On Monkey See

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.