Bob Marley has a vague connection to New Zealand – his birthday is February 6th, Waitangi Day, and about eight years ago I made the pilgrimage to his tiny, run down village of Nine Mile in Jamaica.
Robert Nesta Marley sure came from humble surrounds. There’s still no running water in the buildings around here, the locals all pile over to the reservoir with buckets and the dreadlocked one lies entombed in a mausoleum on his former back yard. There is pretty much nothing else here, but still pilgrims come to contemplate life – his and theirs – and smoke dope.
I was staying at Couples Sans Souci in Ocho Rios for my brother’s wedding and no one could be bothered joining me the next day for the 3 hour round trip to Nine Mile, so I negotiated a rate of US$100 with a taxi driver and as Bob serenaded us I watched the manicured lawns of nearby resorts become overgrown shantys.
We drove through Fern Gully, a 5 km incline which once was a rushing river. Rickety huts nestled into the side of the road stocked with handcrafts including large and proud phallic sculptures that tourists stop at to photograph – for a tip of course. Whenever a cruise ship is in town, stalls and shops spring open and there are baskets, Rastafarian tea cosies, gigantic conch sells and freshly cooked jerk chicken and pork as far as the eye can see. But today it is just me and my singing driver, Mr Collins, weaving past the locals walking along the road in their Sunday best.
The drive is normally an hour and a half, but with next to no traffic over the rugged countryside, we pulled up at Bob’s guarded gates in an hour and beeped the horn – which apparently is the password for dreadlocked men to put down their joints and spring into action. The Rastafarian “holy herb” is sold by the plastic, shopping-sized bag.
A wooden building stuffed with souvenirs in red, green, yellow and black is the main entrance and where you buy your admission ticket to see the buildings beyond the gate. Posters, beach towels and t-shirts hang on racks and plastic Bob Marley ashtrays and knick knacks crowd a tressle table while Bob croons through the speakers.
I paid $10 for Benjy to show me round. “This is where Bob was born,” he said with a glazed look in his eyes pointing to a building behind a wall. “No we can’t go in there, it’s still the family home.” It turns out Bob’s mother, Ciddy was living there but she has since passed away.
We came across a bar where Mr Collins parked himself in front of a TV playing Bob’s life story. A man hanging over the wall offered us joints for $5. But I could just picture the outcome of sniffer dogs in Miami detecting traces of ganja in my carry-on luggage!
There are two tiny buildings where Bob actually lived. Three others have been built to feed tourists or sell knick-knacks. About 100 metres up a grass track is a tiny two-roomed cottage and the mausoleum.
We took our shoes off as Benjy repeatedly punctuated his spaced-out narration with “respect” and sang songs that Bob wrote about this place. The “Mt. Zion Rock” behind the cottage was his meditation spot and Benjy stretched himself out on the “Rock Pillow” from “Talking Blues” and gave us a rendition.
We stepped inside the silent mausoleum filled with incense where devotees bring photographs and leave notes. A soccer ball on a table is surrounded by pictures and a guitar stands in the corner. Paintings and photos with famous people hang on the walls and his marble tomb is draped in fabric as the sun danced through lead-light windows depicting elements of several faiths.
In 1977 Bob found he had cancer in his big toe after an injury. Doctors recommended it be removed but he refused citing it was against his Rastafarian beliefs. It spread to his liver, stomach and eventually his brain. He died on 11 May 1981 at the age of 36 leaving a legacy of music that has more than put Jamaica on the map.