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Stabroek News

Miss Rita and Mas Thom (Girvan)
published: Thursday | March 23, 2006

Martin Henry

I MET Miss Rita in person just days shy of her 92nd birthday in October 2003. Last Saturday she was laid to rest in a memorial service at the St. Andrew Parish Church, aged 94.

Woodrow Mitchell, managing director of Walkerswood Carib-bean Foods, took me to interview Rita Girvan for the story of community development in Walkers-wood that I was researching and writing. D.T.M. 'Mas Thom' Girvan, her husband, and Miss Rita herself had been key players in the story.

Miss Rita had lost her physical capacity, but her mind was sharp and her voice strong and clear. She was very much in charge of her caregivers and visitors, a strong personality who had obviously managed things over a long life!

Norman Manley built both Jamaica Welfare and the People's National Party by searching out and recruiting bright, professional young people to join. In a parallel interview with Sir Howard Cooke, Sir Howard recounted how Mr. Manley recruited him, then a 23-year-old Mico teacher to become a founding member of the PNP.

Jamaica Welfare was sponsored by the big banana companies then operating in Jamaica, led by the United Fruit Company, contributing one US cent per bunch of banana exported.


The man Manley identified to become the cooperative development officer for Jamaica Welfare was David Thom McWhinney Girvan, then a 36-year-old occupying 'a lucrative and trusted position in a large business house [Lascelles de Mercado]'. Mr. Manley wooed him away with his persuasive charm. Norman Manley would later tell Jamaica Welfare staff that "a year spent in activities with a creative purpose is worth a lifetime spent in a routine job."

After consulting with his wife Rita about Manley's interest in him, Thom Girvan quit his 'lucrative' job to spend the rest of his life in community development work here and abroad with Miss Rita by his side. Girvan, his son Norman wrote, was a "deeply, but quietly religious man" who lived by St. Paul's dictum, "No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself." Miss Rita made the same point of how important their Christian faith was in the work.

Of immediate practical concern was the need to get villages organised for community development. Girvan's approach was to set up pioneer clubs. Where to start.

As Miss Rita told me, the Girvans had met Minnie [Pringle]Simson, the white landowner and cattle farmer of the Bromley Estate in Walkers-wood, St. Ann, through Moral Rearmament [MRA] and they became good friends. Thom and Rita would spend time with her at Bromley.

Minnie, a social activist and friend of Norman Manley as well, was the daughter of Sir John Pringle, a Scottish immigrant, who had been the biggest banana producer in Jamaica and a leading light in the formation of the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association.


With Bromley as base, Walkerswood became the first village in which a pioneer club was organised in 1940. The Walkerswood Pioneer Club under the local leadership of Peter Hinds and Alton Henry, Bromley employees, established the 800-acre Lucky Hill Cooperative Farm as the first registered cooperative farm in Jamaica.

The cooperative still exists, although only a shadow of its glory days. I interviewed several of the surviving pioneers and children of pioneers for the story of community development in Walkerswood.

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods, a company which grew by twists and turns out of this pioneering venture, is interested in resuscitating the farm as a supplier of raw material.

D.T.M. Girvan drew up an elaborate 'Better Community' plan for community development.

"'Building a Better Community' depends first and foremost on the desire of the citizens for self-improvement", his plan began. "It is necessary that there should be a 'burning desire' for a better country; but this must be coupled with a willingness to learn by doing, by hard work, and by ready cooperation by all", the plan ended.

Over non-denominational MRA prayers with Quiet Time at Bromley the necessary leadership and development projects were identified.

Miss Rita over 60 years later explained to me how the estate workers Peter Hinds and Alton Henry were drawn to become pioneer club leaders.


"No new group should be organised unless and until there is local leadership that can be relied upon".

Miss Rita was secretary-typist to her husband and kept his papers along with newspaper stories about his work. From those papers son Norman Girvan prepared the book Working Together for Develop-ment, which has provided a good deal of additional information.

When I thanked 'Miss Rita' she quick-wittedly came back "That's nice to hear you call me Miss Rita and not Mrs. Girvan. I love it. When you call me Miss Rita it means you love me."

Martin Henry is a communication specialist.

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