Hard-working Congo man remembers

Published: Monday | May 25, 2009

Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

Guy Lawrence - Photo by Paul H. Williams

I looked at him and I saw it instantaneously. Black Africa stared back at me from Guy Lawrence's face. I felt like I had known him all my life, but we had just met. His countenance squealed déjà vu, and his voice was oh so familiar.

For the entire period I spoke with him, I couldn't stop thinking about Paul Robeson's haunting performance of Ol' Man River in the American musical, Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat. It might have been Guy's uncanny resemblance to Robeson, the celebrated African American baritone, and I sensed a strange kindred connection among us - Robeson, Guy and me.

"It was pure Congo people who was living in here, straight from Africa, after slavery was up, real black African. My great-great-grandfather come from Africa. We all are from the African tribe," declared the 72-year-old grandfather, who has spent most of his life in Congo Town, Wakefield, Trelawny.

In an email response to a query about Guy's claim, Professor Verene Shepherd, social historian and lecturer in history at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, says: "There are several Bongo towns and Congo towns in Jamaica. That speaks to the presence of Jamaicans descended from people from the Congo/Angola area of Africa. Read Maureen Warner Lewis' book, Central Africa in the Caribbean. Also remember ... (the) victims of the last ship, Zong? Some of those on the Zong were from Angola/Congo area."

Congo Town, Wakefield, was indeed a big slave settlement and, after slavery, it was a vibrant place; even in the 1940s and '50s when Guy was growing up, decades after the abolition. And as he talked about his life and time in Congo Town, Wakefield, Trelawny, my mind strayed. I looked right through him, and was transported to a time when life was hard, but sacred, and so very different from what it is today. The greying man beside me was a link between now and then, when the hypnotic sounds of the Tambo drums in Congo Town echoed from the hills surrounding Wakefield.

There was a yard near where Guy now lives in Congo Town, where people from all over the parish would meet to play the drums and dance to their message-laden beats, carrying on what their forebears had brought from Africa. The drums were loud and could be heard miles away, and few could resist their calling, to go dance and sing, and be merry.

"We used to have the Congo people dem who come in. We have Congo people who come from up Duansvale, we have Congo people from Maroon Town, and same place here in Wakefield. We used to have the dance over there so, over there so used to be for my grandfather. That was actually the camp for Congo people," he recalled.

The 'camp' would be open all day; it was a social and spiritual outlet. Guy said it was like church, with men, women and children flocking every day. The drumming would start at 6 p.m. and lasted until daylight, sometimes. As the years went by, the sounds of drums abated until there was eventual silence, perhaps forever. Still, the beats are reverberating in Guy's skull and those of the few remaining elders in the community. Their minds are a repository of Congo Town's local history, of which he is a part.

The people of Wakefield were poor. They lived in thatched huts, had no electricity and no piped water, but they enjoyed themselves. Going to shows and dances at the Trafalgar Theatre was a popular pastime. The young men and women carried themselves with a reasonable amount of decorum. There were no corner boys with their pants at their knees exposing polka-dot underwear.

Skin-bleaching in Jamaica was light years away, and so were false hair, nails and eyelashes. Women would have their heads tied whenever they were in public. Those were the days when students were mannerly and teachers were held in high esteem. Respect was due.

One teacher who stands out in his mind is one 'Mr Peck', a strict black-skinned man of ordinary build.

"In those days, when wi going to school, yuh affi mek certain yuh fingernail dem clean, the first thing him met yuh by the door ... and him look at the fingernail, him tek him pencil and him run it through yuh hair fi see if yuh hair comb. Yuh had to comb yuh hair, yuh teeth had to be clean ... yuh affi keep yuh shirt inna yuh pants."

And though he and the other students were barefooted, their feet had to be clean.


But his schooldays were cut short. "I start work from I was 12, start to earn money from I was 12, and I had to work to maintain my father, and mi mother. When I was living with my father, I had to go to work, couldn't go back to school, cause mi have to help them."

He was forced to grow up as he was now sharing the burden of supporting the household.

Yet, the pressure was too much for him, so he left his father to be with his mother, who had been separated from his father, and went to live in Sherwood Content, a district in the same parish which would later produce Olympic champion Usain Bolt.

"Mi couldn't tek it and mi leave and go up a mi mother, and then mi affi find work and help mi mother, and mi did have it very hard, very rough on my side."

Into the fire from the frying pan he had jumped. He toiled in cane fields, just as his slave ancestors did, cutting cane and cleaning the fields. His hard-working ways took him to the United States on the farm work programme and back. Now, the father of seven grown children and granddaddy of 12 still does hard work, but not as intensive as before. He's still robust in physical stature, though he's beset by diabetes.

He feels today's youths, sitting on the corners begging to 'eat a food' and looking for an easy life, must jump up and go find work. Begging was a no-no in his day, except when friends would beg a penny from each other to make up their fare for film shows.

In reflection, he said: "From I lef school, I don't get nutten name soft work. Have to work very hard, and when mi start fi get mi children them, that mek it worse."