Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Paper Presented at Jamaican Storytelling Conference 2014

 If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
 Paper presented at Ananse Sound Splash: Storytelling Conference and Festival  
November 2014

This written version is more or less what I presented, and I have included links.
Helen Williams at mic
After graduating from Oxford University in the UK, Helen Williams embarked on a 38-year teaching career, 34 years of which were in Jamaica, at Rusea’s and Green Island High Schools, Lucea Prep School (as founding principal) and Montego Bay Community College. Since retiring, she has taken up writing for children.
Her short story “Finding My Roots” was published in Tony Bradman’s Anthology, ALL IN THE FAMILY in 2008.
DELROY IN THE MAROG KINGDOM, a chapter book in the Island Fiction Series, published by Macmillan Caribbean in 2009, under the penname Billy Elm, won the people’s choice award for Best Children’s Chapter Book in the BIAJ’s biennial awards 2011. It was chosen by the Jamaica Library Service to be read by children aged 9-12 in the Annual Reading Competition 2011.  
ERROL’S TAXI, a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stones Series, was published in 2013.
A short story, FLASH, won a silver medal, and an award for Best Junior Short Story in JCDC’s Creative Writing Contest in 2010. It is self-published as an e-book. 

Robert McKee, a well-known creative writing instructor, said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
Who is telling our stories, my story, your story? If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
I know this festival is about the oral tradition, but I beg the forgiveness of the organizers in including mention of written stories, because I write. But I also affirm that the telling of stories gave birth to their writing.   
I now make 2 assertions, which I’d like you to remember if you don’t remember anything else.
1.     Jamaican children need to hear about themselves in stories, see themselves in picture books, and read about themselves in books, not as tricksters, shape shifters and villains, but as heroes and heroines, mentors, heralds and gatekeepers.
2.     Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child. It improves comprehension, it increases vocabulary and improves grammar. It even improves math scores.
I would like now to discuss the importance of telling of stories to children. Repeating point #1, Jamaican children need to hear themselves and about themselves in stories.
Before children learn to read, they need to hear stories. Thus they learn to listen, hold ideas in their heads and follow stories. They need to remember and retell. They learn to experience emotions and situations vicariously. Whether they recognize themselves or others in a story, they feel empathy for characters in stories.  They will transfer these skills when they learn to read. How often do our Basic School and Grade 1 teachers tell children stories? What stories? How many different stories? There should be a story time every day, with a variety of stories repeated often. Are teachers taught to be storytellers?
Now here’s a dilemma. Stories can be told in creole, but children are not taught to read creole. Although creole is written, and is easy to read, they are taught to read English. Countless studies have shown that children, who learn to read in their mother tongue, transfer that skill to the reading of a second language better than if they were taught to read in that second language, but suggest that common-sense approach in Jamaica, and there is an uproar. Ask a creole speaking 5-year-old to remember and retell a story told to him in standard English. He will retell it in creole. Look at the comments on Facebook by Jamaicans, who learnt to read and write in English, and transferred that skill to the writing of creole. But if you present a child in the first few grades of primary school with text in creole, they will have difficulty reading it. So we are stuck with teaching the reading of standard English, with its countless idiosyncrasies in spelling, grammar and syntax, for the time being.
Expanding on point #2: Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child, but most Jamaican children are short-changed by not having enough books available for them to look at in Basic School, or for them to read in every grade of primary school, and certainly not enough about people like themselves. Even in the USA, where in 2010, 14% of the population was African American or African, only 4.5 % of the books were about them; while 63% of the population was Caucasian (and not Hispanic), and 91% of the books were about them. (See my blog Racial and cultural bias in books for children.)

When I went to teach at Green Island Secondary School (as it was then) in 1974, I was in the library when the librarian opened boxes of new books. Many of them were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The children pounced on them, wanting to borrow them immediately.  I wondered, “Where were the books by Jamaican authors?” I didn’t see them in the bookshops either. The only Jamaican author that came to my notice was Orlando Patterson. His “Children of Sisyphus” had been prescribed for the older students. There was a big argument in the staff room about whether the students should be allowed to read this book. I didn’t read it myself until recently and now wonder what those students made of it.
Years later, I was to discover that there were at that time many wonderful stories set in Jamaica written by Jamaicans – Jean D’Costa, Vic Reid, Andrew Salkey, Everard Palmer, James Berry and since then many more by Diane Browne, Hazel Campbell, Cherrell Shelley-Robinson, Jean Gouldbourne and others, published by LMH and Carlong in their Sand Pebbles Series. (See a list of books for 8-12 year-olds on my blog.) Why were/ are these books not prominently displayed in the bookshops? Because, according to the boards of these bookshops, they won’t sell. Obviously they won’t sell if you don’t stock them or display them. Parents read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and books by Enid Blyton, which are prominently displayed in the bookshops so that’s what they buy for their children. 
Island Fiction on the shelves in Fontana, MoBay
Novelty Trading distributes books, including my book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom”. It was on the shelf in Fontana Pharmacy, Montego Bay, along with other Island Fiction Books, then I didn’t see it again. On enquiring, I was told it wasn’t selling, so was removed to make space for other books. What other books? Do they really need the space to display 50 copies of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid?
So, that’s part of my story. If I don’t tell my story, who will? Going back to 1974: assuming that there was a dearth of children’s books by Jamaican authors, I was presumptuous enough to think that I could contribute in that area. I started a story in 1981, and worked on it sporadically over the next 2 decades, starting by writing long-hand, then using a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter and finally a word processor. When I retired in 2003, not knowing how to get a book published, I started to read “How to” books on writing fiction, and I took a UCLA online course on children’s writing. The book I’d been working on went into a box under the bed, and my energies went into writing adventure stories for boys. I wrote four of these, none yet published but I’m always optimistic.
My break came in 2007, with 2 stories at once. My short story Finding My Roots was published in an anthology “All in the Family” edited by Tony Bradman. This story included a great house, a moonshine baby, a rolling calf and Grandma Aggie’s Tamarind Switch (my original title!).
My chapter book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom” was accepted by editor Joanne Gail Johnson’s for inclusion in Macmillan Caribbean’s ‘Island Fiction Series.’ The requirement was for Fantasty, Sci Fi and Folklore set in the Caribbean. The fantasy – Delroy turns into a marog – a type of frog. The folklore – River Mumma. (No Sci-Fi – I’m not a fan of that genre.) What turned out to be pivotal was that in my research on frogs, I found a Taino legend that if mothers went away leaving their children hungry, the children would turn into frogs. Normally, no Taino mother would have done this, but when the Spaniards enslaved them, it happened. It happened also to a Taino princess, who tried to drown herself, but, as Jamaican legend tells, she was turned into River Mumma. I have written 2 sequels to the published book – “Delroy and theMarog Princess” in which she returns to Delroy’s village in human form, available on Amazon as an ebook.  In “The Last of the Marogs”, Delroy time-travels to the time of the Tainos.This story won a silver medal in the JCDC Creative Writing Contest 2013, but is not yet published.
The treasury of Jamaican culture and history, and the infinite variety of settings and characters is my inspiration and can be yours too. Our children need many, many more Jamaican  stories - there aren't nearly enough. Don't forget they need illustrations as well. With the advent of the tablets in schools project, and the ease of e-publishing, the doors of opportunity for you to write for them are thrown wide open. But don’t expect to make money immediately – do it for love.
If we don’t tell our story, who will?

TO FOLLOW in a future post: An account of other most interesting presentations at the conference.
I welcome comments and questions on this post.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Chikungunya and Dengue Fever - A Public Health Responsibility

Zapped Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.
The small divisions on the scale are millimeters.
Nobody can tell me that I didn't have chikungunya, (chickV), although I'm not prepared to pay Ja$14,000.00 to confirm that diagnosis. Tests done on the a few hundred cases when the virus first appeared in Eastern Jamaica confirmed that is was indeed chikungunya. It spread quickly. It has got to the point now when we ask who hasn't had it, rather than who has had it. Nearly everybody on our street has had it.
     When it first arrived, it was made light of. "You'll have pains for about three days, maybe a rash, then you'll get better and will be immune to further attacks." Not so for many, including myself. Those of us over 45 may take 1 to 2 or more months to get over the acute phase. After that there is the possibility of the subacute phase with arthritis and the possibility of disorders of the blood vessels. Then there is the chronic phase, occurring beyond 3 months and persisting for 2 -3 years. The symptoms include prolonged and severe arthritis, fatigue, body weakness, and depression (no wonder, with the prospect of these symptoms for 3 years!) The chronic phase occurs in 13% of people who contract the disease. If 2 million people in Jamaica contract it, that means that about 260,000 will be affected for up to 3 years. More tragically, many people have died. Yes, they had other conditions such as sickle cell, hypertension and diabetes, or were undergoing cancer treatment, but without chickV they would still be alive.
     I think it is gross negligence on the part of WHO, PAHO and the Jamaican Ministry of Health, who were aware of this disease 2 years ago, to have done nothing. The least they could have done was to mount a public education campaign in the media, schools, churches and business places. The usual cry is that there is no money, but this outbreak has cost far more than a public education campaign would have. A public education campaign, at minimum could give the following information, which could be presented in simpler or more sophisticated ways depending on the audience.
1. Chikungunya is caused by a virus. What is a virus?
A virus is so small it cannot be seen with a regular (light) microscope, but only with an electron microscope. Viruses range in  size from 2 millionths to 30 millionths of a millimetre. What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers. We can have 100 trillion viruses in our bodies at the peak of infection.
2. How do viruses make us ill? 
Viruses consist of a protein coat surrounding a DNA (or RNA) core. The protein coat attaches to the outside of a cell in our bodies and the core is injected. It takes over the machinery of the cell and makes new viruses (about 10,000). Our cells burst open and lets them out to infect other cells. Each cell that is attacked dies. Different viruses attack different parts of the body.
3. What do our bodies do?
Our immune system manufactures antibodies to disable the virus. It takes about 5 days for the immune system to produce enough antibodies to get rid of all the viruses. After the viruses have been killed, some of the protein coats are still sticking to the outside of cells, so our immune system attacks these too, prolonging the symptoms.
4. How is the chikungunya virus spread?
It is spread by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. (Males do not bite.) Aedes is a small mosquito which can be recognized by its stripey legs and body. It is around all day, and lurks under tables, beds and other pieces of furniture. It moves quickly, usually flying off before you can swat it.  There are over 50 species of mosquito in Jamaica, but Aedes is the only one that can transmit the chikungunya, and also dengue fever. When an Aedes bites a person infected with chickV, she sucks up some of the viruses in the person's blood. She will then digest the blood meal and find some water in which to lay her eggs. After about a week, she is ready for another blood meal. By that time, the viruses have moved from her stomach to her salivary glands. When she bites the next person, she injects some saliva to stop the blood from clotting while she sucks it up. The viruses are then let loose in that person's blood. It can take 2 - 7 days of incubation, during which time the viruses are multiplying, before the victim shows any symptoms. The mosquito can live for at least 3 weeks and bite many more persons. It could take only one infected person travelling from the site of the initial outbreak to another part of the country to take it there, without even being aware that they have the disease. Also, an infected person could be bitten by many mosquitoes. Alarmingly, an infected Aedes passes on the chikungunya virus to her eggs, which will give rise to mosquitoes already infected with the virus, without catching it from a person. Presumably, all subsequent generations will also carry the virus. Thus, the virus could remain dormant through the dry season, and re-emerge in the rainy season.
5. How can we stop it?
(i) Get rid of the mosquitoes, or stop them biting us -easier said than done. Adult mosquitoes can be killed by fogging, with malathion mixed with diesel oil,  which also kills other insects, including bees, and gives some people asthma. However, it is of limited usefulness, because the day after fogging, more mosquitoes hatch out. Using mosquito coils and vape - mosquitoes are becoming immune to these and they are not good for our health. Swatting them with a zapper - but you can't catch all of them.
(ii) Spray the skin with insect repellant containing Deet. I know people who have escaped ChickV this way, but surely it can't be good for you to spray yourself every day for months on end. It is good advice for tourists who are here for a few weeks.
(iii) Prevent Aedes from breeding. This should ultimately be the main form of control. In the limited public education we have had, people have been urged to check the following for mosquito larvae: flower vases, plant-pot holders, animal water containers, drums holding water for domestic use, old tyres, plastic bottles, styrofoam boxes and anything else that can catch water.
Careless garbage disposal leads to mosquito breeding.
Even if every householder followed these instructions, there are still too many places left where mosquitoes can lay their eggs - too many empty, overgrown lots in our towns and cities. There is one across the street from our house, and another one two houses away. Into these lots, people throw garbage which collects water in the rainy season. People living in the surrounding community are the target of mosquitoes which breed there, so it is really up to us to put pressure on the owners, or on Parish Council to get them cleaned up. Also, we need to be more responsible about garbage disposal. Business places shouldn't employ coke-heads to take away their garbage, knowing they will dump it on an empty lot or in a gully. We have an anti-litter law in Jamaica. Why is it not being enforced? Potholes in roads also fill with water in the rainy season, providing another suitable place for Aedes to lay their eggs.
"Too late now," we may say, as we've already caught ChickV, but there is the ever present threat of the 4 strains of dengue fever, including the life-threatening hemorrhagic dengue fever.
          A better long-term solution is to reduce the Aedes population significantly by releasing sterile males, which mate with females which then lay eggs which are not viable. Research into this by Oxitec has been going on for 10 years, and had now reached the testing stage. The method was successful in the Cayman Islands, just in time to spare them from chikungunya. They are now going on to test larger urban communities in Brazil. Their video is well worth watching.
     My final word is to those who work for WHO, PAHO, Ministries of Health in Caribbean countries, and governments who make the final decisions. We pay you. Without our taxes, you would not have the jobs you have. Jamaicans, already suffering under the IMF, now have to endure more pain as a result of chickV, when that pain could have been prevented. Is that fair?