This interview features Antonette Grant, MBHS past student and Governance Adviser based in Nigeria with a leading bilateral aid agency. The interviewer is Howard Jackson.
HJ: Antonette, I like to first ask our interviewees about their life before attending MBHS. Tell us about yours.
AG: I grew up in Port Morant with my grandmother, but my mom and brothers lived in Lyssons so I actually belong to both worlds. My grandfather was a fisherman so we spent a lot of time by the seaside (and I am yet to outgrow my love for shellfish), but also had the usual rural experiences with cow bush, donkeys and the river!!
I went to Golden Grove Primary School, which might surprise you a bit, and from there to MBHS. I was actually awarded the Bustamante Centenary Scholarship for my Common Entrance performance but there’s a funny story on how we never really saw that grant!! Anyways, what it meant though was that by the time I got to high school, I knew fellow students from Port Morant, Lyssons and further east. This was a good thing too, as many of my mates from Golden Grove Primary went to Happy Grove and Titchfield so it was good to know other folks from my childhood communities.
HJ: What years did you attend MBHS and who were some of the popular students in your graduating class?
AG: I attended MBHS 1984-89 so one of the unapologetic 80s girls. Possibly the most popular student in my batch was Lawrence Christie (Likkle Christie) because of his athletic exploits back then. There were others such as Gregory Williams and Kaven Williams also in track and field; Ripton Lindsay was known for breakdancing.
We had a few footballers – Downie, Knox, and a host of academic achievers. If people like Lizabeth Crossman didn’t understand something, then the question itself was wrong.
Beyond those years though, popular or not, so many have gone on to do well in their respective endeavours and achieved excellence in their professions.
HJ. Can you name a few teachers that were a major influence on you during your high school years?
AG: I can name 2 or 3 subjects that I found very easy to navigate so I’ll remember Ms. McFarlane for English, Mr Osa for POB and Ms Whyte for French. However, the list of teachers who influenced me is a much longer one. I hated Math, but Ms. Richards as our form teacher for three years was a steadying force for us.
You see, I was fortunate enough to be in a high school at a time when teachers wanted you to do well academically but, more importantly, they cared about the person you were becoming. So even if they didn’t teach you, the emphasis on discipline and respect was mainstreamed. Each had their own style but I cannot think of a single teacher back then who didn’t insist on high expectations of us, particularly in our conduct.
It's that collective pressure of the ‘old school approach’ that really defined my high school experience – and actually shaped a big part of who I am.
HJ: Your career has taken you to many places across the world including some countries that are not often travelled by Jamaicans. How did you get into the career field that you are in now?
AG: I think I knew early out that I wanted an international career but I had defined that as either becoming an interpreter with the United Nations or working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I did the languages for ‘A’ Levels and applied to do a French major and minor in International Relations at UWI. A friend’s mom suggested that I reverse that order and I am so glad I did. What the major in IR did was to open my eyes to how the world works: the politics, the economics, foreign policy, international organisations – and the role of international development assistance.
That appealed to the socialist in me because it looked like a way to get paid doing something that’s in my heart – helping others. So when it was time to job hunt, I started to pay more attention to the organisations involved in development assistance. I must say though that I have come across Jamaicans in the most unlikely of places, many of them working in different parts of the UN system.
HJ: What are some of the countries that you have travelled to or lived in as a result of your career?
AG: In terms of work, I’ve covered the English-speaking Caribbean and even lived in Guyana for a few months. I’ve also lived in Bangladesh and Nigeria, had a visiting relationship with Uganda, and done quite a bit of work on Ghana, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Pakistan. Around that, I’ve been able to see quite a few other countries for fun.
HJ: Can you share a few experiences, good or bad, that you have had in your time living away from Jamaica which has made a lasting impression on you?
AG: 1) The sheer reach of Brand Jamaica globally is mind boggling; between Usain Bolt and Bob Marley, we are truly the biggest little country on the planet. Then there’s meeting fellow Jamaicans and just bonding with them like you’ve always been friends. We are such a proud people and rightfully so – no apologies for beating our chest!
2) I’ve had to stand up on more than one occasion and tell folks that there are three things that define me: I’m black, I’m woman and I’m Jamaican. I cannot change any of that but neither will I apologise for who I am. In the 21st century, some of our traits really matter more than they should and we have to keep pushing to defend our right to be where we are. It does take some people by surprise though when di Paul Bogle spirit step to dem!😊😊
3) As a Christian, some of the kindest, warmest people who have had my back in difficult moments are Muslims – a real lesson for those of us who seek to use religion as a separator. At the same time, I have seen religion and greed sit at the heart of murder and victimisation in a way that is chilling and makes me question our humanity.
4) Africa, as a continent, is misunderstood; such beauty, such potential and such challenges - you will be disappointed, amazed and amused all at once! As part of the diaspora, we need to stop regurgitating what other people choose to write and go see the realities of that continent for ourselves.
HJ: We are doing this interview during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Has life changed as much for your family and in Nigeria generally as dramatically as it has for the US, Europe and even Jamaica?
AG: By the time this interview gets published, a lot would have changed!! We have been living in lockdown mode since mid-March so yes, it’s a very different way of life. Online school, working from home, minimal trips outside the home, lack of human contact apart from immediate family, closed airspace, etc. are in Nigeria too, but I am not sure enough is being done quickly enough.
A lot of the social distancing measures were initially implemented at organisational levels rather than as a public health response by the authorities. So only time will tell because the official numbers, though climbing, are probably still not an accurate reflection.
HJ: Tell us one thing about you that most people don’t know.
AG: That my secret ambition was to become a commercial pilot, so I pay more attention to aircrafts than you might expect!
HJ: Finally, I would like to get your perspective on the MBHS Alumni community. Being married to Wayne White who is a Past President of MBHSAA-Jamaica and who has always been very active in the alumni community, you would have observed close-up the challenges and the successes that come with being a part of these organizations.
What is your general impression of the current state of the alumni community and are there some things that we need to start doing or be doing differently than we are now?
AG: Listen nuh, nuh badda mek it soun like my only involvement has been through marriage!! I was very active when I was single so don’t start me off. Actually, in a very real way, it’s the challenges of the movement that forced me to step back a bit because Wayne and I couldn’t be equally engaged when we had a young family. It’s the same few people doing all the heavy lifting so it becomes consuming.
Personally, I have always been disappointed by the lack of interest and passion shown by some of our graduates – and folks who one might assume have something to contribute. They want it to be like the KC or JC Old Boys Associations but they are not prepared to put in the effort those people make for their alma mater. You can’t score goals from the bench, and there is a lot to do. It’s embarrassing to see the poor turnout at even AGMs sometimes yet we expect the most vibrant of associations. Who is gonna make it vibrant if not the alumni themselves?
There are two things I believe we need to do:
Find ways to mobilise the younger generation, particularly through the social media channels now available. We need to see more folks from the 90s and 2000s stepping forward to engage and drive the movement. They’ve got the energy and the networks and we need to harness that for the benefit of the school.
Co-opt those folks on the sidelines, who spend all their time criticising and complaining into leading initiatives. Some have great ideas but feel there’s no space for them, while others just find fault with everything and offer no alternatives. Those who have something to contribute should find a space – the others we should challenge to put up or shut up.
HJ: Antonette, thank you so much for sharing your time and life experiences with us.