A journey to Rasta legend Bob Marley’s home in Nine Mile, Jamaica provides an opportunity to think about the potential for heritage here in South Africa. What is preventing the local tourist economy in Eastern Cape, the “Province of Legends”, from honouring our own homegrown heroes?
I have lived with Bob Marley for over 35 years. I can’t remember exactly when I fell in love with his beat, his words, his swagger, his patois. But I do remember the day he died in 1981, hearing about it over the radio as a 17-year-old schoolboy at a private school in Northern England.
The following 32 years have not dimmed Marley’s spirit. Indeed, by inexplicable and unforeseeable routes and rivers (and not the media machines by which modern musical “phenomena” such as Justin Bieber are literally manufactured), all that is Bob Marley has spread from his humble first home in Nine Mile, St Ann Parish, Jamaica, into hundreds of millions of minds across all lands and languages.
So, on a recent visit to Jamaica, the possibility of following that road back to its home was unavoidable. The only question really was how it would come about. This account is more story and homage than analysis but (as we approach South Africa’s Heritage Day) visiting Bob Marley at home does offer up the chance for a few reflections on how we could take better advantage of our heritage.
As seems to happen in life, some things that are meant to be fortuitously find ways to make themselves happen. In this case, it was an early morning when I was running along the Seven Mile beach in Negril, Westmorland, when I chanced upon a small group of Rastafarians tending a patch of beach. I passed them with a brief “Ja’mon” (the equivalent of our Howzit or Heyta, but so much deeper and more dignified) but decided to stop and talk on my return. This is how I came to know Dr Love, or Roland Martin if you prefer the mundane.
Dr Love is a 1969-born Rastafarian, who for the past 20 plus years has worked and slept at his “shop” on the beach. The shop is a gallery of not-for-sale carvings and a few tables with lesser objects – ones that are for sale. His famed carvings can be described as variations on the themes of a large penis, but the carvings are not pornographic, sexist or violent. He shares the beach space with his brother Qaby (the carver), Big Dave (who hires boats to tourists further down the beach) and Bob, who seems to float around hustling money from and selling ganja to the same tourists.
I asked Dr Love how I could get to Nine Mile. Predictably (with hindsight) he replied, “I’m your man”. Deciding to put my trust in him and not the official tour operators who worked out of the hotel was something members of my family and the more pompous part of the hotel staff could not understand and felt slightly fearful about. So much so that they transferred some of their distrust to me. (Lesson 1: Heritage and culture is more immediate, authentic and appreciable when it is conveyed by natives of the land, as long as you can trust that you will be safe. More on that in lesson 4.)
The road to Nine Mile is a long one. It involves exiting off the highway between Montego Bay and Kingston and following a beautiful road that winds its way through villages (including Trelawny, the village where Usain Bolt grew up) into the heart of the hills/mountains that form the backbone of Jamaica. Bob Marley inhabits the Jamaican air: he is in the tame neutered piped music of hotels and the airport, sung at you by tour guides, quoted and chanted by Rastas, seen on T-shirts galore. But despite this there are only a few small and indistinct signs that point your way on this 50 km stretch of road. Give thanks to Dr Love for knowing the way!
Unlike the coast, the Jamaican inland is unspoilt by transnational tourist corporations. (Lesson 2: There’s nothing wrong with the tourism industry except when it’s run and owned by foreign corporations with no love for the land.) Alpine-like hills, but with tropical vegetation; a succession of small, poor and dignified villages with quaint parish churches; a green that is almost English but a population that is black (no thanks to the English who shipped African people there as slaves after they wrested control of Jamaica from the Spanish). (Lesson 3: The geography and remnants of missions are not that different from parts of Eastern Cape, where the English also built their churches in their misguided quest to “civilize”.)
Eventually, you know that you are almost at Marley’s home when you pass the Cedella Marley Booker Basic School, named after Marley’s mother, its walls decorated with frescoes of Bob and other Rastafarian prophets.
When we arrived, dizzy with finally being there, we were quickly hustled by a Rasta who told us there were two tours: “the Marley plantation”, then “the Marley house”.
I had expected more time for reflection and choice but within seconds of leaving Dr Love’s car we were in the plantation, surrounded by a forest of different types of marijuana plant (one called an AK-47), as well as a variety of other plants, vegetables and fruits that are grown in what is said to be Bob’s garden. Fleetingly, I worried whether we were being hustled and how to regain control. But there was no cause for concern and I began to resent this intrusive distrusting self. (Lesson 4: I resent this self because it made me understand that distrust of ordinary people has become a default position for many of us, particularly I believe, in South Africa. Distrust should be earned, not assumed.)
(Lesson 5: We weren’t hustled, hence lesson 4.) We found our way out of the plantation a few dollars shorter, but frankly who should care if your surplus money is a way of supporting the local economy.
And then into the Bob Marley mausoleum. The Mausoleum is surprisingly private and reflective. It seems to be run by the local community, not hijacked by multinational record companies or those that fed off Marley. Of course I may be wrong.
Essentially, it’s the remains of Marley’s childhood home, with post-Marley touristic appendages, and the two mausoleum’s where the bodies of Marley, his brother and mother have been placed to sit out the rest of time. This little cluster of buildings sits on the side of “Mount Zion” with a view over neighbouring hills. It has a quiet and a dignity. Marley’s single room, yard, still with his thinking stone (a stone in the yard where we were told he would sit and reflect) and stone fire where the family cooked are the heart of the museum. But when combined with the view, the sense of his mortal remains in the marble vault just a few feel behind the house, the patter of the Rasta guide and the wafts of ganja smoke that pervade the air, it is impossible not to experience a sense of wonder.
The wonder is not only about Marley, but also about human possibility. You wonder how a poorly educated country boy could dream up some of the greatest lyrics and melodies of the twentieth century; you discover that fervour does not have to belong to religions; you consider that in the age of the camera, the video and YouTube life can continue long after life has passed.
But now to bring it back home. Last week I visited Steve Biko’s ill-tended garden of remembrance in Ginsberg. I wondered why one of the leading members of what Eastern Cape tourism calls the “Province of Legends” is not afforded the dignity his life deserved? Why is there no local economy around the life of Steve Biko, or Archibald Campbell Jordan or Tiyo Soga or R L Peteni or the Cradock Four or Lovedale College, all parts of Eastern Cape’s vast and complex heritage. Beyond the Tyumie mountains there are a thousand other such people and places in South Africa that ethical tourists would seek out. We have our own stock of local boys and girls with the vision of universal giants. We also have local people and historians who would happily tend their memory. They are part of our tale.
So why are we are missing an opportunity to create local ownership and an economy around a history that boasts many people as inspired and inspirational, albeit different from, Bob Marley? Why do we not find better means to keep alive the legends and the history that inspired Marley’s vision in prescient songs such as “War”, where he declared:
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
That hold our brothers in Angola,
Have been toppled,
Utterly destroyed –
Well, everywhere is war –
Me say war.