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The girl from Wood Hall who could ...

Published:Friday | January 6, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Owen Brown (left) and Ralston Allen, farmers from the Wood Hall farm, travel along the Wood Hall main road with bananas to be taken to the market. - Ian Allen/Photographer
1981: General Secretary of the People's National Party, Dr. D.K. Duncan emphasising a point during a press conference at the party's headquarters, on Old Hope Road, while party vice-presidents Anthony Spaulding and Portia Simpson look on.
Portia makes residents of rural St. Catherine community proud

Erica Virtue,
Senior Gleaner Writer

Two croton plants and two mango trees stand majestically amid the other trees in the frontyard. This is the place where Portia Lucretia Simpson grew up in Wood Hall, St Catherine.

The frame of a small house overlooks the picturesque St Catherine hillsides, but the shaky remnant is not even a shadow of the original structure, according to Festus McCalla, a Belfield resident.

McCalla went to Marlie Hill Elementary School with Jamaica's new prime minister and her brother, Tedroy.

A farmer by profession, McCalla was quick to speak with The Gleaner on Wednesday while standing at the gate of premises occupied by Pauletta Anderson-Coke who shares a sister, Cynthia, with Simpson Miller.

"Her brother Tedroy and I were classmates. Portia was younger and was just seen as Tedroy's little skinny sister. We went to the same school, which was held at the Anglican Church. But when Hurricane Charlie (1951) destroyed the structure, it was relocated to Belfield, but the school retained the same name," said McCalla.

Could be leader

He told the story of a political meeting in Belfield in 1958 when the People's National Party (PNP) candidate Norman Ivanhoe Senior talked about a single Common Entrance Examination.

"I never forgot how he lifted a small boy from amid the crowd and held him up, and told the people that this little boy could become a future leader for this country. I can't remember if Portia was there, but I am almost sure she was because parents would take the children with them to meetings," he said before accompanying us to the house and yard where she grew up.

Only the walls of the house now stand after residents said it was destroyed by fire years ago. Also standing is the pair of crotons - one slightly smaller than the other - and the mango trees. That they come in pairs is not lost on McCalla.

For him, the signs of her eventual stature are in the frontyard.

He argued that the mango trees "with their strong trunk, resilient, kind, always offering something, whether fruit or shade; and the crotons, colourful, dramatic, standing out, standing tall", reflect the personality of the little girl, now the country's most powerful political figure.

Daddy's princess

According to McCalla, the young Portia was her father's "princess".

"She was Maas Zebekiah (father) little pet girl. All the little children would have to work with their parents in the field. But I cannot recall ever seeing Portia working the fields," he recalled, adding that she would have left elementary school around age 15.

It was after that the family moved to Gem Road in Kingston.

McCalla believed it all began right there in rural Jamaica and believes the trees, the symbolic pairs, mean Portia would "rise, and rise, not once, but twice".

"You pick her up, you lick her dung, she bounce right back. What a hard woman fi dead," sang McCalla.

"Portia is a born fighter. She has had to fight more than anyone else who became PNP leader to get there. She has fought like a lioness defending the pride for herself and her party since she was a young girl. Becoming prime minister, not once but twice, without the support of many of her own, is testament to a quality for which many persons have not given her much credit," McCalla declared.

Portia would survive one of the most vicious internal and external political fights within the PNP, which began long before her first challenge for the leadership of the party in 1992, against eventual leader Percival James Patterson.

Leading the charge would be the women in the party, and the men who challenged her intellectual capacity, providing fodder for the JLP in the 2007 general election.

Sometimes Simpson Miller herself appeared to provide fodder for her opponents, seeming uninformed on some matters and, other times, wild and colourful on the political platform, as in the "don't draw my tongue" outburst, for which she has expressed regret.

But McCalla's admiration is undaunted as he again pointed to the pairs of trees as the point of reference.

"She has challenged twice for the leadership of the PNP. She has risen to the top of the party and country, not once, but twice," he said as he argued that she has an indomitable spirit.

"It's a spirit that cannot be tamed. It's a spirit that cannot be killed. Honestly, I don't know when and where she got it in her head that she could become PNP leader, much less prime minister," he stated.

Never forgot roots

McCalla said Simpson Miller has never forgot her roots and only last year as she attended the funeral of a resident of Belfield, she called him by name.

"She delivered the eulogy to the man, who was a family friend, and who was a long-standing supporter of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) but she didn't care. She said it does not matter 'cause everybody can't be of like mind," McCalla said.

The fact that the girl from Wood Hall who spent much of her years in the Corporate Area always remembered her roots was underscored by her stepsister Pauletta.

"We know her and especially her brother Tedroy because he used to come to the country at Miss Sarah Anderson's (Pauletta and Cynthia's mother) house at Blue Hole in St Catherine. I used to go to Kingston to see Tedroy at their home. But to this day, Portia has never forgotten her roots," she said emphatically.

Pauletta said the community was swelling with pride, as a daughter of the soil has again risen to the top.

It was the same pride that envelops residents and family members in Bartons.

Barbara Simpson (Dovey) said she is a second cousin of Portia and Miss Minna's niece.

"It feels good and I respect her to the max. She put a Rastaman (Damion Crawford) in Gordon House. She is family, but she could do more for us, although everyone expect that because you are family automatically things should be better for you," she expressed to The Gleaner.

Shanette Gillespie is another relative.

She showed photos of herself and Portia on the campaign trail in 2007, and Portia's resemblance to her mother, Judith Simpson (Miss Len), is uncanny.

"Cold bump still washing me because one of my relatives is sitting in the highest office of Jamaica. I love to see her dance. She is strong and it makes me strong too," Gillespie said with pride.

Of course, McCalla goes right back to the trees, the two pairs, mango and croton.

"Look at the trees, look how strong they are, despite not being pruned or treated for decades. They have a few rough parts here and there, but otherwise they are rooted, they are strong and they stand tall. That's Portia, my prime minister."

A strong wave of cold wind blasted across the hillsides and caused those present to shiver, but the tress just danced and danced before returning to their majestic stance.