Roberto Savio - Photo: 2012

The Bahamian Art of Survival

By Roberto Savio*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

NASSAU, Bahamas (IDN) – Mark Twain famously said: “The rich are different from you and me.” While the present behaviour of the financial elites is clearly proving Twain’s prescience, I think that had he spent some time in the Bahamas, he would have postulated: “Bahamians are different from you and me”.

Of course, this applies to every culture. In many parts of the United States, you cannot smoke in parks or on beaches, but you can carry a concealed semi-automatic weapon.

In China, dogs and cats are eaten. In Africa, roasted termites are popular. Gastronomy, ethics and social habits differ greatly around the world. As an Italian, I can tell you that one of the problems my people have when traveling is the lack of good pasta, not to mention expresso and gelato. But Bahamians are different, in the sense of logic, which usually is a minimum common denominator across the world.

Just look at the record of the emerging nations in Asia and Latin America, and some in Africa. Their success is based on competing with others, under the same logic, which unfortunately is one of profit.

In the Bahamas, the concept of profit is known, but not the discipline, rigours and sacrifice which it entails. People are in for a quick buck. If you ask the average young boy what he will be doing in 20 years, you will get a blank stare. People live from day to day, enjoying that day as much as possible, and that is it.

In Nassau, where an army of Chinese is currently building a 2 billion dollar resort development, the speed, quality and consistency of their work, with three 8-hour shifts per day, is considered something exotic and curious. But it does not stimulate any desire among Bahamians to imitate such work.

By and large, Bahamian women are the ones who work with some discipline, and they do not participate in the construction business. Men are perfectly happy to make babies, without feeling responsible for them, and spend whatever money they earn drinking with their friends. Young people want to become rich quick, and without any demanding effort. So drug dealers are considered smart people here.

This characterisation is, of course, a gross stereotype, which does not apply to well-educated and professional Bahamians. But if you check the productivity of, say, a bank clerk or a civil servant, I am sure that it would be much lower than their counterparts in other parts of the world.

Ón this, let me give you a telling episode. On the island we have a branch of the Bank of the Bahamas. Its regulation for customers is simple: zero interest on deposits and 13% on loans. You pay a monthly amount of 7 dollars to have an account, and if your account falls below 5,000 dollars, there is a monthly “fine” of 25 dollars. The bank’s manager used to be a Canadian lady, Amanda, who is married to a local. She left the bank to have her two kids educated in Canada. Since she left, the staff of the bank has doubled. It now sometimes takes an hour to reach a teller because only two work at any given time.

When I arrived on the island I went to the bank to check how much I had in my account. The clerk told me: 4,155 dollars. Every time I arrive at my house, there is a mountain of maintenance problems to solve, and I started to hire people and buy material based on that figure. One day, my caretaker Demarco Knowles comes and tells me that when he was at the bank the clerk called him over and said: “I gave Dr Savio the wrong information. The balance I told him he had was the balance of Dr Simons (an ophthalmologist who has a summer house in the Bahamas). Dr. Savio’s balance is 1,455 dollars”. So much for banking secrecy.

By the way, the second in command, who had worked assiduously under Amanda, has been sacked for stealing money from various accounts. He now works with his sister, selling sandwiches to the same people he stole from.

Difference lies in the logic

But I digress, so back to my assessment of local workers. The problem is that it is government policy – irrespective of the political colour of the party in power – to close the gates to immigration to ensure that local people are employed no matter what skills or work ethic they possess. It’s true that you can apply for a permit to hire a foreign cook, or whatever, but first you must prove that he will not deprive a Bahamian of work, and second you must pay a very high fee for the permit.

The main difference lies in the logic. Let me give two personal examples.

I have a house on the beach on the island of San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus landed on the 12 October 1492. The island is as large as Manhattan but with only 1,200 inhabitants, I live far away from the main town (population 182). My house has a stunning sea view, which continuously changes from turquoise to topaz to indigo to blue, according to the hours of the day, with coral heads dancing beneath the waves. To look after the house during the year, I employ a housekeeper, currently Betty Knowles (no relation to Demarco) and before her Jennifer Pinder, besides Demarco the caretaker.

Last year, when I arrived for the summer, I found the house invaded by termites. I had to change doors and furniture, and undergo a painful process of disinfestation. In the middle of all this, my housekeeper said: “Doc, I knew you had termites. Last time you were here, I saw the nest in the guest room”. So I asked why she had not told me. “I thought you knew,” she replied.

Then there is Demarco, an honest guy, which is a plus in the Bahamas, and a very nice person. Like many Bahamians, he spends according to his needs and wishes, not according to his income. Being a rare man who feels responsible for his children, he takes care of seven (from four or five different mothers). He has become something of an expert in mortgages, which does not mean what you think. He has become the object of mortgages. In other words, he mortgages himself frequently. As a civil servant (he works at the airport in the mornings, where there are 22 employees to attend to one or two daily flights), he can obtain loans from the bank which automatically deduct repayments from his salary.

Today, Demarco is 45 and owes the bank 60,000 dollars. He decided to buy a truck, and mortgaged half of his salary with me, asking for the loan to be repaid from the salary I pay him. The truck never runs because he has no money for that. He also wanted to buy a small bulldozer using the same system, but fortunately the owner declined to sell it, otherwise Demarco would have been left without any income from his other job. Now he is planning to start a strawberry plantation, even though I have found out that he does not know how much a basket of strawberries costs in the market.

But let me get to the point.

All my friends know that I can get up at any time, but I will not awake before 9 am. The main attraction of San Salvador is that it is a peaceful, restful place – so isolated that I rarely I see a living soul, beside my “staff”. This solitude restores my belief that humankind is perfectible, and that with rational thought we can make a better world.

This morning at 7.27 am, I was suddenly awakened by what seemed a brigade of stonecutters in full action outside my bedroom window on the ground floor. After some bewilderment, I realized it was Demarco, who was with his friend Alsi (a professional gardener from Nassau). They were digging the garden in front of my window to place new plants. (Ever since Demarco has worked for me, he has planted all year around, undeterred by the statistical evidence that all the plants will die because of the salt). Demarco knows that I am not an early riser. He also knows that I consider all this plant business to be foolishness. But, according to his logic, these facts are not as important as trying to impress one of his friends.

Nothing matters to them, not even death

And, since logic is the basis of language, it will be helpful to provide you with some code of communication in case you visit the Bahamas. If somebody asks you, ” May I borrow your whatever?”, this does not mean that he intends to give it back. It means that he is in need of whatever you have at that moment, and that after he has used it, he will totally forget about it. If somebody tells you, “First thing in the morning”, it means: I understand that you consider this very urgent. I will do the minimum necessary to calm you down, and one of these days I will do it.

Finally, remember that Bahamians are nice, gentle and smiling people (more so than others in the Caribbean). But nothing matters to them, not even death. Funerals, for example, are a time for singing and eating.

When I was building my house in 1991, I did a lot of masonry work. I carried at least 50 bags of cement, and by the end I was not in a great shape. So, carrying the last bag, I tripped over a stone and fell with the bag on my chest, flat on the ground.

There was excruciating pain, but I was able to reach my bedroom, which was in a small condo, not far away. I lay in bed, unable to move. But, at a certain moment, I had to go to the bathroom. I crawled the few metres, but the pain to take off my pants was so unbearable that I did not put them back on.

While I was crawling back to my bed, a car stopped at the door. Unable to run, and in great pain, I asked my wife to cover me with a kitchen towel, and pretended to sleep. This would be considered implausible anywhere else, but the visitor – a guy called Bernie – drank a few beers, engaged in some small talk, then looked at me and asked, “Is he dead?”.

My wife correctly replied: “Not yet”. And Bernie finished his beer and left.

*Roberto Savio is the founder of Other News and founder and President Emeritus of IPS-Inter Press Service. This article is being re-published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 23, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Photo: The writer

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