The local who helped me finally belong

by Charlie Elliott (United Kingdom (Great Britain))

Making a local connection Jamaica


‘Exotic.’ A word meant with love and admiration but is said with a sense of otherness. A word often used to describe me when a new acquaintance not-so-gently pries my heritage out of me. They don’t sense the reluctance as the conversation always switches to the inevitable. ‘Have you ever been there?’ Jamaica. The country my dad was born and raised; the place he left at the age of 19 under strict orders from his grandmother, one of only two women he’s every truly listened to, the other is, of course, me. It’s also the country he died in. After 50 years of living in the UK, with an accent as strong as the day he left, he went home. He planted corn and bought a goat, he finished the home he’d built on family land far from both Kingston and Montego Bay, he refused to learn how to use WhatsApp leaving my siblings and I to only imagine what life was like for him. ‘Yes, but only once.’ I was in a microbrewery in Belgium’s home of beer, Leuven, when he died. A frantic rush to get back to Brussels to catch the last Eurostar of the day back to London; a blurry week of arranging flights, documents, details, and then a flight interspersed with deep, lung-engulfing silent sobs in the tiny toilet cubicle. The one time I’ve been to Jamaica was for my dad’s funeral and I resented the country he loved so much for being so far away. 
 ‘I bet it’s beautiful.’ Honeymooners and sunseekers here to see white sand beaches, drink rum cocktails and listen to steel drum versions of Bob Marley classics while they eat bottomless shrimp at their all-inclusive hotel buffet; not one of them could imagine this paradise isle as anywhere but a dream holiday. My dad’s nickname to his friends was Redman, a name I never questioned but at the same time never understood until I walked along the unpaved roads of St Elizabeth’s unpaved roads, far from tourist Jamaica, my feet coated in red clay dust kicked up by cars that only ever seemed to pass through but never actually stop. The air smelt of bricks and came from a dry, unwavering heat that slowed down my usual walking pace slow to that of sauntering locals, in no rush to go anywhere. This was why he had never taken longer strides despite his 6ft 3 frame - it had infuriated me as a local Londoner who was trying to dodge the crowds and get to where she needed to be as quickly as possible. ‘Are your family still there?’ The most personal of the probing questions on my ethnicity. Families are complex at the best of time, but I didn’t really know my Jamaican relatives until that trip. I never felt Jamaican. Until I met Lesley, the owner of a tin-roof bar and almost 92 years old. I walked in to grab a drink and, ‘Ah! You must be Lloyd’s daughter! You look just like his mother.’ I had never met my grandmother. In fact, I’ve never even seen a photo of her. She died in childbirth but her name was given to me. Lesley held my hand and told me stories of my dad from when he was a child; his huge cheeky grin and as he got older, his fiery temper which would often get him into trouble. I learnt about family feuds and late night games of dominos; Lesley sensed that I longed for more memories and my unease at being in a country that has never been my home yet has always been in my story. It was an innocent conversation with a stalwart local that helped unlock my truth. No longer ‘other’, no longer ‘mixed’, I was finally Jamaican.

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