Picture, “Elgon Dance Troupe”, by Elgon Youth Brass Band
Jamaican society, as we know it today, is reflective of an eclectic group of ancestors from around the world. What we now call Jamaican culture is a mixture of attributes of people with varying phenotypes, cultures, belief systems and identities. A true Jamaican identity is perhaps one that acknowledges the contribution of all our ancestors, one that accepts the notion that what is Jamaican is an amalgamation of things Chinese, European, African and Indian, among others.
For over 200 years, Jamaican culture has been largely dependent on oral history and traditions to achieve continuity. With the improvement in literacy around the world, cultural identities are being formed through activities that are linked to literacy. Literacy has thus become an essential part of a person’s concept of his/ her culture and personhood.
Literacy is defined as the ability to use text to communicate across space and time. It is often reduced to reading and writing or, sometimes, just to the ability to read. In the modern context, the word means reading and writing at a level adequate for written communication and one that generally enables one to successfully function in society (www.wordiq.com).
In Jamaica, the concept of learning about culture through written communication is historically foreign. The Jamaican cultural landscape embraces a tradition where culture is an activity that is lived. Learning about our culture has been a life-experience process rather than something given through secondary knowledge (which, to some extent, is no knowledge at all).
After the emancipation of slaves in 1838, there was a period known as “apprenticeship”. This period of learning allowed individuals to start working from the most basic levels, copying and completing tasks as they saw them being done by the people supervising them. This allowed the “apprentices” to learn methods that would eventually come to form part of Jamaican culture. They became fully entrenched in the learning experience and this became a cultural value that had a greater impact than something they might have experienced vicariously.
With the advent of what is now recognized as formal literacy or education, there is a larger dependence on theory and second hand knowledge than on experimental experience. Written communication and the ability to read and comprehend concepts explored in books are given precedence over practical experience. Oral tradition embraces the idea of understanding concepts learned, but it also demonstrates the importance of experience.
Jamaican culture has a rich floral heritage; some of the plants have been known to cure diseases and other problems. This knowledge, though not authenticated through science, was legendary and provided remedies for many ailments. Literacy has caused this reliance on traditional herbs to die or to be brushed aside as urban myths. The knowledge that has been gained on pharmaceutical drugs has rendered them more acceptable than the herbs. Instead of recommending the “Leaf of Life” for the common cold people now embrace DPH products.
Nevertheless, literacy is not a cancer that is eating into cultural values. Culture is an ever-changing concept, and it is an amalgamation of past experiences that shape a people’s identity. Literacy can act as a vehicle for cultural retention. It has helped to prime minds for reception of culture and values. For example literacy has led to pharmaceutical research in other countries and recently in Jamaica, where Cannabis Sativa (marijuana) has been shown to help cure or control Glaucoma.
Over the years, through ethnographic research, the concept of oral history has become more academically accepted. Ethnographers seem to have accepted the notion that the study of cultures must take into consideration traditional culturally-relevant situations that have only been passed from generation to generation through oral presentation. The Museums of History and Ethnography in Jamaica and the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica have embraced the centrality of oral tradition to culture and have launched several programmes dubbed “Museums as Memory” which take oral history as the primary focus for gathering information.
In understanding the role of oral history in culture we must remember that books are recorded with general biases. They leave many aspects of a country’s culture unexplored, and so oral history always has a place. It is therefore important that we dispel the notion that oral history is simply fables or myths. Folklore as oral history holds a deeper meaning as an alternate source of knowledge of human existence. Traditional “folk” forms, which make up an important part of Jamaican culture, have not been formalized.
Many of the poems, songs and stories that are told to children have not been translated into books or other forms of written media but have been passed on through oral traditions such as storytelling, poetry-reading and drama. This folklore is an important aspect of Jamaican identity. Although Jamaica is an English-speaking country, its official dialect, Patois, has many characteristics of a language, i.e. syntax, spelling etc. But there is yet to be a formal arrangement of the language. Patois is an important aspect of our Jamaican identity and is mostly passed from generation to generation through oral traditions.
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Meeckel B Beecher
My name is Meeckel Beecher, I am a development enthusiast who believes that through understanding of cultures we will be better able to achieve the MDGs and development on a overall level.
I have a passion for cultures around the world and would like to experience the world one day.
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