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Down on a Jamaican Farm

by Cleveland Simms

Cleveland grew up on a small farm in the Parish of St Ann, which is one of the five parishes making up the Jamaican County of Middlesex. His father's farm was like many others all over the Jamaican countryside and, like most other youngsters, Cleveland had to help his dad work it.

They grew coffee, oranges, bananas, yams, sweet potatoes, corn, peas and peanuts. These may sound exotic, but summer in Jamaica lasts all year apart from the hurricane season of August and September. In this warm climate pumpkins and tobacco grow wild, even tomato plants will just shoot up from seeds dropped or thrown away. There's no problem over putting seeds in too early or too late, planting and picking can be done all year round. As well as this, families kept their own chickens, goats and a cow for milking.

The house Cleveland grew up in wasn't attached to the farm, but was half a mile away. This is normal in Jamaica, so was the house with its breezeblock walls, a ceiling made of hardboard and a roof made of zinc, bad hurricanes sometimes take the roof right off, then they have to be replaced. The rest of the house was usual, with its living room, tiled kitchen, bathroom, toilet (built over a pit) and three bedrooms. Wood fires, or stoves, are normal but only for cooking. It's so warm there's no need for heating the house.

Wallpaper and ornaments decorated the rooms, but outside was the veranda. Here Cleveland's family would sit with their neighbours drinking homegrown coffee or fruit juice. They would talk the night away watching the stars twinkle in the warm sky.

Evenings would be full of the smell of freshly picked coffee being ground by hand with a mortar and stick. There would be the sound of homegrown peas being thrashed, or corn being grated to make porridge and dumplings. Cleveland moved from childhood to manhood among these smells and sounds, while everywhere was the beauty of the Jamaican countryside.

Everything seemed to be done outdoors. In those days, children didn't school until seven years of age, going on to thirteen or fourteen. Therefore, up to being seven Cleveland helped on the farm or in the garden surrounding the house. He'd feed the chickens, collect the eggs, learn how to milk the cow, tie the goats to grass, help grind the coffee, thrash the peas and fetch water from the spring, which could be a quarter to a half mile away. For, in those days, not only was everything done outdoors it was also done by hand. There was no electricity (they used kerosene lamps), no piped water, no ploughs, no tractors and so on. All the family had to pitch in and do their bit.

After he started going to school Cleveland would have to help out in; the mornings, before he went, then again when he finished in the evening. School was from 9.00 am until 4.00 pm and at that time children went to one school right through their seven years of education. Now there are junior, senior and high schools with '0' and 'A' level exams, but not then. Now dinners are provided, but in Cleveland's day, they had to take their own. Another thing was that A B and C streams were called divisions, so the top class would be called the First Division and so on.

Lessons were based on the usual reading, writing, math's and English, alongside others such as geography and history What was odd was the history they taught. It was English history. Jamaican children had to learn about the Kings and Queens of England, not about Jamaica's past. In fact all the books used in all the lessons were from England. The reading books were the Royal Star Readers, the story books were Moby Dick etc, but in those days the governor of Jamaica was English (independence came in 1962) so it's perhaps not surprising.

Some of the teachers were very strict using the cane or strap on any rule breakers, but Cleveland remembers having a good time at school with plenty of 'mickey taking' and daft games going on among the boys. Sports were also good with the school cricket team playing on its own pitch, they played cricket in the playground too, there were also running races on the field, high jumping etc. and day trips to the sea for swimming. It was summer all the time, so these sort of games were'nt restricted to a few months of the year.

Outside school, when they were let off the farm work, the kids had plenty to keep them occupied. Boys and girls tended to play separately. Girls going in for rounders, bouncing a ball against a wall and so on. For the boys the chief games were marbles and cricket, they would use homemade bats and sometimes homemade balls too. Other games were Gigs (like whip and top), Piggy and using slingshots to go hunting for birds.

Gangs of lads used to go out pinching oranges and tangerines from peoples, gardens. Half a dozen or so would dare each to other to sneak into gardens, steal the fruit and then run off somewhere to lie in the grass eating them. Of course if they were caught they would get strapped, but that threat was part of the excitement and fun. Another good outing was going down to the river swimming or building a raft to sail on, days could be spent like this. Fishing on the many farm ponds was also a popular pastime. There's plenty of fishing in Jamaica, even now people can still fish the rivers for free.

Time waits for no one, not even down on the farm. Becoming a teenager meant leaving school and leaving school meant going to work. For Cleveland this meant helping his dad with the more serious farm work. All of this was done by hand. There were ploughs around, but not at Cleveland's farm.

They used machetes to cut the grass, weeds and bush down. Forks (garden type) were used to till the soil. Hoes to break the soil up and make the furrows. Seeds were sown elsewhere and when they were seedlings, transferred to the furrows for planting by hand.

They paid the farmer so much a box for the goods and anything left over was used by the family themselves (processed by them) or, if it was more than the family needed, the farmer would take it to market in the nearest town. In this way enough money could be made to buy things,such as clothes, kerosene etc, which couldn't be produced from the land.

Cleveland's father also made enough money to give his son the money for the odd night out here and there. Nightlife to a young man part of growing up as pinching fruit and sailing rafts is to a schoolboy. Bars were a part of this nightlife, with their jukeboxes and mainly conversation, but women never went in bars. The local dance halls and picture houses were the places for courting. So, despite life on the land being mostly self-contained and Cleveland already knowing all the girls in the area, money was still needed for the little extras.

Sometimes these little extras become big essentials and perhaps it's this that's behind some of the changes in Jamaican farming since Cleveland's youth. In those days, the soil was so rich that the only fertiliser used was a mulch of grass and some animal manure. It was all organic, growing healthy plants and healthy kids (fast bowlers?). Now there's tractors etc., pumping out fumes and chemicals are used to force everything to grow faster and bigger. The more they use, the poorer the soil becomes.

Cleveland's farm is still there, as are many other smallholdings, But big business type farming, with its forced production techniques, has taken over many of, the' small farms. It is a changing, world. The story of Cleveland's young life on a Jamaican farm may be a record of a disappearing world it can help us decide whether this change, is for the better or worse. It also gives us a good insight into the Jamaican way.