On New Tings

Bahamians, it’s said, love new tings.

To some degree, that’s true. Just let a new restaurant open up. You better hope they got valet parking, because without it you’ll never get near the place. You better eat before you go, because you won’t get a table until well into the digestive process, and your stomach will start in on itself. And you better find out if they take reservations, because without them you may have to wait a week or two to even smell the door.

Or just let a new car come on the market. Even better, let it be a big car, expensive, preferably with some gold on it somewhere — on the logo, maybe, or where lesser makers would put chrome. And then watch the roads, and count to see how many of them appear within the next month or so.

Or just let a new service be provided for (say) a cell phone — or even let a new cell phone hit these shores. You’d be surprised (maybe you wouldn’t) how many people invest in it.

Or just let a new place of worship open its doors. Better yet, let that place of worship come complete with a new building or even a new style of service, and watch to see how full that place will become within a week or two of its establishment.

But just don’t mess with our overall way of life.

I’ve got a couple of things in mind here, and most of them have to do with my ministry — two in particular. The first is National Youth Service. And the second is Junkanoo.

You see, the idea of National Youth Service, which comes onstream at last this year, this month, has been kicking around for longer than many of us have been alive. (I use that “us” advisedly, by the way; I’m a little older than the idea, but only just.) It was first advanced by the brand-new Progressive Liberal Party shortly after they came to power, and discussions intensified about it right after Independence. Nothing happened back then, because the idea was too foreign, too new, and the populace resisted so strongly that the government dropped the idea. It resurfaced back at the end of the 1980s, when it became apparent that the so-called drug scourge had affected a whole generation of young Bahamians, many of them men; but once again the electorate struck back. No service for my good child, was the refrain. (Some people read that as no mixing — of classes, of races, didn’t matter, but never mind that now.) And so it is that almost forty years after the idea was first introduced, National Youth Service is finally becoming a reality.

Now some may argue that the reason it hasn’t happened before is that the time was not right, or that the pitch wasn’t right, or that — well, something wasn’t right. I’m not so sure that those reasons aren’t correct, but I’m not so sure that they are, either. I’m not so sure that it matters. What matters is that we did not like this new ting. And so we fought back against people of greater foresight and vision until it became absolutely clear to many of us that this was something we had to do, or else.

And then there’s Junkanoo. Well, there’ve been plenty of new tings happening in that festival lately, from the introduction of $75 dollar tickets to the institution of a new management structure. It’s not entirely clear that Bahamians are overwhelmed with these changes. While some people flock to the best seats, many others — many of them relatives of the very people rushing in the streets — can’t afford a good spot, and are excluded from full enjoyment of the achievements of their loved ones. And while the new management structure seems to have made the group leaders happier by raising the level of trust between the people operating the parades and the people competing in them, from the outside — or from the bottom — it’s hard to tell that anything’s different at all.

You see, I’m not so sure that the adage that Bahamians like new tings goes much beyond our surfaces, or far beyond our stomachs (and even then, we’re picky about what we put there). If a new ting comes attached to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing ourselves, we run like the blazes in the opposite direction. If we return to Junkanoo for a moment, consider what’s really new about it. When was the last time we say something really revolutionary in someone’s presentation, or in someone’s costume or design? When did someone go out on a limb and bring something truly radical to Bay Street?

The answer lies in the groups who don’t get all that much airplay, who don’t feature big in the public imagination: Colours, who build small, audition their members, score their music, and paste according to a limited palette of colours; Barabbas, who invented a new way of carrying cowbells and started a whole craze in drumming; the Fox Hill Congoes, a group who are almost gone from the public mind, but who introduced the legions of big bass drums to the parade.

The fact that we don’t celebrate these groups for their innovations, but rather ignore their new ideas or ridicule their difference and continue to pick our winners from the tried-and-true pairing of SaxoValle suggests to me that we really don’t like new tings as much as we think we do.

You see, the new tings we love best are those that come from away. New ideas, new habits, especially those proposed by Bahamians, are harder to catch on. We’ll change clothes and hairstyles and vehicles and televisions and furniture and eating places and preferred vacation styles, but we’re a whole lot slower to welcome new ways of doing the things we take for granted.

The trouble is, until we wake up, look hard and embrace innovation, we are going to lose more and more of ourselves. Cultures thrive on change. Without innovation, our culture will continue to assimilate changes that come from beyond. And we’ll find that the new tings we do like are going to come more and more from the outside, and will speak less and less to us about our selves.