John Oliver

by Alex on Apr.27, 2009, under Blog

“Work all night on a drink a’ rum” sang John Oliver as he walked behind us. It was a Friday night in Granada (Nicaragua) and we’d had a few beers so my response could be nothing other than “Daylight come and me wan’ go home”. Dreadlocks sprouting from the top of an otherwise shaved head, John walked with a limp and looked as it he lived on the street. We finished the song, we laughed and joked and then he introduced himself – an artist, a street poet. I was out with Franzi, whom I’d met at a cafe earlier that evening and so that John might share a love poem with us, we pretended that we were ‘together’. John’s eyes shone brightly as he recited his work, powerful words spoken with passion, as if straight from the heart. His poetry was moving as was the fact that this talented man, who might well have a very different life were he to have been born elsewhere, lived on the streets, scraping a living from people open to paying him for entertaining them with his work.

After walking a few blocks together we went our separate ways agreeing to meet again so that I could listen to his story, take some pictures and record some of his work.

We saw each other a handful of times after that, usually outside the gringo bars on Calle La Calzada, every time arranging a time to meet when I’d have my camera and computer (on which I’d record his stuff). He never showed up though, which although disappointing was not ununderstandable – I’ve no idea what it’s like living on the street but I’m sure keeping appointments takes second place to other daily necessities. He recited some poetry for a group of us one night and on another occasion I gave him some money to by some tiles – he paints Caribbean style pictures on wall tiles, gluing a ring pull (or whatever they call those tab things that you get on drinks cans nowadays) to the back for hangage, and sells them to tourists. Another time I bought one of his tiles as a gift for the family I’m living with. I’ve no idea if they like it or not but I preferred to do that than just give him money – you could empty your wallet every day if you gave to everyone who asked.

I’d given up on the ‘interview’ thing a few days ago and then, quite randomly, he calls at me from the doorway of the cafe I’m sat in, seemingly wary about coming in. So I beckon him in and we sit and chat for a while, record some of his poems and songs and he recounts to me a brief history of his life:

John is from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. He was adopted at age six as his young mother (of seven – that’s seven kids, not seven years) could not look after him. His adoptive family paid for his schooling and by 9 he could both read and write (well, he emphasises) in English and Spanish. At age 10 his mother died and his parents could not afford any more schooling. He worked on fishing boats until he was recruited to fight for the Sandinistas at age 15 and on fleeing for Costa Rica was captured by the Contras and fought for them until he escaped at age 19, making it to Costa Rica.

He came came back to Nicaragua in 1990 unable to do physical work having been shot in the leg. He now sells his art on the street and recites his poetry and songs.

He has a great voice and his poems are soulful, I’d reckon that with the right break he could make a great living from his work. I wonder if he’ll ever get that break, or die hungry in the street from his deteriorating leg condition…

Three days after chatting with John, recording some of his work and writing this above I was told that he’d been murdered. I don’t yet know whether this is true or not but nonetheless have tears in my eyes as I write whilst listening to ‘Crab Soup Day’. Below are links to what may well be the last recorded words of John Oliver:

Introduction and Living On The Street


Ambassador of Dignity

Crab Soup Day

Faces, Places and Races

Pearl Lagoon

Strong Love

The Burial of Sir John Moore

Chatting with John Oliver

Well, a happy ending, for now: the same guy who’d told me that he’d heard that John’d been killed just mailed me to tell me he’d seen him last night…

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5 Comments for this entry

  • Bob

    Saw and talked with John when we were down there last August, and he was doin as well as can be expected
    for a man in his situation. He even did Crab Soup day
    for us, and painted a self portrait. He’s a living legend, and awesome Ras. Much respect!


  • Alex

    Hey Bob, good to hear that he’s still going. Such a shame that his work will never get out there, probably…

  • pam

    i saw him last night in managua,outside of a restaurant he shared some of his poetry with us. A man with so much heart and soul

  • Eliza

    Wow! I interviewed John in 2003 when he was living in Bluefields. I was able at the time to record on paper many of his poems and published them with my thesis that I wrote about him and the Garifunas of Orinoco. It is amazing to hear actual recordings of him here! He sounds exactly the same! I could here “Living on the Street” in my head as he was was reciting it. Thanks for sharing this!

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