“We would like to move from calling it Patois (Patwa) to calling it Jamaican” – Conversation with Jamaican Christian Cultural Advocate, Jo-Ann Faith Richards Goffe

Jo-Ann Richards Jamaican Christian Cultural and Patois Advocate

Jo-Ann Faith Richards Goffe is a Christian Cultural Advocate who is passionate about cultural relevance and bilingualism, especially in the corporate worship spaces. A transformational speaker, singer/songwriter, lecturer, and author, she tells stories and sings songs as she helps people to connect authentically with themselves, with each other and with God through their culture. Jo-Ann is known for her readings from the Jamaican New Testament, songs from her Kom Mek Wi Worship series, and her latest project, the KW Magazine: CREWShall Connections in Faith & Culture. She has traveled extensively both to learn and to teach, including places like The Cayman Islands, Burkina Faso, Benin, South America, India, Peru, Singapore and the Philippines. We recently had a conversation with Jo-Ann.

Q. Tell us how you came up with the idea to video blog reading the Bible in patois?
When I started in the post as Head of Music & Media Department at the Jamaica Theological Seminary, I was given a MacBook Pro to use. So I decided to check out the video capabilities by reading a passage from the Jamaican New Testament. I had been using the New Testament in ministry already from before it was published and knew the potential impact. Well, when I posted it on Facebook I was lambasted by someone I had known from childhood. ‘How could I be putting the Holy Scriptures in such a vulgar language? How could someone who she has always known to speak English well be descending to this?’ Well, knowing what I knew about the need for it, that was actually my push to do it. Call it an act of defiance if you will, but it was really a response to what I perceived to be a widespread need among Jamaican people.

Q. Which bible are you reading from? Is it a patois bible or are you reading an English bible and interpreting it as you read?
I am reading directly from the Jamaican New Testament which was published in 2012 by the Bible Society of the West Indies

Q. Tell us about the online audience reaction to the videos?
The majority of the responses have been hugely positive. People have been sharing the Facebook posts with others.

Q. Is Patois a language?
Yes it is! In fact, we would like to move from calling it Patois (Patwa) to calling it Jamaican. Linguists have already identified that it has all the properties of a language.

Q. Do you think the Jamaican government should recognize it as a language?
Definitely. It is the first language that most Jamaicans acquire. The world recognizes that it is a language. Why shouldn’t we right here at home?!

Q. You have done Patois reading at churches. How have the congregations accepted the readings?
There has been a range of responses. Most people when they hear it at first, especially certain passages, their first response is to laugh. I’ve had people come to me with tears afterwards as well. There has often been applause. I would say that the majority of responses in churches have been positive. One deacon in a rural church said: “This is what is going to bring revival to Jamaica!” Another deacon in a maroon community said : “Hurry up and finish the translation work because we need it badly!” At that time we only had the book of Luke!

Q. Tell us about your work as Christian Cultural activist?
I would say it started when I went to Burkina Faso with Wycliffe Bible Translators to work as an ethnomusicologist. Our mission was to work with the village musicians, helping them to write songs for church that used their own language and their own music, based on the scriptures that were being translated into their own heart languages. After that, I was assigned to be ethnomusicologist for the Americas Area within the organization. I lived in Costa Rica for a portion of that time, and traveled to parts of the Caribbean, Belize, Panama and Peru where I did the most work during my tenure. Perhaps I most enjoyed Belize because we were working with the Belizean Kriol which is very similar to the Jamaican Creole, and I was even able to write a song that was included on their album at the end of the workshop.

When I was assigned to work in the Americas, Jamaica was one of the places I was responsible for. My task was to promote and facilitate the development of indigenous worship expressions. People were interested, but not so passionate about it that they would commit themselves to making it happen. Eventually, I realized that I would need to be the one, and that I would need to do it as an insider, and not as an outsider, receiving directives from a foreign organization. That led to my resignation from Wycliffe, and subsequently the formation of CREW 40:4. CREW is an acronym for Culturally Relevant Expressions of Worship, and 40:4 is in reference to Isaiah 40:4 – Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low.

The experience that really transformed my life occurred when I did a Bible study in an inner city community. We read the story of the Prodigal Son together from the New International Version which was projected on a screen, and then I read the Jamaican language version. The atmosphere in the room shifted. It was as if they were all inside the story having the experience of the Prodigal Son! At the end of the reading, a woman explained to me that the English was just words on a page to her, while with the Patwa she could see everything vividly. She further went on to explain that she doesn’t think in English; she thinks in Patwa. This means that every time she hears something in English she has to take time to ‘process’ it, and meanwhile, many things are passing her by. This along with other experiences led me to give birth to CREW 40:4 – a vehicle through which I could promote and facilitate bilingual worship in Jamaica and beyond.

Q. Any interesting stories about patois and your travels to other countries (Panama story maybe)?
In 2006 I was based in Costa Rica for a while. I went into San Jose the capital to get my hair done one day. There were two girls working on my dreadlocs and having a conversation – in Spanish – about a cream that one of them had used to remove spots from her face. Apparently it was a fast-working cream Here was what the other girl said:

“En serio? Tan rapido? Den mi no gweehn afi go daab som aan den?! (Seriously? So quickly? I need to use it!) The super-smooth transition between Spanish and Jamaican almost had me on the floor! Further conversation revealed that she had never left Costa Rica, let alone visited Jamaica. Jamaican/Patwa is spoken in her home because her parents parents … maybe even further back … are from Jamaica! I don’t know how many Jamaicans are aware that there is a large population of Jamaican descendants in Costa Rica and other countries in Central America but it’s fascinating!

Q. Every performer can remember a performance that was a disaster. Which one of the Bible reading video blogs would you say was a disaster and difficult to put together?
Hmmm! I actually can’t think of any! … Except that one time I was doing a public reading of Revilieshan 18, and came across the word ‘klaat’ a few times. Couldn’t help chuckling in the middle of the reading and actually found it hard to stop laughing and continue reading with a straight face! (Only a Jamaican would get that right?!)

Q. Do you have any new projects in the works?
I don’t know if I should call this new since we’ve just released the third issue, but last year we launched the KW(as in ‘Kom Mek Wi Worship’) Magazine: CREWShall Connections in Faith & Culture. Recognizing that it is a challenge for Christians in Africa and her Diasporas – of which we are a part – to reconcile our Christian worship experiences with our cultural identity, we created a magazine with the intention of connecting us all, helping us to get to know ourselves, each other, and ultimately, to have more authentic relationships with our Creator. All three issues are currently viewable on the ISSUU platform. By signing up on our Facebook page, persons may also receive the pdf version. Very soon the physical versions will be available by online orders. For more information contact us at [email protected]. The magazine contains interviews with and articles by artists and leaders in worship and culture, Poems and Music Scores, a health/food feature, devotional, a children’s story and more.

Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
I would say jackfruit! Apart from being delicious, it is immensely versatile. One jackfruit gives me the pegs to eat as fruit, the seeds to roast and eat, or to make hummus, or to add to my ackee or greens, and the rest of it to brown stew, jerk or curry!! The only things that get thrown out are the skin and the casing of the seeds.

Q.Growing up who was your hero?
That was a loooong time ago! I do remember enjoying Louise Bennett a lot, because of her stories and songs, and the way she drew everyone in and made people feel special in her presence.

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About the author

Xavier Murphy