Sat | Apr 29, 2017

He lived life out loud

Published:Sunday | August 31, 2014 | 8:00 AM
An animated Roger Clarke (centre) talks to permanent secretary of the agriculture ministry, Donovan Stanberry (left), as Dennis Valdez looks on. Occasion was the handover of 1,000 bags of fertiliser by Newport-Fersan to the ministry on November 6, 2012.- Rudolph Brown/Photographer
Meleisa Witter
The affable dancer, Roger Clarke, seen here at a PNP rally in Yallahs, St Thomas, in 2011, showed that he was as fit as a fiddle on the political hustings and never shy to take up the challenge of exuberant PNP supporters. -Ian Allen/Photographer
CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust, Diana McCaulay, struggles to repel the charm and wit of Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke at a workshop to discuss socio-economic conditions on the Pedro Cays on January 9, 2014.-Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer
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Meleisa Witter, GUEST COLUMNIST

It is a very sad thing to be faced with the reality of the loss of life of one who so loved life. Without a shadow of a doubt, Minister Roger Clarke lived life out loud. And with no fear of contradiction, I can safely say he was one of Jamaica's most colourful politicians and perhaps one of the most caring, but also the most 'dun cya'. Interpretation in English: He cared about his constituents, and the people in the ministry he represented; but about himself and what others thought of him, not too much.

Roger was one of the first persons I was able to identify as someone in 'government'. As a young girl growing up in deep-rural Jamaica, this talk about politics and politicians and 'govament' was something I did not understand very well. It turned out that one of those people lived fairly close to me. Running at top speed for one minute, Usain Bolt could cover the distance between Roger's house and mine. And though at the time I never met him personally, being able to pass his house quite frequently, I came to the conclusion that he was as human as I was.

But knowledge came with age, and soon Minister Clarke was lost in the foundry of Jamaica politicians to my mind and would only emerge in my consciousness from time to time when he made the news for some interesting reason or the other. And he was notorious for that.

So it was no surprise when, two weeks ago on August 11, 2014, The Gleaner carried the headline 'Jamaica needs me - Recovering Clarke has no intentions of leaving politics now'. The report went on to speak of his illness for which he went to Miami to seek treatment and also reported that Clarke had told them by phone that he had "lost some weight and would embark on a sustained programme to lose more". In his usual comical style, The Gleaner had quoted him as saying, "When you see me, you going think is Usain Bolt."

Sadly, his decision to make some life changes and give up some of his favourite pastimes came too late. Rum-drinking and pork-eating were two things Roger loved with a passion. Both are things which when not enjoyed in moderation, can lead to outcomes which have fatal results. The coroner will not list either of these two things as cause of death; but in them lie its genesis.

In keeping with his nature and history of service, even on his sick bed, Clarke was offering himself in continued service to Jamaica at the behest of the people and his beloved prime minister. But the comments posted in response to his offer were ruthless. Only two kind voices stood out in a sea of unfriendliness as a nation of fed-up, cynical people found one more target ... but Minister Clarke did something, somewhat unexpected, which has silenced the critics. He died.

As I stood in the optician's parlour waiting on the very efficient and friendly sales clerk to determine the cost for my glasses, I heard a lady ask in an anguished voice: "A true seh Roger Clarke dead?" She then ran from the room. The news was confirmed shortly thereafter and I went back in time.

loved the land

It took me to a few hundred feet away from where I was standing at the ophthalmologist on Half-Way Tree Road, and a few years back to one of Roger's hangout spots on Chelsea Avenue, where I met the big guy in person for the first time, many years after migrating to the big city. Straddling two chairs, glass in hand, he was all charm as we chatted about 'back home' and things farming.

Both of us loved the land and as consummate farmers where we had our roots in borderline North Eastern St Elizabeth/North West Manchester, the land was arable and farming of various crops as a livelihood was commonplace. The biggest issue we had was lack of water and bad roads. Back then, even praedial larceny wasn't a big issue. And so we spent some time catching up on what was happening down there in 'Sentie'. I even inquired of him if he still had those big dogs which used to scare the hell out of me.

Roger was a real old-time politician who understood the importance of loyalty and not upsetting the status quo. He could be relied on to stay in line with the elected leader, and was counted on to bring the party to life during rallies.

So the accolades and the condolences are pouring in. It's a prime opportunity for serving officials to think about the legacy they will leave. It should also be a time of reflection for those who look for every occasion to cast stones. Why must we be so acrimonious? Why all the hate? When will that cycle be broken?

His passing leaves a need for a visionary minister of agriculture, a woman or man of the soil, one who is involved and not just sits in an ivory tower spouting theoretical knowledge, but who has gone down in the trenches and knows what lies down there.

Some of Roger's detractors claim that he was a just a sugar cane farmer, hence unqualified for the ministerial post. But then how many MPs and heads of ministries have formal education in their area of 'expertise?' Maybe there should be a call to overhaul the selection process for ministers of government. But that is another discussion for another day. Today, I pause to remember an old 'friend'.

RIP, Roger.

Meleisa Witter is a publisher and creative and editorial director of Caribbean Wellness & Lifestyle magazine. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and melcwitter@gmail.com.