Pastor Bobby Wilmott: Trench Town Triumph

Pastor Bobby Wilmott is a man who’s bent on converting Jamaica’s rough Trench Town into a place of hope he calls Joytown. Chris Salewicz explains

At the proposed site of a mini-stadium. Photograph by Wayne TippettsBobby Wilmott and a young Trench Town resident. Photograph by Wayne TippettsPhotograph by Wayne TippettsWilmott at the Joytown Learning Centre with a class of young children. Photograph by Wayne TippettsWilmott buys fresh juice at First Street, Trench Town, a place made famous by Bob Marley in Dread Natty Dread: “Dally down to First Street . . .” Photograph by Wayne TippettsWilmott with “Deanie”, who runs an urban farm project started by Wilmott and Lorna Stanley with help from the Jamaican government. Photograph by Wayne Tippett

Nine years ago Sir Nooshie became a gunman in Trench Town: he had just turned 14 years old.

Thanks to the songs of Bob Marley, who grew up in that part of the Jamaican capital, the name of the Kingston ghetto of Trench Town is known across the world — the lyrics of No Woman No Cry, his first international hit, for example, speak of living in a government yard in Trenchtown …

Yet since the near-civil war of the 1970s, the area has become a territorial hell-hole divided up by various gangs of killers, often no more than teenagers. Sir Nooshie, however, never professed any misguided political allegiance: how else than by taking up the gun, he had reasoned as a youth, could he survive in dirt-poor Trench Town?

Nooshie was good at his new job: stick-ups, protection rackets, the lethal dispatch of rival gang members. So ruthless was his reign of terror that before he left his teens he had become one of the area’s “Dons”. But when his closest friend was gunned down in front of him last year, Sir Nooshie finally woke up. “If people see a man like me change, anybody can change,” he says. “Now I never know life so sweet.”

Nooshie, who is highly intelligent and has movie-star good looks, is the greatest current success of Bobby Wilmott, a pastor whose mission is to save Trench Town from itself. (“Remember the story of Saul. There is no turning back for this young man,” declares Wilmott, himself bearing a distinct facial resemblance to Luciano, the “King of Conscious Reggae”; just in case you hadn’t got the message, he clearly declares his intent in the medallion around his neck that carries the legend Destined To Win.)

The pastor’s protégé tells his story whilst standing in the dusty, battered yard in front of the Joytown Remedial Centre, the Trench Town secondary school for teenagers with learning difficulties at which he now teaches full-time. Even before Sir Nooshie finally gave up his former occupation, the fruits of which are evident in his crisp Tommy Hilfiger and Nike clothing, he would teach maths and English at evening adult education classes at the school. For the privilege of being taught by this articulate gunman Don, students would pack his classes. Now Nooshie’s message is clear. “I don’t have to tell you who I am,” he announces to his class. “I have been a gunman. But I say to you, ‘Put down the guns. Don’t take up the drugs.’”

 

Bobby Wilmott, who is 38 years old and grew up in the rough Olympic Gardens district of Kingston, is a principal minister in the Jamaican Covenant Community Church, one of the many Baptist churches in the country, which he joined in 1983; Baptists were vocal opponents of slavery, and the church’s popularity has never waned. The Covenant Community Church, which grew up out of the charismatic church, developed out of the breakfast meetings of a group of businessmen at Kingston’s Sheraton hotel in the early 1970s.

Wilmott, who has dedicated himself to church work since he left school at 16, exudes righteousness, his smiling eyes flashing with the fervour of his mission. “Change Trench Town and you change Jamaica,” Bobby Wilmott says he decided, and began to hold services there in 1989; his first church was the shade of a large mango tree. Aware of the power of words, he whimsically re-named his parish of Trench Town as Joytown. “Joy Town belongs to Jesus, and not to the Devil!” he announced, with suitable drama. (In its turn, Trench Town takes a name from an early mover and shaker in the area called Mr Trench.)

Who yuh think yuh are to come to Trench Town? local gunmen would ask him. Wilmott would stand tall while he gave his answer. “I am also a badman, because of who I serve,” he would respond. “I can fire gun like you. But I serve my God — he sent me here. Can you kill a dead man?” “What yuh talk ‘bout — a dead man is dead,” they’d say. “And I’d reply to that with the truth: ‘The Bible tells me, You cannot kill a dead man, for I am dead to the world and alive in Christ.’ Now I deal with respect. I have the full backing of the community.”

Soon Wilmott saw that to effect real change in the area he should start with the future foundations of its society — its children. “There were too many children not going to school. Because of expense, and also because there were not enough schools around, but mainly because it had often been dangerous to cross the area.”

In the shadow of the decayed shell of the Ambassador Theatre, where once Noël Coward would go to watch Louis Armstrong perform, Wilmott found a substantial abandoned building; a former Women’s Institute, it stills bears a cornerstone laid in 1947 by the wife of Sir Hugh Foot, the then Governor-General — Trench Town was a fashionable area until it went into decline in the 1950s. When Wilmott discovered the building in 1993, goats and chickens were wandering about its rubble-strewn floor. Because the building stood on a borderline between the territory of two gangs, it especially suited the pastor’s purpose. “We are into Jesus and Jesus came to break down the middle wall of partition,” he grins knowingly.

With the help of his congregation, Bobby Wilmott restored the building. When local badmen would demand to know what he was doing, the preacher would tell them that he was starting a school. “Do you want your children to grow up and fire gun like you?” he would ask, and urge them to help him get the place into a workable condition. “They wouldn’t do that: they are big guys,” Wilmott says, with an ironic smile. “When I first started working on the building, people would pass and say, ‘Yuh still dere?’ I would tell them, ‘We are here to stay.’”

In September 1994 Wilmott opened The Joytown Learning Centre. His wife served as headmistress, and the school had just 12 pupils. Today, it teaches over a hundred children, with six teachers, all from surrounding streets, women of good education previously condemned because of the address they would give on job applications — uptown Jamaicans dislike mixing with people from the ghetto. “I’m thinking about transforming a nation, so I don’t want teachers who are grumpy or miserable. I want people who realise it is a blessing to teach these children. And who understand that the person you fail to lift up today may one day put you under,” Wilmott declares.

All schools in Jamaica, where education is theoretically compulsory, now charge fees of some sort. But those for The Joytown Learning Centre are under two US dollars a week, and even those are often waived, such is the poverty. Sometimes Wilmott will come across mothers who deliberately don’t pay their children’s fees. But he realised he had won his spurs when local gunmen approached him about one such individual: “Pastor, we understand someone dissed you. Do you want us to get rid of her?”

To prevent them from ever thinking along similar lines, the children’s lessons are imbued with a rigorous morality; when the class of six-year-olds recite in unison their ABC, their version of the alphabet includes the following definition: “L is for labour for learning before you grow old, for learning is better than silver and gold. Silver and gold will vanish away, but a good education will never decay.” “It is my intention,” said Bobby Wilmott, “that the children will go home and quote such words to their parents.”

 

Bobby Wilmott offers a pair of examples of how the ghetto areas have begun to change for the better, even though each tale involves the meting out of almost terrifying measures of rough justice. Last year, for example, a man called Mouthey came back to nearby Rema from jail and began to wreak havoc with his gang, the Fatherless Crew. So disturbing were his efforts to demonstrate his “donship” that the community took a stand against him. Soon, for unrelated reasons, the police proclaimed a curfew; so as not to cause themselves any problems with the law, Mouthey and his men stashed their guns. But as soon as the curfew was lifted, local men armed themselves and rode the weaponless Mouthey and his crew out of town. “Good badmen against bad badmen,” commented Bobby Wilmott with a wry smile.

In the “Angola” section of nearby Arnott Gardens, meanwhile, a man returned from a spell in the General Penitentiary to discover that a friend of his had been killed in his absence. He put out the word he would “hot up the place, because he was vex,” Wilmott recalls. Although advised to behave in a more balanced manner, the ex-prisoner continued with his anti-social behaviour. “When he said he wouldn’t cool it, his own friends came for him and shot him up, and jackhammered his head. And then they put a placard around his neck, ‘You will not terrorise this community anymore.’” Solutions are often simplistic in a world where life is cheap.

The children Sir Nooshie is teaching have not benefitted from such an environment. In the Joytown Remedial Centre (“God’s Advocates for the Disadvantaged”) are around 50 pupils aged 10 and older, with learning problems due to their deeply dysfunctional surroundings and family backgrounds. “Most of these children, 90 per cent of whom could not read or write, hardly ever had gone to school because it was too dangerous for them to venture into what was literally a war zone,” explains Lorna Stewart, a Jamaican returning resident, formerly a journalist in Palm Beach, who is the headmistress of the remedial centre. Why did she come back to do this? “I did it for the need. I saw children in terrible plight.”

Because they are consumed with anger, she says, many of the children fight each other with brutal compulsion. But the large task of saving their lives seems to be bearing fruit. Several children stand up in class and utter similar words to those of Winston, who is aged 12: “When I first came to this school, I didn’t even know when I was born. I could not read or know my ABC. And now I can and I am proud of myself.”

Bobby Wilmott looks on with optimistic pleasure. “Correct the root of the problem,” he muses happily. “Then you don’t have to worry about the branches.”