Ms Rebecca Levy, a resident of Majesty Gardens in 1973 when this photograph was taken Copyright Rose Murray 2001.
By Laura Tanna,
ROSE MURRAY had been confronted at her guest house the morning of our interview on March 24 with the sight of a fellow stretched out on the floor tiles, dead. Holding his breath as long as possible at the pool's bottom to frighten people with his practical joking, he died before anyone realised that he had drowned. But as we sat and went through the incredible portraits of people from Majesty Gardens whom she'd photographed when working at the St. Andrew Settlement day-care centre over 25 years ago, death was very much a part of our conversation.
"People even older than me have died. I'm 74," she says. "Many people have gone to foreign Canada, USA, England. Quite a few have been shot, or otherwise disposed of by gangs or the police. And some damaged in the same way, and some have moved away, across the bay to Portmore or to Windsor Heights."
For two weeks in mid-March, with Malcolm Armstrong by her side, and a book of her old photographs, she took 800, this time with a Nikon, as she made the rounds looking for old friends. Brother Lloyd had moved away, another is a convict, just out of prison, sick and has absolutely nothing but the puppy he's befriended and a shed for shelter. This little boy from her day-care is now a big success with a job at Cable and Wireless. Dora is gone. Carlyle is dead. Ionie, a little deaf and dumb girl whom Ms. Murray had helped to place in a deaf school, is dead from "a fever." David McLean, "Daddy Mac," the poet and painter loved by many, is dead. Rebecca is gone. Mr. and Mrs. Cook, a fine looking couple, can't be found. Some say they're dead, and others that they're "gawn a foreign." Here's another couple who shared a set of teeth between them. This blind lady, she's dead. This little boy died of asthma.
I linger over three incredibly photogenic youths striking bad boy Rhygin poses. She stares and says: "I thought at the time: 'These kids are going to do well.'" She points at each one: "He's in prison for carnal abuse. He's in prison for killing somebody and he's a cokehead, sick in hospital. It's really sad. But the women of the family are doing well." Then she moves on. "This little girl was wonderful. I love her, and they tell me they see her on the bus going to town, so she's still alive. He died in a container, trying to leave the island. Everybody loved him. These two little boys are doing nuttin. I said: 'You've got to work. I know it's hard but you've got to go and try and try and try and try. Other people find jobs. Don't just sit around."
Her first impression when she returned to Majesty Gardens was that nothing had changed. "My second impression, a lot of the buildings have gone and there are various little boxes. They could be nice but they need finishing. There's a little kitchen area, a little bedroom and a bathroom." But then she realises how fantastic it is to have one's own bathroom. (Both Habitat For Humanity and Food For The Poor have assisted people with housing and Rita Marley's assistance built some toilets).
At one point in the past there were only two showers and toilets to service the entire community, which is the reason for those disgusting gullies, filled with filth and muck, the ones on the front page of The Gleaner recently when fed up residents finally demonstrated, demanding better sanitation for their community. Half of one gully had been cleaned when Murray left March 28. Gone also were the piles of broken glass that people used to collect for sale to the glass factory.
She noticed that some people now have mobile phones, watches, gold jewellery and are wearing better casual clothing and jogging shoes. More have televisions, and a very few have cars or motor bikes. But, she concludes: "I'd like to say that the people of Majesty Gardens need a little help. The conditions for children to grow up in are really appalling. Children can run around but the filth, and mud! I think every child should go to school and be made to do so. I don't know numbers, but I see a lot of children playing around when they should be in school. It's easier just to do nothing, which is, perhaps, just the case all together. People say it isn't going to make much difference, but I think that demonstration people did for the gully had results. People have to work together, really."
She writes me later: "If I lived in Jamaica now I think I would set up an office in Majesty Gardens as an information centre. There are so many people and organisations willing to help the 'poor and unemployed' but the people they wish to help don't know how to go about applying and give up too easily or often have unrealistic ideas of what others can do for them!" By the time Rose Murray left, she'd organised a cataract operation for someone there.
As for her photography, she says: "It's another way of communicating, I think." She has a way of capturing the happiness people experience, no matter what their material situation. Murray plans now to prepare a portfolio with pictures from the seventies and her recent visits, working towards another exhibition. With permission from those people whose portraits she's captured in black and white, one day if a publisher is interested, there might even be a book to share with the world on the people of Majesty Gardens.