Rising above the dirt - Kamal Gilzene journeys on

Published: Monday | March 9, 2009

Paul Williams, Gleaner Writer

Kamal Gilzene encourages today's youth to "Hold out, dare to be different ... I don't know of any bad man, who has continued on the same path, who is not six feet under ... I know it's very difficult, but I would challenge them, stick it out". - Norman Grindley/Chief Photographer

"For persons who know Grants Pen, most of the war there is politically based, and meaningless. I grew up and saw young men at the age of 16, 17, lying in the streets dead. I felt really bad, because I don't believe anybody should die like this," was what Kamal Gilzene said, inter alia, while reflecting on his early life in this Upper St Andrew inner-city community.

So he, one of eight children (four boys, four girls) for his single mother, decided that, at all costs, he was not going to be a statistic, despite being tempted by the negative social dynamics at work in Grants Pen.

His Christian background has helped to keep him grounded, but his life has always been fraught with emotional pain, financial struggles, severe hunger, misery, familial challenges, rebelliousness and moments of suicidal thoughts.

Shoot-out on ball court

After Dunrobin Primary School, it was on to Trench Town Compre-hensive High School where he did not wait for the school year to end. Living in a volatile community, he was now going to a school located in another. He, who had seen people in his community lying dead, with blood oozing from their bodies, was not going to spend all his days surrounded by anxiety, violence and death.

"Some of the guys I was associated with, they were involved with some gangs, and I remember experiencing a shoot-out on the basketball court at school. It was a shoot-out with some of my friends, and I said if I were aligned to them, or if it was known that I hang out with them, then my life would be in danger as well, and so I decided to not go back," Kamal recalled.

He left Trench Town for Shortwood Practising School, where he did the technical examination before moving on to St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS).

At STATHS, Kamal, at one stage, was falling off the tracks, but he had to rock back. With the help and guidance of teachers such as Mrs Carol Jennings-Smith and Mrs Jacqueline Greenland; principal, Mrs Christie, and some past students, he remained focused.

He would stay late at school just to get some work done. Studying at home was almost impossible, when, regularly, the sounds of gunshots echoed all around.

Success despite struggle

Often, he would walk all the way from Grants Pen to STATHS, located off Spanish Town Road, though he didn't have any lunch money or bus fare to return home. He wore a pair of white shoes (canvas tops, rubber soles), which he dyed black, for three years. He was also absent from school regularly (many times to care for his younger siblings), which earned him the unflattering moniker, 'Visitor'.

Yet, at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate level, he passed seven subjects before moving on to sixth form.

He was also successful at four Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) subjects, despite the perpetual hardship he faced.

After sixth form, his mother wanted him to work, but Kamal was determined to continue his educa-tion. He, however, attempted to find job, and what one prospective employer told him angered him and made him more resolute in his quest to better himself.

He said, "When the lady called me, she said, 'Well, I see where you do CXC and your CAPE, and that was well', but when she proceeded she said, 'I see where you come from Grants Pen', and then said, 'Boy, I'm sorry, but I don't want you to get no guys to come and rob the business place'. I always heard of these things happening, but that was my first encounter ... I really felt bad. I felt like somebody really stabbed mein the back, to know that becauseof my address I was not givenan opportunity to serve in an organisation."

Kamal was accepted to the University of the West Indies (UWI), applied for a student loan and enrolled without knowing how he was going to live day to day. In his second and third years, he got a grant from the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB), but it was still a rough life. Sometimes he would arrive at classes and exams late because he couldn't find bus fare. He got help from STATHS past students, including Lyttleton Shirley; Stanford Moore and a Mrs Haughton (Admissions) at UWI.

A long journey

Kamal graduated from UWI last November with a degree in political science. On his big day, his tears welled up as he reflected on his journey to the top, because, as he said, "I felt really proud ... and it had been a long journey". He's now employed on contract in the banking sector. And you would believe life is significantly better for him.

Well, it's not. He's still living with his mother and siblings in Grants Pen, at age 24, shouldering the burden of the household and paying back thousands of dollars per month to the SLB.

Worried for siblings

Yet, his biggest worry right now is the bleak future his siblings, especially a younger brother, are facing. That brother seems to be swayed by destructive undercurrents in their community. Despite Kamal's achievements and his guidance, his brother is on the wrong side of the fence and, with each passing day, anything could happen to him. This is a bother to Kamal, who is a mentor to a high-school student, for giving back is part of his personal philosophy.

This aspiring politician, who intends to pursue his master's degree soon, and eventually a doctorate, wants to make a difference, and he's on his way.

He's still going to church, from which he gets some of his strength. Supporting him also, along the way, is his girlfriend, who is a third-year medical student at the University of the West Indies.

Kamal: "There are times when I really feel stressed and want to give up, really want to give up on life, she would encourage me to hang in there."

Get an education

Kamal has been holding on all his life, and he wants the young men and women who are challenged by poverty and other social issues to do the same.

He said: "Hold out, dare to be different ... I don't know of any bad man, who has continued on the same path, who is not six feet under ... I know it's very difficult, but I would challenge them, stick it out ... If it means walking to school, walk ... If it means to wash cars on a weekend ... I used to wash cars on a weekend just to have money for Monday and Tuesday ... Whatever it is, there is only one legitimate way out of poverty and that is an education."