Storytelling Can Promote Culture, Tourism And Education – Blackwood Meeks

A report by TANESHA MUNDLE for the JIS

Storytelling, one of the world’s oldest art forms and a rich part of Jamaica’s diverse culture, remains largely an untapped and underused resource in the country.

It has enjoyed moments of highlight, especially during the country’s Emancipation and Independence celebrations, when the spotlight is thrown on the different aspects of the island’s fascinating culture.

However, it is the view of international storyteller, Dr. Amina Blackwood Meeks, that a much bigger space is there for the incorporation of storytelling, not only in the promotion of the island’s culture and tourism but also in the area of education.

“We are all emerging from the same pathology of not valuing our culture, and within that pathology we have learnt that storytelling is foolishness, it’s not a development tool, it’s not source and resource, it’s not structure and infrastructure, which is how we promote storytelling,” Dr. Blackwood Meeks tells JIS News.

“It will take a while for people to see the value,” she adds.

Dr. Blackwood Meeks argues that the education system has much to gain from the use of storytelling as a valuable tool, especially in the area of language development and critical thinking.

“When you look at the structure of a story, it has rhythm and rhymes, whether it’s for likkle people or big people. It has song and dance, and everybody will tell you that’s how the babies dem learn; dem waa rhythm inna dem body. And that’s why when dem hear a song for the first time on the radio, dem gone wid it,” she tells JIS News.

“But in terms of language development, this has a number of elements. It has the element of listening, so you have to listen to the story. It has the element of comprehension, so you have to understand the story. It has the element of recall. Recall, that’s remembering, and it has the element of retelling, so you now have to find the words to tell it,” she explains.

At the same time, Dr. Blackwood Meeks notes that although many believe that stories are for children, it can be used to teach everyone and in different areas.

“It can teach football, it can teach physics, it can teach anything and it’s part of how we need to be mentally emancipated. We put ourselves into a little box, so that a storyteller can’t be a philosopher,” she says.

She emphasises that storytellers have to be knowledgeable on a wide range of issues and not only possess a good voice and the ability to tell a story.

According to Dr. Blackwood Meeks, a story can be created around anything as long as one understands the structure of a story as different from any other performing art form.

“And so Jamaica, which is recognised as having this valuable pot of gold in its stories and its storytellers, we haven’t started to scratch the surface, and that’s our mission,” she tells JIS News.

It is against this background that the Founder of the Ntukuma Storytelling Foundation, since 2013, has sought to promote storytelling through the annual storytelling festival, an eight-leg conference and festival which involves reading at libraries, workshops and discussion fora, among other activities, in November.

“Every year, we have our storytelling festival, it’s rated among the best in the world. We have international storytellers who come to the festival, we have international scholars of the oral traditions who come to the festival. Our tellers have come from South Africa, Mexico, Trinidad, Barbados, China, and Antigua,” Dr. Blackwood Meeks notes.

“The festival has been like a roadshow with eight legs honouring Ananse’s eight legs and each of those days happens on a different day,” she explains, noting that on different days Ananse visits the schools, church, libraries and communities.

The annual celebration, dubbed the Ananse Soundsplash Festival (ASF), will this year be celebrated virtually from November 19 to 21 under the theme ‘Stories of Dignities and Healing’ and will feature international storytellers virtually from Trinidad, Cayman, Costa Rica, United Kingdom and New York, with contributions from other overseas tellers from South Africa, Kenya and Mexico.

The highlight of the festival will be the observation of the National Storytelling Day on November 20, in which the local storytellers will host a live storytelling session at the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Library, which will be streamed live to all the other parish libraries from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.

Dr. Blackwood Meeks, who was very instrumental in the proclamation of the National Storytelling Day, said over the years the responses from the students have been very good, so much so that the Jamaica Library Service (JLS) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Foundation late last year to start storytelling clubs in the libraries islandwide, where members of the clubs are required to research the cultural heritage of their communities, in partnership with the senior citizens in their communities.

Other activities during the festival will include a workshop for the Caribbean Examinations Council Theatre Arts students; a workshop with teachers’ college students on the topic ‘Understanding gender in folktales’, as well as a discussion on the preservation of the built heritage using storytelling and a storytelling gala.

The SJF has also secured an agreement with CBC Barbados to broadcast a discussion with Peta Alleyne on storytelling festival and development in the Caribbean, which is, in part, an honour to Ken Corsbie, a pioneer of the cultural arts in the Caribbean.

Dr. Blackwood Meeks says the Foundation is in need of sponsorship, especially in cash, and a home for the Foundation where children and adults can visit for stories and to host storytelling training and exhibitions.

“It’s one thing to talk about it; it’s another thing to come and see for yourself,” she adds.

Further, Dr. Blackwood Meeks says: “We don’t want to perpetuate the belief that storytelling belongs in a corner and is seasonal like bun and cheese weh you eat in Easter. It’s the seasoning for everything.”

In the meantime, Dr. Blackwood Meeks notes that the pandemic has created an opportunity for storytelling, which she says has been enjoying an explosion internationally, based on the rise in the number of members in the different storytelling groups that have been newly launched.

“COVID has taught us that everything happens when we think nothing is happening,” she says, pointing to the fact that families that have been forced to spend more time together are using storytelling about their family history as one of the ways in which to bond and pass time together.

“Storytelling is one way to overcome the barriers that have been placed in our way by our economic organisation and needs, and it is no surprise that storytelling has exploded virtually in this time of COVID,” she adds.

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