. Everything was done by human hands. Jamaicans believed that it was cruel to use animals for farming and could not afford machinery or tractors. The red dirt was softer but there was also clay which is like a brick when it is dry. Animals were slaughtered each week and sold along with the crops to the government for international export.

            Flora’s father employed many people. The children were also expected to do their share, and they were paid for their work. Friends would help each other with their chores so that they could play together when the work was done. In July and August reaping ladies would come to the farm to peel and dry ginger. The children would fill Crocus (Burlap) bags with ginger. The boys washed the ginger, and the girls helped the reaping ladies with the peeling and drying.

            There were certain times for everything, and there was always work to do.  The cool, rainy months for planting were December through April. The temperatures could be as low as 48-50 degrees. In June, July, and August the temperatures could get to 115 degrees. Hurricane season was in September and October. The biggest hurricane that Flora remembers was in 1990. Kids loved to play outside in the storms, but it could be dangerous. Homes had zinc roofs and the slabs could fly off of the roof and cut a person’s head off. Approximately five children per year were killed by the storms. They also had earthquakes that could open roads, but mostly they only felt slight tremors. She does remember a huge earthquake in 1992.

            The children played baseball, hide and seek, cricket, and punch ball with their friends in the neighborhood. Television was a luxury that not every family had. If you had a television the whole neighborhood would gather around it to watch the shows.  If a family owned a car the children were not allowed to touch it or get into it unless they were going on a holiday to the Dunns River Falls or other scenic place for the day. Otherwise they walked every where: school, church, friends’, relatives’, and neighbors’ homes.

            Sundays were for going to church and visiting friends and family. It was a quiet day with no farming. Flora’s family was Pentecost and went to the Church of Christ. Religion was an important part of their life. On Sundays they would roast breadfruit on a wood fire. Everything was cooked on a wood fire, unlike today.

            Holidays were much like Sundays. Christmas was the biggest holiday. They decorated with fresh flowers and Christmas cards. Everything was clean as a whistle. The mahogany floors were spotless. It was a religious day celebrating the birth of Christ. Everyone was at peace. If you had animals you might slaughter one and give the meat to your neighbors. It was a day of doing for each other, a day of giving, sharing, and eating.

            Most of the cooking was done ahead of time. A Christmas meal would consist of “pot roast steaks”, rice, peas, hard dough bread, and black rum cake. There was a special Christmas drink called Saril. It was a purple fruit that was cooked in boiling water and rum or wine was added. The fruit was picked off in sections and the seed was saved to plant. The hard dough bread or Dutch bread was round and decorated.

            Easter was similar to Christmas. It too was a day of rest and visiting with friends. All of the stores would be closed except maybe one window for emergencies. Again, the cooking was all done ahead and no one ate meat, only fish which had a taste of its own caught fresh from the seas around Jamaica. They would also have buns and cheese, Saril, lemonade, or other non-alcoholic drinks.

Dating was difficult because Jamaican parents consider even their 25 and 26-year-old children to be just that― children. They were still not too old to be “whipped” for wrong doing. The worst disgrace of all was for a girl to become pregnant before she was married. Of course the family loved the baby after its birth. If you were a sibling and saw something going on and did not report it to your parents you would be punished as well.  Flora said that she received many beatings from her sisters because she always told her father when she saw something going on. It was better to be beaten by her sisters than to disgrace her father.

            Flora met her husband when she was 25. They met when their families happened to be at the same function in Kingston. They kept in touch and gradually drifted from the group to see each other. Five years after they met they were married. She did not live with her husband for eleven months after they were married. Out of respect for her father she would not move in with her husband until he provided her with a nice home to live in. Her husband was a taxi driver when they met, which is what many young men did for a living in Jamaica at that time.

            Flora and her husband were together for 14 years and had two children. Her children were born in 1977 and 1978. Things were changing in Jamaica. When she and her husband separated in 1992 she moved to Canada and then to New York. Her children followed her, one in January and one in May. The children stayed with family members until they could get through customs.

            Her daughter now lives in Atlanta, GA and has a baby boy. Her son is still living with her in Rochester, NY. Flora has worked for the Red Cross and as a Home Health Aide caring for the elderly in their final days. She is planning a trip to Jamaica this summer. She and a teacher from Rochester are arranging a meeting with a minister and a disk jockey from Jamaica. They are planning a seminar to educate Jamaicans about the problems that kids are facing today. She wants to convince parents to do the right things for their children. She said that they need to be taught to use the English language correctly and stop using Patwah which is Jamaican slang. It does not make them sound intelligent. The teacher has documented on video tape the way that Jamaican kids sound and are treated when they use the slang in American classrooms.

            Flora continued by saying that family life in Jamaica is so different from when she was a child. Although there are more advantages and luxuries now then when she was growing up, there isn’t the support system that families used to have in the community. Everyone cared for each others’ kids back then. She said that the kids today need tough love. It didn’t kill anyone back then, and it won’t kill anyone today. She wants to help do the right things for our kids because in her words, “They are the men and women of tomorrow.”


* I looked up the Giddy House on the internet and found out that an earthquake and a tidal wave hit Port Royal in the late 16 hundreds and washed away most of the buildings and inhabitants of the time. The Giddy House was one of the few buildings left standing. To this day it still sits at an angle alone in the sand, but unfortunately I couldn’t find anything about the spinning sensations and hauntings or if people were still allowed to enter it at their own risk…

Jamaican Coast

Map of Jamaica



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