BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment ?firstname.lastname@example.org
THE upcoming relocation of hundreds of residents from the sugar barracks in Golden Grove, St Thomas to a new housing development is a dream many sugar workers never thought would come true.
Persons who were born in the wooden shacks, originally built as temporary housing for seasonal sugar workers in the 1920s, are still living there with their children and grandchildren, having never been able to earn enough to afford real housing.
The dilapidated structures which have taken a battering from various hurricanes are on their last legs, with some of the units looking ready to topple off the high columns on which they were constructed.
Last week, expectant residents gathered on former cane lands in Hampton Court to witness the breaking of ground for infrastructural work for the 225 European Union-funded houses, which will see them finally being able to enjoy the comfort of a flush toilet and piped water in their homes.
The more-than-486 residents will have to go through yet another hurricane season in the barracks however as the houses will not be completed before March of 2014, but the hope of finally owning their own homes makes them feel as if they can weather any storm.
“Mi really happy say mi brother going to finally get a house because him getting old now and can hardly manage to walk the long way to get to the (communal) bathroom,” said George Gillespie.
Resident Isaac Peckoo is not sure of his age, but he believes he is now in his early 80s. What he is certain of, however, is that he has been living in the now-decrepit barracks since he was seven years old, and not once did he cultivate any hope of being able to afford better living conditions.
Peckoo, who dropped out of school in his early teens to work in the canefields, said he could never afford more suitable accommodations to house his children and grandchildren, who all live in the barracks. But some six years after failing health forced him to retire from the back-breaking task of cutting cane, Peckoo now has hope that one day he will be able to live in a real home.
Peckoo recalled his father writing to the head of the farm in 1939 asking if he and his family could be temporarily housed in one of the barracks while he worked on the sugar estate. His father, he said, had worked on the cowdrawn carts which transported sand to the site during the construction of the barracks.
“Initially, people did fi live dere just fi crop time, but den everybody start staying on and having dem family and just live deh permanently,” Peckoo told the Jamaica Observer North East.
He recalled those early days when the mothers stayed at the barracks to raise their children while the men went out to work in the canefields from the wee h ours of the mo rni ng until sundown.
But the children were forced to grow up early as, given the meagre wages, boys were forced to seek employment on th e est ate from a very early age.
“Ah had was to leave sch ool and start working at age 14 n the es tat e to he lp mi parents to raise the smal ler ch ildr en,” he recalled.
He first started working at the distillery, then, as he got older and stronger, he went to the canefields. It was the only job he eve r kn ew until his retirement in 206.
As he started his ow family, Peckoo said he had to use plyboard to c ons truct an a ddi tional room at the back of the ba rra ck h e occ upi es. But that has been as much as he could afford to do with the structure, wh ich is no w fa lling down around him.
“Up to the last hurricane the zinc blow off and mi haffi put a big stone to hold down what left,” he said. “The floor not even wholesome because when you walk it vibrate like you going to drop through it,” he added.
Sixty-eight-year-old Derval Grey, who was born in the barracks, said the buildings have not been repaired since the 60s.
Like his neighbours, Grey said despite working for 45 years on the sugar estate he was never able to pool together enough resources to purchase a home of his own. He recalled his father sacrificing his own opportunity to buy a plot of land in order to see him complete his high school education.
“The then superintendent of the estate was selling him two-and-a-half square of land for 30 sterling pound, but him wouldn’t buy it because he didn’t want to sacrifice my education for the land,” he said, adding that although his parents could not read, they, nevertheless wanted their children to make the best of education.
But the land which eluded his parents seemed to have eluded Grey, too.
“I have oftentimes contemplated building somewhere of mi own and ah save towards it, but inflation always make it impossible,” he told the Observer North East.
Grey said although he was a brilliant accounts student he could not continue his education further than Happy Grove High, as he had to seek employment in the payroll department immediately upon leaving school.
“I was the second child and first boy for mi parents’ 12 children and so when mi father get sick ah had to work and care for all my siblings,” he explained.
According to Grey, persons did not willingly remain in the barracks. They were forced to do so as a result of the poverty that existed among sugar workers.
“It is no fault of the sugar workers that they don’t have anywhere of their own but is because of the poverty,” he said.
Added to that, he said, in the very early days, residents of the barracks were very comfortable with the living arrangements. Noting that everyone used to “live loving and sharing”, Grey said persons would share the produce from their small farms.
Head of operations for the Delegation of the EU to Jamaica Jesus Orus Baguena said the new settlements will have basic infrastructure such as electricity and water. He added that the programme will not only support improved social services, but small-scale economic activities as well, which will cater to the social and economic welfare of its residents.
He further noted that as Jamaica’s sugar industry moves forward, those who toiled to develop the industry should not be left behind.
“The [sugar support] programme would have failed its objectives if it would not have catered to the needs of the people affected by the restructuring of the industry and shown gratitude to those whose work has allowed the sugar industry to thrive,” Baguena said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, in addressing the recent contract signing for the infrastructural works for the housing developments, said the Government would have been irresponsible were they to ignore the social ills that have persisted for persons living in the barracks.
The Barracks Relocation Project, she said, was conceived to build decent houses and communities for the current generation of occupants, thereby removing the stigma associated with living in barracks and correct a historic wrong that has persisted for too long.