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  • Writer's pictureKamille D. Whittaker

"Up Country": Bois Content, Jamaica

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

My grandmother, a seamstress, used to sew all the garments and school uniforms for the town and her family.

"Oh, let's go back to the start."

We are, and have always been, on African time.

The practice of mourning infused with the celebration of life is a divinely African notion experienced throughout the Diaspora. Consider the sometimes months-long tradition in Luoland, Kenya, for example, called 'tero buru', a ceremony that tends to both the deceased and the bereaved; bridging the distance -- if only temporarily -- between this world and that of the ancestors. It's essentially about celebrating and grieving from the core of one's core, which then manifests as singing, dancing, chanting, crying ... repeated as needed. 

Consider the meticulous practices of Nigerians and Ghanaians and of the Congo ... and the echoes in Bahia, Brazil. 

Consider the traditional Nine-Nights celebration and extended wakes in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic, when a loved one transitions. Africans, when and where we find ourselves in this world, take special care in the transition of a loved one's physical life, to one of the spirit. A life well lived becomes born again and lives on through manifestations of memory and traditions in the present and future. Born again, as they said in Kemet, as is the Sun, each day (Khepera).

My Grandmother was a master storyteller. She passed whole histories down to me and everyone she came in contact with. My mindfulness of the Word -- and its interplay with life, ideas, culture -- began with her, at least consciously speaking. Of course it goes deeper. But she was the first to be intentional with me about it all; and she ripened my mind so that when the likes of Ayi Kwei Armah and Jacob Carruthers spoke of it -- it already sounded familiar. She was 100 years old -- almost 101 -- when she passed and I can't begin without honoring her. Pictured is the land where she and my grandfather worked to provide community and sustenance for the town of Bois Content, Jamaica.

Grandma Naun

Contributed by Nigel Coke for The Jamaica Gleaner

The Matriarch

Ivis Mae Hutelda Oliver Henry Dawkins, who was affectionately known as Naun, was born on August 24, 1911 in Campbell Hill, Gold Mine, St. Catherine, Jamaica. She was the third of 10 children born to Mary-Ann Albertha Oliver (formerly Thomas) and Thomas Larchin Oliver, and is the sole survivor of the lot. She does not remember how she got the name Naun, but clearly recalls there were two Nauns at her school: Big Naun and Little Naun. She was the latter.

Naun attended the Bellas Gate Elementary School and passed the preliminary examination. She was a bright girl and wanted to attend West Indies College (now Northern Caribbean University), but somebody told her mother that she would not be able to afford it because Naun's father had died when she was only nine years old. Instead, Naun learnt dressmaking. Not only did she make dresses, but she made lovely pants too! She subsequently taught the skill to a lot of young women.

Naun was baptised at at age 17 at the Bellas Gate Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she later met and married the first of two husbands, Wilfred Artemas Henry, 'Maas Tumpa', of Bois Content. They were married on December 7, 1930 and they parented 11 children: Pearl, Leon, Basil, Kenneth, Lloyd, Linvol, Joycelyn, Gloria, Dorett, Errol and 'washbelly' Morris.

Active in community

She had her first child at age 20, and the last one at age 42. She also raised several other youngsters in her home, including her youngest brother, Wilbert (Uncle Bertie), and her husband's two premarital children, Sylvester and Rhetel (Tat).

"I remember Mom for her dedication to family life and worship. She was very active in church," son Kenneth said. "She served in many capacities, including, treasurer, choir director, Sabbath school superintendent, secretary as well as church leader. She and 'Maas Tumpa' were pioneers of the Bois Content Church, which started in 1952 at our home in an unfinished bedroom. Church services were held in the house until a modest tabernacle was later built."

"She was also very active in the community of Bois Content where she conducted adult literacy classes," added Kenneth. "She was a member of the Jamaica Agricultural Society and volunteered her service at the local school by making uniforms and preparing lunches for the children. She also served as a midwife who helped to deliver many babies."

In her response to the formalities Naun said, "I must say praise the Lord. Thank the Lord for being here today. Thank you all for making this a success. Praise God from whom all the blessings flow." She then burst into her favourite Jamaican folk song, "Go dung a Manuel Road gal an' bwoy fi go bruk rock stone," and everyone sang along with her.

Naun's second husband, Urijah Dawkins, 'Maas U', predeceased her in December 1986. She has 38 grandchildren, 51 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. She still enjoys singing, telling stories and making people laugh.


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