With a solid, healthy physique and looking at least a decade younger than his 58 years, you would never know Devon Burke almost died from malnutrition as a child.
Born in Jamaica, the successful massage therapist, now based in Forest Hill, Lewisham, didn’t properly meet his parents or siblings until he was 10. Up to that age he lived with his grandparents, working on the family farm harvesting cassava plants, coconuts and making products to sell.
The town of St Thomas where he lived had a deep, natural harbour allowing big shipments of bananas and sugar cane to be easily exported to Europe. Lots of local people had farms and earned their living from the land.
At first, it was his grandfather’s children who worked on the farm. Burke explained: “My father had 11 or 12 brothers and sisters, I can’t remember exactly. Back then the idea was the more children you had, the more help you had. However there’s a problem when they start moving away.”
That problem directly affected Burke when he was a toddler and his mother and father moved to England, leaving him behind to be raised and later work on the farm.
Before school Burke had to sell bammy to locals. Bammy is a flatbread made from cassava, an edible woody shrub. Young Burke would dig up the cassava root, peel it, grate it and squeeze water out of it to make flour for the bread. Nothing would go to waste and even the water was sold separately as starch.
Burke describes making bammy deliveries on a bike that was twice his size. So big was the bike that he couldn’t reach both pedals at the same time and would ride with one leg on the cross bar and the other on the pedal.
He would also make coconut oil by grating coconut, squeezing out the liquid and boiling it. The boiled liquid would separate with the oil sinking to the bottom, leaving ‘custard’ on the top. This would be scraped off and fed to the animals. The oil would be sold or used at home.
Burke’s childhood was tough. He had to do backbreaking farm work, was under-fed and lived with deeply religious grandparents meaning there were strict rules governing his behaviour.
Small for his age and forbidden from fighting he was an easy target for bullies. He recalls returning home having been beaten up at school and his grandparents then beating him for getting into a fight.
Burke’s chores also involved rubbing oil into his grandfather’s neck, back and shoulders. While he just saw this as yet another tedious task, little did he know that the art of massage would become a career and a calling.
At the end of a day on the farm his grandfather would take a shower in the garden. The shower was a suspended paint tin with holes in it and a hosepipe running to it. Meanwhile Burke would be making the massage oil by blending coconut oil with camphorated oil then heating it over a kerosene lamp. Smelly, smoky and heating oil over a naked flame, Burke marvels that he never had an accident.
Life would change dramatically when his mother’s parents came with his younger brother on a visit from Nottingham. Burke recalls: “I was 10 and he was seven but we were the same size. He refused to accept that I was his brother because of how I looked. I didn’t know I was dying but my grandparents took one look and decided they were taking me away.”
He went to live in Kingston, Jamaica while his visa and passport were prepared. The boy then boarded a ship to Southampton with his grandparents, brother and a girl his grandparents had adopted.
Burke recalls the journey: “The Atlantic ocean is not somewhere I’d want to be again. I remember being tossed around. As I was 10, sometimes it was fun, like being in a film. I wasn’t allowed on deck because the boat tossed and turned so much it was unsafe.”
Upon arrival, the British landscape was so alien that Burke thought houses were factories. “Back home, the houses never touched each other and they all had backyards,” he explained.
When asked how Burke feels today about his parents moving to England and leaving him behind, he is generous towards them: “My parents had a hard life. My father did the same job from moving until retirement. For my mother, coming to a new country and trying to forge a new life for herself was also difficult. She studied nursing but was treated like a second-class citizen by my father.”
Burke’s parents were living in Birmingham and weren’t entirely happy when his grandparents brought him back to live with them. “Their life wasn’t that great and to try and improve things they had farmed us children out. I think there was a lot of resentment when I came to live with them. They didn’t see it as rescuing me, they saw me as another burden.”
Massage was used as a way of coping with a change young Burke found overwhelming: “The first time I met my mother, the way I felt comfortable communicating with her was to massage her head. I’d pull all the hairpins out and massage her neck and shoulders.”
Following his parents’ divorce Burke moved to London with his mum where he attended many different secondary schools. He was forced to find full-time work at the age of 15 after his mum gave him two weeks notice that she was moving back to Jamaica.
“I can remember the guy who gave me a job. I still have a thing in my heart for him. I had just one piece of paper and I put it in a folder. I can’t remember what was on it because I didn’t pass any exams. I had this one blue suit that I wore, a blue pin-striped suit. At the interview I sat straight in my chair and I gave him the folder and we spoke.”
Without a telephone of his own, Burke gave the interviewer his neighbour’s telephone number. He was disbelieving when he arrived home and his neighbour said he’d got the job and was to start on Monday as a handyman.
Having experienced a difficult childhood and with an awareness that being a young black man was an additional disadvantage, Burke believed he had to be better than everyone else: “I was always told that I was rubbish. That I would never have a job. I took the brunt of a lot of my parents’ frustrations. Told that my brothers would be doctors and solicitors and I wouldn’t get a job as a dustman.”
It was a former girlfriend who recognised Burkes’ natural talent and interest in massage therapy. After some resistance he agreed to do some introductory courses and started working in a retirement home once a month offering aromatherapy. He loved working in what he once thought of as a ‘woman’s job’ and realised he’d have to study if he wanted to change career.
Two weeks after completing the course Burke collapsed with exhaustion. He had been getting up at 6am to start work as a lorry driver. Two days a week, after a full day at work he would shower then go to college till 10pm.
He took his books with him every day and would study at every opportunity, believing he had to give more than everyone else. “All my life I was told I was a dunce. That I was useless, I can’t do anything. Me going to college – are you mad? In the end I thought, ‘I’m going to do this’ and I arranged with my bosses to be in London twice a week so I could go to college.”
Shortly after gaining his qualifications, Burke’s employer fell on hard times. His offer of working part-time was gratefully received and Burke was able to start practising massage therapy. He was a lorry driver four days a week and a massage therapist for three. Fear and lack of confidence prevented him fully embracing massage therapy until he was made redundant from lorry driving four years later.
While he wouldn’t recommend it, Burke built his business using credit cards and a small loan from the bank, which was initially reluctant to lend him any money. Over the past seven years he and his wife Karen, 48, have built Mind Body Therapy together. He describes a roller coaster involving practising in different parts of London and having to move from his first premises through disagreements with the leaseholder. However, his optimism held out through the hard times and fears over finances.
Mind Body Therapy now employs people from the local community and offers mind and body treatments, nutrition and personal training to clients. The practice is expanding into new premises nearby and Burke is optimistic about the future: “There are times I’ve reached a place of total meltdown and boom! In a second it’s twisted and it’s okay.
“People think they can do things on their own. You need people. Karen and I are a team and have built this business together with a good team of people.”
Burke is further developing his low cost clinic and is keen to work with more charities to offer treatments to their clients and urges them to get in touch. He is also working with companies to develop a more mindful workforce.