50 years of preserving Jamaican history
A reflective glance at the African Caribbean Institute/Memory Bank
Vic Reid addressing an African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica (ACIJ) presentation held in the yard of Malabre House. Seated are his fellow ACIJ founding members Dudley Thompson (left) and Neville Dawes.

Today, the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB) is recognised as the focal point for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Jamaica by way of a formal designation made by Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange in November 2016. This was acknowledgement of the institution's years of work which had propelled it forward as "the most dynamic socio-cultural organisation in the field of research and dissemination of information on African and Caribbean cultures" from as early as 1977. As the ACIJ/JMB celebrates its golden anniversary this year and charts a course for the next 50 years, it pauses here to reflect on its origin and achievements.

In its genesis, the institution was only known as ACIJ. It came into existence through Cabinet Submission, OPM 12 signed by Prime Minister Michael Manley on February 15, 1973. This institution was deemed necessary at the time because, despite the efforts made 12 years prior by the Independence Committee in selecting the motto, 'Out of Many, One People' to coalesce disproportionate groups under a common identity as a means to further entrench what at the time was a burgeoning concept of nationalism; the reality was that majority of the population who were of African ancestry knew very little about their origin and grappled with an identity crisis of their own which was not resolved by the new motto.

This was of concern to the newly formed Government in 1972. As such, one of its first public commitments was "to introduce policies that would put an end to the denigration of the African presence in the history and contemporary life of Jamaica...[and] as a conscious act of policy, explore all the aspects of our African heritage that have for too long been relegated to the dark corners of our educational system and support all efforts to recognise, promote and foster the artistic and cultural achievements of people of African descent, so that our children might have knowledge and an appreciation of the strengths and virtues of African art and culture which form an organic part of their heritage".

The Government wanted to "ensure that every Jamaican has a point at which he can relate meaningfully to his cultural environment. Without this positive point of contact, it is impossible for a people to develop self-confidence, self-awareness and a sense of national pride and national identity". This was a realisation of what William G Demas, the first secretary general of Caricom (1973-1974), had written a few years prior: "We cannot create a new society unless we know who we are and we cannot know who we are unless we know where we come from."

Norma Benghiat facilitating an Open House presentation on Middle Eastern contribution to Jamaica's culinary heritage at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica's Ocean Boulevard location.

Throughout the periods of enslavement and colonialism, the illusion was created that Africa contained no significant processes of human development, resulting in the devaluation of "things African" so that many Jamaicans regarded their African heritage with a minimum of pride. However, as the people of Jamaica began to reshape their history and question the incongruity of a European value system in a predominantly black country, conscious efforts were made to gain fuller knowledge and historical links between that country and the people in the Diaspora. This thirst for greater understanding was happening across the Caribbean and in North America from the late 60s to the early 70s.

The response at the academic level was with the introduction of black studies programmes in several universities. It was against this background that the ACIJ was established as a division of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ). The IOJ had been established from 1879 for the encouragement of literature, science, and art, but it had never engaged meaningfully with the traditions and cultures of the broadest cross-section of the population. Instead, it was more so 'English literature, science and art'.

Therefore, to address the paucity of information, engender cultural pride in African contributions while at the same time fostering unity amongst the different racial groupings, the Cabinet Submission OPM 12 articulated…that the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica was to be established within the Institute of Jamaica to be the focal point for matters of African interest and study, and based on the concept that the value of our African cultural heritage can only be fully understood by a continuing study of its relationship and interaction with other migrant cultures that make up Jamaica's total culture and way of life.

With this charge, the ACIJ began its journey under the guidance of Neville Dawes as executive secretary (who was later appointed executive director of the IOJ), in the historic Georgian designed building known as Malabre House, located at 11 North Street, Kingston, which had also been the home of the Jamaica School of Art and Craft (now Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) when it started in the late 1940s. The location was barely suitable for the staff much less visitors, so events were principally organised offsite. In 1977 for instance, the African Caribbean Summer School was held at the Cultural Training Centre.

Bernard Jankee headed the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank for 27 years strengthening and refining the foundational programmes that had defined its formative years.

The African Caribbean Summer School garnered the support of a wide cross-section of the society — 105 people to be exact. Two years later, the ACIJ seminars began providing an outlet for its researchers as well as other visitors from across the world, including students, teachers and members of the public. These lectures, as well as free showings of African films, took place in the Lecture Hall at IOJ.

The little funding the ACIJ received was not even sufficient to provide a small desk for Beverley Hall-Alleyne, who started her journey with the institution in the capacity as research fellow, and later served as director from 1978 to 1985. Undaunted however by the paucity of funds and strengthened by her commitment to the mission of the organisation, she operated from her office at The University of the West Indies (UWI) — to assist with developing research on African continuities in Jamaican culture.

The institution wasted no time in making a mark on the society. In 1974, the ACIJ worked closely with a Coordinating Committee which was formed for the purpose of planning the preservation of Maroon heritage. The committee comprised the Maroon Council at Moore Town under Colonel Colin Lloyd George Harris, Neville Dawes and Beverley Carey with Beverly Corey as coordinating secretary. The ACIJ sought to expose the public to various African scholars such as Professor Ben A Aning from Ghana who was brought to Jamaica for a public lecture demonstration at Courtleigh Manor Hotel on the 'Polyphony of African Music' through a joint initiative with Jamaica School of Music. The Government of Jamaica, through the ACIJ, also facilitated a workshop by a delegation of Makonde carvers from Tanzania in 1975. A collection of the carvings produced at this workshop were donated to the ACIJ and forms an important part of the IOJ collection today.

While ACIJ had been creative in executing its mandate with the few resources at its disposal, it was not long before the small and increasingly dilapidated North Street accommodations could no longer suffice with its rotting floor boards and roof which leaked to such an extent that Hall-Alleyne at the grand opening at the new location jokingly recalled that "one's choice during heavy rain was whether to go outside and get wet" or suffer the same fate inside. The move to its current location in the Roy West Building at 12 Ocean Boulevard, adjoining the National Gallery of Jamaica, on Friday, July 25, 1986 was therefore a welcomed one which had been made possible through the persistent efforts of Elaine Melbourne while she served as executive director of the IOJ (1984-1989).

Not only did the new facilities provide the institution with additional space for a reference library with a reading and exhibition room, seminar room and storage area, it also was able to outfit its new audio-visual department with equipment valued at Can$10,000, which was presented at the opening by the Canadian High Commission on behalf of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

At its new location, with better tools to carry out documentation, the unit expanded its storehouse of archival material and it was reported in 1986 that this was "the most extensive in the Caribbean and serves as a valuable resource for North American and European scholars as well".

Outreach capacity grew in the new space as the ACIJ developed new programmes such as radio offerings that were tailored specifically for Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) students on ancient African kingdoms. They also freely distributed research in the form of newsletters and fact sheets, but wider circulation was limited because the papers could only be stencilled at the time and as such could not be distributed on a wider scale. All of this, of course, was measured by the limited financial resources at its disposal — a perennial problem which continues to haunt the institution.

To assist with publication, the organisation received support from the Indo-Jamaican Cultural Society in December 1986. External funding was not consistent; however, gifts such as this and others from the Nigerian High Commission, amongst others, helped to keep ACIJ going.

Financial support not only affected programmes, but also limited staff retention. Between 1974 and 1994, the ACIJ had five heads of departments or directors (Neville Dawes, Beverley Hall-Alleyne, Marjorie Brown, Charles Carnegie and Maureen Rowe), and its research staff served on short-term contracts as per the availability of funds.

The 1990s ushered in a new change for the institution. On November 30, 1990, the Jamaica Memory Bank, by government edict, was physically relocated to the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica. The Jamaica Memory Bank (JMB) Project was complementary to the work of the ACIJ and after two years the institutions became one. While interviews had always formed part of the social history research of the ACIJ, with the merger this became an integral methodology employed in data collection.

The JMB Project had began in 1981 as a means of documenting Jamaica's heritage by "tapping the memories of our seniors so that their knowledge can be available for posterity…[It] was the outcome of a seminar held at The UWI in 1980, in response to recognition of the unique contribution senior citizens can make to national and regional development by sharing their memories and skills." Seniors were thus at the centre of the project funded by HelpAge International as informants, and to a lesser extent trained interviewers as well. The project was an initiative of the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture (initially operated out of the Office of the Prime Minister, but by then was located at 8 Waterloo Road, Kingston 10) and was under the direction of ethnomusicologist Dr Olive Lewin until she retired on November 8, 1990. It relied mainly on grant funding (The first seed funding came from the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture ) as well as the commitment of individuals and parish committees who worked voluntarily. It was an admirable project that had the support of Sybil Francis, Hector Wynter as well as Prime Minister Edward Seaga who, according to Laura Tanner, "was the instigator of Lewin's folk music research". With the completion of the merger, the Jamaica Institute of Folk Culture ceased to exist.

Following her retirement, Lewin continued to hold the position as chair of the JMB Coordinating Committee (JMBCC) and director of the HelpAge International programme, as this body had approved in 1990 a grant of J$20,000 for both the purchase of equipment and training of seniors as interviewers. While this was not problematic, the reluctance to hand over all the relevant documents and equipment associated with the project to the ACIJ, the institution to whom responsibility was transferred, threatened the successful continuation and development of the three-year project (1990-1992). Claire Ball, Caribbean regional representative for HelpAge International, closed her letter to Lewin dated November 11, 1991 thus, "We are saddened to hear of the 'impasse' that has apparently been reached, and we very much hope that an agreement can be worked out which will be acceptable to all those involved, and which will ensure the successful continuation of such valuable and important work". In retrospect Lewin's attachment to the project was understandable. JMB had been extremely successful collecting more than 1,500 songs, hundreds of interviews and photographs across the island, as well as influencing the establishment of memory banks in Grenada, Dominica, Guyana, and the Cayman Islands.

Thankfully, by June 1992 the administrative complexities that had overshadowed the JMB merger were resolved and the ACIJ was able to have full control of the HelpAge-funded, JMB project. Executive director of the IOJ, and former director and research fellow at ACIJ, Hall-Alleyne had been instrumental in this breakthrough. The project progressed well with the assistance of Dr Lewin and other former members of her team including Hazel Ramsay (now Ramsay-McClune who became ACIJ/JMB's field manager and currently sits on the board of the ACIJ/JMB) facilitating training and documentation exercises. By 1993, the project attracted further assistance from CIDA to ensure its 'future viability'.

This era also heralded the introduction of the ACIJ/JMB's signature annual event dubbed, "Open House". This programme was conceived as a strategy to further engage the public in ways that would not only stimulate their interest in African retentions in Jamaica and the African Diaspora in general, but served to inform them about the services provided and in so doing encourage use of the research facility, as well as support in terms of making worthwhile book donations that were well-needed to grow the fledging library.

Stability characterised the next 27 years (1995-2022) of the ACIJ/JMB under the leadership of Bernard Jankee, who worked to not only strengthen, but also refine foundational programmes that had defined its formative years. At the same time it explored new avenues to fulfil the mandate of the division and increase the institution's profile locally as well as internationally — all the while adapting and responding to the changing needs of the society and the challenges of operating in an ever-tightening fiscal environment.

Most notably, the library received special focus. Not only was the collection bolstered to include more Afro-centric publications from across the African Diaspora, but library systems that facilitated researchers at all levels were implemented by professional librarians over the years. These librarians ensured that researchers had continued access to the catalogue of analogue audio-visual materials and preserved those early records. Simultaneously, the library embarked on a digitisation project. Ensuring that the library catalogue was available online was a crucial part of broadening accessibility to all Jamaicans and was achieved despite the funding issues that thwarted it for years. Research days were also introduced to encourage secondary level students, primarily at the CXC, GCE and CAPE levels, to explore the range of resources available to aid their preparations of School-based Assessments.

Library services also expanded in scope to include the creation of community archives to document a fuller history of Jamaica than is possible in official repositories like the National Archives. The ACIJ/JMB reached out to communities to provide them with the requisite knowledge to first engender pride in the traditions passed down to them, and then foster their capacities to be the chief agents in the documentation of their cultural practices. The ACIJ/JMB offered training for community groups who would collect materials. This initiative was devised as a collaborative effort between the Library and Research Unit (inclusive of education outreach officer) with the former focusing on cataloguing and archiving of field data, while the other sought to develop understandings of intangible cultural heritage and the importance of preservation efforts through documentation.

To date, several communities across the island have benefited from such training including members of the Buff Bay River Valley through a project funded by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, Maroons of Moore Town, Charlestown, and Scott's Hall as well as members of the Rastafari Indigenous Village, members of the craft community, residents of Port Royal and National Council for Senior Citizens parish officers. These became some of the priorities of the 21st century ACIJ/JMB.

These capacity-building exercises were envisioned as meaningful ways of engaging communities in the documentation and preservation of their traditions. Such training opportunities were usually made possible through external funding support from organisations such as UNESCO. The ACIJ/JMB was also keen on devising low-budget strategies to facilitate its efforts to sustain community engagements.

Financial woes were, after all, also echoed by many of the communities served and intended to be served. Despite the interest in the programmes of the ACIJ/JMB, stark bread and butter issues that confronted community members daily impacted attendance and continuation after the life of the project. Cultural preservation efforts cannot trump hungry bellies and the need to fill empty pockets and plates. Then there was the problem of insufficient equipment for training exercises as well as afterwards.

The ACIJ/JMB sought to address these in different ways. For example, funding support from UNESCO enabled the institution to acquire basic equipment for documentation which are held in trust for ICH communities and made available to them upon request to carry out documentation exercises of their own. The downside to this, however, was that the cost of transportation sometimes affected their ability to collect and return equipment. In recognition of this challenge, the institution also embarked on training communities including schools to document, archive and/or create documentaries using their own devices. New technologies and funding support of the Heritage in Schools Programme facilitated this effort.

Smartphones and tablets are being used by a rapidly increasing number of students at all levels of education. The capabilities of some of these devices vary from one to another; most, if not all, are equipped with a camera. The various applications or 'apps' that are available, dependent on platform, are wide ranging and are useful for many educational activities. Many users seem to spend most of their device time on social media platforms posting, reading, watching videos and keeping in touch with family and friends. This project exploits the social media obsession and the photography capabilities of their devices. Children will use their mobile devices to record videos, take photographs and record interviews in order to document heritage in their community. This project seeks to accentuate parts of the hidden curriculum as well as career development.

The first project of this kind was undertaken in the communities of Morgan's Forest and Aenon Town in Clarendon in 2015.

Another important step for the ACIJ/JMB as it moved into the 21st century was the elevation of the institution's public profile through the organisation of a national workshop on the implementation of the ICH Convention which was signed by the Government of Jamaica in 2009 and affiliations with international bodies such as UNESCO. The institution, through the former director, Bernard Jankee, was elected to represent Jamaica on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee of the Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH and also served as rapporteur to the committee (2018-2022).

Over the decades, the ACIJ/JMB has been a resilient institution, adapting to new challenges and opportunities. For this reason, it chose for its logo the Aya fern, an Adrinka symbol for endurance and resourcefulness. These attributes have characterised the ACIJ/JMB throughout its existence, in particular, the latter part of the 1990s onwards.

As the ACIJ/JMB's journey takes it into a new era, it is hoped that this will include a new facility that will better cater to the ever-expanding needs of an institution that continues to be relevant in lives of people of African descent.

— Kesia Weise is the senior research fellow at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB), a division of the Institute of Jamaica. Her research focuses on the intangible cultural heritage of local communities in Jamaica.

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