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Cultural transmission of our indigenous knowledge

Donna P
Hope

Thursday, October 10, 2019

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The saying is that “lightning never strikes in the same place twice”, even though fact proves this to be untrue. Then there is the story that is often told to schoolchildren about a man who flew a kite into a thunderstorm, with a key attached to the string, to prove the electrical nature of lightning. Versions of this story of Ben Franklin's 18th century experiment still form part and parcel of the intellectual knowledge passed on to our children in a formal educational setting. At least, I hope so.

But, it seems that there is a break in the pipeline of indigenous knowledge that once gushed voluminously from our cultural memory banks. We must not forget the ongoing need to keep transmission points wide open as lightning strikes.

For this month of October, we continue to give numerous thanks for what is turning out to be a major period of sustained rainfall for 2019 in Jamaica. Climate change has significantly impacted on the regular occurrence of the necessary “rainy seasons” in this Land of Wood and Water. Rainy seasons provide water for various activities – filling the catchment facilities, irrigating the soil, providing a growth spurt for trees and plants, and cooling down the intense heat.

We have also seen an increase in thunderstorms and lightning as an accompaniment to these well-needed rainstorms. Again, we must reflect on climate change in the increased incidences of what is proving to be serious cause for concern. Over the last three to four weeks there have been at least two reports of lightning strikes, and two incidents in the Corporate Area that have resulted in harm being done to schoolboy footballers.

Lightning and thunder have long been a part of our climate and weather patterns. Usually, but not always, a flash of lightning and the accompanying thunder signal rainfall. As a culture that is steeped in telling stories, many Jamaicans should at least have an inkling of how you should respond, in the event of the sometimes scary lightning and thunder that come with rainstorms, even if you don't know why.

My students in class last week remembered Ben Franklin, and they sort of recalled being told that they should not stand under a tree during the rain when lightning was flashing and thunder was rolling, as we say in Jamaica. But they could not recall why. They were also unaware of other important details about this intense weather activity. I spent a portion of that tutorial engaging in a discussion on Ben Franklin, electricity, lightning, rainstorms and best practices. We learn for life.

Lightning and electricity are siblings. If you do not understand why there are usually no electrical outlets in bathrooms (especially in older buildings); or why movies show someone plugging in a toaster or small appliance and throwing it into someone's bathtub as a murder weapon, then the flow of indigenous knowledge has failed.

Electrical outlets are never placed over, or contiguous to, the kitchen sink in any household. Water, as in rainwater, or any other kind of water, is a great conductor of electricity. Additionally, organic entities, such as human beings, trees, and metal rods are great conductors of the generated electricity we use in buildings, as well as of the kind that occurs with lightning. Inappropriate exposure to either can prove harmful and fatal, especially when water is added to the equation.

Many Jamaicans over 35 years old have an innate fear of lightning because of the stories they heard, the images they have seen or the experiences they had as children. Some will cower in fear, running for closets, under beds and various safe locations to hide from the lightning. Some of the stories they were told remind(ed) them that lightning needs a conductor to ground. It is always attracted to the highest point on any surface, hence the reminder to avoid sheltering under trees during rainfall with attendant lightning and thunder.

If you are the tallest, organic object on a flat surface, you become the grounding device that will conduct the lightning to what it is attracted to the earth(ing). So you must get flat. During lightning-filled thunderstorms, large grassy areas like football fields, cow pastures, grassy yards, lawns, etc are a no-no. Most people try to take cover. If you can't, stories suggest you must get flat. Yes, lie on the ground to avoid exposure. Most houses and tall buildings are equipped with lightning rods that guide the lightning away from the building into the earth. If your house or building has none, now is a great time to ensure that this is remedied.

In a related vein, there are stories about electricity. As children, we were warned away from the “high tension” wires that criss-crossed many roads and communities. Stories of individuals accidentally getting caught in the grip of an electrical surge from “high tension” wires, for whatever reason, were always followed by the necessary suggestions about how to save their life. You must break the grip of the electrical surge; avoid using green branches and metal rods of any sort to push or hit the person out of contact with the electricity, as these will conduct the “high-volt” to and through you; use a dry branch or something wooden, (perhaps a broomstick?) to hit the person off if possible; always act swiftly as time is of the essence; and wear rubber-soled shoes or sandals to avoid creating a conducting circuit.

If someone has been hit by lightning or survived contact with an electrical surge then, instead of going into a frenzied panic or trying to do a video to go viral, you should attempt to resuscitate the person, while calling or signalling for help.

Many millennials, like my students, spend a great portion of their free and not-so-free time locked within the grasp of social media, the Internet and high-technology devices like smartphones. Many of them did not sit at the feet of parents or elders, listening to Bredda Anansi, Bredda Takuma and Big Boy stories. These are different times.

Many adults have little to no time to sit and pass on tidbits of knowledge about day-to-day levity in the form of stories. Some have forgotten these stories. Many of our children have never seen lightning strike a tree and split it down the middle, or watched lightning blast the top of a laden coconut tree, scattering the adult fruit like missiles all around, and engulfing the empty tree trunk in flames.

These stories do not usually make the routine rounds of social media and newscasts. Somewhere in all of this, we are losing (or have lost) the once critical connection to our important cache of indigenous knowledge, that is still within our cultural storehouse. This is the kind of knowledge that teaches us additional measures that can be useful for daily survival in Jamaica. It is part and parcel of who we are.

The value of this transmission of indigenous knowledge came to me very forcefully in the early 2000s as I incredulously watched individuals in my community in Virginia fill their supermarket carts with ice cream, frozen meats and other perishable items in response to weather forecasts of an approaching tropical storm, the remnants of a hurricane that was making its way up from Florida. They had no clear understanding of how to prepare for a hurricane, tropical storm or related weather pattern. They understood snowstorms. Once the then unusual weather pattern had passed, the garbage collectors had to contend with disposing of the meats and other perishables that had spoilt in the wake of power outages that usually accompany these systems. I am sure things are different now, more than 10 years later, as this type of weather activity has become more normative.

So, yes, there is a collective social responsibility that we all must share to engage in the transmission of indigenous knowledge for life to our children, students, and those young ones under our care. We must find a way to pass on these stories. Yet, a return to cultural practices from the past sitting around in family groups telling stories seems unlikely. Even in our most rural locations, Jamaicans are encouraged to seek out the cosmopolitan, the modern, the hip and the hype. It seems, therefore, we must meet them where they are.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness's recent press release encouraging Jamaicans to take precautions against lightning is timely as it continues to be shared on social media for those who choose to read. Nonetheless, within the recent celebratory highs (and minuscule lows) of Doha and the ongoing intense social and media debate around a young politician's casual and careless utterances, we must remember to insert other important and very critical forms of knowledge.

The cultural pipelines may have shifted to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but, however, wherever and whenever, they are going to be told, stories about how to live and survive here, remain critically intertwined with the lives we must live in this tropical country, beset by hurricanes, thunderstorms, major rainstorms and lightning. This is our home. We must not forget to remember.


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