by Sandra Downes in London
Three generations of Gilkes women have collectively given more than 60 years’ service to the Barbados Overseas Association, Manchester. It began with Marsena, a 20-year-old nurse who left Barbados to pursue a career in England; then her daughter Michelle who practically grew up at the Association’s West Indian Centre at Carmoore Road, and lastly her granddaughter Yosha, who managed the Youth arm.
Marsena arrived in England from Pleasant Hall, St. Peter in 1961, leaving her first child Janice in Barbados with her mother Hilda. She began working at a hospital in Birmingham before transferring to one in Manchester. She settled into the Barbadian community and became one of the Association’s earliest members, serving for over four decades before her death in 2015.
From what Michelle recalls, the idea of an association came about because “they used to gather together anyway; then when Independence came (in 1966) they decided to make it official. In the early days, a lot of it was about helping themselves and others to communicate with family back home, apply for passports and so on.”
“My mother loved dancing and organising events too; because she was such a sociable person, she enjoyed being PRO. She held that position forever,” Michelle remembered. “She loved to cook and entertain so her home was open to all. She was also a disciplinarian and a strong woman, so there was no slacking on that (working with the Association). I had to be a part of it, but in the early days I had to be seen and not heard,” she laughed.
When Michelle became a young adult, involvement with the Association was automatic. After all, she came up under a mother who was “a die-hard Bajan and wherever mom went, I had to go. It was me and Angela Thomas; we were the only two children who didn’t have a choice. We were at everything the Association had… from the time I was in a pushchair.” Coincidentally, her father Ivan Clarke was from St. John and was a co-founder of the Barbados Association in Oldham.
So what did growing up with a Barbadian mother teach her? “I felt like I had the best of both worlds. I was brought up in the UK which is predominately white, but I was still able to have a strong Barbadian culture. It played a major part in shaping me as a young person and it gave me strong morals.”
That didn’t shield her from her classmates’ criticism though. “I used to be deemed as different because of my shape. I was short and had strong arms. They would tease me about the size of my behind; they would ask to rest on it or tell me I was blocking out the light. This made me very conscious and ashamed of my shape. But when I went on a dance tour and I stepped into Ghana in 1994, the first thing I could think was everybody looks like me. Wow! I am not the odd one out anymore… And when I did my solo dance, the whole crowd stood up and cheered. Everybody asked to speak to the little dark one.”
“And I remember the oldest lady in the village asked to see me. She told me from the way I had danced, you are one of us. From that day, I appreciated my body because I understood who I was.”
Michelle has an unquestionable love for Barbados. “I knew all the Bajan slang and mannerisms, so I was able to raise my three children (Yosha, Makisa and Zaviea) with the same values and culture,” she remarked.
She assisted Marsena for a while but “when Mom slowed down I became PRO,” and later Deputy and Chairperson, the only other woman in the history of the Association to do so besides Chloe Brooks. “All the other young people left,” she explained, “but Angela and I came through it and we stayed.”
Michelle spent over 15 years as a member of the executive and it should be no surprise that her main objective as Chairperson was to address the absence of young people. “Many of our parents started to get older or relocate to Barbados, so I was concerned about getting young people back into the Association and bridging the generation gap.” She encouraged others in her age group to join and bring their children along. The result was that “we now have first to third generation Bajans.”
“I understood how rough it was for them mentally and physically, to leave Barbados and come looking for a better life and when they arrived the grass wasn’t always greener. I wanted the younger generation to be aware of what they went through.”
Michelle also tried creative ways to bridge the generation gap. One such was the introduction of Jet Black Dance Academy, where young people danced to music from the Caribbean, mainly Bajan soca and music from bygone eras. They learnt and performed dances which the older folk knew. Another initiative was Rent-A-Grandparent – an event where the elderly taught the younger ones about the olden days while the younger taught the elders technology.
Michelle admits she “stepped back a bit” to care for both her parents while they were ill. Even as she considers playing a more active role again, she added that “the Association could do with reviving and revamping. What worked back then isn’t quite what we need right now.”
The former Sports Development Manager for the Manchester City Council also “absolutely loves netball.” After a short stint doing some coaching with the Barbados team while on holiday a few years ago, the certified coach and umpire would relish the chance to develop the sport in Barbados to the highest possible level.
Having inherited her mother’s love of dancing, Michelle was part of an African Dance School and now works as Events Manager and Chairperson of Jet Black Dance Academy.
Owned by Yosha, the Academy caters mainly to young people ages 3-25, from the local and surrounding areas. The Academy offers classes where students learn academics and social skills through dance, mostly choreographed to Bajan music. In the daytime, Yosha works as a dance instructor in Manchester schools. On evenings, she also conducts yoga and fitness classes and on weekends, does natural hair.
“My grandmother had a big influence on me,” Yosha continued, “just her passion and drive. The way she used her love for cooking and music to bring people together, I used my love for dance and music to bring the younger black community together. But we have brought a lot of other cultures and ethnicities together as well; they are drawn to us at the Dance Academy because of the way we do things and it’s mainly our Bajan culture.”
Jet Black Academy has been in high demand all over England and has won many competitions over the years, the last being Most Creative Dance School in the UK in 2019.
Yosha spent lots of time with her grandmother and grew up seeing the women in her family working with the organisation. “So for me, it meant continuing the hard work, love and dedication that my mother and grandmother put into it. I saw both women going the extra mile for their Bajan community and it inspired me to do my best and dedicate myself to the younger community.” (SD)
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