When Your Vote Slays the Prime Minister

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                          Terrel W. Carey/Tribune Staff, 12 May 2017

The Bahamas held its General Elections last Wednesday, and the incumbent party was slaughtered by its primary opponent. I mean, there were 39 seats available, and the incumbents, who previously held 30 (of the then 38), kept only 4 of them.

The Bahamas is a parliamentary democracy politically divided into constituencies, each with a representative who advocates on their behalf in Parliament. The dominant parties are the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement, though there are always others vying for prominence, as well as a handful of independent candidates. The party with the most seats in Parliament wins governance over the country, and its leader becomes our Prime Minister. A consequence of this system is that people tend to vote for a party or party leader over their constituency candidate.

In some constituencies this past election the challengers won by a large margin, and in others the race was a little closer. Nowhere was as dramatic as the former Prime Minister’s constituency, one he held for 40 years. Literally. He lost to his challenger by only four votes. The night of the count, there were a few numbers flying around – did he lose by seven? twenty-five? could it possibly be four? The challenger was declared the winner, and the PM asked for a recount. The next day we found out that indeed, he received 1,905 votes, while the victor won 1,909. You could even say he lost by three, since there was one protest ballot.

Whether you count it as three or four, seven or even twenty-five, that’s a stunning loss. And a humiliating blow for the former Prime Minister. There’s plenty to be said about this, and people are having a field day with it all. One lesson that sticks out to me is how important it is to vote, and how every single person who shows up to the polls matters. We hear this all the time, but it’s hard not to feel like being one in 300,000 or one in 300,000,000 makes your vote irrelevant. But think about the four people who didn’t show up on Wednesday. Were they inclined to vote for the then-Prime Minister, but figured they needn’t waste their time since he was pretty much guaranteed a win?

A friend of mine lives in his constituency and posted this on Facebook:

Five years ago, before the last general election, I was told by my MP that my vote didn’t matter because he was going to win either way. He won by a landslide, despite my vote. This past Wednesday, I cast my vote again, not thinking that it would really make a difference, but playing my part anyway. And he lost by FOUR votes! Never let anyone tell you your voice or vote doesn’t count!

What if she hadn’t gone out, because when she voted last time her MP was proven right? Our democracy has a ways to go, but in cases like this one I feel its strength and the power of my one voice. Of yours too. We can pull down giants and lift up the small man. We can say enough is enough and throw a government out on its hip, or demonstrate our willingness to give them a second – or forty-first – chance, with the mark of our pencilled X. If you live in The Bahamas – vote! If you live in any democratic country, vote.

The Woman Who’s Mad I Went to College

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Yesterday afternoon I went looking for people to talk to about the radio story I’m working on; one conversation in particular stuck with me. It started off ordinarily enough, with me asking a vendor about her work and her pleasantly sharing information about herself. It wasn’t long though before she got angry and railed against me.

The back and forth she said/I said don’t matter so much as the foundation for her antipathy. This woman, I’ll call her Elise, became aggressive and hostile because she believed the questions I was asking represented my own opinions, which she thought threatened her livelihood. She pegged me for an uppity, uncaring person, out to take all I could for myself and use people however I pleased on the way. She spoke vehemently against my education abroad – her one correct assumption – and exclaimed that I would make millions while she would receive nothing for our exchange. I tried to explain that I was playing devil’s advocate, that I was working basically for free, but she couldn’t hear me.

A wall of tension grew higher the longer we spoke, but still I tried to gently prod her and find out more about her position. I focused on not taking her barbs personally, and deflecting them back at the amorphous ‘them’ where they belonged. Thankfully by the end of our conversation I had eased her concerns and we parted on good terms.

I’ve interviewed all sorts of people, but never before sensed class as such a large obstacle to finding common ground. Our General Election is days away, so I couldn’t help but think about how a more politically based conversation between us might go – not well. I lamented the fact that Elise couldn’t relate to me because of the kind of life and prospects she thought I had. How do politicians do it? I’ve heard it said that appealing to the masses is a skill, but walking away from our conversation I wished I could have some of that magic. What could I have done differently? How could I have helped her feel at ease? I wanted to email my professors and ask them about difficult interviews they’ve done, and whether they had any advice.

Despite a hugely cosmopolitan history, including boatloads of political and religious refugees and 200 years of tourism, most Bahamians are black. There is a racial divide, acknowledged and frequently discussed; exploited, in fact, for political gain. Our class divisions, on the other hand, go by unremarked. Elise was angry at me because she believed my opportunities had twisted my mindset against her flourishing. It didn’t matter that we were both black.

Class seems like a far more ornery thing to fight than race. It emerges from the very systems that run our society. At least with race we can represent scientifically the fact that skin colour is among the shallowest biological signifiers. With class, either you have the money for particular schools or health care, or you don’t. Either you can afford to comfortably fit your family into a home, or you can’t.

The simplest take-away from our conversation is that you shouldn’t make assumptions about strangers and their intentions, but the result of that in this case points to a much larger issue. I don’t think there’s an easy answer; this is the subject many philosophers and economists devote their lives to after all. But I felt a poisonous negativity, a deep dislike and distrust of me based on nothing other than my background, and it was both hurtful and unproductive.

I Met My Grandmother at the Art Gallery

Story Teller“Story Teller”, Thierry Lamare, watercolour

Last week I went to the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas for a double exhibition opening: “George Cox, The Unseen Structure”, and “Thierry Lamare Retrospective: Love, Loss and Life”. I was expecting to enjoy the Cox exhibition because of my familiarity with the family and the work of both George – an architect – and his son John – an artist and the curator. I’d seen a couple of Lamare’s pieces in a digital newsletter and thought his exhibit would probably be pleasant. It completely blew me away.

The gallery was crowded with people, and still I felt as though I fell into each one of his paintings; I could feel the wind blowing, that slight stickiness that comes from salty sea air, and was warmed by the sun dappling my skin as it did his subjects’. Many of the paintings were of two older Bahamian women, Joyce and Ophelia, though there were others of different gentlemen and land and seascapes.

I bumped into a friend crossing the parking lot to the gallery, and after I walked through the Lamare exhibit on my own we viewed it again together, pointing out our favourite pieces and remarking on their unbelievable depth and detail. Through the shadowy windows of the women’s homes we made out bowls on tables and cups on sills. We marvelled at the subjects’ delicate wrinkles and veins and the way we could imagine the clouds passing in front of their faces.

Watercolour is a favourite medium of Lamare’s, but he doesn’t use it in that bright, sugary way I’m so used to seeing, with colours and images bleeding into one another. His paintings are rich and forceful, embracing the dark, and clean, clear figures. My friend loves lines and we commented on how they were so present we could feel them, although we couldn’t necessarily see them. From a distance you could mistake some of Lamare’s work for photographs.

The exhibit also included paintings on driftwood created with egg tempera, something I’d never heard of before, but I loved those too. The portraits of the men and women seemed to speak to me of their lives and their work: rigorous physical labour, constant, in the sun. I imagined them chastising me, questioning me and giving me advice, like my own grandmother, with love, wisdom and sometimes consternation. Lamare either had real relationships with his muses, or was amazingly talented since he was able to capture such personality in his painting; probably some combination of both. Then I turned a corner and read on a wall a letter he had written to Ophelia about his experience attending her funeral. It was tender and reverent, and gave us a glimpse into the ways he learned from and became close to her; she was more to him than just a subject. I was moved.

Even Lamare’s landscapes evoked emotional responses in me. There was a painting of the Hope Town lighthouse in particular that I could scarcely tear myself away from. I visited there with another friend of mine a few years ago, and the painting reminded me of our trip and helped me see the majesty of the lighthouse in a way I hadn’t before.

I came home gushing about the opening to my aunt, trying to find the words to explain Lamare’s incredible body of work. Two days later, out for drinks with the same friend I ran into at the gallery, we couldn’t help but talk again about everything we’d seen. Now here I am telling you that if you live in or will be visiting Nassau, you have to treat yourself to the exhibit. It will be up until September. I’ll be there again in a few days and I can’t wait. If you won’t have the same privilege, visit Lamare’s website, though understand that seeing his work online is a poor substitute for seeing it in person.

On a Nature High

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I’m writing from my backyard, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon. I so love the sun. It feels like every day since I’ve been home I find myself exulting in the weather. It is so beautiful! How can the sky be so blue? How can the flowers be so richly colourful and the greens of trees, grass and plants so vibrant?  Then there is the persistent kiss of sun on skin. How glorious! Simply being outside I feel it embrace me, like a lover who missed me dearly  and is bursting with exuberance to see me again. I take great pleasure in being able to walk outside in shorts and a tank top, to leave the house in a sundress and sandals. What luxury, to sit on my grandmother’s porch, run on the beach, drive with the windows down. I love being warm. I love being warm.

I surprise myself a little with the depth of my enthusiasm for the climate and the flora, though I remember even as a girl I marvelled at the environment and took advantage of opportunities to be outside. Perhaps now that I’ve lived away for extended periods, and in much colder parts of the world, I have a better sense for how much I appreciate the easy pleasures of these islands. What bliss, to wander the yard barefoot! To look up and see a vast expanse of crisp, clear sky! It is a tonic for my of-late weary soul, a shot of energy and thankfulness more swift and sure than any caffeinated drink or online article. I look outside my window, I step out the front door, and I feel reborn.

The Prime Minister’s Middle Finger

Our Prime Minister flipped off a critic at a party event on Monday night. The person wasn’t actually there, but the PM wanted everyone present to know what he thought of their thievery allegations.

When I heard this news, I was disgusted. It’s ridiculous for our 73 year old PM to be behaving that way, and this is the kind of incident that sets the tone for rudeness, aggression and violence in our community. When our own Prime Minister can’t conduct himself properly in front of a crowd of sycophants, how can we expect better of people who see him and the rest of our politicians – consciously or not – as models for how to live and relate to one another? I want to be able to look up to our leaders and be inspired by them, not shake my head in disbelief and wish for them to demit office.

Recently, PM Christie described our society as the Wild West because of the increasing number of murders. His finger gesture makes him look like a hypocrite, since it displays the same disrespect, callousness and lack of self-control necessary to take another human life. If he – a career politician and our chief public official – doesn’t have the discipline to manage conflict in a dignified manner, how can he criticise young, disenfranchised men for not doing the same? He certainly isn’t setting an example for them to follow.

Christie isn’t the only disappointing politician in the news. So many of our leaders are nasty, corrupt, greedy and rude. I long for a change in our government, when there are more people to admire than to be frustrated with and to disdain. I don’t have to support their positions, but I would like to be encouraged by their work ethic and thankful for the way they esteem their office. Obama showed me that this is possible, and so I hope. God raises leaders up and makes others fall, and so I pray.

Thankful for Community, in Sickness and in Health

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I was out and about this weekend, all over Nassau. Saturday was spent with my uncle, and we got an early start. First in the west, then central, then the downtown area in the east. There was equipment to move, a building to inspect, and a couple of fairs to go to. The first was organised by his church, a steak-out to raise funds for… I don’t know what. The endowment? The second was the Tru Tru Bahamian Festival held at the grounds of John Watlings Distillery.

There wasn’t much to the steak-out, we arrived at the very beginning of the event so there weren’t many people there. The music was incredibly loud for the small courtyard where it was held; definitely loud enough to attract passersby but far too loud to make staying there for a long time at all comfortable. I can’t imagine how the people who worked the grill, the dessert tent and other jobs must have felt at the end of the day.

The Tru Tru Bahamian Festival, pictured above, was bright and colorful, bustling with people; since I’ve been away there were many to catch up with! I know I’m not alone in loving celebrations of local businesses and artisans like this. The day was beautiful and the sun wasn’t hot. There was enough going on for it to be lively but not so much that it was overwhelming.

Lunch at the church fair kept me from being very hungry, but I got a green smoothie and my mum and I shared a cajun lobster snack (what Bahamians call any protein paired with fries). Neither of us enjoyed it. The lobster tail was smothered in who knows what combination of spices and tasted like too much and nothing all at the same time. “I didn’t know it was possible to ruin lobster,” Mummy commented later. I’ve never cooked lobster and don’t eat it very often, but I was surprised by how badly the dish failed all the same. Seems like it failed me a second way too, since Monday morning I woke with stomach pains and had to go to the bathroom, there to remain for the next seven hours.

Seven! I’m not sure I’m really sorry to have shared that detail, since I don’t know if anything else truly conveys the magnitude of my illness. The first few hours were spent in ways you can easily imagine. The last few I lay on the floor, in and out of sleep, too weak to move anywhere else. When I found the strength to leave the bathroom I moved to the couch, and there I remained for the rest of the day, into the night. Paradoxically, I was almost immobile from nausea. I didn’t even know that was possible.

Oh it was terrible! I vowed never to eat again, and decided this was the kind of punishment people should wish on their worst enemy. Today, three days later, my neck and stomach muscles are still sore from the violent retching. I’m feeling heaps better though, and am so thankful for everyone who helped care for me and checked on me.

That was one thing I was genuinely happy about in the midst of the misery. Last year when I was sick because of my students I was all alone. It sucks being sick when there’s no one to make you tea or bring you water or medicine. I wonder if it doesn’t actually prolong illness, since you have to drag your weakened body to care for yourself, or forego treatment entirely because you’re unable to administer it on your own. I’m thankful for my community! Whether mingling under palm trees or measuring tablespoonfuls of medicine, they make all the difference.

Tuna and Grits

Tuna and grits is a classic Bahamian combination, appropriate for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but traditionally eaten for breakfast. When I’m away from home, it’s a comfort food and a way to fight homesickness; I know a lot of Bahamian students and expats feel the same. Then, when I get back, tuna and grits is one of the ways I feel welcomed and grounded. At some point not long into my return, someone somewhere has this combo on the table. There’s no need for a special request, it just is; as much a part of the landscape as palm trees and colourful cement buildings.

Last year I met and admired a wonderful woman. In hopes of starting a friendship with her  I invited her to breakfast one Saturday. I brainstormed a whole list of menu ideas before I decided to tell her more about myself through this simple classic. The morning came and I offered tea, orange juice and homemade muffins, then announced that the star of the meal would be tuna and grits. She was surprised at the combination and asked for only a little, but found she loved it and had seconds. I was so pleased to be able to share a bit of The Bahamas with her and that she enjoyed it as much as she did.

Is tuna and grits truly an odd pairing? I can’t judge since it’s as ordinary to me as peanut butter and jelly, and almost as plain. Grits: preferably yellow. Polenta works in a pinch but has a slightly different flavour probably owing to its completely different mouth feel. Boil them in salted water and be generous with butter when they’re done. Tuna: from the can, tossed with lime juice, mayonnaise and finely diced onion. That’s the salad at it’s most basic, but you can add celery, habanero or goat pepper, sweet pepper (why), apples (my family’s spin) and/or mustard (I love a little). Those are the most popular add-ins I’ve seen, but you can get creative. Don’t go crazy though, the tuna has to shine through. It doesn’t share the stage with any other ingredients (if you’re thinking tomatoes, walnuts or grapes, you’re heading in the wrong direction). The result should be smooth, a little crunchy from the onions (and celery), tangy from the lime, and possibly with a sweet and spicy kick if you’ve used apples and pepper. On a plate or in a bowl, two colours asking to be swirled together: yellow and grey, like you’ve seen on all the pinterest wedding boards.

The meal is simple enough to make, but takes more time and foresight than toast or cereal, so growing up it was more of a weekend affair. Tuna and grits means eating with family, a morning spent registering the blue sky, bougainvillea and birdsong.

How did Bahamians start making tuna and grits? I’m now wondering. There are other “and grits” combinations: sausage, egg, sardines, corned beef, so the question takes us back into food history and socioeconomics. All these pairings are cheap, filling and provide protein and carbs to hold you over for hours. It makes sense that they’d catch on and continue to be popular. Whatever the root, I’m home now, and thanks to my mum (for the idea and the grits) and brother (for the tuna), I enjoyed a bowl for breakfast – in case you couldn’t already tell.