(JAMAICA OBSERVER) – It had been over two weeks since Oneil Josephs set foot inside his office, having gone on academic leave. But a sit-down with the Jamaica Observer last Monday called for an earlier than planned return.
At 37 years old, Josephs, who is the director of industrial engineering at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech), is much heavier than the slender, ‘lightweight’ figure he described himself as growing up — a trait which he said made him a target for the bigger boys in school, but one which did not stop him from fearlessly defending himself.
“I had a high temper in primary school… and didn’t like when people messed around me,” he said. “I was very slim but I didn’t want anybody to abuse me, physically and otherwise. And so, I got into a lot of fights.”
During the interview, a reveal of owning an Audi motor vehicle is evidence that he has come a long way from his humble days growing up with his mother and five siblings in Tower Hill, St Andrew, a community known for its history of crime and violence. His well-groomed appearance, eloquent and reasonable speech are a far cry from his past of gang violence, underperformance, and chronic gambling in high school.
And though he moved out of Tower Hill eight years ago, having lived there for 28 years, he never truly left the community, as he regularly visits to check on his mother and members of the community, mentor young children, offer assistance to residents where needed, and oversee the operation of a salon he established in the community which employs Tower Hill residents.
“When you’re going through it, you’re not quite aware of how difficult it is,” Josephs said in a reflective tone. “But in retrospect, I realise that it was a very tough environment. It was a tough environment in terms of the fact that your parents couldn’t afford some basic amenities. Tough environment in terms of the fact that you would have been exposed to some things in your community. I can remember after school one day I was at my cousin’s house in Bay Farm Villa and a young man just walked in with a nine millimetre with one shot in it. And I was like maybe in third or second form at the time and everyone was handling the gun. Things are just happening at the time and you don’t realise how serious and how dangerous it was,” he said, adding that violence in the community intensified as it drew closer to general elections.
“It was a difficult, very politically charged environment…people come and knock you up in the morning for you to come out and vote, almost forcing you. So it was a very tough environment in the community where I was from,” Josephs told the Sunday Observer.
At age four, Josephs recalled a life-changing event which plunged the family deeper into poverty.
“My father was a successful artisan, “Josephs said. “He sold bamboo art in the craft market and he was very successful, well-known in the community, teaching a number of people the trade. He was a part of Things Jamaican on Spanish Town Road. That was an entity involved in the development of bamboo craft. But he got sick mentally to the extent that he was walking on the road, cursing bad words, not bathing, that kind of stuff,” he said, adding that his father would abuse his mother during his mental deterioration.
His mother was forced to move the now family of six to her mother’s house.
With his father’s mental issue and the family losing its sole breadwinner, Joseph said “everything came crashing down”.
“Shortly after moving to live with my grandmother, she got very sick, bed-ridden,” he recalled. “My mother had to be at home with my grandmother and the five of us. So this was very difficult, extremely difficult because my mother had to be taking care of the five of us, plus her mother…I can remember, many, many, many, nights going to my bed with tears carrying you to sleep…My mother never had lunch money for us to go to school at all,” Josephs said, adding that in order to get lunch money, ha and his siblings would take turns to ask nearby relatives for money.
Despite trying times, Josephs said he managed to do well in his Common Entrance Examination, after staying a year behind on the advice by his sixth grade teacher.
He performed well and earned a place at Jamaica College (JC) in 1993. For Josephs, attending JC was an experience he will never forget.
“In the 90s, Josephs said, JC was a notorious school. When I went to JC, first form in JC, the boys them beat you up. I mean you spend the first couple of months in your physical class barely peeping out. When you come out, they beat you, they take away your lunch money, they send you down to KFC to buy them lunch with your lunch money. I mean it was crazy,” he said, adding he was relieved to make it to the second form.
By second form, Joseph recalled, he started hanging with a particular bad boy from the community of Waterhouse.
“They said his father was a druggist,” Josephs told the Sunday Observer. “We went to his house; he had a mansion in the community. When we went there we got lost in the house. When he came in second form, we started to form ourselves into a gang because we realise that this young man had some influence, he had some links, he had resources, and he also had access to guns,” Josephs said.
This encounter was the start of his four-year gang career, as second in command in the Blue Roses II gang, earning him the aliases, “Nash” and “Joe Grind”. The gang, he said, involved young men from dangerous communities like Arnett Gardens and Tivoli Gardens, as well as Duhaney Park, Cooreville Gardens, Tower Hill, and Waterhouse.
“The gang was a known gang,” Josephs said. “We were known across several high schools, known across the communities, and we became quite known in the school. People were very, very afraid of us. I remember us puncturing the principal’s tyre and we didn’t go to classes,” he said, adding that his initial reason for ditching classes was to sell sweets in order to raise lunch money.
“We gambled every day. Everyone who went to JC know the area called Twilight Zone — the end of the Art Block, closest to the football field. We would be gambling there and smoking, wielding your knife. When I look back, I’m saying to myself, how did people allow that to happen? It’s crazy,” he added.
But though he smoked, Josephs said he was always cognisant of his father’s mental condition and tried to stay away as much as possible.
“I was afraid because it was said that my father’s condition partly had to do with his smoking”, he said. “So I tried it a few times, but that was always in my head. So I made the spliffs for them. I had a certain level of consciousness and maybe that was another part of why I was able to come out eventually,” he said in a pensive tone.
But Josephs’ restraint from smoking ganja was not enough to stop his poor performance in school, as his grades suffered due to other gang activities — falling from class B in first form to D in second form, the third lowest-performing class, and then to class F in third form, the poorest-performing class.
“That means I wasn’t doing anything,” Josephs jokingly told the Sunday Observer.
With his mother busy at home ensuring that himself and his siblings were fed and clothed, Josephs said she was ‘clueless’ of his underperformance and gang activities at JC.
But with no friends left by the time he went to fifth form, as the rest of his fellow gang members dropped out of school ‘for one reason or the other’, Josephs said he had a wake-up call.
“That is when I started to realise that I’m on my way to nothing. It kinda forced me to settle a bit,” Joseph said, though admitting that his change came a “bit too late”. This, he said, was reflected in his poor performance at the CSEC level, obtaining three grades threes in office procedure, accounts and principles of business.
Luckily for Josephs, the year he did his exams was the year grade three became a pass in CSEC.
After high school, Josephs went and got a job with one of his mother’s church brother’s at Faith Fabrication and Welding Ltd, where he became adept at the craft. With the money he made from the job, Josephs sent himself back to evening classes at Pentecostal Tabernacle and Bridgeport High School, where he earned a grade one in Accounts, a grade two in Math, and a grade three in English. With these qualifications, Josephs said he was able to matriculate to UTech — a feat never accomplished by anyone in his family.
During the summer breaks, he would return to Faith Fabrication and Welding Ltd to work. This allowed him to save for his tuition for the subsequent semester.
With a newlyfound focus and drive, Josephs began setting his sights on achieving academic excellence throughout university, consistently increasing his GPA with each passing semester.
In the end his efforts paid off, as Josephs graduated UTech in 2005 with a first-class honours degree in industrial technology.
Before receiving his degree from UTech, Josephs applied to the University of Nottingham in England to pursue a master’s degree in manufacturing systems, with hopes of becoming an industrialist. But though he was accepted, financial constraints stood in his way and he had to defer his offer.
But when the offer came around the following year, on advice from a worker at the University of Nottingham, Josephs applied for one of the prestigious Chevening scholarships. To his surprise, he was successful.
“Let me tell you who was a recipient that same year, “ he said with pride. “l think it was Archibald Gordon at the RJR. So myself, him and two others got the scholarship that year.” That year was 2006 and Josephs was 25.
In his new environment at Nottingham, Josephs continued on his path of academic excellence, working four months for Rolls Royce, the second top engineering company in the world at that time, and eventually earning his master’s degree.
As he reflects on his journey so far, Josephs, who has been working at UTech for 10 years, previously occupying the post of programme director for industrial engineering, told the Sunday Observer that though academia offered him the space and freedom to make an impact through teaching young people, he believes there is much more that he could be doing.
“I don’t think this job is challenging enough,” he said. “That’s why I started a political science degree at UWI, because I felt the only way to have an impact is through politics. Politics trumps everything in Jamaica.”
These days when Josephs is not busy with research and writing, he oversees his two successful businesses — a restaurant, Mais’ House, located on the UTech campus and a salon in Tower Hill.
As a father of one himself, Josephs shared with the Sunday Observer his hope for young people to “see the bigger picture”.
“Have vision,” he said. “You must be able to take your mind to a place where you can see beyond what exists…Some of these young men in communities like Tower Hill have not gotten any exposure. They have not gone to a nice resort area or even to Hope Gardens. They barely have exposure. So the first thing I want young people to do is to broaden their minds, see themselves beyond borders that have enclosed them. If they can manage to see themselves outside of that space, then what they need to do is to take some steps. They have to do something in respect to supporting that vision. And once they are able to take those first steps, things will not always fall into place, but things sometimes do and others begin to recognise your potential, your ability and will help you,” Josephs stated.