Fifty years ago today a three-year old boy stepped off a ship from London and into a foreign land. It had been his second ship that year. The first was from Ghana to London, from all that he had ever known and ever lost. His Daddy was a few steps behind, shoulders ramrod straight, big hands holding his baby brother. He was only a babe. The little boy didn’t speak English. His baby brother didn’t speak at all. All that they knew of life had changed overnight.
An air of grief clung to the party of three – the giant man and the two little boys. The toddler’s eyes would have been as wide as saucers as he was prodded ahead down the gangway. Trunks and cases would have followed – but not many. Maybe just one. Their Mummy did not come with them.
I can imagine him now, forgetting for a second that she was not there and searching the passengers behind him for a sign of her skirt, her hand, the sound of her laugh. No one had explained to him but he understood – the knowledge broke his little heart as he remembered he would not find her here. Or anywhere. She was gone from him.
What greeted him at the end of the pier was another world, another life, another language, another people. They were dancing in the streets. His grief collided with their jubilation on this hot August day. Colourful skirts would have been twirling, women with round figures and heads tied with colourful cloth would have been dancing around with bare-chested or cotton-clad men singing, lifting their arms in excitement, bawling out in prayer and praise. He heard one word chanted over and over from the boiling masses on land – In-dep-end-ence. Was it one word or four? What did it mean?
It must have been something very special but he would not have known for a few more years. It would not be his first English word. That word would be “For”. The first phrase he would speak in the language of his parents would be “For health and strength and daily food we praise Thy name oh Lord, Amen.” He would learn to sing it from the woman standing waiting on the shore. She looked a bit like Mummy had but tiny and with more wrinkles. She wasn’t much bigger than him and she was a good deal smaller than Daddy. As he walked down toward her she would have bent at the waist and wrapped her arms around him and lifted him into her embrace.
I wish I could tell him to be brave, this little boy, as Mama Birdie held him to her chest and reached for his sickly baby brother. I wish I could tell him you will grow. You will learn. You will travel. You will succeed. You will play football with Bob Marley. You will climb a mountain in Cumbria. You will race go karts with your children. You will meet Fidel Castro. You will know God. You will know love. And you will have me.
A daughter who loves you and is proud of who you have become.
Happy Independence Day Daddy. Happy Birthday Jamaica.