New faith in Marley's legacy


Jamaica: The Bob Marley Museum, spearheaded by a nun and scheduled to open this month, brings hope to the destitute Kingston neighborhood where he once lived.

April 15, 2003|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KINGSTON, Jamaica - It is midmorning on a Monday in Kingston. There'd been rain earlier, so in a neighborhood called Trench Town, where Kingston's poorest residents live, the unpaved streets resemble butterscotch pudding. Goats rummage through piles of moldering trash. A half-naked woman shuffles by, her head wrapped in a bandana imprinted with a design of $100 bills.

Leaning against a half-fallen cinder-block wall, teen-age boys loiter, drinking beer and passing around a marijuana cigar.

They are sullen, unsmiling, until Sister Grace Yap, a Chinese Franciscan nun, barges into their midst. Comically brushing aside the smoke with her hand, she tickles a young man who appears to be the group's leader. Others she chucks under the chin or punches a shoulder. Soon they are all laughing and seem less like gangtas than like gangly adolescents.

"You'll go to school tomorrow?" she asks.

"Yes, Sister Grace!" they sing out, nearly in unison.


Suddenly, the mean streets of Kingston appear slightly more cheerful. With a Bob Marley Museum scheduled to open here this month, many residents are feeling optimistic. They hope this enshrinement of their world-famous native son - a project spearheaded by Sister Grace, as she is known here - will benefit this woebegone neighborhood.

In the late 1950s, 12-year-old boy nicknamed "Nesta" Marley (only later did he reclaim his birth name, Bob) arrived in Trench Town from his home up north in Ocho Rios. He soon learned how to sing, play the guitar and write music. He also met Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, who later become the Wailers.

Marley lived in Trench Town, off and on, until he signed a lucrative recording contract with Chris Blackwell of Island Records.

According to Catch a Fire, a 1998 biography by Timothy White, even after he moved to considerably grander quarters in a house "uptown" overlooking Kingston harbor, Marley never forgot where he came from. When he returned to Jamaica from a tour abroad, he would always stop off here first to sit and talk with old friends.

"Bob went to the university of the streets," says Neville Garrick, Marley's longtime tour manager. "He understood that reggae was the poor person's newspaper."

Nowadays, pilgrims travel to Trench Town from as far away as Japan, Germany and the United States, hoping to experience a place where Marley found his muse.

"Whenever someone comes here, they feel the spirit from back then," says Michael Smith, chairman of the Trench Town Development Project, who collaborates with Sister Grace on the museum project. "People actually get on their hands and knees and crawl into the courtyard."

If they are prepared to crawl, they'll probably also be willing to pay, figures Sister Grace. She may have one eye on heaven, but her other is focused on the bottom line. With funds generated by $10 admission tickets, she plans to expand a health clinic and build a school and simple homes.

It was a big day then, on Feb. 6, 1999, what would have been Marley's 54th birthday (he died of cancer in 1981). Britain's Prince Charles; Rita Marley, the singer's widow; and other dignitaries gathered for a dedication of Trench Town Culture Yard, Jamaica's first inner-city heritage tourism effort.

"Community development depends on people taking over a project and feeling they own it," Sister Grace said, explaining why four years have passed since then. "This is a poor neighborhood, with many squatters, so people haven't felt any pride of ownership."

Sister Grace is a hard-minded realist and one tough cookie. A lifelong citizen of Jamaica, her parents ran a grocery store in Kingston. Short, slender and given to wearing a celery-colored habit, she is far from frail. Though probably close to retirement, she refuses to divulge her age, explaining tersely that "to do what I do, I have to be young."

She oversees the Immaculate Conception Convent in Kingston, where there is a busy parochial school, but spends most of her time working with the needy in Trench Town.

When she rumbles into the neighborhood in an ancient Mercedes-Benz van (a gift from a wealthy nephew), people rush into the street. Children scramble onto the roof, and others hang from the van's doors.

Sister Grace says she is especially fond of teen-age boys, with whom she has a disarming technique. People ask for her prayers and advice, along with money, clothes, candy, prescription drugs and help in finding missing children or spouses. Constantly, she is quizzed about the Bob Marley Museum.

Now that the opening is imminent, it is difficult to see why it took so long. For what a visitor sees today is little changed from the way these government housing "yards" appeared when built by the British government in the 1930s and 1940s.

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