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Speech and Literary Arts Specialist at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), Damion Radcliffe.

Undoubtedly, Jamaica’s rich cultural heritage is widely celebrated, with various artforms passed down throughout generations that demonstrate the essence of what it means to be truly Jamaican.

Among these artforms is storytelling, one of the oldest forms of communication, which is defined as the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment.

Storytelling has been widely used throughout the history of Jamaica, whether through colourful characters such as ‘Bredda Anansi’ or told by masterful storytellers such as the iconic Miss Lou.

Now, in the year of the nation’s 60th anniversary of Independence, and at a time when Jamaica, like the rest of the world, is experiencing rapid change in the digital age, experts in the field are opining that storytelling is a powerful tool to ensure the preservation of the country’s heritage.

Speech and Literary Arts Specialist at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), Damion Radcliffe, explains that a function of storytelling is to retell an experience of a time before now, and that it is used in everyday lives.

“As Jamaicans, we like to ‘labrish’ and as a result of that, you have that function (of storytelling) manifesting, whether it is that we’re chatting to each other across the fence, or Downtown while we’re scaling the fish or now, through the voice notes over Whatsapp,” he points out.

With the growth in technology, however, Mr. Radcliffe insists that greater emphasis will need to be placed on the core function of storytelling, to preserve the nation’s culture.

“Sometimes we hear storytelling, we always think of a tale. But it’s more than that. It’s an experience, it’s preserving our culture…where our fore parents went through their respective experiences, and here we are retelling that,” he outlines.

As such, Mr. Radcliffe notes that one of the categories that is offered in the JCDC’s speech competition is storytelling, where greater emphasis has been placed on the artform over the last couple of years.

“We’ve seen a lot of storytellers coming to the fore…What we have also tried to encourage here at the JCDC is that the things that are coming to us in the competition are hardcore Jamaican, they’re authentically, unapologetically Jamaican,” Mr. Radcliffe states.

For Jamaica 60, he says he would like to see “plenty, plenty more (storytelling).”

“We (JCDC) encourage teachers, not just in the literature or English classes, but in their math classes as well, to make their subjects adaptable to stories,” Mr. Radcliffe adds.

Renowned storyteller and Founder/Artistic Director of Ntukuma, the Storytelling Foundation of Jamaica, Dr. Amina Blackwood-Meeks, also tells JIS News of the unique function and importance of storytelling.

“All of the Sustainable Development Goals, all of the pillars of Vision 2030, are very much there in our stories…how we must respect our elders and care for the environment, and how we must build and what development means. Even as we recognize the humour in storytelling, we will see how much of what we want to accomplish is in the blueprint of our stories,” Dr. Blackwood-Meeks explains.

Renowned storyteller and Founder/Director of Ntukuma, the Storytelling Foundation of Jamaica, Dr. Amina Blackwood-Meeks.

 

She says that to promote this kind of storytelling in today’s Jamaica, older Jamaicans must not hold the view that the youth are simply not interested in the knowledge.

“Children cannot learn what they have not been taught. I think that sometimes we assume that they don’t want to know (but) once we remove that stigma and that fear of how they might respond when we introduce things to them, then we’ll see, as it has been my experience, that they simply embrace it as another level of knowledge and another level of information,” she says.

“So, we have a duty and responsibility to bring it (storytelling) like it’s fresh. We can introduce everything to them (young people) as if it’s brand new because the truth is, with each generation, it will be brand new,” maintains Dr. Blackwood-Meeks, who has been working with the Jamaica Library Service to establish storytelling clubs in all libraries.

The renowned storyteller outlines that certain societal ills are not promoted in the stories she tells, as she uses the artform to preserve culture.

“We (professional storytellers) comb our stories for sexism, so we’re not promoting one gender over the other or ascribing gender roles, and we comb our stories for racism and violence. We’re promoting that we need to interrogate our culture, to see what are the values that we want to carry forward as the fact that it is funny, doesn’t make it desirable,” Dr. Blackwood-Meeks notes.

Currently preparing for the annual Storytelling Festival to be held from November 13-20, Dr. Blackwood-Meeks says that her wish for Jamaica 60 is to see storytelling being used as a methodology for delivering the curriculum across all subject areas in Jamaican schools.

“We need to work closely with our elders as well, so we get those stories from them and so that our children can understand through our lenses, how Jamaica land we love has evolved,” she tells JIS News.

Reiterating the need for this understanding by the nation’s youth, at least one educator adds that she has been using storytelling to reach students.

“Being in the classroom, you realize the deficits when it comes to our history. There’s an absence that you experience from students…not knowing about their past, not knowing about culture, not knowing about things as they evolve, so that they can appreciate these things,” explains St. James educator with a single major in History Education, Tabitha Smith.

Ms. Smith is the author of three published books, which she uses to “create a difference through storytelling especially at an emotional and intellectual level.”

Her most noted historical romance and drama novel, ‘Lovers’ Point’, was inspired from the hugely popular legend of Lover’s Leap. With her novels, the high school teacher has been touring a few schools where she has been immersing students in the content, providing them with a fictional and “relatable” spin on pieces of the country’s history.

She describes her work as “tapping into the creative minds of individuals, thus igniting the spark of storytelling.”

Educator and author, Tabitha Smith.

 

Within Government, the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB), a division of the Institute of Jamaica, has a mandate to research, document and disseminate information on African heritage and its impact on Jamaican culture.

Each year, the ACIJ/JMB presents a special programme of activities that highlight the importance of storytelling to Jamaican culture and joins nations across the world in observing World Storytelling Day.

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