Thu | Jun 4, 2020

For the Reckord | Heritage, culture being promoted by storytellers

Published:Thursday | January 25, 2018 | 12:00 AMMichael Reckord /Gleaner Writer
Storytellers plan for 2018 (from left) Shazi Wade, Sharnna Edmondson, Hazel 'Sista Yahmin' Williams-Vaz and Dr Amina Blackwood-Meeks.
Senior librarian, Sharnna Edmondson, takes a call at her desk.
Amina Blackwood-Meeks.

This year, Ntukuma The Storytelling Foundation of Jamaica plans to focus on promoting historical literacy about the island's culture and heritage. That decision was taken by members during a meeting at the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Library last week Thursday.

Chairing the meeting was Dr Amina Blackwood Meeks, who is both the founder of Ntukuma and College Orator of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA). She coined the term "historical literacy" at the EMCVPA-sponsored Rex Nettleford Arts Conference last October and when the concept was raised at the Ntukuma meeting, it struck a chord with members.

At the Nettleford conference, Blackwood Meeks proposed the formal teaching of historical literacy, which "informs us of what we have discarded and what we have retained...(and) the projects through which we have come to normalise and accept evil." Referencing the positive views and contributions of cultural icons Nettleford, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Dr Blackwood Meeks said that nowadays too many Jamaicans "worship at the shrine of materialism and reality television shows.

"Historical literacy is about how we make sense of the past to guide our present and our children's future. Historical illiteracy sires cultural illiteracy. From their lineage comes failure to know what to retain or not."


Answer to challenge


As an answer to the challenge posed to the EMCVPA, the global community of artists, practitioners and their representatives, "How do we use our culture and our history to defend our culture and our history?" Blackwood Meeks said we should look to "the transformative power of the arts."

And the power of the art of storytelling was invoked at the Ntukuma meeting, where it was agreed that, in Blackwood Meeks' words, "We can't do what we should do if we don't know who we are." Members decided to focus on promoting "identify and heritage" through storytelling in 2018.

Step one will be to collect and write relevant stories which will be presented at suitable occasions, including shows put on by the Institute of Jamaica in its lecture theatre and a poetry festival in Portland in April. The publication of a book of the stories about heritage and culture was also discussed.

Ntukuma will also continue to work with the Jamaica Library Service (JLS), which Sharnna Edmondson, a JLS senior librarian and Ntukuma member, said already has several strong storytelling programmes going. One put on by the Friends of the Kingston & St Andrew Parish Library every third Saturday sees Friends reading to children aged six to 14. Under the Friends programme, in a nod to the preservation of Jamaica's oral tradition, older people are sometimes invited to tell stories.

The Little But Wi Tallawah programme involves parents reading to babies and toddlers, with library staff facilitating discussions on a variety of topical issues. There is, too, the JLS's Story Hour, for which librarians' activities depend on requests from schools.

"We might have puppet shows, for example, to present stories in a different kind of way," Edmondson said, "or we might present stories digitally, on YouTube, for instance, or we might use photographs to tell stories. These activities have been taking place for a very, very long time at our libraries, all of which have Friends."

Ntukuma will keep on working with all parish libraries to help to establish storytelling clubs in schools, Blackwood Meeks said, admitting, "Is a whole heap of work we have put on the plate for 2018."

Asked about sources for funding the projects, she said, "We have been knocking on many doors trying to get assistance with funding.

The trouble is many don't realise the value of storytelling. They look at you when you are 21 and say you're irresponsible, but don't realise the process began when you were four or five" (and easily influenced by stories).

In partnership with the JLS and Community Colleges of Jamaica, Ntukuma also produces an annual Storytelling Conference and Festival in November, around the time of National Storytelling Day.