NOVEMBER 29, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen

A very good morning to you all! It is good to see such a gathering of bright, alert students, together with their parents and teachers for this special JIS Heritage Essay Competition Awards Ceremony. As you were told earlier, the JIS is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, which is what makes the 2013 edition of their Heritage Essay Competition so special. I am therefore doubly pleased to welcome you to King’s House as we join in the JIS 50th anniversary celebration and also as the essay prize winners are recognized.

This annual essay competition is an excellent initiative for which I warmly congratulate the JIS. When it started in 2011 I was pleased to have hosted the awards ceremony here and it would appear that King’s House is the venue of choice.

We know that our heritage is passed on from generation to generation. Much of it is oral history which has been captured by interviews and recorded. I remember that the late Dr. the Hon. Olive Lewin established the Memory Bank where she recorded stories told by very old people from all across Jamaica. She also recorded songs which they said had been passed down to them from slavery days. I often wonder how much of all that heritage we have saved.

Heritage can also be passed on through genes in all creatures from humans to insects. One of the most amazing examples of this is the Monarch butterfly whose life span is about six weeks. Every year, the Monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles from points in the USA and Canada to the same spot in Mexico where they spend the winter. None of those who leaveNorth America ever make it back, so they could not pass on to the next generation their knowledge of the routes to and from the Monarch Reserve Park in Mexico. But that annual flight is part of the Monarch’s well documented heritage which still baffles our scientists.

Jamaicans inherited our love for rhythmic music and vibrant colours from our African ancestors. Most of us have never been to Africa. Many Jamaicans probably have never met an African.  Like the Monarch butterfly we have that link through our genes which impacts on our culture. We see that African link in so many of our art forms.

I hope that we can all try to keep storytelling alive, despite the competition from the media. As a child growing up in Portland, stories were much more part of our entertainment than they are now. We would share stories about Brer Anansi and how he tricked his way through life. Interestingly, Anansi also has roots in West Africa, so it is likely that some of these stories could have been passed down through the centuries, while others could be of more recent vintage.  Brer Anansi is firmly grounded in our folk culture and unfortunately, his trickster personality is too often seen among our people.

The Hon. Louise Bennett Coverly contributed a great deal to the retention of our cultural heritage. She revived many of our Anansi stories especially on her Saturday morning shows on the former JBC TV. No doubt many of you parents and teachers remember “Ring Ding” where Miss Lou would tell old Jamaican stories which she used to end with “Jack Mandora, mi no choose none”. Children, I want you to think about what that means, since at the end of my speech I shall have a gift for the first one to give me the correct answer.

Miss Lou also helped us to remember many Jamaican riddles. She was the first person to make us feel proud of our native language and helped us to understand that we spoke more than just broken English as some people thought that Patois was. Her poems in Patois were the first ever published and all these form part of our cultural identity, who we are as a people.

We cannot talk about Jamaican heritage without referring to our popular music which has taken the world by storm. Before reggae, our music was largely known to the world as the folk songs popularized by Harry Belafonte. “Day Oh!” was the song that most foreigners associated with Jamaica. Then Ska put Jamaica somewhat on the world music charts. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff put us firmly on those charts. Now, all over the world people sing “One Love, One heart”. I know we are all happy too about Tessanne Chin. She is doing her part on The Voice to promote our music. I think that her rendition of “Many Rivers to Cross” should become part of our music history. What do you think?

Let us not forget the contributions made by groups such as the Jamaica Folk Singers which the late Dr. Olive Lewin founded. The National Dance Theatre Company Singers added their own spice to our folk songs. Their repertoire has helped to keep our songs alive, so that today our people can continue to enjoy them from the amusing stories in song to the mournful nine-night dirges.

Our food also forms part of our heritage. There is not much which we have retained from the Tainos who, as you know, were the native people who met Christopher Columbus when he landed in Jamaica in 1494. Our bammies date back to that era, as Tainos made their round bread from cassava.

I am sure you know that our love for salt fish developed from the days of slavery  when salting meats and fish was the only way to preserve them. Captain Bligh brought the ackee from West Africa and the breadfruit from Tahiti in response to orders for these fast growing plants to be transported to the West Indies to provide food for the slaves. The first breadfruit plants in Jamaica were planted in what is today the Bath Botanical Gardens in St. Thomas. So our national dish, as you can see,  had its roots and its beginnings in slavery days.

Chinese style cooking came to Jamaica when Chinese workers were brought in to replace ex-slaves who had fled the sugar plantations when slavery was abolished. Similarly, curry became a part of our diet with the entry of Indian indentured workers when the Chinese proved not to be as hardy as the plantation owners wanted them to be. So you can see how closely linked our food is to our history.

Jamaican history from the Tainos through Spanish Colonialism; through the British colonial plantocracy and slavery; from emancipation to independence and beyond, forged the rich and diverse cultural heritage of which we boast today. As you students researched for your essays on “What Makes Our Jamaican Heritage Special”, I am certain that you came up with a number of reasons which you could defend convincingly.

Some of you might have focused on our illustrious National Heroes and their role in the building of our nation. In the case of the Rt. Excellent Marcus Garvey, you would have shown how he influenced black consciousness and civil rights in several countries, including the United States of America. Some of you may have focused on our culture and the way it has impacted on other nations all across the world. Our food, especially the jerk, also has influenced cuisine elsewhere in the world.

We have rapidly built a sprint culture, with experts trying hard to discover the reason for the prowess of Usain  Bolt, Shelley-Ann Fraser Price and others. The global view of Jamaica as being the sprint capital of the world may have been recently formed, but this is also carved in our heritage.

For a tiny island such as ours to have such an impact on the world, we are indeed a special people.  There is so much that is good about Jamaica! That is what we should be focusing on as we remind ourselves that there is nothing wrong with Jamaica that cannot be fixed by what is right with Jamaica.

The Rt. Excellent Marcus Garvey wrote: ” A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. So I commend all of you who took part in this essay competition, because you are helping to make sure that Jamaica remains firmly rooted in the best of our heritage. In this all of you are champions!

Now to the question I had posed earlier: What does “Jack Mandora, mi no choose none” at the end of an Anansi story mean?

(NB: Jack Mandora is said to be a Twi (ethnic group from Ghana) name for heaven’s gatekeeper. The statement addressed to him means “I take no responsibility for anything in this story”.)