It came to my attention last month that our government was planning to postpone, once again, the hosting of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, if it had not yet done so. Announcements to that effect would be made very soon, I was told. The fact that such announcements have not yet been made may make this post obsolete. I rather doubt it, however.It should be no surprise to anyone at all that I think this is a terrible idea. It's not just because I would like to write for a living and make that living in the country in which I grew up. It's also because it's flying in the face of what international agencies focussed on development economics suggest is the place of culture in that development.For those of us who don't know, or who haven't noticed, the world has changed. As I write, indeed, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the US President is opening the door for negotiations with Cuba, which, as we all know, is the only viable competitor for The Bahamas' prosperity in the Caribbean region. In fact, it's possible to argue that the only reason The Bahamas has maintained its supreme position in the region has been because the fifty-year long US embargo of Cuba, has coincided with the latest Bahamian boom. But now, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Cuba, and the Obama administration is making very clear noises that the embargo will soon be lifted.At the same time, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Bahamian government's plan for prosperity -- foreign investment, foreign investment, foreign investment -- is not bearing fruit. Why not? The reasons are various. Perhaps the biggest is the reason Barack Obama himself gave for changing the way the USA has done business for the past generation or so -- that trickle-down economics, or the spreading of the wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty -- does not work. It no longer works in the USA, which is the greatest nation in the world; and it has not worked in The Bahamas as an engine of development for a country that has not yet invested in itself. Oh, it has done well in providing a couple of decades' worth of get-rich-quick money for a smattering of people. But as we are noticing, where the sharing of wealth is dependent on the goodwill of the greedy, little gets shared. And so our current "wealth" is almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of the foreign investor, who is interested in the people of this nation only as workers -- as block-layers, lifeguards, toilet-cleaners, cooks, drivers, or middle managers who have no ability to affect or shape company policy.It is not foreign investment that economists and development agencies are suggesting is the engine of economic development in the 21st century; it's culture. If you don't believe me, go and look it up. Culture is no longer regarded as peripheral to development. It has been recognized as a viable, resilient, sustainable and renewable source of economic gain. A quick look at any international economic arrangement negotiated since 2002 will illustrate this truth. International agencies everywhere, from the European Union to the Organization of American States to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, are recognizing the place of culture on the economic agenda.But here, in The Bahamas, for a generation and a half -- the entire time since Independence -- our national policies have been shaped by a group of men and a handful of women whose actions and behaviour cumulatively suggest that they would rather erase Bahamian culture than invest in it.Despite our so-called prosperity, we are the only Caribbean nation that cannot demonstrate our government's pride in what makes us us. Part of this is because Government policy since 1992 has focussed on conning foreign investors to put in infrastructure that (we are told) the government cannot afford. The result? Despite soaring tourist arrivals (and, presumably, soaring demand for authentic Bahamian cultural products), the cultural industries are in effective decline. Those foreign investors in whom we've placed our trust? They don't care whose culture visitors consume, as long as the profits flow to into their coffers. What we should have learned by now is that no people -- or their representatives -- can depend on someone else to develop their own cultural resources. We have to do that job for ourselves.But we don't. The recurrent budget allotted by our goverment to culture, despite all the fussing about a so-called Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Ministers of State, only crossed the $2 million line in the 2008-2009 budget year. The government agency charged with the development of Bahamian culture is not a Ministry, nor is it a Department; it is a Division, which means that even that $2 million is not administered by anybody in that Division. (It isn't administered by the Minister, either, for anyone who remains fooled into thinking that this may be so.) The Chief Financial Officer in any government agency is the Permanent Secretary, or the Director of any Department that has a budget head; and the Cultural Affairs Division is so far away from having a budget head that it would be laughable if it were not so frightening. That $2 million is inscribed in a single line item under whatever budget head the Division is attached to (Office of the Prime Minister (Head 14) one year, Education (Head 38) the next, Youth, Sports and Culture (Head 47) the next). And that $2 million is expected to support festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a "national theatre" (which is so far from being either thing that it demonstrates the depth of the contempt that our governments have for us) run a National Arts Festival, finance sundry cultural events throughout the year, and run the $1.5 million festival of Junkanoo.Stand this up against the over $91 million we allot to the Ministry of Tourism, much of which is spent outside The Bahamas. I was once told, laughingly, by a senior official in that Ministry that the budget I was given to work with (that was back in 2004, when the budget was maybe $1.2 million, give or take) was what Tourism managers were given to make mistakes with. We can afford Miss Universe, which will benefit Atlantis; but we cannot, it appears, afford CARIFESTA, which will benefit us all.But it is not Miss Universe, which is a cultural brand developed elsewhere, with economic returns for the owners of the brand that will develop the Bahamian economy.According to international agencies and economists the world around, it is our culture.This is why the planned postponement of CARIFESTA, if it is indeed so planned (and if it isn't, the lack of any progress towards the hosting of that festival in 2010 indicates that a decision has already been made, if not announced), is the terrible idea that it is.I have yet to be convinced that Miss Universe will benefit the Bahamian economy substantially, other than in the collection of departure taxes, which will be funnelled into agencies that spend their monies outside the nation anyway. I am sure it will keep the Kerzners happy. I know, however, that I and mine will certainly not benefit in any way from Miss Universe; nor, I imagine, will most other people in the cultural industries, unless their name be Ronnie Butler or K.B. and unless they be set to open for whatever international giant that comes to perform. I do not think that food vendors or writers or poets or improv performers or even the broad Junkanoo community will benefit in any substantial way from Miss Universe, not to mention the car rental agencies, the restaurants and watering holes on the Bahamian side of the bridge, the small hotels and guest houses, the vast majority of taxi drivers and the tour bus companies not sanctioned by Atlantis, the street cleaners, the road-repairers, the marching bands, the graphic designers, the t-shirt makers, or the film community.These are the people who will benefit from CARIFESTA, however, which is unsuited to be housed at Atlantis, that most inauthentic institution, that theme park for the unsuspecting, which only resides among us, but is not of us. The influx of visitors, and the type of visitors that will make up that influx, will be interested in us, who we are, what we do, and will spend money on what is most Bahamian, will not be conned into overspending on what is fictional at best.And yet (I'm told) our leaders believe that to host the Festival will be a waste of money in the end.I know this much. Economic evidence from around the world exists which proves our leaders wrong. And common sense suggests it too. Our development will not happen at the hands of foreigners; it is in our own hands, and the hands of the governments we elect to lead us. We can read the reports for ourselves, and accept the idea that culture is the economic sector in which to invest for nations that are still developing; or we can share the delusions of our politicians, which confuse the grandeur of the monstrosities the foreign investors build (and usually protect behind gates and bridges and visitor passes) with development of a nation and of a people. We need to make up our own minds. From here on in, it's up to us.
I'm a big fan of Law and Order -- the television show's that's been running for almost twenty years. I watch it religiously. It never gets old.Recently I had the opportunity to watch a rerun I've seen dozens of times. The thing is, I couldn't remember what happened in it -- I know what the opening was all about, I knew where the case was going to lead, but the core principles I couldn't recall. So I watched it again to find out what they were.I was glad I did. The main theme of the show was justice vs. politics. In a nutshell, it's the show where a man who organizes tours, in a moment of weakness, shoots at his travel agent to stop her from depositing a cheque. The idea is just to wound her, to give him time to put the money in his bank account. The plan works, all too well. The travel agent deposits the cheque late and the cheque doesn't bounce -- but two other people are killed as a result of the shooting, and the man is caught and charged.So that's the small story The big story is this While Jack McCoy and Jamie Ross are proposing to charge the man with first degree murder, District Attorney Adam Schiff orders them to indict the man on second degree murder. His argument? The perpetrator was criminally negligent, but it was not his intention to kill. In the DA's judgment, the man deserves to go to jail for life, but his crime doesn't meet the standards required for the death penalty. The Governor of New York disagrees, and orders Schiff to charge the man with first degree murder -- he's just reinstated the death penalty, and is looking for reasons to use it. Schiff refuses, the Governor removes him from the prosecution, and Schiff takes the Governor to court.Now. Let's not get caught up in the outcome of that episode. It's not really relevant, anyway. What struck me as I watched the episode was the way in which democracy works in the United States of America. The courts are independent of the politicians; justice holds a higher standard than political expediency. The Governor's action was political in nature and in intent; the DA's response was in the interests of justice.What struck me even further is how rarely we see that kind of dialogue taking place here in The Bahamas. Oh, it has happened, all right, most recently when Justice Lyons challenged the actions of the former Attorney-General. But Justice Lyons is not a Bahamian, and he has no stakes in the outcome, really. Where, I wonder, are our national crusaders for justice?Most of the time, apparently, they're absent. Too often it seems that the only values that we truly hold in this nation, the only values in which we're willing to invest, are values that have selfish returns. A visitor to The Bahamas who takes time to follow our news will realize that there are really only one main topic of conversation: variations on the theme "we're better than them". We discuss it when we're talking about party politics, about immigration, about homosexuals, about Junkanoo groups. Bigger issues, like the question of (say) justice for all, rarely surfaces.The situation becomes most acute when the question of justice is at odds with our main topic of conversation. If we're trying to score points -- whether they are PLP points or Saxon points or straight-people points or Christian points or Bahamian points -- the idea of justice rarely crosses our lips.Recently, though, I had the pleasure of reading an article that addressed just that -- the question of justice, rather than the question of expediency or political preference or moral superiority. The topic was the question of a settlement for the Sea Hauler victims, and what the government's obligation was to them. The current response of the government is interesting me deeply, as the Sea Hauler was one of the side issues that was raised during last year's election campaign. What's been fascinating me is that though the party in power has changed, the government's response to the issue has remained essentially the same. The problem is a private one; the owners of the two boats are liable; the victims need to collect their compensation from them.Now I must admit I have tended to hold that view. Working in the civil service has exposed me to the over-reliance that many of us have on "government", and the expectations -- most of them unreasonable -- that ordinary citizens have of public servants and politicians. Government is regarded as the solver of every problem, the mender of every broken thing, the financier of every project of which its citizens dream. The Government was not at fault in the Sea Hauler tragedy, I reasoned. Make the private companies accountable. Let them pay.But -- as Leandra Esfakis, the lawyer who is changing my mind about Bahamians and justice, argues -- that is not all there is to it. After all, it is the government is not entirely blameless. It is the government who licenses the private companies, and who is responsible for overseeing the safety of the services they provide.And so, in the interests of justice, the government should pay compensation, she argues. Not because it is the government's responsibility to do so, but because the government is far better placed to collect what is owed from those who are at fault than the victims of the tragedy themselves. Her suggestion is as follows: the government should compensate the people concerned, and then the government should make the owners pay. In that way, justice will be best served. Those who are most affected will be able to have their needs addressed, and those who are responsible will pay.It's an interesting proposal, and one I admire. It's also heartening. For the ultimate focus in this discussion is not blame, or political expediency, or even Pilate-like washing of hands, but justice.About time, too.
In Winston Saunders' quartet of plays, The Nehemiah Chronicles, the main character, an old man who has remained in his neighbourhood throughout a number of decades, talks to an invisible reporter about the rise in crime around him and how he feels unsafe in the home where he once was secure. In the past he's always known his neighbours. He disciplined their children, and helped to raise a society of youngsters who respected authority and one another, and who made sensible contributions to their country and countrymen.He blames the current state of the nation on the growth of the sudivision, where fences and walls and back gardens have replaced front porches and shared yards, where the entire population leaves their houses standing empty during the day, and where at night no one knows the people who live next door.In the suburbs, he says, crime flourishes because nobody knows or cares enough about one another to prevent or stop it. People can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door or across the street without the knowledge of those nearby. In the inner city -- in the ghetto, Over the Hill, or in what was once the neighbourhood, people can be burgled or attacked or murdered in the home next door without the interference of those nearby, because all the connections that once existed have been broken.And he has a point.The neighbourhood -- that locale which is a citizen's larger home, where you can go next door or across the street to borrow a cup of rice or sugar, where you can share child care and walk to the shop and remind yourself of the humanity of strangers -- is dying in Nassau. It is not coincidental, I believe, that violence against other people is prevalent. We don't know one another, and our upbringing in subdivisions behind walls and windows, has taught us to suspect other people, not respect them. We no longer know how to talk to strangers, much less how to behave.There are lots of thoughts about why this is. But I'm going to suggest that one of the root issues is a question of town planning. We appear to believe that urban development must follow a certain path, that when a neighbourhood ages and people begin to die off, what must follow is the conversion of that space into commercial properties.Our town planning appears to follow this model, and implements without question the idea of commercial rezoning in older urban neighbourhoods. All too often the wishes of the residents of those areas are overlooked or ignored; perhaps the assumption is that in the long run it is good for them, as they can sell their properties at commercial prices and everyone ultimately benefits.There's something to be said for this approach. It has its short-term advantages. Most of these accrue to individual businessmen and real estate agencies, many of whom come from outside the area. As properties change hands, speculators and businessmen snap them up at residential prices, and resell them or develop them as commercial properties, sometimes exploiting the changing nature of the neighbourhood to get the most value from their dollar -- using residential offsets for commercial properties, for instance. The profits they make are enviable.But they are individual profits, and the long-term result is not so glorious. Those of us who live in changing neighbourhoods all too often find the safety and integrity and character of our areas being threatened by impersonal businesses, whose entire existence is to maximize the profits of their owners, and not to contribute to the life of the community. As this commercial development spreads, residents who have been able to live good lives at reasonable prices are forced to move out.This again is good for developers, who can create more and more subdivisions further and further away from our business centres where prices are high, facades are sophisticated, behind walls and fences and, nowadays, gates, where buyers pay a high price for privacy. It's not so good for those us who have become the victims of commerce. And in the long run, it's not so good for the economy of us all.Because we haven't considered the downsides. In the first place, many of the newer subdivisions are bereft of commercial activity, which means that for even the simplest need one must get into one's car and drive to the nearest shop or series of shops. This costs money and creates traffic and makes the entire population unhealthier, more stressed-out, more car-bound. In the second, the privacy for which we have paid so much is often overwhelming, and provides very little real security at all. In the neighbourhood we have neighbours to watch out for us and our property; in the subdivisions we must rely on burglar bars and alarm systems and our faith in God, and in the gated communities we pay money to a private security company to do what our neighbours did for free.In the USA and Canada, where this trend happened forty years ago, they have learned the lesson we are about to ignore right now. The "redevelopment" of neighbourhoods into commercial "centres" doesn't work. By moving the residents out of the neighbourhood, the cost of living goes up for everyone concerned -- the businesses included. Residents are also customers, and they will gravitate to those businesses that are the closest to their homes. Business follows people, not the other way round; and so the cost of doing business is similarly affected. Security, transportation, advertising -- all these costs escalate, the result of moving people away from neighbourhoods when zoning is exclusive.In North America, the new trend is towards mixed zoning. In short, they're recreating neighbourhoods. In The Bahamas, where we have the opportunity to rescue the ones that still exist, residents must be given equal footing with developers. Town Planning must make it a policy to consider the needs and wishes of the neighbourhood before approving any new development that will affect the character and the quality of life in the area. We should get to choose which businesses we want to allow next door. That way, we will strengthen the sustainability of business, increase our quality of life, and help control the cost of basic living.
Some useful links:New Urbanism (WikiPedia article)Defining Elements of New UrbanismNew Urbanism webpageThe cost of urban sprawl
Let me start by congratulating the Bahamian electorate on its victory at the polls.Before the election took place, I had written a very different article. The bones of it are posted elsewhere; I was thoroughly disappointed in the campaign, and I thought this was going to be an awful election. An interesting election, but an awful one as well.Interesting, because (as an old friend of mine very wisely observed, a couple of weeks before the election) it is the last one to be fought in the shadow of Sir Lynden Pindling, with his two bright-eyed boys nearing the ends of their careers. (I'm talking about the Rt. Hons. Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie, for those of you who don't know, each of whom received their seventh consecutive election to the House of Assembly, each of whom was a favoured Cabinet Minister in the Pindling PLP administration, each of whom was expelled from the PLP in 1984; and, moreover, and each of whom contested the 1987 general elections as Independent candidates and defeated their PLP opponents - quite a feat in those days.)And awful, because this was the first election campaign in my memory that was fought almost exclusively on insult. Both sides focused on the respective weaknesses of the other leader, on the various scandals afflicting prominent members of each party, and on the general baseness of their opponents and their supporters.And still the Bahamian people showed their representatives how to behave, and elected the most balanced parliament in forty years.This, I believe, even more than the changes of government over the past fifteen years, is a measure of the electorate's maturity - if maturity is the right way to put it. I suspect that it's even more a measure of the distance between the average Bahamian voter and the average politician. Politicians, ironically, especially seasoned ones, tend to live in a circumscribed and narrow world, one defined for them by their hangers-on, most of whom are either blindly loyal party members or else favour-currying sycophants, while the Bahamian voters live in a world that is largely defined by global (read American) politics, complete with sophisticated and critical political discussions.For a long time, Bahamian politicians have underestimated the Bahamian people. Many of them -- especially those schooled in the shadow of the early FNM and PLP -- continue to regard us as being semi-educated, superficial individuals who respond best to emotional appeals and simplistic discussions of complex issues. And so what has invariably brought governments down is often their very success. In 1992, the PLP was defeated by the growth of the same well-educated and prosperous middle class that government created. In 2002, the freedom of the airwaves ushered in by the FNM ultimately provided the avenue for that government's downfall. This time? I'm going to argue that this not-our-father's PLP was brought down by the very values they claimed when they aligned themselves with Bahamians of all races and creeds to tackle vexing issues such as land and constitutional reform, environmental awareness, national sovereignty, and the economic challenges posed by globalization - and by their addiction to consultation. The higher a bar is set, the further one has to fall.That's why I want to congratulate my countrymen for this new government we have elected. It's not just the change that impresses me; it's what I suspect lies behind the change, the message it sends, and the implications for the way ahead.You see, this time the government we elected is not one that can govern by a wide margin. It wasn't won by a landslide. The popular vote was one of the closest ever. As I write, estimates are floating that that vote was 50%-50%, or 49%-51% in favour of the FNM; by the time this goes to press the figures may be established. What is even more remarkable is that the margin in the House of Assembly is so close - and that the opposition consists, as one talk show host observed, of seasoned politicians. A majority of five seats means that issues must be discussed with care, legislation must be carefully drafted, and committees must complete their work. It also means that the government is vulnerable not only to the opposition, but to its own members; the balance of power is a mere three seats.In other words, our representatives are going to have to govern rather than campaign. They are going to have to negotiate instead of impose, to persuade rather than bully, to fashion arguments in the place of polemics if anything is to be done. The margin is small enough for anything to happen over the course of five years - and yet it's large enough to ensure that business will take place.So perhaps now, at last, we have elected a government that will get on with the business of governing us, not one that is half focussed on appeasing or rewarding its supporters and half focussed on getting things done for the rest of us.And so now, perhaps, we can deal with issues that affect the future of the nation -- like our identity as a people, our sovereignty, our economic survival in the global economy. Like race, and how we deal with it, whether we are white, black, Haitian, Greek, Chinese, or all (or none) of the above. Like immigration. Like the environment, and how we can make our development sustainable. Like reform of the public service, reform of our constitution, and the fundamental education of our people.It is a great new day indeed. The Bahamian people have won a great victory. Congratulations and condolences to all who deserve them. This was a wonderful outcome of the 2007 general election, and one I've been waiting for all my life.
This continues a topic I started last week.In November 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution declaring March 25, 2007 as the International Day for the Commemoration for the Two-hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. That the resolution was put forward by the CARICOM states is remarkable. That it was supported widely by other members is important. But what we do with it here in The Bahamas, where we are generally unaware of our role in the international community, and where we are usually ignorant of our place in history, will demonstrate, and perhaps determine, who we really are, and in which direction we are heading.We live, you see, in a society for whom the history of slavery is palpably uncomfortable. For many of us, it’s preferable to forget our slave past, perhaps because we’re ashamed of having been enslaved. For others, we’d rather forget the fact that we owned slaves. For still others, we are torn – some of our ancestors were slaves, and others were their owners.We also live in a society whose images of slavery have been shaped almost indelibly by the depictions of the slave pasts of other people – of the USA, or of the West Indies. We imagine plantations and overseers and whips and brands, but we don’t know that there were fundamental differences between slavery in The Bahamas and slavery in the West Indies and in the southern USA. We don’t realize that our plantations failed miserably, making our slavery quite a different animal.In the first place, although cotton was grown here for a mere thirty years, slavery was legal in The Bahamas from 1648, when the Eleutherean Adventurers settled in Eleuthera, until 1834, when it was officially abolished altogether, and the slaves technically set free. In these 186 years, only thirty of them involved plantation slavery. So what about the remaining one and a half centuries?According to Gail Saunders, large numbers of Bahamian slaves worked alongside their masters in any number of professions. Many were skilled labourers – bakers and masons and carpenters, cooks in people’s houses and cooks on boats, bosuns and mates and fishermen, farmers and scribes, and seamstresses and laundresses. Bahamian slavery involved the kinds of people who might in other societies be called “house slaves” – people who were able to gain diverse skills and glean some education to give them some standing in the world. So we might be forgiven for thinking that Bahamian slavery was relatively kind.But it isn’t what Bahamian slaves had to do that was important. What made slavery evil was what it said slaves were. Although on the surface Bahamian slaves were better educated and better treated than others to the north and the south, we cannot overlook this one fundamental fact: that slavery made people, into objects, things that could be owned and bought and sold.So in tandem with the sense of independence and individuality that Bahamian slave ownership bred, there was also inculcated in Bahamians the same sense of basic dependency, the very self-denigration that all slave societies create. Bahamian slave society may well offer fewer examples of brutality to the historian; but at least one the examples of brutality was outstanding. The story of Kate Moss, the young slave girl who was so badly punished by her owners that she died at their hands, became one of the examples used by British Abolitionists in their arguments about the inhumanity of the institution.And the closer relationship between the Bahamian masters and their slaves, while appearing to be kinder and gentler on the surface, had its own insidious result. You might say that on the plantation the relationship between the master and the slave was clear-cut, and this enabled the slaves to come to terms with their condition in such a way that they were able to rebel against it – and did, in many places. In the Bahamian situation, though, where slaves were often very closely connected with their masters, and where they often forged friendships and partnerships with them – at sea, at home, in the yard, in the shop – the line between property and owner became blurred, and made the struggle for freedom far more complex and difficult.You see, it’s often easier to fight one’s enemies when they’re obvious. When the person who is defining you as a piece of property is also the same one who is feeding you and clothing you, from whose very hands you might accept the gifts, and beside whom you might work, day in, day out, it becomes very difficult to separate the kindness of the individual person from the fundamental injustice of the system. When the person who is keeping you in your “place” is also the one who offers you assistance, and whom you might like and respect and even emulate, it becomes almost impossible to seek freedom. The comfort brought by the relationship you have is often too much to put at risk.Perhaps that’s why we Bahamians today are so uncomfortable with remembering that we were once slaves. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that our freedom is only half-here; for we are still quick to surrender our identities and our sovereignty for a taste of the comfort offered to us by the masters of today. There’s nothing new for us to be asked weigh the tough realities of forging our own way against the ease offered us by people who come in from abroad, smiling and handing us treasures we don’t truly understand. Old habits are hard to break, after all, and it’s happened to us before. The Lucayans lost their islands, and their culture; the slaves and their descendants got material assistance in the place of freedom. Why should we be any different?And so, the commemoration of abolition in The Bahamas has got to be a very serious, a very solemn thing. We must recognize what the process of abolition began, while recognizing too the role we – black, white, slave, free, cruel and kind – all played in the dual struggle between servitude and liberty. And above all, we must recognize that that struggle is not over, and steel ourselves to continue it for as long as it takes for us to be truly free.
When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would invariably answer, "A writer". The responses I got were various. â€œOh, thatâ€™s nice,â€ some people said. They didnâ€™t mean it one bit. Others laughed as though Iâ€™d told the greatest joke this side of Vegas. Others stared at me as though Iâ€™d just said something foreign, as though my tongue had not formed words that were English at all. And one person â€“ my geography teacher â€“ told me, â€œOh, no, youâ€™re too good for that. Writing will never earn you any money. Why donâ€™t you think about being a lawyer or something like that?â€But a writer I wanted to be.And here I am, all grown up, my answer still the same. What do I want to be when I grow up? A writer. But. Time is running out for me. Writing is a jealous hobby, difficult to do well, arduous when you want to make the right point, time-consuming, greedy. Itâ€™s too selfish to be a part-time thing, and I have to make a living.And making a living writing is something that is impossible in this country â€” at least for those who choose not to settle for journalism as the next best thing â€” no offence to journalists. I neednâ€™t list the reasons that itâ€™s impossible; Iâ€™m sure you can think of several yourselves. Itâ€™s the rare writer who can survive off his or her earnings, unless they are in advertising or journalism or the law. For those of us who simply love the language and The Bahamas, there is very little choice indeed.And so I teach others how to write. You know the saying: those who can, do; those who canâ€™t, teach. I have always fought it; it suggests that teachers are failures, second-rate beings who canâ€™t succeed at what they want, and so they teach. But more and more the saying rings true. Itâ€™s not that I am not capable of writing. But I cannot make a living doing what I love â€” doing what, I dare say, God called me to do â€” in the land in which I was born. And so, because I cannot (through no good fault of my own) write for a living, I teach.And I am not alone. I speak as a writer, because that is what and who I am. But there are hundreds of us, perhaps thousands, Bahamians, who have been gifted with the ability to create new realities out of thin air â€” people touched with the need to express themselves in movement, in colour, in line, in song, in film, in music, in performance, in the assumption of another character, in illusion, in the written or the spoken word. Only a tiny handful of us can do it, and that handful is struggling. The rest of us have to labour in jobs that are second best for people who do not understand us or what we do and squeeze our talents around the edges of our lives.And so what? You wonder. Why should this matter? Why should being able to make a living doing what you love be at all important?Well, first of all, because you love it, and because itâ€™s not frivolous. Despite what many people imagine, the arts â€” which begin in self-expression, develop through social commentary, and conclude by illuminating the human condition â€” are really the foundation, and not the frill, of human civilization. A society that does not express itself artistically is simply a conglomeration of people who live side by side. Because there is nothing concrete to link one to another, they are simply a group of individuals walking down the same road together, but they could as easily be enemies as friends, and there is nothing at all to stop them from killing one another.And second of all, because it is the creative impulse that makes us human. Iâ€™ve said it before, but Iâ€™m not sure that we have fully grasped the concept yet; weâ€™re too busy consuming what others have produced, and we donâ€™t value either the process or the product of our own artists and innovators. As a result, the humanity of the Bahamian citizen has been compromised. We allow ourselves and our reality to be defined by other people, because we have made it difficult, if not impossible, for our creative artists to make a living doing what they love.In order for us to create a society out of this population we have living within our borders, art, self-expression and creation cannot be regarded as luxuries that can be sacrificed whenever the subject of money is raised. Every civilization worth remembering has made a place for its artists. It has supported them, by commissioning individuals to write or paint or sing for a living and for the state, or by allowing them to support themselves. We do not recall the greatness of Greece or Italy or Great Britain for their lawyers, for their newspapers, or for the number of items their factories turned out in a given year; rather, we remember them for their architecture, their literature, and their art.From Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Michelangelo to Picasso, from Confucius to Soyinka, from Homer to Walcott, the greatness of a civilization has far less to do with the apparently â€œnecessaryâ€ professions than we imagine. Without the works of artists, teachers have nothing to teach, construction workers will have nothing to build, and retailers will have nothing to sell. You may counter by saying that others have already done the work for us, and that we donâ€™t have to produce anything original of our own. But that is how we have built our society already, and what we have built is coming apart at the seams. The clothes we have put on were designed for other people, and we should not be surprised when what we have borrowed doesnâ€™t fit us all that well.The time has come, I believe, for our society to place emphasis on allowing Bahamians like me to make a living doing what they love. Of course, this will mean starting to pay one another for their art. It will mean understanding that when we approach a writer to ask for a play to be written, or a director to produce a show for a purpose, or a musician to play somewhere, we will have to pay them for their action; but when we do, we will discover far more about ourselves than we knew before. And we will begin to create a community out of this group of individuals all walking along the same road together; and maybe, after some time, ours may become a civilization to remember.
Iâ€™m in my third year of employment as a civil servant.Â I started out in this profession, twenty-odd years ago.Â I worked as a civil servant for three years, and left to enter the teaching profession.Â Some people thought I was crazy; I was taking a pay cut, I was moving to apparently sub-standard working conditions (no air conditioning in the classroom, no secretaries to do work for me, no downtime â€” I was working in a small church school, where free periods were few and far between), I was leaving a job with Connections to go to one with None.I was as happy as a clam.Poor, yes, but happy.Â The reason?Â At the end of a day as a teacher, I had the sense that Iâ€™d got something done.Â At the end of a week, that sense of accomplishment was palpable; at the end of a year, when students had shown what they had (or hadnâ€™t) learned, it could be rewarding. And the pride I have in knowing that I shared in some small way in the achievements of a new generation of Bahamians is priceless.Twenty years later, Iâ€™m back in the public service.Â My job is rewarding in a different way.Â Iâ€™m never bored.Â No two days are alike.Â Weâ€™re living in an exciting time, a time of radical change.Â There are tides sweeping through nations, especially little ones, and we have to be ready to ride them or drown.Â Itâ€™s a good time to be a civil servant.The trouble is that the civil service isnâ€™t ready to experience the good time.Â The profession is governed by inertia.Now for those of you who donâ€™t know what it means, hereâ€™s what Websterâ€™s Third New International Dictionary has to say: INERTIA : indisposition to motion, exertion, or action : resistance to change.Â These big dictionaries give you phrases to help you make sense of the words they define, and hereâ€™s what Websterâ€™s gave: â€œsocial inertia, the tendency of animals to continue repeating the same action in the same placeâ€.I couldnâ€™t have said it better myself.The biggest problem with the civil service in The Bahamas is that itâ€™s indisposed to action, resistant to change.Â This is not unique to The Bahamas, by the way.Â It is a fundamental tenet of bureaucracy.Â It took me some time, for example, to get over my surprise that the Canadian bureaucracy is just as bad and the British bureaucracy is worse (whereas here, a who-ya-know or a well-targeted dollar can speed the process around here, thereâ€™s no way around those public servants).Â But the problem is very real.The problem is simple.Â Government is designed to protect the status quo.Â (It is very often nothing to do with the party in power.)Â Conservatism is hammered into the system from the ground up.Â The System itself is god; there is no power higher than it.Â Change itself goes in as change, and never comes out at all.Inertia.Now lest you think that I am advocating a complete doing-away with the structures that slow down movement, that absorb light and break it into a million tiny pieces, each darker than the first, that break up good ideas to make them â€œworkableâ€, let me assure you that Iâ€™m not.Â Governments are designed to manage the assets of nations.Â They are set in place to curb the excesses of politicians, who are naturally enthusiastic and energetic people who want things to be done in a rush (because short periods of time in which to prove themselves).Â In the Westminster system, the two tiers of governance are designed to complement one another and to ensure that countries survive from administration to administration.Â Civil servants are permanent employees, people who are put in place to maintain stability.Â They are supposed to guard the assets of the country, to take the long view, to think about what happens twenty years form now, while elected officials scramble to keep old promises or make new ones.Â Itâ€™s not a bad system, on paper.The problem is that the world is moving too fast for it.Â Paper is a wonderful medium, but itâ€™s now obsolete.Â In a world where â€” as someone involved in the mass media put it very recently â€” todayâ€™s technology can become obsolete next week, a system in which a single idea can take eight months to be decided upon is inadequate to meet the needs of our nation.Â And a profession in which individuals still expect to remain employed for life, no matter how they perform or how much they actually achieve, is a dinosaur in a world where change is so rapid that universities have now taken on the challenge of preparing graduates to be able to switch careers twice or three times in a lifetime.The civil service as designed is crippling the development of The Bahamas. Iâ€™ve argued before that the version that we have in place was never intended to govern a free nation; what we have has grown out of an institution set up to manage the assets of an empire.Â The system is too open to abuse by the malicious and too inflexible to accommodate creativity.Â Good ideas are easy to kill; they can be buried in paper, or strangled by budget constraints.Â Because inertia rules, change has to struggle to survive.The time has come to rethink our civil service â€” not to do away with it, because it is a necessary balance to the imperatives of the elected â€” but to dissect it, evaluate it, and rebuild it from the ground up.Â Itâ€™s time for the civil service to be designed to achieve things â€” and not to maintain things as they have always been, world without end, amen.
There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when young Bahamians used to talk about Development and Progress and all kinds of things that were easy to say and hard to lift off the ground if you really thought about them. The world was different then. There were choices you thought you could make â€“ choices such as whether to build a democratic nation that relied on capital and free enterprise to drive its economic engine, or whether to work for the good of the common man and create a communist state. Dictators were all around us. Most of the Latin American continent was ruled by people who had not been elected in any fashion that democratic countries recognized. Cuba of course had Castro; and Haiti was ruled by the Duvalier dynasty.There was a joke that was told at that time. It really wasnâ€™t a very funny joke. It was the kind of joke that had so much truth it made you laugh because if you didnâ€™t you might cry or shoot someone. It went something like this.An aspiring politician sat down with three veteran leaders and asked them for the secrets of their success.The first one said, â€œAh, my son. The secret of my success is this. I keep my followers poor and stupid, and then they must rely upon me for their every need. In this way I keep them loyal to me.â€The second one said, â€œAh, my son. The secret of my success is this. I educate my followers properly, and teach them to understand my way is the only way. Then it doesnâ€™t matter if they are poor. In this way I keep them loyal to me.â€The third one said, â€œAh, my son. My two colleagues are brilliant men, but they miss the point entirely. Poverty makes human beings dream of better lives, and education teaches people to think. No. Better to make your followers wealthy, and teach them never to think at all. My people are loyal because they donâ€™t know any other way to be.â€The joke would always be followed by peals of laughter. It was funny because we recognized the styles of leadership all too well. The first one we associated with countries like Haiti and other dictatorships that relied on fear and oppression to stay alive. The second one we associated with places like Cuba, where ideology met every need and people were taught that sacrifice in the name of revolution was all that mattered. The third one?The third one we associated with home.The joke is no longer current these days. Itâ€™s lost most of its meaning â€“ largely because, I think, itâ€™s no longer a joke. Back in the 1970s, being rich was still a dream that many of us could hold onto. We were newly independent, most of us were attending high schools and colleges for the first time in our families, and those of us who chose to return home to Nassau had the pick of the professions â€“ there was no glut of lawyers, no lack of a need for doctors or accountants. And so the people who were coming up at that time forgot the joke and concentrated in taking their positions in society, on building the economy, on earning the salaries that would make us wealthy.But we didnâ€™t invest that wealth back into our country to make the joke remain a joke. And so itâ€™s become reality.We Bahamians have succeeded remarkably in so far as material wealth is concerned. But we really havenâ€™t done so well in the intellectual department. Weâ€™ve made money, true, so much of it that our GDP places us proudly in the top three national economies of the western hemisphere. But we havenâ€™t made much impression in the department of deep thought.Now this has nothing to do with our capacity to think deeply as a people. No; drop by the Fish Fry or any bar or dominoes table at any place in the city and listen to the conversation you hear there. Today, as ever, ordinary Bahamians in ordinary places are as philosophical as any professor in any university. The problem is that that philosophy isnâ€™t being propagated in such a way that the whole country can benefit from the discussions, and it hardly ever reaches the level of public discussion.And the public as a whole seems not to miss it. Those people who think deeply and argue logically and discuss big issues with good sense seem to be found in pockets whose discussions donâ€™t reach the wider society, because we havenâ€™t invested in channels to allow for that level of discussion. And the problem isnâ€™t just the fault of the politicians. One of the side effects of achieving the get-rich-quick dream is the belief that money is all we need, that money, and material goods â€“ cars and phones and flatscreen TVs and the latest footwear and Tommy fashions and so on â€“ can replace the ability to think deeply as a nation.The result?Well, the politician in the joke isnâ€™t so far wrong. The best secret to success as a leader â€“ if by â€œsuccessâ€ you mean being a Man of the People, a Hero for the Masses, the Godfather From Whom All Good Things Come, and all-round demigod â€“ is exactly as he said. The leader who keeps his people wealthy and ignorant has no need of being a dictator, no need for a secret police, no need for anything sinister at all. The population that is wealthy and ignorant is the easiest one to lead; it can buy what it thinks it wants, and it has no concept of what it actually needs.
This week, I want to write about the upholding of the law.Now, given the fact that we recently suffered a breakout and riot at Fox Hill Prison, you will be forgiven for thinking that this article is about that affair. And I hope you'll forgive me when I tell you it isn't. In fact, what I focus on in this article may strike you as a little trivial, given the magnitude of the recent lawlessness we've witnessed.But I don't think it is.What seeded this topic in my mind, you see, wasn't the riot, or the general indifference to petty crime all around us, or even the fact that even before January's over we've had several murders to keep our police from growing too bored.What seeded it was the fact that one day recently my father-in-law came to me and said, "I see they took the right house down."He was talking, of course, about the house that was supposed to have been demolished that day last February that my grandmother's house was bulldozed. I found that very interesting, because to take that house down -- even though it was the so-called "right" house -- was in complete contravention of the law.Of several laws, in fact.The first one is a law relating to antiquities. A number of houses in Nassau have been listed as being of specific historic importance to the national and cultural patrimony of The Bahamas. Most of them are in the downtown area, and most of them were owned by the great and the good of bygone days, but not all of them fall into that category. In fact, several of the houses along East Bay Street and Dowdeswell Street are the houses of simpler people, made out of wood, a good example of how more ordinary people lived. Many of them were built by their owners, not by forced or hired labour, and they provide us with all we have to tell us about the people who were here before us. Houses that are listed are prohibited by law from being demolished.The second is a law relating to demolition in general. In order for a building to be demolished, application has to have been made to the Ministry of Works for a demolition order, and the order must be publicly displayed before the demolition takes place. This allows people to know that at some point this building will be coming down, and limits the chance that any human being who has taken to using the building as a shelter is accidentally injured or killed in the process. It also allows for people's homes not to be removed while they are at work, and it theoretically prohibits horrible mistakes -- like the one that happened to my grandmother's house -- being made.I can hear you now: â€œSo what? People do that all the time.â€And people do it all the time. In fact, thereâ€™s a culture of taking down buildings secretly. I know as well as you do that Sundays are the preferred days for taking down buildings secretly, because most of the world is in church, and the chances of getting caught are slim.You know what we say. A crime is only a crime if you get caught. If you donâ€™t, itâ€™s smart action.The problem is, in this case, it wouldnâ€™t really matter if you did get caught. This crime is the kind of crime that a wealthy person can afford to commit. There are laws on the books against taking down historic buildings, but there arenâ€™t any real penalties for contravening the laws. If youâ€™re caught (and no one seems to be caught) you can be fined. You can also be fined for doing what most people do, and what some are forced to do by the high cost of building in this town â€“ leaving the building there to rot on its own. But thereâ€™s no other penalty but that.Sometimes itâ€™s a better business proposition to take the risk and pay the price.So Cascadilla on East Street, a building that once defined much of what is excellent about indigenous Bahamian architecture, is rotting where it stands. It canâ€™t be torn down (except by decree of the government, which as we all well know is above the law), and itâ€™s expensive to fix up. And so itâ€™s dropping down.And so the house on East Bay Street in which Miss Ivy Stuart-Kamler taught piano lessons to many of the people who later became piano teachers themselves was pulled down on a Sunday while nobody was looking.And so my grandmotherâ€™s house, which was one of the last standing examples of middle class black familiesâ€™ homes, was bulldozed last February.And so on and on, despite the fact that there are laws against it. And nobody says a word.And that brings me to the recent prison break and riot, at the risk of indulging in emotional fallacies. Because there are parallels that exist. Iâ€™m told (and this tale could be wrong) that the break-out could have been avoided, because at least one civilian knew about it before it happened. But because our culture has made it our business to turn a blind eye to activities that break the law until they affect us personally, those civilians kept their information to themselves.The thing is, thereâ€™s a connection between white-collar crime and crime of collars of many colours. The connection isnâ€™t in the magnitude of the action. There isnâ€™t any real correlation, after all, between the murder of a prison officer and the demolition of a house. The connection lies within us. Every time we turn a blind eye to white-collar crimes which are committed in full knowledge of the law, it makes it much easier for us to ignore all the rest.
The ostrich is a lovely bird. Big. Flightless. Beautifully feathered (as we should know, as many of their feathers adorn Junkanoo costumes). Fast.And much maligned.Ostriches, according to legend, ignore danger by burying their heads in the sand. (The fact that they do not do this in actuality is neither here nor there; what matters today is that people think they do.) So, according to legend, instead of running or fighting when they're threatened, they simply stick their heads underground and wait for the problem to go away.The ostrich, not the flamingo, should be our national bird.I'm not talking about the size of ostrich eggs, or the fact that an ostrich can outrun even Tonique Williams-Darling (they can apparently clock up to 31 mph in speed), or even the fact that an ostrich could be turned into a great Junkanoo costume. I'm talking about the head-burying thing.We Bahamians could beat the ostrich at its own game. And I'm not talking about politicians here. I'm talking about us all. After all, politicians these days react far more to interest group interests or public pressure than they initiate great things. So the more we dig little holes in the sand for the heads of our leaders, the deeper they'll bury them.Let's just list some of the issues that are pressing our nation today. Perhaps most urgent is the question of what we call euphemistically "the immigration problem", but which we all know is really the massive presence of Haitians in The Bahamas. They have changed the landscape of our country, we complain. They've changed the personality of our people, who are imagined by Bahamians older than me to be passive and non-violent by nature (though I'm not so certain about that). They crowd our public services, they use up our taxes, they're eroding our culture.Now I am not at all convinced that the issue is as simple as all that, but for the sake of this article, let's just say it's so. What's been our reaction to this problem? We haven't changed our solution in almost forty years. And the problem has not only not disappeared, it's got worse, far worse. The reason for its worsening is not that Haitians are bad people. It's that we have not accepted, or implemented, a solution that will actually work. Our heads are firmly planted in the sand here, and our tails are waggling in the air.But that's not the only issue that affects us. Another one is the question of world trade. Whether we sign treaties or remain isolated, we have to deal with it -- not simply at the Ministry of Finance's level, but at the level of every vendor in the nation. And in fact, it's rarely the vendors who have to be educated about world trade; after all, they obtain their wares, most of them, from all over the world. It's the bureaucrats and lawmakers who need to be inserted into the global context so that our laws and our regulations become relevant again.But are we engaging with the issue and struggling with it and talking about it and carving out a solution that will ensure that we will remain as prosperous in the next fifty or so years of our history as the mid-century Sands-Christie economic model allowed for the last half a century? (If you donâ€™t know which Sands and which Christie I'm talking about, go read up on Bahamian history of the twentieth century and find out. Hint: Not Michelle; not Perry.) No. We're digging holes for our politicians' heads, and sticking them firmly into them. Don't look at regional affiliations, we're shouting; we don't want no foreign workers. And so: heads buried, tails waving, we stench in the mid-twentieth century, with the millennium racing past us.I could go on to talk about Junkanoo, which has reached a crisis of its own -- desperately in need of a new model of governance, but stymied by the reluctance of politicians, civil servants and Junkanoo leaders alike to let go of even a little of their power, and sponsorship and public support eroding . Or I could talk about Bahamian culture in general, which is in dire need of some kind of statutory, institutional body to oversee its development. In a world in which our children have been enculturated by television and film to be fractured North American clones, we continue to believe that it is possible to administer cultural activity from an understaffed division in a ministry whose first interest has, from its creation, been sports. Or I could talk about the cumbersome and ineffectual nature of our educational system, which was created by duplicating the worst of the colonial model and which eradicated the best. Today, we choose rather to assign police officers to high school campuses instead of seeking fundamental reform.Our collective heads are buried so deep in the sand that we are blinding ourselves with the sediment.It's a myth, you know, that ostriches bury their heads in the sand. Ostrich lovers decry the myth as a slander of enormous proportions.But not to worry.We Bahamians can bury our heads with the best of them. Our heads are so firmly planted in the dusts of the desert that we had better learn to love the taste of sand.
It seems to me that in this society, we're very good at boxing. And no, I'm not talking about the Elisha Obed/Boston Blackie/Ray Minus kind of boxing here; I'm talking about the kind of boxing that creates neat little categories to fit things into and then proceeds to sort the messiness of life into those categories. We've got boxes for political affiliation, boxes for religious belief, boxes for skin colour, boxes for hair texture, boxes for work, boxes for home, boxes for school.We're very good at separating stuff. We're not so good at putting stuff together.Now it's not unusual that human beings categorize things. As human beings, we like to put things and people into groups. How we define our groups is what makes cultures different; what we consider to be fixed, immutable groups in The Bahamas, for instance, may be very different from what people in China or Zimbabwe or Jamaica consider to be fixed, immutable groups. Researchers have written very interesting papers on this habit, in fact; ask me about the bear and the barber sometime.It's a basic human need to organize the world into bits and pieces. It's so basic a need that people become very nervous about things that don't fit into the categories that we choose. Let's take the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus, for instance. The way in which the Hebrews were taught to distinguish those things that were good for them to eat from those that were bad was according to the acceptable categories of animals: things that have scales, things that creep, things that have hooves, things that chew the cud. Those creatures that don't fall into the acceptable categories are those that are unclean.The general rule of thumb about categorizing, boxing, is this: something that falls between the cracks, something that doesn't fit into boxes, is suspect. Some people argue that it's dangerous; and it is. It's dangerous to our organization of life, because it challenges our way of seeing the world.This in part explains why certain animals are fairly universally feared or reviled. Frogs, for instance, are worrisome in many societies, snakes even more so. Frogs live in the water and on the land, which makes them peculiar. Snakes are even more difficult to categorize, and therefore snakes the world over have peculiar power, for good and for bad.This goes for people as well, of course, and now we're getting closer to what I mean when I talk about boxing.Every society, in every age, has its own boxes for people. We box each other according to size, according to weight, skin colour, ethnic origin, political affiliation, religious belief, social class, even team affiliation or theoretical orientation.What we have to be careful about, however, is boxing ourselves.There's a danger, you see, with boxing. It's necessary, but it's also addictive. And, with all addictions, there comes a time when boxing things, people, beliefs and thoughts does more harm to us than good.That time comes when we begin to believe that the boxes are more important than the things we put in them. When we begin to believe that the categories we've created and the criteria we use to sort things into those categories are real, we become slaves to those categories. Rather than understanding them as tools to help us make sense of our world, we regard them as set rules by which to judge the world, and by which to judge ourselves.Let me give you an idea what I'm talking about.The first box I want to talk about is the box that says human beings must confirm to certain norms and behaviours. The assumption that all humans who live in similar groups make is that the way in which We do it is the only way possible, or right. Often We believe that that assumption is divinely sanctioned, and any deviation from it is not only mistaken, but evil. Anthropologists call this ethnocentrism, and every culture does it; the thing is, because we all engage in our own sort of boxing, every culture judges others' boxes as evil and wrong.Take, for example, our morality box. We seem to be fixed these days on the innate evil, the inherent immorality, of same-sex relationships. A couple of years ago we were worried about homosexual men; today we're discussing "lesbian gangs". The thing is, when we analyze our ideas on these subjects, we discover that they're not consistent. They're not consistent with one another, and they're not consistent with what we profess to believe. The Bible, to which we refer with pride and inaccuracy, makes far less fuss about homosexuality than it does about lying (bearing false witness), idolatry (having false gods), covetousness (wanting what others have and we don't) and adultery. Each of these is explicitly prohibited in the Ten Commandments, but homosexuality is not, despite its denigration elsewhere. Presumably if it were as important to the Hebrews as it is to us, Yahweh might have included it on the tablets of stone. It is included in a list of improprieties in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but so are a number of other sexual sins that we don't even mention: incest, rape, fornication, adultery.My point? It's important to us not because it's important to God, but because we've created a box for our sexuality and everything that falls outside that box is taboo. We don't make nearly as much fuss about grown men sleeping with their daughters and sons, their nephews and nieces, or about men of the cloth or the court or the podium soliciting junior high school children to give them disease-free sex. And we certainly don't discuss the very clear sin of adultery, one of the Thou Shalt Nots clearly etched in Moses' stones. After all, if we did, we'd have to build a very big box.So we have to be careful of the boxing we do. We have to remember that the boxing of life is a tool, not a decree. We have the ability to break out of boxes that don't fit us, and we have the ability to remake the boxes that no longer make sense. We have to be careful. Because some boxes smother and kill.
Okay, I admit it. The two, sin and refugees, donâ€™t normally go together. At least, not officially. Sin is sin, and refugees are, well, theyâ€™re just unlucky.But the recent events along the Gulf Coast of the United States, and the social fallout that has followed, seems to suggest something different. There's a subtle battle of terminology that's been going on under the surface, in the background, upstage, behind the main action played out by FEMA and the President and the Mayor and the Governor, and it's this: nobody's all that sure what exactly to call the people who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods.Some people want to call them "evacuees". Some people want to call them "victims". Some people want to call them "survivors". Some people want to call them "displaced". What is pretty clear, though, is that many people â€” most prominent among them prominent African-Americans â€” are resisting calling them refugees.Jesse Jackson's one of those who think that "refugee" isn't the right word. Al Sharpton's another. Both believe that to apply the word "refugee" to the New Orleans evacuees is racist. Both justify their positions by making reference to the fact that the victims of Katrina who have been pushed from their homes are citizens of the United States of America. The very obvious implication: Americans are Americans, and not refugees.Now this does and doesn't make sense to me. The official definition of a refugee is someone who is forced to leave his or her home to seek refuge elsewhere. In its purest sense, the word refugee has no colour, creed or nationality; it is a word that describes an accident of history, the after-effects of some event or another that is beyond the control of the people affected. This makes the individuals who were forced to leave Montserrat in the wake of the volcanic eruption, the people who leave Haiti on a daily basis to find food and work and cash, and the New Orleanians who fled their own floodwaters members of the same category.But there's another definition of a refugee, one that depends on the connotations and the uses of the word, one that isn't always shared by people in different segments of this earth we cohabit. It's this; the word "refugee" is generally applied by people in rich nations to people in poor nations who are forced to leave their lands by war, famine, poverty or disaster. It's a smug kind of word that reminds those people who use it that not everybody is equal. In these terms, it's not just a word that describes the condition in which these people find themselves. It's a word that categorizes groups of people into "Us" and "Them".And refugees are always "Them".The fact that African-Americans share this idea, that African-Americans are sensitive to the term and its connotations, that they may even accept the connotations of the world as real or right (as witnessed by their indignation that citizens of the USA should be called "refugees"), to my mind, simply reinforces the very real inequalities that divide our world. We Bahamians, we like to believe the African-American myth that skin colour unites us all. After all, we are all Africans in our genes, aren't we? We are all brothers. A mere accident of birthplace shouldn't make all that much difference in where we stand in the world.But when it comes down to it, there are times, even in the United States of America, where (as we've all been reminded) racism is alive and well, when the lines are drawn, even by our black brethren themselves. What Jackson and Sharpton are doing, whether they realize it or not, is drawing the line for themselves. They may be Black, yes, their ancestors may be African like ours, but they are also Americans. And Americans, unlike the rest of us, cannot be refugees.You see, there's a third connotation to the word "refugee" that I haven't dealt with yet. And it's the one I started with. Whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, there's a fundamental moral bias that adheres to the concept of being a refugee. Refugees, you see, are homeless people that we may hate or we may pity, but that we almost never respect. It's as though being a refugee is a sin, not a misfortune. It's as though being driven from one's home is some kind of divine judgement that follows some awful, awful deed. The way we react suggests that we may feel for those "poor people", but we'll never, ever reach them. This is what lies beneath the idea that "we" (Americans, Bahamians, the rich) couldn't possible be refugees. We didn't share their sin.When I raised this idea for the first time on a blog (www.ringplay.com), a reader made a comment that took the idea further. This idea of sin and the refugee, he argued, is ingrained in our "Christian" nation from birth. As he says:The very first account in the bibles of both Judaism and Christianity helps to bind â€œsinâ€ with the â€œrefugeeâ€. The sinners were sent packing from their home â€” that perfect place of peace and prosperity â€” because they didnâ€™t have their act together and did something dead wrong. They became displaced and had to end up catching hell because of â€œsinâ€. Because of sin they lost everything and even Nature turned against them. I mean even Satan was a notorious refugee. And we could go on and on with the examples.â€œWeâ€ are sure the refugee, the migrant, the evacuee, or whatever we want to call them deserves the mess they're inâ€¦ at least thatâ€™s what the collective psyche seems to be thinking. And to boot, we donâ€™t want them spilling into our â€œpristineâ€ environment, bringing the bad luck, doom, and godâ€™s wrath with themâ€¦ do we?Iâ€™m watching Louisiana carefully. Iâ€™m watching the reaction of Americans to their own domestic refugees, their own fellow Americans. The people who want to escape New Orleans are not Haitian or Mexican; theyâ€™re American. But it doesnâ€™t matter one bit. Itâ€™s not the nationality that matters, it seems. Itâ€™s the sin of being a refugee.
Slavery, they say, was abolished some time during the nineteenth century. We quibble about the date of its abolition, whether it was 1834 or 1838, but according to the history books, it's been out of vogue for, oh, a hundred and seventy years. In The Bahamas, the plantation, which with we associate slavery for the most part, has been out-of-fashion for more time than that -- two centuries, give or take some years. Or so the history books say.I beg to differ with the history books. I'm going to argue that the plantation is alive and well in The Bahamas. I should know; I work on it.There's a tendency among Caribbean intellectuals to regard any monolithic agency-employer who reinforces the habits and attitudes of slavery as a reincarnation of the plantations. You see, people raised in the shadow of the plantation -- in the shadow of slavery and all its implications -- develop a set of characteristics that enable them to survive the inhumanity of their situation. And it takes a specific, structured effort to break the habits of generations.In the Bahamas, the plantation is alive and well. Its most faithful replica: the Bahamian Civil Service.I put it to you that the civil service functions just like a huge plantation. When you can't get rid of your slaves, they are yours for life. You have to keep them alive, more or less, in the hope that perhaps they'll do some work for you at some point in their lives. But you know they are not your loyal servants; and to buffer yourself, you practice divide-and-conquer among them. All slaves are not created equal. They may be house slaves, drivers, overseers, or field workers; and each group has its own system of rewards and punishments that sets its members against one another and never allows them to think about their servitude or the system as a whole.Not all plantations were worked by slaves, moreover. In the sugar islands, after slavery was abolished, masters hired indentured servants, people who were engaged to work for a set period of time. While they were working with the master, there was little difference between the servant and the slave, except that when the servant came to the end of his servitude, he was given a pre-arranged gift -- of money or of passage home -- to send him on his way.Sound familiar? Let me put it another way.One. The plantation owned its people, whether slaves or indentured workers, for as long as they remained on it. Their every waking moment -- and every sleeping one -- belonged to the plantation and to the master. Now check General Orders today; read any government job description worth its salt. The first makes it quite clear that one's time is the government's. The second will always contain the clause and any other duty that the (insert appropriate overseer) requires.Two. The plantation took care of its people. It may not have taken care of them well, or given them much autonomy in the process, but it ensured that its people wouldn't starve, that its people had clothes to wear; if it didn't, it failed. Now if you work for the Civil Service long enough (thirty years -- most of your life), you get a pension; like the slaves, you will be clothed and fed until your death. If you serve for a set period of time (ten years), you're given a gratuity when you leave, rather like indentured servants. And if you can't make it that long, you leave, like those who died or escaped the plantation. The majority of plantation runaways were people who couldn't (or wouldnâ€™t) buckle under the yoke; most of them chose death over servitude, and ran away, committed suicide, or were killed.And three. The plantation took away its people's minds. People who thought for themselves lived tortured lives, and died young. If you wanted to survive, you learned not to think only in small and twisted ways that hurt the institution as much as it liberated any slave. In the long run, you might bring the institution down; but in the short run, you learn only how to make it, but not how to live.Consider this. To make it as a Civil Servant, you will wait upon directives. You'll do just enough work to escape notice from people who are watching, but nowhere near enough to get a job done well; there's no point in investing time and energy in excellence when none of the profit/credit/reward is yours. You maintain your spirits by seeking refuge in the kind of religion that engages your emotions but not your minds, for to think too much will be painful. And you seek to cultivate some ally within the institution who can protect you should the going get bad. Strategy, not merit, is what works; strategy, and scrambling, like crabs in a barrel, for the position that allows you the most power over your fellows.Sound like an institution you know?I'm going to argue (as I've done before) that when a free country maintains an institution that mirrors the most soul-destroying institution that humans could invent, and, worse, boosts it every five years or so by the importation of fresh meat, that country is not really free. When we consider that the Government is the largest employer in the nation, and that a Government job is a safe, sure job, we must realize that the civil service is the place where we train our citizens.And so we have a choice. Either we keep the Civil Service as it is, a mirror of the plantation, and raise up a nation of slaves; or we seek to transform it. The plantation died, killed off by the slaves. If we are to survive as a people, we will have to put the habits of the plantation behind us. Civil Service reform must happen, and now; we must take it in our hands, and create it. We've waited too long already.
King Canute had courtiers, many a one,And flatterers not a few,And they told to Canute that under the sunThere was nought that he could not do.Then out spake King Canute, "Quite well I knowMonarch and King are weWend you with me to the beach below,We will gaze on that glorious sea."To the beach below he royally strode,And sat himself on the sand,And he cried to the billows, as onward they rode,"Hasten back! It is my command."Yet onward rolling on the billows came,Stopping not in their rage,Scornfully flinging their angry foamIn the monarch's blushing face.Then up rose the king with scorn on his brow,As the billows rushed by his chair,And he cried to his courtiers, still whispering low,Full of shame and contrition there:"Go, flatterers, go ye hence, go away, begone,Wiser be from this day,Mark you this lesson: there is but oneWhom the winds and the waves obey!"(Mistress Lyndall Albury, "The Real Bahamas, Vol. II")There's a lot of talk these days about What We Should Do with the Haitian immigrants who are invading our land, causing all the trouble that has plagued us over the years. The most common refrain in the conversation is this one: "Send 'em back!" Even in the most enlightened debates, when the brightest of the bright are gathered to solve the weighty problems of the now, this refrain continues. "Send 'em back!" When politicians who have spent some time studying the problems surrounding immigration, illegal and otherwise, propose solutions that do not fit into this paradigm, they are dismissed as fools and idiots. It is obvious that there is only one solution that can possibly work: send 'em back.Too bad more of us don't know the story of King Canute.If you don't know the story, he was a Viking monarch who for whatever reason stood upon the seashore and commanded the waves to turn around and go back. They didn't. They came up and wet him from head to toe. Well, of course they did. That's what waves do.To me, that's what the situation with the Haitian migrants is like. We live in a relatively wealthy country that sits between the poorest nation in the region and the richest, and there is a law of migration that states that people from poor nations will move into rich nations, and not the other way around. If a poor nation is on the border of a rich one (or even of a richer one -- witness the Haitian settlements in Cuba, for instance) then there is nothing that the richer nation can do to prevent immigration. It comes with the territory of being rich.And so those people who believe that it is possible send 'em home, stop 'em from coming, whatever it is that we appear to expect the Government to do, are all like King Canute as he stood on the seashore shouting at the waves. You see, whether it pleases us or not, the fact is that governments for forty years or more have been trying their hardest to "send 'em back"; but "they" keep coming, and have kept on doing so, even in the face of the hate that awaits them here. Forty years should be long enough to convince even the most stubborn and prejudiced among us of the fundamental impracticality of stopping Haitian migration.How long will it take us to learn the lesson that Canute taught his courtiers -- that "there is only One whom the wind and the waves obey"? We can't stop migration -- we've tried -- so why aren't we considering how to turn this weakness into a strength? Why are we ignoring the voices of those people who have considered possibilities, and have suggested them to us? We have been burying our heads for so long now that we should have a very good knowledge of sand.It seems to me that if the good Lord sees fit to bless The Bahamas with the immigrants who live here and help to make the country the prosperous one that it is, then that is His Will and His Design for our nation. It is time, I believe, that we recognize that as long as we are a rich nation, we will have to deal with immigrants. It is time, too, to recognize that because our services are paid for primarily by customs duties -- taxes that are paid when goods enter the country and not levied on people's salaries, no one who resides here lives here tax free. It is impossible to buy food from Bahamian food stores, gas from Bahamian pumps, or clothes from Bahamian shops without paying taxes; every resident, and even every tourist, pays for the services our government offers for free. If the good Lord sees fit to bless us with immigrants, then who are we to reject his blessing?Now don't get me wrong (though I'm sure many people will do so). I'm not trying to suggest that our nation is not challenged with accommodating the high numbers of immigrants. But what I am suggesting is that the "solution" spouted by so many of us is not a solution at all. It is time to recognize that we are facing a wave, and that like Canute, none of us can turn it back. It is time for us, therefore, to do the only thing one can do when facing a wave: consider all your alternatives. And learn to float.Click here for a similar sentiment expressed in American terms
Much has been said of late about immigrants, especially illegal ones. By "illegal immigrants", by the way, we really mean people who come here on boats, not jets, people who sail here from the south, not the north, and people who speak a different language and who worship a different way from us.In other words, we mean Haitians. Or Jamaicans, if we're feeling really expansive.Send them home, we say. Even those who were here all their lives. Even those who were born here. If they illegal, they gattie go. We're a small country, after all. No space. No resources, not like our neighbours to the north. We are not the USA and Canada, with all that money up there ready to give away to the poor and tired of the world. After all, they pay no taxes, and they crowd up all our services. We cannot afford to be magnanimous. Suffering is not our business; send them home.Well, fine. No problem. Only â€” why should we stop at the Haitians and the Jamaicans? Why don't we send all the immigrants â€” especially the illegal ones â€” back to where they came from?Sure. Let's send back all those people whose names we don't recognize. Petit? What kind of a name is that? Eve? Cherenfant? Amertil? Send 'em back. Don't forget Justilien or Paul, now. And why stop at the names we don't know? There are plenty of immigrants pretending to be Bahamians, who have passports and everything. Let's round 'em all up, shall we? Charter a boat (why worry with a plane?) and send 'em back off to Haiti where they all came from. Let's start with the Poitiers, the Moncurs, the Benebys, the Bonabys, the Bonamys, the Godets, the Symonettes, the Dillets, the Darvilles, the Deveaux, the Deleveaux, the Demerittes, the Delamores. Why leave out the Morees, the Romers, the Virgils, the Sargents, or the Scavellas? They trace their roots to Haiti too. And let's not be fooled by innocent-sounding names like Armbrister or Solomon or Bain or Benjamin or Fountain â€” they'll be found in a Haitian phone book if we look hard enough. The Isaacs may not be as innocent as they sound, and who knows what bloodline lurks behind a Williams or a Foulkes? When you think about it, Francis and Frazier sound kind of French, and Martin and Levarity, Seymour and Larramore are definitely suspect. And who can forget the Duvaliers?In fact, when we start looking, we're gonna find that more than half the people who come from the southern Bahamas, from Cat and Long and Crooked and Ragged Islands, from Acklins and Inagua and Mayaguana and Exuma, are gonna have some connection with, to, or in Haiti. Why don't we just play it safe and send them all home? After all, there was a time not so long ago when Port-au-Prince was closer and fancier than Nassau to them, and many of their ancestors spent good time down there. We can't trust them at all. Let's send them all back, just to be safe.And then there are the West Indians, not to mention the Cubans and the Dominicans. So let's see. We can start with the Gomezes, if they manage to escape the sweep of the southern islands. Never mind that they've produced archbishops and doctors and senators; they're immigrants, and as we can't be sure of their legality, let's just be safe and send 'em on home. Cuba or Dominican Republic? Let's not be picky, let's just get on with it. And then the Palaciouses. The Fernanders. The Gonzalezes and the Fondas and the Cancinos. Treco? Who cares, sounds kind of Latin, let's get on with it. DeGregory, D'Aguilar, Ferrera, Ferreira, Laroda â€” all gone. The Pindlings, the Mitchells and the Dumonts who didn't get sent back to Haiti, the Maynards, the Worrells, the Fieldses, the Alleynes, the Baileys, the Outtens, the Cookes, the Conliffes, the Bosfields, the Edwards, and at least half of the Clarkes.But why stop there? Why deport just those people with the familiar faces and the funny names? Let's deal with all immigrants. The Bahamas for Bahamians, okay? So we'll send back all the Greeks, the Chinese, the Syrians and the Lebanese; there go the Galanises and the Meicholases and the Maillises and the Klonarises and the Moskos and the Alexious. There go the Cheas, the Wongs, and the Lees, the Bakers and the Ageebs and the Solomons and the Isaacs who didn't get on the boat to Haiti. Bye-bye, Esfakises. So long, Tsavoussises. Armourys, see ya.But wait. Illegal immigrants, did we say? Well, hell, that has got to include all the Africans who came here as slaves. Did they have papers? We don't think so. Maybe their masters did, but who can tell? And while we're at it, who gave those masters these islands anyway? The Crown? What crown? Who gave England the Bahamas, when it was a sailor named Columbus who found us, and Columbus came from Spain? Surely all the English (and the Scottish and the Welsh and the Irish) settlers are illegal too â€” all the Christies and the Pinders and the Thompsons and the Russells and the Bethel(l)s and the Griffins and the Culmers and the Forbeses and the Fords and the Mac-whatevers and the Millers and the Smiths. Wilchecombes. Duncombes. Adderleys. Burnsides. Carters. Gibsons. Glintons. Saunderses. Malones. Currys. Foxes. Knowleses. Hannas. Robertses. Fergusons. Farquharsons. Cartwrights. Nottages. Searses. Griffithses. Strachans. Mosses. Careys. Wilsons. And Rolles. Especially those Rolles, with their so-called rights to the land. Who gave them rights anyway, when people were here before them?In fact, let's get rid of everybody who isn't a Lucayan â€” a true-true-true Bahamian â€” anybody who isn't descended from one of the people who discovered Columbus in his lostness, when he claimed these islands, illegally, for Spain. I suppose Seminoles could stay, though they're immigrants too; they came here when America got Florida, back in the 1700s.Or maybe they should go too. Immigration, after all, is the great evil of the age. We can't ever be too careful in stamping it out, now can we?You tell me.
I was sitting in traffic the other day. Sitting in traffic, by the way, is something I would prefer not to do. It's a supreme waste of time, particularly on this island which is only twenty-one miles long. And a question bubbled up to the surface of my mind. It was this. Why am I sitting in traffic?The answer, on the face of it, was so simple one would have to be simple not to get it: Because it's a quarter to nine in the morning.It was far too simple an answer for me, I can tell you. My mind is an unruly thing. Another question came burbling up. But why?The answer came from Out There, wherever That might be: Because people work nine to five.My response was: no, they don't. And I meant it.Now, I'm not talking Sting-time here, though I could be. No; what I mean is this. People's brains don't simply turn on at nine in the morning and turn off at five. Thinking isn't something that knows the hours on the face of a clock; thoughts come when they come, and there's not a lot one can do about it. Contrary to what we've been trained to think, work â€” and particularly twenty-first-century work â€” is not best done in eight-hour blocks, with an hour in the middle for lunch.So why do we insist that work involves reporting to a building at nine o'clock and leaving it at five?To answer that fully, we have to have some idea of the origins of the twin concepts of labour and production, which incorporate the idea that a person can exchange what he or she does with hands or brain for money. Now, the thought that what I produce is separable from me, something I can sell at a price determined by someone else, has the kind of peculiarity that becomes greater and greater the longer you examine it, but never mind that.Quite simply, it's an idea that became current during the industrial revolution, when the creation of factories and mass production changed the way that work was regarded. In a factory, you see, individuals are hired for the use of their hands and for their presence, and very little beyond that. Especially after the production line was invented, the only purpose for employing human beings in a factory was to make sure the machines did their jobs as they should. But in economies that rely on other kinds of production, labour is not something that you can separate from people. One carpenter is not just as good as another, nor are two masons alike; you pay for the quality of the work produced, and not for the body that produces it. Even in an agricultural society, labour is only saleable during periods in which it doesn't matter who does the work, such as harvest time; during the rest of the year, skills matter.In short, the creation of factories created the concept of work as being something separate from the human being. Before that time, one did one's work where one found oneself; work spaces and home spaces overlapped, and workdays were determined by the projects one had to complete. On the farm, for instance, an eight-hour day means very little at all. You work till you finish what you have to do! If you finish it in four hours, good for you â€” and if it takes you twelve, well, there it is. Similarly, for an artisan or an artist, work is measured by the completion of a job. There's no value in sitting down from nine to five in one's workspace if it produces nothing at the end of the day.Now this makes sense to me. Work should be measured by achievement, by what is accomplished in a sitting, not by how long one spends on the job. Thing is, our society appears to believe the myth that a job is something detachable from a person. Someone asking for "a job" is more often than not asking for a place to be sent for eight hours a day, five days a week, with a pay check coming every now and then. What that job is hardly seems to matter. If one reports on time, leaves on time, and pushes the requisite amount of paper or cement around then that pay check just keeps on a-coming.Now this, I submit is odd. Even odder: far too many of these jobs appear to have to start at nine in the morning and end at five at night.What I don't get is this. It's perfectly possible for a person to be present in body between nine and five and doing no work at all â€” and it's equally possible for a person to be in traffic, or in bed, or in the shower, and to be working harder than the person at the desk. Inspiration doesn't know hours; anyone who has been woken up at three in the morning with an idea that just won't quit knows that this nine-to-five deal is a scam, an artificial set period that make it easier for accountants and bosses to deal out the dollars, but which really has very little to do with work.I have been a bureaucrat, a hotel worker, a writer and a teacher in my life. There's nothing magic about nine to five beyond the magic imparted by traffic jams, stress, and air pollution. I had the great fortune to have been employed in a twenty-four hour service industry at the beginning at my career, and so learned early that even working eight hours a day doesn't mean you have to work nine to five; I worked every shift my position allowed, from seven-to-three to four-to-twelve. As a teacher, I learned that being in the classroom for six hours a day is no measure whatsoever of how hard one works. People who believe that teachers have it good (they get off at three/they have long vacations) should try it. During those six hours, there is no downtime; you're lucky to get to sip some tea. Even when one leaves the classroom, one continues to work as long as one is awake, preparing, marking, thinking. And as a writer, I know that my brain does not turn off when I leave the office. Oddly enough, it seems to turn on.The thing is this. We no longer live in the industrial age. In this country, we never did. The age of the internet erodes all boundaries. Nine to five is obsolete. Isn't it about time we recognized this fact, and gave some thought to changing the horrid nine to five?
My grandmother's house was built in the late 1860s out of materials salvaged from ships destroyed in the Great Bahama Hurricane of 1866. The house is made of wood, raised on limestone blocks. It weathered the five awful hurricanes of the 1920s, and stood. It weathered Betsy in 1965, and stood. It took David in 1979, Floyd in 1999, Michelle in 2001. For the last few years it has fallen prey to vandals, being unoccupied and the estate not fully settled.My grandmother's house weathered the 24 hours of Frances, and still stands. Not a shingle is gone from the roof. The damage to the outside is the result of termites and vandals.I'm writing this article because I have had the privilege of living in old houses all my life. I realize my experience is unusual for many Nassauvians. We urban-dwellers have developed the tendency to bulldoze things that bear the weight of history; we seem to prefer to pull down and rebuild rather than to shore up and restore. Why fight with termites and dry rot and having to replace wood as time goes by when it's just as easy to build something fresh and new?My grandmother's house is testimony as to why. Our ancestors knew what they were doing when they built their houses. And I'm not talking about the fancy houses downtown here; I'm talking about the clapboard houses that we see everywhere in the older parts of town. If those houses have had any basic care throughout their histories, and have not been used as quick-rent-earners by rapacious landlords, who take out more than they put in (and let's face it, some of us are guilty of this), chances are they are still standing now, when many newer houses have failed in some way.Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers knew what they were doing. They were building houses for themselves and their families to live in, not to sell to people they might not know at all. They cared about what they were building. It had to be strong, and it had to last. And so they took their time with their work. They took pride in it; and they were concerned about the quality of it.They didn't build their houses on mortgages from banks that hurry the process; they built them out of their own savings, and often with their own labour or that of their friends and neighbours. It might take them years of living in one room or two, years of working on the house until it was finished, but they made sure what they did was good and strong.And third, they knew what country they were living in.They knew that they were building for a land with torrential rain and regular hurricanes, some of them extreme.They knew that they were building for a country with a long, hot, humid summer, and they had no air conditioning to cool it down.And they did what any intelligent human being would do: they designed houses that fit our climate, our dangers, and our lives.Take a look at the houses our ancestors built. Drive through Grant's Town and Fox Hill and Bain Town and down Shirley and Dowdeswell and East Bay Streets, and look at the principles of building they used. Note the things they all had in common, even after the Second World War, when ordinary people began building with concrete and stone. Note what we Bahamians built before we started looking north and copying What The Americans Did.Our old houses have porches. They keep the people and the houses cool.Old houses are raised up on blocks. To get into my grandmother's house, you have to climb up six or seven steps; the floor of her porch is level with the top of her wall, nearly four feet off the ground, and floor of the house is one step up.Old houses have shutters on their windows. The push-out kind have a double purpose: they provide shade for the inside and protection for hurricanes.Old houses are built to let heat out, not hold it in: with have high ceilings and higher roofs, and ample cross-ventilation. My grandmother's house had a door at the front and a door at the back, and a passage down the middle. Most days when the front door was open (the back door always was) there was a lovely breeze wafting down the passage, no matter how hot it was outside.Our ancestors were the experts in building for the kind of country in which they lived. So why have we all but given up their ways? Why are we dying to inhabit the kinds of houses our northern neighbours do?Well, the old people have a saying: monkey see, monkey do. We have a penchant for copying the Big Guys, as though we have no technology worth anything ourselves. And so we have gone in for building low, squat boxes with low ceilings and roofs, high windows which give no breeze to any part of the body that really needs it, and nowhere for water to go but into the house itself. There's no cross-ventilation. Now that we can afford it, we do what the Big Guys do, and burn up fossil fuel air conditioning our places, rather than letting God do our air conditioning for us. And when hurricanes come along, instead of leaning out of our windows and pulling our shutters to, as Grammy and Granpa used to do, we line up for plywood (like the Big Guys) and lose our tempers when the lumber yards run out. And when we go too far (as, I'm told, Grand Bahama did for a time, by having different building codes from the rest of the Bahamian nation), we run the risk of suffering as the Big Guys do when hurricanes hit.Come on, Bahamians. We are people, not monkeys. Our ancestors were in this region long before the Americans even owned Florida. We're the experts here. The only reason we copy Americans is that we don't know how good we are. It's time to acknowledge our strengths, and to celebrate them. Not to do so isn't only injurious to our self-esteem; it's hard on our economy, and it impacts our very lives.
Sir Vidia Naipaul, Nobel prize-winning Trinidadian writer, depicts the Caribbean as a place where no real achievements take place. For Naipaul, the Caribbean is a dumping-ground of civilization, a mixed bag where great cultures drop their baggage. "Nothing good ever came out of the Caribbean," he once wrote -- a great irony, of course, because he is a Caribbean man, a brilliant writer, and he comes complete with the self-loathing that is more Caribbean -- and more Bahamian -- than we like to admit. Of course he's wrong. The Caribbean is a small region, but it has produced three Nobel laureates in the space of twenty years.However, Sir Vidia has a point. It's not that nothing good came out of the Caribbean. Rather, it's that Caribbean people -- people who live daily with the legacy of slavery -- appear to be extremely tolerant of the absurdities of life. We can put up with more idiocy in our daily lives than many other people dream of.
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I once taught a young woman who informed me that even though she was born and raised in "the ghetto", she still came from a respectable family. Her parents were together, she said, and they were law-abiding and ambitious. She'd defended herself from criticism or ridicule before any such thing had come her way; the implication was that she expected people to believe that no one from "the ghetto" could be respectable at all.I didn't ask her what she meant by "the ghetto". I can say that I was a little surprised that this American word had replaced our own names for our own neighbourhoods, but I didn't think more of it until this year, when I was informed that tourists who have booked rooms at Dillet's Guest House sometimes have difficulty getting taxis to drop them there. Some have had the experience of being set down at the Fish Fry and left to walk through Chippingham; Dillet's is in "the ghetto", and no place for a tourist or (apparently) a taxi driver.Not only has the American word replaced our name for the area, but White America's concept of what a ghetto is (a place for minorities, a place for poor people, a rough environment, a place no respectable tourist would be caught in, dead or alive) has overtaken our Black Bahamian understanding. I'm not going to ask how or why. I want to talk about the result. Words, you see, have power. The old adage about sticks and stones may bring comfort to a child who's upset by having been called names, but it couldn't be more untrue; words are far more powerful than weapons. Words define who we are. And by referring to the place in which we grow up as a "ghetto" we are creating for ourselves an image that defines us.
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Last week I wrote about populism, the thing that has made us believe as a nation that elitism (of certain sorts) is the worst sin that could ever be committed. This week, I'm going to talk about the awful sin itself.Before I go on, let's define that term. It can be the best or superior members of a society or group, or it can be a small, privileged, and often powerful group, according to Webster's. On the web, it's defined in various ways, from a small group of people with a disproportionate amount of public decision-making power to selected as the best. I'm going to be elitist here, and select the best definition for my purposes from the above: the last one, selected as the best.It would seem these days that we have a problem in selecting the best in our society. We demonstrate an aversion to claiming anyone is better than anyone else, or that people should receive different results based on what they do. Indeed, our reaction to that kind of thinking is becoming violent; from Junkanoo practitioners to the employees of large corporations to the parents of schoolchildren, we Bahamians appear to believe that we should be rewarded for who we are, not for what we do. A competitor threatens to sue to change a competition's results; individuals involved in a labour dispute sabotage the city power supply; a parent threatens to kill the administrators and blow up the school that has not permitted his child to move up to the next grade. The underlying thread in all of these issues is the belief that someone owes me something, not the concept that what I get is a reward for what I do.
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