Preserving Culture Through Younger Generations in the Diaspora

Interview with Bobbi Rossiter, Co-Founder and Chief Cultural Facilitator, Irie Camp Jamaica

Jamaicans in the Diaspora often speak with pride of  our “likkle but tallawah” culture – the strength, tenacity, grit, “can do” spirit and drive – which forms a brand Jamaican. We also lament that future generations in the Diaspora are likely to lose this part of their identity in the process of assimilating or fitting in. 

JNA addresses this concern through the work of its Cultural Heritage & Social Activities Committee which provides “avenues for display or presentations of Jamaica’s cultural forms” – something that should be an important mission for all Jamaicans in the Diaspora, according to a Jamaican author, Joanne Simpson.

Here in the Washington DC Metropolitan Area, there is also Irie Camp Jamaica, an organization whose creation was motivated by concern that many children of Jamaican descent do not know about Jamaica’s rich cultural history. With our approach that “cultural heritage is the legacy of a people that is inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and passed on to subsequent generations,” we had a conversation with Bobbi Rossiter and Lorraine Aarons, co-founders of Irie Camp Jamaica, to understand their views on culture preservation within the diaspora. 

What is cultural heritage?
Cultural heritage is the legacy of a people – that essence that is passed on in subsequent generations and maintained in the present.

What are its specific forms?
Tangible forms include books, works of art, artifacts, landscapes, monuments and buildings. And while we have much of that as Jamaicans, I think it’s our intangibles that are most at risk for getting lost. Intangible forms include traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, cuisine, etc.

Why is it important to preserve cultural heritage through generations?
“Academically speaking, cultural heritage creates a certain emotion within us, and this makes us feel as though we belong to something – a country, a tradition, a way of life – and this fuels achievement. While I do believe that adapting is integral to success, I also think that culture forms a foundation and a framework for who we aspire to be/become as well as how we approach the world/how the world understands us.

Are there local efforts specifically focused on preserving Jamaica’s cultural heritage?
When I started  ICJ, I was living in California and had no resources available to help me with making my culture REAL for my kids. Trust me, I tried reaching out and even reached all the way back to the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission! I found JNA shortly after moving back to MD. Their activities really appealed to me… and to my kids who started coming to JNA meetings with me. JNA’s cultural group provided presentations of the island’s cultural forms – something that is and should be an important mission for my fellow Jamaicans in the diaspora. 

What specific experiences lead to the creation of  Irie Camp Jamaica?
I found it distressing that there was a disconnect between my value system and what my children were being exposed to. My big concern was that “mama’s quirks” would always be just that because there was no actual frame of reference as to why I was the way I was, and that when it came right down to it, my children would likely only have an American frame of reference for their cultural identity. 

As an immigrant, I know how important cultural identity has been and how it continues to influence my life. Like other Jamaican kids, my children knew Bob Marley’s music and had heard of Usain Bolt, but there wasn’t much more that they could tie to “mama’s culture.” I was not ok with that limitation. My culture was too powerful to be reduced to so few frames of reference.

How does Irie Camp Jamaica accomplish its goals?
Irie Camp has largely operated as a destination camp in Jamaica, where we have established a fun, safe, caring environment for children to learn about Jamaican culture through immersive experiences. Our campers have been children of the island, children of the diaspora, and children whose parents just love Jamaica. We invite them all to explore and embrace Jamaica’s rich diversity, form a sense of Jamaican identity, and know the important contribution Jamaicans have been making to the world for hundreds of years. My hope is that their time with us forms a strong thread in their life’s tapestry.

Has Irie Camp Jamaica changed its destination camp model as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? 
Safety remains a primary focus for us so yes, we’ve adapted. Besides, Jamaicans are fantastic at that! While we have postponed our destination camp sessions for 2020, we are working on a fun virtual experience that will be affordable and immersive, and won’t involve numerous hours of screen time. We are also surveying our camp families and other Jamaicans in the diaspora to identify areas on which we should focus. I’m very excited by this detour. Our mission hasn’t changed, through we’ve added another mode to our delivery.

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