Growing up in Kingston Jamaica, 1970’s-80’s

This blog was supposed to be a day in a life of a Jamaican artist, but the back story is so very fascinating and important to understand.  Our past makes us who we are, and even when our past is ugly, we should embrace it from our own personal perspective.  We cannot change the past any more than we can change the tides, so learning how to live with it is important.

Recently I met a lovely woman in my district named Margaret Hall.  Margaret is a little more open and a little more open-minded than most Jamaicans, at least to me she was.  I met Margaret at my community meetings which evolved into a Citizen’s Association.  The first real contact I had with her was the painting of road signs in our district.

Margaret was born in Kingston at a hospital to a woman who worked in a garment factory.  Back then there were many garment factories in Jamaica, and in Kingston Free Zone especially.  She lived alone with her mother and didn’t have much contact with her father, he had a job elsewhere and there was the appearance of marital strife between the parents.  Up until she was 8 years old she was an only child.  In the early school years she went to a preparatory school.  This is a private school and the expense is dear, as they say here in Jamaica.  When the little brother was born she was switched to a public “mixed race” school.  This simply means public school with multiple nationalities.  Jamaica’s motto is: “Out of many one people!” This reflects the many nationalities that eventually end up on her shores and stay.

Photo Credit
Margaret has vivid memories of the 70’s  and things being very cheap.  The Jamaican dollar was much stronger and was near to what the US dollar rate was.  The economy was much stronger and she remember wheat bread costing around $1 JD.  Now that same loaf of bread cost more than $300 JD.  (The exchange rate is currently around $119 JD to $1 USD.)  A single bus ride used to cost a cent, but now it costs near to $100JD just to get down the hill. Maybe one day I will write a blog on travel costs across the island.

Back in those days neighbors looked after other people’s kids.  Since her mother worked in a factory she was considered a latch-key kid.  Her neighbor would check on her and she spent her afternoons watching Sesame Street!  Her home was a duplex of sorts.  It contained 2 individual living areas which were not accessible to each other on the inside.  During her younger years an elderly neighbor looked out for her.

When her brother came, not only did her education differ, but her life in general changed. Not as many nice things came to her.  She had a tricycle and some other nice things given to her over the years before he was born.  Her home was located in an area of Kingston known as Kencot.  This was a poor neighborhood or a ghetto, but most of the people who lived there were working class.  They all seemed to have jobs and worked for a living.

In the 70’s there was an emergence of political conflict. 1976 was a year she remember as having a high incidence of election violence. This coincided with the prevalence of guns arriving to the country.  With the guns came the gangs.  Gangs brought in violence and ended the innocence in the ghettos.  Before 1976 children played all manner of games right in the streets.  After the arrival of gangs intimidation was forced onto people and children no longer played freely in the streets.  They learned to just stay inside to avoid being told how their parents would be forced to vote.  Both parties used gangs for voter intimidation.  Neighborhoods soon became segregated or fully intimidated into voting one way or the other.

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Margaret went to high school from 1980-1985.  She was enrolled into an all girls school run by nuns.  (Holy Child High School).  During these years she remember being forced to focus on science classes by her mother.  Her mother dreamed of her becoming a doctor and to get into a pre-med program you had to rate high in science and math.  Margaret struggled with this and eventually a school counselor (Sister Mary Gertie) convinced her mother to switch her to the arts where she did much better.  She loves history, literature, geography and art.  In Jamaican Schools you decide by 10th grade what areas you want to pursue in college or after school and focus your studies towards this goal.  Parents often dictate what direction their child will go.  This caused great stress on Margaret but thanks to a caring counselor her mother allowed her focus to be switched.

Music, fashion and styles were all influenced by American and British pop culture.  She remember shoulder pads in every top and wearing tights with leg warmers.  She remembers being introduced to music from: Duran Duran, Madonna, The Police, Prince, and Michael Jackson.  In her earlier years it was Peter Tosh and Bob Marley that she mostly listened to.  Her high school was again racially mixed and the girls often talked about American television shows.  Shows she remembers watching were: Miami Vice, Eight is Enough, Dallas, Dukes of Hazard, Hawaii 5-0 and Facts of Life.

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Photo Credit
American culture had a huge influence on Jamaican youth of this era.  During this time she lived in an area known as Pembrook Hall.  The youth were told they could not use Patois in school and it was forbidden.  High school had a focus on their own culture and history through the JCDC program.  They learned their own cultural history, traditional dance and even had Festival competitions every year.  Sports were also a big part of their lives.  They were also competing at Champs, a national sports competition.  They also were fortunate enough to have swimming, tennis, netball, softball, and badminton.  She has fond memories of these aspects of high school.

Her principal was a nun (Sister Mary Stephanie) and she was very strict on the no Patois policy.  Her school was run by  Franciscan Missionary Sisters and much of it was funded from external sources outside of the Ministry of Education.  For Margaret church was also a very big part of her high school life.  She began teaching Sunday School classes at age 12.  She was also the secretary of the church youth group.

School dances or FETE were held often and the students invited other schools to join them and they went to other school dances as well.  Being an all girls school there was much excitement when the all boys school was joining them for an activity.  This was at a very crucial time in not just Jamaican history but in much of the world history.  Teen age pregnancy began to be a social stigma.  The girls would wear big baggy hooded sweatshirts to hide their conditions, even on extremely hot days.  The girls developed a secret sign language to communicate about this.  Back then a pregnancy would be the end of your life as you know it.  You had to drop out of school, most parents put you out and you would be shunned by society.  Many of these girls forced backdoor abortions on their own.  They would take a Fenac tablet and drink a bottle of Pepsi.  This would cause massive cramping and the hope was the embryo would be aborted by “natural” causes.


The one good thing that came out of this social issue was the Women’s Center, where pregnant girls would be allowed to finish their education and give birth to their babies.  It also birthed the National Family Planning Board to address these issues.  Due to Margaret’s mother being so strict about boys, Margaret avoided this dilemma altogether.

After high school Margaret spent a year working and trying to find her focus.  The following year she got an internship with the Heart trust program.  She was sent to a beverage bottling/manufacturing company.  She worked as a typist for the accounts department, typing was a skill she learned in high school, thanks to the switch from science to arts.  This internship opened up a new market for her in office work.  She held many jobs over the years.  She even started school to become a literature teacher.  Sadly she has yet to see this dream happen.

In 1998 her mother became very ill with diabetes and lost her leg.  At that point Margaret decided to buy a plot of land to take care of her mother.  She found one in Three Hills under the emancipation land act.  (This is a huge story that will require some time to go over, but it is essential to my service and I will one day feel confident enough to share it.) During this time she had become self employed making garments and stuffed animals, all so she could care for her mother.  During those early years she went back and forth between Three Hills and Kingston (town).  She lived in a small boardhouse, and the foundation slat still stands today, until the house was built.  She was unemployed for 5 years to care for her mother.

In 2008 she moved to Spanishtown for a job after her mother passed.  In 2013 she heard rumors that some men had broke into her home and were living in it.  She made the decision to move the Three Hills permanently and occupy her home.  Last summer she decided to pour her heart and soul into her passion and support herself on her art alone.  She has sold mostly to local people.  She has found the rules and regulations to set up a stand in Ocho Rios restrictive and confusing, so she sets up where she can and sells when she can.

Margaret grew up 4 years before me.  Some of these same things I was feeling, but from an American perspective.  I fortunately never faced a teen age pregnancy or knew of anyone self-inflicting abortions in my life.  I knew about gang violence, but that was an inner-city issue.  At the same time America was having issue with gang violence so was Jamaica and if you are interested in a great book that covers Jamaican gangs both on Island and a foreign read “Born Fi Dead” by Laurie Gunst.  Our culture influences theirs, and their culture influences ours.  I had no idea how in-sync our cultures are.  If you look at the development of hip-hop and rap you can see a parallel development of dancehall in Jamaica.  If you see our hippie movement, you see reggae in Jamaica.  Whatever our young people were feeling so were those here.  In those moments when you think your words and actions do not affect anyone else, think again, you may be influencing a whole generation of people you do not even know.  

*writer notes that there may be edits and misinterpreted information in this blog. It is the sole responsibility of the author to correct and interpret data correctly. I will be working on updates and edits over the next week, please let me know if you see information that you question it my interpretation of Margarets words.



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