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Symposium stresses folklore, storytelling

Under a white tent on the lawn of the Museum of African American Art on Saturday, storyteller Virginia Rivers held her audience captive with her voice, a pair of castanets and expressive gestures.

She was telling the story of a guitar-playing cockroach named Cucarachita Martinez who took a bath, powdered herself and attracted a string of suitors.

Rivers' performance took place on the third day of the National Symposium of Indigenous Knowledge and Contemporary Social Issues, sponsored by the University of South Florida and the Florida Humanities Council. The first two days of the symposium at the Omni Tampa Hotel at Westshore were largely academic. But Saturday was different.

"This is a community center, and we hope that people who are walking by or driving by will see this and participate," said Ginger Baber, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at USF.

There was plenty of activity to draw the crowd in. Besides Rivers, who is based in Ybor City, there were American Indian and Jamaican storytellers, craft demonstrators from Suriname and Trinidad, and traditional folk dancers and musicians from around the world.

"This (symposium) is to make the point that in the western world we think of knowledge as objective knowledge legitimized by science," said Trevor Purcell, USF professor of anthropology and director of the symposium. "Along the way we lose our folklore, indigenous knowledge and storytelling."

Purcell said reclaiming some of our lost folk wisdom may be the way to cure some modern ills. Storytelling can bring families together and transmit values. Traditional crafts allow people to make a living with skills passed on from generation to generation.

Craft exhibitor Adiante Franszoon learned his woodcarving skills as a boy from his family in Suriname. Those skills helped him restructure his life after he was forced to leave a conventional career.

Franszoon studied economics at Johns Hopkins University and returned to his native country to work as an economist. But violence and an oppressive political regime forced him to return to America.

"I had to readjust," he said as he carved an intricate mirror frame using only a utility knife. "I started doing things I had learned as a kid."

Storyteller Rivers said she, too, had learned her craft as a child. "My grandmother used to tell me the story of the little cockroach as a reward after she washed my hair. That was in the days before no-more-tears shampoo."