In the small town in Jamaica, from where comes the fastest man on the planet, time has stood still. As he packs his bags, a little reluctantly, for Rio to watch his son at the Olympics, Usain Bolt’s father tells Sandip G why they like it this way
Dusk is languidly sinking in at Sherwood Content. Through the dense foliage of overlarge guango trees glimmer the orange embers of the fading sun. The mellow patter of reggae wafts through the mild Caribbean breeze in this small town of Trelawny Parish in Jamaica. Beneath a massive shade, formed by a cluster of guangos, is a simple country-side shop, painted in bright pink, with a blue asbestos roof.
It’s the only shop in Sherwood, where local folks purchase their daily needs from, everything from milk and grocery to oxtail and pig’s head.
Inside the shop, Wellesley Bolt is busy jotting down on paper the pending deliveries, instructing his orderly, Jesse, to not get it wrong. Jesse, in another world, his thumbs flitting on the screen of his smartphone, just keeps nodding. Wellesley suddenly stops the monologue, and shouts, “You hearing me? Get rid of that phone and listen to me. I’m not here from next week and look whom I’m giving the shop to! So better listen to me. I don’t want to see people blowing this up when I come back. So you better listen.”
Jesse quakes on his chair and almost drops his phone, before muttering, “Yeah, I’m listening, man.” More like an aside, he retorts, “Why you doing this, ol’ man? You can go with your son.”
Wellesley glares at Jesse, his eyes chillingly cold like those of Andy Roberts or Curtly Ambrose. Wellesley can go to Kingston alright. Live with his son. Live the life of a celebrity father of a celebrity son. No worries. No hassles. No chopping of the pig’s head. No smell or taint of animal blood. No swishing of the knife through the flesh. He can just bask in the afterglow of his son’s magical feats. But Wellesley chose not to. He won’t either. For, he says, “I’m a self-made man. I want to live and die like one. The shop is everything to me, and I’ll never leave this place.”
Wellesley may be the father of the fastest man on the planet, and son Usain Bolt may be one of the most watched men over the next fortnight of the Olympics, but in this town, there is only one ‘Mr Bolt’, and that is this 60-year-old.
Wellesley opened the shop 30-odd years ago, when he was still working at a coffee factory in nearby Windsor. “We had come all the way from St Ann’s (a fertile parish between Kingston and Trelawny) when they started drilling the land for bauxite. With my sole income I couldn’t meet the needs of my family. Life was hard back then. I had three kids to look after,” he recollects.
Wellesley retired from the factory long ago, and his life now entirely revolves around this shop, sometimes even more than his son. “For me, the shop is just like my child. I have to look after it and take good care of it. I always wanted my children to not feel that I’m a bad man. Same is the case with the shop. I was very strict because the mother was very soft, sort of pampering them. Even my mother was like that,” he says.
In that, the Bolts are like most other Jamaican families. The father is the stereotypical iron-fisted head of the family and the mother is a doting, counter-balancing antithesis. Usain was born to Wellesley’s second wife Jennifer.
“Usain is a mamma’s boy, always with his mother when he was young. He still is. He always wants her to see him win the race. That’s why I always accompany her all around the world,” Wellesley asserts.
So come Monday, they will fly to Rio. Jennifer, 54, Wellesley comments, is “over excited”. He is less so. “She has been talking about all those carnivals and parties and stuff like that in Rio, and of course the Olympics. I’ve never been too much into that. The shop has to run even if we are not here. So I have lots of work, going to the town and buying things. And I need to teach this boy (pointing to Jesse) how to run this shop. I hope the shop is still there when I come back,” guffaws Wellesley.
ALSO READ | Usain Bolt poses with Brazilian Navy
Before Usain made history, his parents had seldom ventured beyond Falmouth in the East or Trelawney. Wellesley had been to Kingston a few times, but Jennifer had hardly left Sherwood village (one of the two villages that together make Sherwood Content).
Now, much as he tries, they are rarely home. “Apart from the circuit races, we accompany Usain wherever he goes. We have been with him during all the world championships and the Olympics. I had never thought I would go there. We have been to England, Japan, Monaco, Berlin and a lot of other countries. Funny, this life is. Almost 50 years in this forest, and then your life changes,” he chuckles, his baritone voice ringing inside the dimly lit room.
As Wellesley gets going on Usain, there is no stopping him. The physical resemblance, in Wellesley’s strapping physique, is also now more pronounced.
He never stood in Usain’s way, says the father. “From a young age, I let him be. I wanted to give him a good environment to develop his all-round skills, be it academics or sports. He chose the right path, and the rest is history. I’m proud of him, proud of him for the fact that he excelled in what he chose to do. A lot of people want to do well in what they choose, but not all of them succeed,” Wellesley points out.
It was a dream he himself never dreamt of, he admits. “We are simple village folk, who are satisfied with what he have and what we get in life. After the world junior championships in Kingston (2002), in which Bolt won the 200 metres, I realised that he would go far, but I did not realise that he would actually win the 100 metres, much less be the world record holder. I did think he could win the 200 metres because that was his main event, but 100 metres was a bonus for me.”
Wellesley then lifts a whole crate of beer by himself and tucks it into a corner of the room. He sweeps the long verandah and shuts the doors with a sudden clack. His race for the day is over.
Everybody in Sherwood has an Usain story. Like everybody has a Tendulkar story in Mumbai. These continue long after the stars have lit up the silvery sky and crickets pierce the village silence. The villagers point to a tree he climbed atop and fell, show you the window glass he broke when playing cricket, or talk about the day he pulled a practical prank on one of them, or recount the gifts they gave him as a child and the expensive presents he now gets them whenever he comes visiting.
An elderly lady points to her pink Puma sandals and says proudly, “Usain bought these for me last year.” Her grandson brings out a black T-shirt with Usain’s picture on it. He holds it to his chest, like a treasured possession. “Usain doesn’t come here often. You know he’s busy and has a lot of commitments. But when he comes, it’s like a festival. It’s a bigger festival than even the Emancipation Day for us. We make his favourite dishes and there is a gathering in front of his house, and this boy is so sweet that he patiently listens to us,” she says.
Former British colonies in the Carribbean observe Emancipation Day during the first week of August to mark the end of slavery.
Usain comes bearing not just material gifts. Because of him, the road to Sherwood gets a coating of tar every year. The narrow road is still rutty and bumpy, unattended for a while, but it was just a potholed pathway before that. Usain also brought running water to the village. “We used to have immense water shortage. We relied on a few streams, and when it dried up in the summer, we had to go all the way to the Martha Brae river. We would carry water on our backs or on donkeys. But after Usain won the Olympic gold in 2008 and made Sherwood famous, we got running water,” the woman beams.
Another Olympic gold might bring them streetlights, Sherwood believes.
Usain’s elementary school, Waldensia Primary School, is on a small, grassy, tree-less mound, with donkeys and mules grazing in the frontyard. The wall facing the road has a painting of Bolt in his signature celebratory pose, painted by one of the students.
The school is no different from a government school in India, fenceless and neglected, in a bucolic time lapse like Sherwood itself. A group of boys laze around. They don’t go to school any longer, they say, herding donkeys and mules instead.
But they know the man on the wall. “He’s our Usain,” they burst into giggles. “Is he in the village?” they add excitedly, disappointed to know the answer.
The William Knibb Higher Secondary School, a few miles away on Falmouth Road, is the exact opposite of Waldensia. The security only lets you inside or allows you to take pictures after you have paid a “donation”. Past the columned trees and manicured lawn is a modern concrete structure.
There is a photo of Usain among the other alumni of the school, including Norman Manley, the ‘National Hero’ of Jamaica. It’s way past schooltime and there is a ghostly silence in the corridors. Almost the entire batch of teachers who taught or knew Usain have retired.
But he lingers. Next to the basketball court, in the storage room, is a pile of Puma T-shirts and jerseys. “All from Usain,” informs the security.
The school itself is small, and the gym isn’t really new-age, holding just the basic facilities and weights, which crowd the small space. But that may change. The school authorities want to build a couple of new blocks because all the parents want to send their kids to the “Bolt school”. They also plan to erect Usain’s bust in the front lawn, and hope to have their famous pupil inaugurate it himself.
“Nobody now knows this school as William Knibb School. It’s Bolt’s school now,” the security person says.
Just like Bolt’s village. Just like Bolt’s teacher. Just like Bolt’s mother — the stardom of the man blurring the identity of all that surrounds him. Except that of the other Mr Bolt. Wellesley Bolt. The fiercely proud Mr Bolt.
Retreating to the family’s house just down the road, Wellesley says the single-storey structure has been modified, “with a little help from Usain”. The gable-roofed house, however, has none of the signs of luxury common to most swanky houses in New Kingston or such-like locales. There is nothing fancier than a couple of SUVs in the garage. Wellesley takes them to the town to buy supplies for the store.
Usain too has a sprawling mansion in Kingston, but as he leans on a wall in the patio, Wellesley sighs, “I can’t leave this place. This is where I’m and this is where I’ll be.”
The farther Wellesley flies away from here, the faster he wants to return. To the tranquil Sherwood Content where life never moves too fast but where the story of the fastest man began.
There can’t be a sweeter paradox.