In the Palm of our Hands

How do you help children adjust to living with diabetes? For Clayton Saliba, a Master of Fine Arts in Digital Arts graduate, the solution lies in the palm of our hands. By combining digital arts and medical information Clayton developed Digitus, an app designed to help children better understand diabetes symptoms. 

‘Ever since I was a child, I always enjoyed doing what I love, all while helping people as well. I feel that that’s where my inspiration for Digitus came from,’ explains Clayton. 

Clayton Saliba – creator of the Digitus App

Digitus can be accessed on both desktop and phone. It starts out by asking the user to input their name, age, date of birth, and to choose their avatar, much like a videogame would. The choice of avatar also changes some aesthetic details throughout the app, creating a dynamic experience. 

As Clayton points out, cartoons and avatars are appealing to children. Besides adding a personal touch, they add a face to a product, especially when they resemble the user’s appearance. 

The avatar can be personalised to suit how the child perceives themselves. Whether it’s the length of their hair, their skin tone, or their eye colour, the customisation helps the child to relate to the app. When the child chooses an avatar, the character in the scenes changes to reflect the child’s look. This entices them to engage and participate with the information given to them. 

Before settling on the final design, Clayton analysed several popular cartoons and illustrations such as Invader Zim, Teen Titans Go, and Dexter’s Lab. Clayton noted that they all use vibrant colours, and have a flat character and environmental design. Dark, yet colourful, background block colours create a contrast with the light and vivid characters. These types of design elements help children focus on the characters.

The creation of the avatars were easy for Clayton. The challenge was gathering information on diabetes. Originally, he wanted to ask people who had the condition. Due to data protection and ethical issues, he was advised to ask caregivers and healthcare workers rather than people diagnosed with the condition. 

Another hurdle Clayton needs to overcome is language accessibility. Digitus is currently in Maltese and English. Clayton wishes to make Digitus available in even more languages; he also wants his project to be a part of something bigger. Not just for diabetes, but also for other diseases such as asthma or cholesterol, as well as for psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Apps like Digitus are trying to help people become more aware about their body and the signs they give us. These apps are trying to help us better understand our body’s warnings, raising awareness in both the individual and their friends and family to help tens of thousands of people in Malta who have diabetes.

Dance for All

La danza per tutte le età e le abilità — ‘dance for every age and every ability’, is the guiding phrase of the aptly named Dance For All programme. The programme, created by Sara Accettura, Assistant Lecturer in Dance Studies at the University of Malta, is an inclusive dance project focusing on people with learning disabilities and autism. By bringing together trained dancers, people with disabilities, and amateurs, the project is able to encourage collaboration, creativity, and communication.    

Ms Sara Accettura. Photo courtesy of James Moffett

The Dance For All project emerged from Accettura’s international experiences. After studying for an MA in performance in London, she met her collaborators Cedar Dance Studio, who encouraged her to develop inclusive classes. On returning to Italy, Accettura fulfilled her dream to create a youth dance company in Southern Italy — the Junior Dance Company in her hometown of Bari — and linked up with Dalla Luna, professionals specialising in autism care.

The Dance For All program runs in sets of six workshops with a final performance. Rather than having strict choreography, the dances are developed from tasks, games, and the participants’ own movements. This allows for a more organic approach and facilitates creative collaborations. The end result is a performance that all participants feel invested in. Accettura describes her role as leading rather than teaching, ‘I observe the participants. I’m thinking of every participant, and I’m seeing what their movements are. Then I try to involve that in the choreography.’ 

True to the inclusive nature of the program, each participant benefits in their own individual way. Traditionally the focus has been on dance as a way to improve motor skills and socialisation; however, Accettura has recognised that the trained dancers taking part in the program also benefit. The program helps them develop their creativity as it is a rare space to freely express and experiment without the pressures of technical, fixed choreography and competition judgement. 

The performance element has been very positive with dancers on the autism spectrum who have enjoyed the theatre environment, been motivated to wear costumes, and even encouraged audience applause — this despite general reports often citing bright lights, unusual clothes, and loud noises as sources of discomfort for those with autism. Accettura believes it is the inclusive and shared responsibility of the dance studio that builds a sense of safety and security. Whilst the overarching goal is to have fun, Accettura highlights the importance of individuals, ‘I don’t have specific goals for everyone, and ideally participants are not aiming to achieve the same results. For some people, it’s about self expression, feeling more confident; for others, it’s more about the movement itself.’ 

True to the inclusive nature of the program, each participant benefits in their own individual way. Photo courtesy of Dalla Luna

With people always calling for Dance For All to return each year, the program has been running since 2013. There continue to be international ties. American artists have visited collaborative classes, and Accettura is now completing a PhD supervised by Dr Tamara Ashley from the University of Bedfordshire in the UK that focuses on the program. In the dance studio though, she continues to adopt a human-first approach. The general workshop structure and the core values of inclusive expression and collaboration have remained the same. She describes scientific literature, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis, as offering a helpful guide to what is being taught internationally and for reflecting on what worked or didn’t work in her own workshops. Next on the horizon is bringing Dance For All across the Mediterranean Sea. ‘I would love to bring this project to Malta. This is in my plans. I would love to bring the sense of being in an inclusive environment because I believe that it helps everyone to learn more.’

Accettura is an Assistant Lecturer, Artistic Director, and PhD student, but above all she is a dancer. Dance For All demonstrates that we all — trained or differently abled, musician or scientist, Maltese, Italian, British, and beyond — are dancers. ‘Movement is our first thing. We first started with movement. We first start expressing ourselves non-verbally as kids, and movement is in everything. Everyone is a mover. Movement is in us.’ 

Malta in Minecraft: Junior College Block by Block

Last year, many students were unable to go to school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, what would happen if you could build your school at home? A group of proactive students at Junior College set themselves the ambitious task to recreate their massive campus block by block in Minecraft.

Jake Camenzuli and Nathaniel Gauci offered us a tour of an incredible Minecraft virtual space. They are members of the core student team that spent hundreds of hours building the college campus in this world of blocks. It is a testament to their hard work and detailed approach that you could navigate your way to the canteen without having ever physically set foot on the college campus.  

The idea spawned in response to a call by Roberto Calleja, Youth Worker (Junior College). He suggested using Minecraft, as that was a project the Youthhub could run online, to the students. They quickly took the idea and proposed building their campus, Junior College, in Minecraft. 

Jake, Nathaniel, and the other team members initially based their Minecraft model on photographs of the school. However, the real breakthrough came when they contacted the school architect for the campus floor plans. Armed with the architectural drawings, the students could correct scaling issues and align windows with walls. Using mods and plug-ins, Jake and Nathaniel could paint tiles and add details — such as the red ’25 years’ that is emblazoned on the school entrance or the giant, colourful artwork in the foyer. Now, even with the limitation of building with 1㎥ blocks, the Minecraft version of Junior College serves as a great online substitute to the real thing for Open Days and tours. ‘It is impressive — once you visit here, it’s like you’ve visited the college,’ said Roberto. ‘Although, it still doesn’t beat the real experience, of course!’ he laughs. 

It was not all fun and games for the students. They experienced many challenges and lessons along the way. Roberto reported the toughest challenge was ‘Coordination with others. How to deal with different people.’ The Minecraft builder team fluctuated in size throughout the year, from six students to 17 and back down to three, and team leaders had to cope with the disappointment when students were unexpectedly absent. Nathaniel claimed the most valuable lesson he learned was the ‘importance of planning things — plan things before you jump into it.’ Jake agreed, ‘Planning is number 1! Having a clear idea of the project from the start makes work much easier.’ Jake spent over 124 hours on the project and took photos throughout the whole process.

Whilst the finishing touches are still being made to the virtual Junior College, Nathaniel and Jake have continued to apply their Minecraft expertise in creative pursuits. Collaborating with the Youthhub content creation group, they are producing awareness campaigns in response to the IPCC reports on climate change. They used Minecraft’s WorldPainter program to build a South American inspired rainforest and other threatened environments to highlight the consequences of climate change. 

Destructive, Creative, PUNK!

Music knows no barriers. How Finnish punk has become popular in Brazil and Japan might be the best proof for this point. Walking down the street in São Paulo, Brazil, Lasse Ullvén found that punk music from his native Finland is surprisingly popular in Brazil. Some punk bands even learn Finnish to emulate the right sounds. Ullvén, a punk rocker and now a doctoral student in Literary Tradition and Popular Culture at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Malta, decided to research the music that influences his life and others across the continent.

Finnish hardcore punk has been popular in Brazil’s underground community since the 1980s. Brazil is not the only country where Finnish punk has been noted. Japanese punk bands are fanatic about Finnish punk since their music styles both tend to be more rough, dirty, and raw. Interestingly, at least 10 Japanese punk bands sing in Finnish just to fit the style and make their songs sound exotic. 

To uncover Finnish punk’s success abroad, Ullvén contacted people in punk bands worldwide and interviewed them to learn their personal experiences and feelings about Finnish punk. The approach he uses is ethnography, a qualitative method where researchers observe or interact with a study’s participants in their environment. 

Through interacting with punk rockers around the world, Ullvén found that part of the appeal of punk music comes from the lack of strict rules. Unlike other music genres, punk doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be crude, raw, or even vulgar so long as the music conveys strong emotion and messages. It doesn’t matter if the listener can understand the lyrics so long as they can relate to the feeling.

These alternative characteristics make punk popular with teenagers and other groups. Despite the linguistic barrier, punk inspires those eager to express their feelings or raise awareness on different topics. The messages delivered through the music are easy to relate to and spread across various nations because the destructive aspect of punk music makes it very human. Ullvén thinks that ‘Punk has managed to empower individuals to work as a force of de-alienation.’ 

Punk is usually seen as anti-system and anarchistic. Finnish punk has brought these aspects to an extreme, making it stand out by transcending borders and gaining popularity in countries with very different cultural backgrounds. Just as the Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin stated, ‘The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.’ The destructiveness of punk music might be its key to creating a global connection.

Lasse Ullvén would like to thank the Tertiary Education Scholarship Scheme (TESS) by Malta’s Ministry of Education for their support during his research.

Revisiting Cultural Traditions With Open Eyes

Nicholas Gambin analyses Maltese cultural traditions that have stopped, remained, rebirthed, or changed in some way in today’s society.

Cultural changes do not happen in the blink of an eye; they happen gradually. World wars, globalisation, and advancements in technology have continued to push societies forward and cause irreversible changes. Old traditions have either stopped, continued, adapted, or been replaced by new ones.

Throughout our lifetime, we frequently consume our culture passively and without even knowing. When we walk through the cobbled streets, we hardly spare a thought for the culture hidden beneath our feet. However, Malta’s rich culture and traditions surround us in unexpected ways. 

Guido Lanfranco’s book Drawwiet u Tradizzjonijiet Maltin acts as an excellent starting point to delve into some of Malta’s cultural traditions. This, paired with the insights of Dr Michael Spagnol (Head of Department, Department of Maltese, University of Malta), offers us a glimpse into what this Mediterranean island has to offer.

Dr Michael Spagnol
Photo by James Moffett

Food – Żeppoli 

If the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, it comes as no surprise that food is such a core part of Maltese culture. If you have never tried żeppoli (like our poor THINK editor), they are fried soft pastries filled with cream or sweetened cottage cheese. These sweet treats are linked to the feast of Saint Joseph on the 19th March. In fact, the first part of the word, Żepp, is a common Maltese pet name for someone named Ġużeppi (in Maltese) or Joseph (in English).

żeppoli

Lanfranco writes that sweet shops have been making this dessert since the 19th Century. In terms of origin, Spagnol explains that this food is typical of South Italy, who refer to it as zeppole in places like Naples, Catanzaro, Reggio Calabria, and Sicily. Malta has had a long cultural relationship with Italy. The link is not surprising.

Although żeppoli were usually eaten exclusively on the 19th March, nowadays, you can buy them from pastry shops in the weeks leading up to St. Joseph’s Day. Spagnol comments that ‘because Maltese people seem to have such a connection with traditional dishes, they continue adapting these traditions and sometimes create new ones altogether.’ Another example of this is the qagħaq tal-għasel, which are sweet pastry rings filled with treacle (not honey, even though għasel in Maltese means honey). These were originally made around Christmas time but are now produced all year round. More recently, figolli, the Easter pastry filled with almond meal, has been transformed into smaller bite-sized versions called figollini. If you are a foodie, then you can definitely explore the culture of Malta through its food.

Activities – Il-Ġostra

Imagine a time before the Internet, when people had to actually go outside and invent ways to pass the time. One such activity is Il-Ġostra, which you might have seen photos of shared all over social media. The game is believed to be derived from the Neapolitan game of the Cockaigne pole. It involves someone crawling along a greased pole fixed at an angle while trying to grab flags; entertainingly, most participants fall into the sea. This used to be a popular activity for men during village feasts. The flags also hold religious meaning, with a blue and white one dedicated to St Mary, a yellow and white one for the Vatican, and the Belgian tricolour for St Julian, who is believed to have been born in the Belgian town of Ath in 7AD.

Il-Ġostra competitor gets close to the flag

Il-Ġostra was organised in summer, when falling into the water is refreshing rather than shocking. Now, it’s organised in villages close to the water, like Msida, Balluta, and St Julians. The game wasn’t always played over water. Spagnol mentions a similar event, the kukkanja, which used to take place during Carnival. The pole was vertical instead of sloping horizontally, with people trying to climb up the greased pole to reach the prizes hanging from the top. These prizes included cured meats and wine. The pole laying horizontally makes the game slightly easier (and safer), so one can imagine why this alteration was made.

Images of this activity have made their way onto Reuters’ Images of the Day, snapped by Maltese photojournalist Darrin Zammit Lupi. 

Superstition – The Eye of The Luzzu

Tradition and superstition often come hand in hand. From breaking a mirror giving you seven years of bad luck, to Ancient Greeks fearing that a storm was caused by angry gods. When human beings cannot understand something, they create myths and superstitions to give it meaning. Whether these are based on truth or fact is a discussion for another article. 

Maltese seaside villages, such as Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala, or St Paul’s Bay, are dotted with brightly coloured fishing boats called luzzu. This type of boat can be traced back to the ancient Phoenicians, and their stable, sturdy, and reliable nature meant that they could be used in both good and bad weather. However, one of the most striking features of the luzzu is the two painted or carved-out eyes that stare directly into your soul.

The concept of the ‘evil eye’ is widespread across Mediterranean cultures, such as the Turkish Nazar eye-shaped amulet, the Italian cornicello (designed to ward off the evil eye), and the hand-shaped Hamsa talisman found in West Asia. The eyes on the luzzu are probably linked to the Eye of Horus or Osiris, which was the Phoenicians’ god of protection from evil. For the Phoenicians, the eye was a symbol of protection and good health, so the eyes were painted onto their boats to protect the fishermen from any harm while at sea. With no modern weather reporting technology, fishermen turned to superstition to give them hope and protect them on their journeys. 

Performances – Qarċilla 

Lanfranco tells us that the Qarċilla tradition dates back to the 18th Century, around the time of the Maltese linguist Giovanni Pietro Francesco Agius de Soldanis, who wrote the first lexicon and systematic grammar of the Maltese language. Since the Catholic Church was so strong throughout Maltese history, people were brought up to be very religious and obedient. Carnival was the one time a year when people could have some fun and disobey. 

The Qarċilla, sometimes called a Maltese wedding or ‘iż-żwieġ la Maltija’, was a farce or popular drama enacted in village streets during Carnival. Two men would dress up as the groom and notary. On his head, the groom would wear a figolla in the shape of a woman and decorated to look like a bride. The notary would then recite a fake and comedic marriage contract invented on the spot, which usually included political and social satire, sexual innuendos, and swearing. People would listen and cheer, and once his speech was over, the actors would cut up the figolla into pieces and share it with the audience. 

One of the best known Qarċilla is the one written by Mgr Feliċ Demarco for Carnival in 1760. What is quite interesting about this tradition is that, although it seemed to have stopped and been lost to history, it actually had a rebirth back in 2014. Over the last few years, Maltese writers like Trevor Zahra, Immanuel Mifsud, and Leanne Ellul have been commissioned to write their own version of a Qarċilla, which is then staged and performed by citizens. The tradition is finding a new life in today’s society. 

For a culture to exist, it needs people. It is people who create traditions, keep them alive, or preserve them, be it through lived experiences, speaking to people like Spagnol, or documenting them as Lanfranco did with his book. To appreciate our culture, we need to learn about it. Written records help us preserve these traditions and allow culture to grow and develop. 

Further Reading

Lanfranco, G. (2001). Drawwiet u tradizzjonijiet Maltin. Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza


Reuters Staff. (2018). Ready, steady, splash! Malta celebrates historic greasy pole tournament. Reuters US. Retrieved 9 June 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-malta-pole-tradition-idUKKCN1LC0JA