Portia Simpson Miller

Interview with Janet Silvera - March 8, 2017

Portia Simpson Miller
March 08, 2017
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Simpson Miller gave this interview with Janet Silvera of The Gleaner just before her retirement from the Jamaican Parliament.

SILVERA: Mrs. Simpson Miller, you have had quite a journey on the road of time, certainly many lasting memories. What’s that one particular moment that stands out for you?

SIMPSON MILLER: My first was the night of the local government elections when I contested for the strongest division for the [?] in the constituency and at the end of the counting I became the winner of the strongest [?] division in the island. The people asked me if I would stand. I gained a lot of support because people were saying, and at that time, I had my hair natural like yours. I was slim like your finger.

SILVERA: Yes, you were as slim as my finger [laughing]

SIMPSON MILLER: Oh law—all I had was a heavy head of hair then and they were saying, “My god, she could have been my daughter, granddaughter.” Call me pickney. So they would hold my hand and take me to the other persons in the area and say, “You see this girl? We must give her our support.”

SILVERA: So 40 years later and going through that journey, what is the highlight you would say then of that journey and where it has taken you to today?

SIMPSON MILLER: Well, my journey that I always think about is the girl from Woodhall that ended up in Jamaica House as prime minister. And it is not only a journey for me, but I journey for all the girls in this country, the children now in school, and the women of this country who will now know that they, too, can achieve what they want to achieve in life. Because it's a very important journey.

SILVERA: Looking back, though, did you truly expect to get this far to a place where no other Jamaican woman has been?

SIMPSON MILLER: I never thought for one moment that I would ever become prime minister of Jamaica—never. I knew what I liked to do then was always trying to improve my education. And like [?], I usually go to Jamaica Commercial Institute in the evening, where I took the Pitman London exam and got my hundred-word-per-minute shorthand. So mine was always trying to see what more I could do in terms of my personal education, and I think that was very good. My father named me from the Merchant of Venice and that's why my name is Portia Lucretia, because Lucretia was Portia’s secretary and he said he was going to name his first daughter Portia. When the first girl came, he said no, this is not Portia. Second girl came—no, not Portia. Boys and boy, and then Portia. And then another girl, and then he said, when I was born he said, when they said he could now see the baby, he said, this is Portia. He wanted me to be a lawyer but I ended up being more than a lawyer, because I became the first female prime minister of Jamaica. And I believe that his spirit must have been celebrating that night when it was announced.

SILVERA: Tell us about the influence the Rex Nettleford had on your life

SIMPSON MILLER: Well, Prof called me to come and see. And I went. Prof said to me, “Portia, i would love for you to do your program here at UWI, but you know what—I prefer if you do it overseas.” He handed me an envelope and said, “This is a letter to Professor Laurel at Union Institute & University. You are to be in classes one day per week from morning until evening. So you catch the first plane out and the flight coming back. That's how I got my bachelor's. Education is very important. My father was not a very educated man but he knew enough to know that his children should be given a good education. Even if you get up and said your tummy's hurting, you still have to go to school. He believed firmly—he was an ardent supporter of Norman Washington Manley, and all of that was because of education. And Norman Manley’s push in terms of agriculture and helping the farmers.

SILVERA: You go on far as using your own money to fund other people's children education.

SIMPSON MILLER: Yes, in the constituency, I do. Because I see that as Norman Manley said once, show me a prosperous nation and I show you an educated people. And what I want for my constituency is for the young people in the constituency to achieve quality education. The good thing about it is that those that I continue to pay their fees, in the evenings when they get home from school they take, like the children would be sitting for CXC, so they take them and help them, so they also give back because of what I've done for them.

SILVERA: You help other students outside of your constituency, or just your constituency?

SIMPSON MILLER: Yes, oh yes. We have both side. There was a young man from St. Thomas that that we did and I did a young lady as well. There are times when they give testimonials and then the Portia Foundation assists if a student should be in trouble financially and cannot be pay their university fee, then the foundation would pay the fees.

SILVERA: What are your views on the strides that Jamaican women have made in the society over the years?

SIMPSON MILLER: I think I've made great strides. Once upon a time we had men occupying certain positions and they would have, they would really go to school for different areas, while women would be mainly teachers and so on. But it came to a stage where the women of Jamaica said, no more. We are now medical doctors. We are now doctors by way of our education, where they get the doctorate. And there are, women are in every field in this country. No one can complain about the achievements of our women. I think we can do more, but I think that the women came into their own and started to push themselves in a serious way. You go to the universities—the women are there. Teacher training colleges—the women are there. Name it, any profession—you’ll find a woman.

SILVERA: But don't you think we have a long way to go as it relates to equality matters?

SIMPSON MILLER: Well, that is true, but part of the challenge is that some of the women do not come into their own quickly and push themselves. Because sometimes you have to push yourself. When I had to go to Jamaica Commercial Institute and I get my homework, when I got home before I have dinner I would do my homework, then I can have dinner. But for the women of Jamaica, there are number of outstanding women making a valuable contribution to the development of this country. Some have made and are still making.

SILVERA: And you don't think that our men are keeping them down in any way or form?

SIMPSON MILLER: For me…most of the Jamaican women will not allow their men to keep them back.

SILVERA: [laughing]

SIMPSON MILLER: Because they want to earn as well. And they'll point out most of the time, if you're working and I am working, then we will be able to do more for ourselves and for the children.

SILVERA: Even your harshest critics would agree, but there has been a special love affair between you and the Jamaican people. In fact, we have not seen that with many other politicians and the Jamaican people. Why do you think people across Jamaica love you so much?

SIMPSON MILLER: I think people recognize love when they see love, and they know when you are genuine from when you're just putting on. I was brought up with a lot of love in the district that I was brought up—Woodhall—and I think those of us who were brought up in rural Jamaica would face the same things where the adults would look out for every child, which gave true meaning to the African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. That was the kind of experience that I had when I was a girl growing up, going to primary school. If some politicians sometimes do not pay enough attention to their people. And I love to hug, so when I see my people I don’t care who they are, I'm going to embrace them. They made me MP, and the fact that they supported me for so many years means that I owe them my gratitude, but most of all my love and support.

SILVERA: You have also met a lot of politicians from all over the world. Is there any one leader you have met that time you admire, and why?

SIMPSON MILLER: I met a number of them that I admired. I remember my visit with Fidel Castro and he would not let me go. We keep on talking and talking and talking and talking. And even when one of his functionaries enter the door and like, would be giving him a signal to stop, he just turned fully round to me and ignored totally. So even if they come to the door, no, he is not seeing them. Well, we chatted and we chatted and we chatted and we chatted. So I couldn't see Raul and I had an appointment to see him as well for a courtesy call. So the following day when I went to Raul said to me, “Oh, you spent all of that time with Fidel last night. So why you stayed with him so long?” I said, because he is a husband. “So if he was a husband, then who am I?” I said, you’re the boyfriend. And he laughed and laughed and laughed. [laughing] But I think meeting a number of the leaders, I was able to have gotten President Obama to visit with us, and I think was also a very important visit for Jamaica, particularly at that time. And we've had the Japanese visiting with us. We have had leaders from all over that visited with us. And I think that it all goes well for Jamaica that so many world leaders visited Jamaica, particularly during my time as prime minister.

SILVERA: You have announced a date, a departure date that is, as president of the People's National Party and as leader of the Opposition. Are you satisfied with the state in which you're leaving your party, your beloved party, that is?

SIMPSON MILLER: Well I took it through a certain level. It is a responsibility not only of the party leader but all the leaders of the party to ensure that the party remain vibrant and strong. If anyone can say anything about me as party leader, I worked very hard. I did more constituencies than anyone else could have done in the last election. I was all over the place without drinking a sip of water or eating anything, until I get home sometimes 3:00 4:00 in the morning, and at that time you can’t eat. So I did my very best for the People's National Party, and I got a lot of support from people on the ground as well.

SILVERA: So there's nothing you would have done differently?

SIMPSON MILLER: I’m not so sure I would have done anything differently. What I believe that parties, political parties, should do differently is to engage more women in the process.

SILVERA: And you feel you did that with your…

SIMPSON MILLER: I tried hard. And the truth be told, and I'm sure that Senator Faulkner can attest to this, I brought in more young persons than at any other time.

SILVERA: What was it like working and being a part of Michael Manley’s government? What was Michael Manley like?

SIMPSON MILLER: Oh, he was easy to work with, and if there is any prime minister in Jamaica that loved me, it was Michael Manley. I'm not saying the others didn't love ne. PJ was very nice to me. But Michael Manley had a different kind of personality from the calm, quiet but brilliant PJ. I remember I was in my constituency and I got a call that the leader was to go to—that’s Michael, right—to [?]. I think it was [?], I don’t remember if it was [?], actually. It was a long time. And he said, “Where’s Portia going to be meeting me?” And they said, she's not going—we didn’t tell her. When they called me, I said, “Um…” “Sir Manley is looking for you.” I said, “Tell him I'm in the constituency.” So they told him and he said, “Tell her to leave the constituency now.” So I rushed home, had to get into the bath again, changed, then I called him. He said, “Where are you right now?” I said, “At home.” He said, “All right, meet me at such-and-such a point,” and he was very angry with them that they didn't tell me he was going to [?] I should be there as well. So he…I think had a lot of love and respect for me. I remember they asked him about me and he said who we are talking about? Portia. Oh, Portia is a little tigress! [laughing] But anywhere he was going, in like rural Jamaica, say if he was going to certain meetings….

SILVERA: He wanted you with him.

SIMPSON MILLER: He asked, did you call Portia?

SILVERA: What's next for Portia Simpson Miller?

SIMPSON MILLER: I have a have a good project coming up. [?] persons, including outside of Jamaica. Asking questions about what I would do. But I believe in the interest of the young people of the country and the girls and the boys coming up that they should hear my story—girl from Woodhall to Jamaica House—the journey.

SILVERA: You're going to write a book or are you going to go across the island?

SIMPSON MILLER: No, I'm going to do my story.

SILVERA: You're going to write a book?

SIMPSON MILLER: Yeah. I'm going to do the book. And there are people who volunteer to assist as well.

SILVERA: Do you have any idea when this will happen?

SIMPSON MILLER: I can't say yet, I know that. I know that there's one educational institution that asked if I would allow them to do it. I've not responded to them yet. Why I would have an interest to tell my story is that the little girls and boys, whether they are in [?], towns or cities across Jamaica will know that they, too, can make it.

Jamaica Gleaner. “VIDEO: Portia talks politics, people, education and her rise to Prime Minister.” YouTube video, 19:22. March 8, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbr9Rk1QC14