As a social scientist, I am supposed to be interested in how societies work and in human interrelationships, and I am. I love taking my annual holiday with my wife and her extended and extensive family in The Bahamas, not just for the wonderful communing but because it allows me to gauge some social and economic developments with sizeable time gaps.
At Christmas time, the tone is usually both heavily religious and festive. Carols and seasonal hymns can be heard all day long. Many more people are prepared to head to church several times a week. The willingness to give is often more evident. More parties are being held in workplaces, clubs, and private homes. The smell of baking is often in the air, as cakes of many kinds are put into and taken out of ovens. The taste of Christmas is present in the form of rich fruit and rum cakes. Egg nog concoctions start to emerge. Preparations are well underway for the annual Junkanoo festivities.
I try to look around and see how things have changed in the twelve months since I was last here. I am usually struck by one thing–the long-standing and happy marriage of the Bahamian to the motor car. Comparative (but outdated) data suggest that The Bahamas ranks around the mid-90s in terms of national rankings of car ownership per head of population. However, to my eye, it seems to rank much higher: streets are narrow and often choked with traffic, with many cars carrying only a driver. I am always an oddity as I walk rather than take a car, if I can. The Bahamian, living in Nassau, seems to have forgotten walking :-).
In keeping with the national strong religious beliefs, perhaps, the average Bahamian driver trusts in God totally: he or she prefers to drive without wearing a seat belt. Passengers, voluntarily or not, have similarly strong beliefs, because they too prefer to go belt-less. For those of us accustomed to driving on roads in North America or most of Europe, we would find such behaviour reckless. Enforcing of local seat belt laws was supposed to have been strengthened about this time last year. The laws were passed in March 2002, but have never been enforced, due to the public’s refusal to obey them. Nothing seems to have changed, despite the fact that fines have been raised. Drivers not wearing seatbelts will be fined $300. Passengers not wearing seatbelts will be fined $100. If children are found riding in vehicles not secured by a seatbelt or child safety, the driver of the vehicle will be fined $500.
For tourists, mainly from North America, the happy-go-lucky air that they associate with the region is well in evidence. People’s smiles are usually very broad at this time of year. How much economic agony people have been suffering, or are still suffering, is not so clear. The IMF reported recently that the economy is slowly recovering from the impact of the world recession, but the near doubling of the unemployment rate to around 14 percent over the past 4 years, shown in their reports, is but one gauge of the deterioration of local living standards. The retail business does not look like it will be rescued by a boost in Christmas spending.
To the extent that tourists venture very far from the popular resorts and hotels, such as Atlantis (fittingly located on Paradise Island), where they can find most of their needs well satisfied, they may see little that tells them how life is going for locals. They are less likely to venture into neighbourhoods that have few amenities of any kind, let alone things that may attract a tourist. If the visitors stay near the main shopping areas, they will see well-stocked stores with many high-end goods, or eating establishments with tables jammed full and patrons eating heartily. They will see a preponderance of locals–many well-dressed as befits those who work mainly in financial and legal services–spending happily. If they venture into some residential neighbourhoods what will they see? Perhaps, they would see children running around barefooted; or groups of men and women sitting on a stoop by a bar, drinking and talking loudly; or maybe, women on a porch braiding each other’s hair. None of these scenes would suggest to the visitor passing by any major worsening in local life. They may be right, because the people they see in such areas have not seen any major change in their already lowly lifestyles.
As usual, people are finding ways to cope. Asue, is the Bahamian term used for informal cooperatives to contribute and accumulate cash. This practice exists on other Caribbean islands and territories, developing from times when slaves were banned from using banks. In Jamaica, it is called ‘pardner’ or ‘partner’ system. People form informal cooperatives—with trustworthy persons organizing everything—to save and borrow money, waiting for their turn (or ‘draw’) when they can borrow the accumulated savings. Despite the rise in wealth that has benefited many in the island archipelago, asue is still going strong, and helping keep afloat many more than those on the economic margins. However, Bahamians love a wager, and gambling to try to help make ends meet is common and seems to be rising, whether through illegal ‘numbers rackets‘ or legitimate lotteries (one new version of which has been called (misleadingly?) Asue Draw.
Violent crime is rising, as it is across the Caribbean region. Murder and rape have reached very worrisome levels, and the trends are decidedly in the wrong direction.
I asked my wife, a Bahamian, and a pretty good economist, what was the opposite of evolution. Not surprising for an economist, she said it was regression. I think that term, suggesting that forward movement (progress) has been halted and is reversing, holds well for many situations one may observe in The Bahamas. But, looking at what seems to be going on with people and their lives, is decadence the more appropriate term?