VIBRANT START TO STORYTELLING FESTIVAL
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Jamaica's first National Storytelling Day (Wednesday, November 20) was appropriately and joyfully celebrated at the Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre, Hope Road, with much storytelling.
Hundreds of adults and children listened to and told stories in the day-long event, which also marked the start of the third Ananse Soundsplash Storytelling Conference and Festival. Presented by Ntukuma, The Storytelling Foundation of Jamaica, which is led by storyteller Amina Blackwood-Meeks, the segments of the festival were hosted in various parishes by individual community colleges until Monday (November 24).
The rain which fell for part of the opening day, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the participants, but it did allow Mrs Blackwood-Meeks to use a pun when she told The Gleaner that the festival was "going swimmingly".
Though some of the storytellers were schoolchildren, there were a number of adult storytellers as well, one of the most experienced being Richard Derby, a teacher at the Manchioneal All-Age School and the artistic director of Manchioneal Cultural Group. The main attraction, however, were foreigners Baba the Storyteller from the United States, Nomsa Mdlalose from South Africa, Edgar Ortiz from Costa Rica, and Michael Kerins from Scotland.
Many Stories at Once
Most of the storytellers told their tales to different groups simultaneously, and while wandering from story group to story group, The Gleaner heard different things from the different speakers.
Derby's story, Bellybang, was about the transformation of a girl from naughty to nice. Baba the Storyteller's was about appreciating the age you are and not learning your life lessons by breaking the hearts of those who love you.
In Mdlalose's story, The Frog Who Had a Problem, land animals paid rent to the lion, while water animals paid rent to the snake. Since frog spent half his time on land and half in the water, he was faced with the problem of having to pay two rents. He didn't have enough money to do so, but it was eventually agreed that he didn't have to pay any rent since he ate the mosquitoes that bothered both land and water creatures.
When The Gleaner encountered Ortiz, he was training schoolchildren to tell stories, but he took time out to reveal that during his storytelling, he did juggling and acrobatics and also played music on a guitar-like instrument called the charango.
Kerins, a multi-award-winning storyteller, said he uses storytelling to help the teacher, entertainer, and healer. He regularly works with disadvantaged children and their staff and helps people in managing bereavement, loss, divorce, separation, and unwelcome change.
He also uses storytelling in the rehabilitation work he does in prisons.
He had a special gift for Jamaica storywriters in the form of a project he is working on to mark the 2014 celebrations of the birth of Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, a Russian writer, landscape artist, poet, and painter.
Lermontov was 27 years old when he died in a duel in July 1841, and Kerins organised an international competition involving 27-word stories to commemorate the writer's life. Though the competition ended last month with the handing out of prizes in Russia, Kerins is continuing the project in a slightly different form into 2015.
"We're looking for 27-word stories on any subject and in any language," Kerins said. "We'll take patois as well as English. I'd like 27 languages represented, and people will be able to go on to the Internet and see the accepted stories. Everything that's accepted will be published on the Internet. We have a few conditions. There should be no foul language, nothing political, and nothing offensive or racist."
Stories should be sent by writers 18 and older to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baba the Storyteller, who has been a professional storyteller for 24 years, told The Gleaner that he always enjoys coming to Jamaica.
"Any time I'm coming," he said, "I fast a little, for I know how much I'll eat here. I enjoy both the food and the people, who I find are culturally grounded."
His major objective of using storytelling as an instructional tool is directly related to his entry into the art, he said. "I started out doing rites-of-passage programmes for young black men in South Los Angeles. In the late '80s and early '90s, we were burying two to three young black brothers every couple of weeks, so some of us got together and started programmes to address the problem.
"We'd take the young people on hikes in the mountains and have classes to teach them self-worth. We started out with males only as they were the ones dying in the streets, but later, we included females. My job was to teach them about their roots and their connection to Africa.
"At first I taught as it would be done in a regular classroom, but I saw the children were getting bored, and it occurred to me to use stories. I then started getting requests to tell other children the stories and now, 20 years later, I'm getting requests from all over the world."
Baba concluded, "I want to promote self-recognition and self-awareness. I want you to know you're part of a rich history."
On November 11, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen officially proclaimed November 20 as Jamaica's National Storytelling Day in perpetuity.