Sat | Feb 22, 2020

Blackwood Meeks and Anansi - Storytelling on show at IOJ

Published:Friday | May 17, 2019 | 12:19 AMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Desmond Dennis and Amina Blackwood Meeks in performance.
Desmond Dennis and Amina Blackwood Meeks in performance.

In an imaginative production currently running at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), the ancient art of storytelling is being used as a vehicle for both education and entertainment. Audiences in the institute’s auditorium today and next Wednesday will hear about three Jamaicans who have made outstanding contributions to the island and the world.

The show, A Calabash to Save the World, started last week and features storyteller-educator Dr Amina Blackwood Meeks and Desmond Dennis, who plays the role of the Anansi figure. Though the audience at the inaugural presentation was small, its members were enthusiastic in their praise.

Many said they learnt a lot about three distinguished Jamaicans – paediatrician and nutritionist Dr Cecily Delphine Williams, ganja researcher Dr Manley West, and cattle breeder Dr T. P. Lecky. They were clearly also delighted with the artistry of the production and participated throughout.

Cleverly mixing the primordial with the contemporary, Blackwood Meeks set her narrative in the context of a cosmogonic (creation) myth. The events, she told the audience, began long, long ago, “before there was email” when “the man who was in charge of creation, the Supreme Being, walked to the edge of heaven, looked down at Earth and saw people running around like sensi fowl – like dem doan have no sense at all”.

Here, Blackwood Meeks’ use of the pun and her switch from standard English to Patois are only two of the many storytelling techniques she employed. She also gave the audience facts about nature and asked them to dance, sing along, respond to questions, and indulge in the nostalgia of old-time Jamaica.

Her story continued with the Supreme Creator deciding to give the gift of wisdom to humans. In a large calabash, he placed a little science and technology, some engineering, a “whole heapa art”, some mathematics, and “a whole heapa story” and stirred it well.

It started to steam, and he called Quaco Anansi, the god of wit and wisdom, and told him to take the calabash to Earth and distribute it so that the rumour mongering and spreading of disinformation would cease. However, Anansi reasoned that something so precious shouldn’t be given away for free.

“Mek people wuk fah it,” he said to himself. “After all, the hotter de battle, de sweeter de victory?” He decided to hide the calabash of wisdom in a tree and started walking the Earth looking for a suitable one.

After travelling through several Old-World countries, Anansi eventually reached Jamaica and saw many interesting trees, quite a few with medicinal qualities – like soursop, tamarind and coconut. Intrigued by the beautiful blue mahoe, he climbed it, planning to hide the calabash there.

As he climbed, the calabash bounced rhythmically against the tree, and that attracted people from all around. Anansi led them to the river with the calabash, the storyteller said. She led her listeners in singing the folk song Go Dung a de River, Wid de Calabash.

That song turned out to be a recurring one, marking the introduction of the individual stories about Williams, Lecky and West. Blackwood Meeks gave amusing fictionalised accounts of Anansi observing episodes from the childhood of each.

She relayed that in Darliston, Westmoreland, he saw little Cecily playing with children who had a disease with symptoms that included runny noses, “mawgre” limbs and “bang bellies”. Subsequently, Cecily had a dream about becoming a doctor. The dream came true, and as Dr Williams, Cecily discovered a cure for the disease kwashiorkor.

The riverside song next took Anansi to a village in Portland where a boy called ‘T.P.’ lived. As Blackwood Meeks told it, the boy (Lecky) loved milk, but when he was sent to school in Kingston, he stopped drinking it because it was watery and came from the city’s “mawgre cows”. His desire for good milk from healthy cows led to him creating a number of cow breeds, including the Jamaica Hope, the Jamaica Red and the Jamaica Black.

The invention of drugs made from the ingredients of ganja came about, in the Blackwood Meeks version of history, because Anansi noticed that a lot of Jamaicans had poor eyesight and were driving their vehicles through red lights. He gave a certain ingredient from the calabash to West, who, with his colleague, Dr Albert Lockhart, invented the drugs.

Though entertaining, the stories are definitely to be taken with a pinch of salt. The IOJ sessions begin at 11 a.m. today and Wednesday.