Tue | Feb 18, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Praisesong For Donna McFarlane

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:43 AM

Last weekend, family and friends of Dr Donna McFarlane gathered from the Caribbean, North and South America, Europe and across Jamaica to celebrate her life. As we stood in the garden at Liberty Hall on Friday morning, pouring libations in her honour, we saw a group of excited children streaming into the museum. Their presence was a vivid manifestation of Donna’s vision. As curator/director of Liberty Hall: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey, Donna knew that the teachings of the great pan-Africanist must be passed on from generation to generation.

The story of the museum is a parable of what can be accomplished by far-sighted activists working together. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust had been responsible for the preservation of Liberty Hall as a protected site. But, without adequate funding, the Trust did not manage to restore the dilapidated building. 

In 1997, Elaine Melbourne, a former diplomat with sophisticated negotiating skills, asked Burchell Whiteman, then minister of education and culture, if he would support the initiative of a group of concerned citizens, calling themselves Friends of Liberty Hall, who wanted to save the heritage site from further decline. He readily agreed. As Elaine recalls, Burchell is a man who always walks with a Garvey book. The minister got Cabinet approval for the restoration. Responsibility for the project was transferred from the Heritage Trust to the Institute of Jamaica. 


In consultation with Donna Scott Mottley, former parliamentary secretary for culture, Elaine Melbourne recommended that Donna McFarlane be appointed director/curator of Liberty Hall. It was Donna’s passion, vision and commitment to Garvey’s philosophy that made Elaine know she was the right person to turn the ‘pop-down’ building into a world-class museum. 

In August 2003, Dr McFarlane took up the challenge. She was a development economist with more than 25 years of experience as a consultant in international organisations and with the Government of Jamaica. She applied the breadth and depth of her skill and knowledge in the transformation of Liberty Hall. Donna successfully sought funding from generous individuals; national and international agencies; the private and public sectors and the philanthropic community for the development and sustainability of Liberty Hall as a cultural/educational institution.   

Donna conceived a state-of-the-art multimedia museum on the life and work of Marcus Mosiah Garvey that was designed by the African-American exhibit specialists, Art On The Loose. She collaborated with institutions in Africa and the African diaspora to advance the work of Liberty Hall. Now, there’s the Garvey research/reference library; a multimedia computer centre; and the Garvey outreach programme serving children between the ages of seven and 17 in the inner-city communities surrounding Liberty Hall. In 2017, DrMcFarlane received a national honour (OD) for her groundbreaking work at Liberty Hall.


After the libation ceremony, I went inside the museum to see what the children were up to. They were very well-behaved students from Obistan Kinder-Prep. One group was attentively watching an animated story about Anansi and common sense. Selfish Anansi went all over the world collecting common sense. Then he put all of it in a huge calabash, which he tied on to his belly. He tried to climb to the top of a tall guango tree to hide common sense and keep it all for himself.

But the calabash on Anansi’s belly made it impossible for him to climb. A little girl at the foot of the tree suggested that he put the calabash on his back. Anansi was so vexed that she had more common sense than he had! He put the calabash on his back, rushed to the top of the tree and dashed it to the ground. All the common sense flew back to its owners. The children thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Another group was watching a touchscreen video telling many disturbing stories about race in Jamaica: for example, favouritism in the family because of light skin colour; teachers embarrassing students who wear natural hairstyles; and discrimination in the workplace based on race. Viewers can touch the screen and choose, from a list of emotions, how they would feel in those situations. Then they can choose how they would respond. Finally, they hear a quote from Garvey speaking to the issue. The students were all caught up with the interactive video.


Beyond her substantial professional life, Donna McFarlane was a woman of grand style. For her, fashion was not a frivolous matter. It was an expression of her identity. Donna’s Afrocentric aesthetics was a celebration of the beauty of black people. And the home she shared with her husband, Claude Nembhard, and daughters, Naima and Shani, is a welcoming place. Works of art from across the African diaspora speak eloquently about history and heritage.

Dr Donna McFarlane joined the ancestors on January 25. Her final rite of passage two Saturdays ago was a joyful event. Despite our profound sense of loss, there was poetry, drumming, singing and dancing. The ceremony epitomised Donna’s life. It was an affirmation of community.

Donna’s long-lasting legacy will enrich many lives. She will continue to inspire generations to come, who will learn to understand and love themselves at Liberty Hall. 

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com