Forty years and maybe more, or falling off the balance beam

Birthdays
are meaningless
except to measure the process
of maturing.

Pat Rahming, “Still and Maybe More — A Trilogy

Need I say it? I am overcommitted, and I am feeling compromised, and am consequently conflicted and a little angry at both myself and the system which governs us. I feel like I’m swimming underwater and there’s a pressure building up inside (or is it outside?) my head that is uncomfortable, to say the least.

This post is one small step towards equalizing the pressure.

Compromise

The feeling of compromise comes from the fact that as long ago as August 2012 I was asked to serve as co-chair of the fortieth anniversary of independence committee. Back then, in the golden haze that surrounded the change of government, there was a sense of excitement regarding this anniversary. It’s not always an excitement that stretches across both sides of the political divide; often I get the sense that supporters of the PLP tend to make a whole lot more of being independent than supporters of the FNM, but maybe that’s an assumption. Certainly there was a measure of scepticism about a big-time forty anniversary celebration. It’s a scepticism that I understand. After all, it’s not the fortieth anniversary that usually gets the attention, but the half-century, and rightly so.

I even share some of the reservations about a fortieth anniversary celebration that I have heard expressed. No need to go all out on this one; fifty is coming up. Now this is something that I happen to believe, to an extent. Fifty is coming up, and fifty should get most of the attention; true. But when I hear the easy and (forgive me) lazy comments that we don’t have the money to waste on celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our independence something happens along my spine and up the back of my neck. I suppose if I were a cat or a dog that’s where the fur would be standing up on end. I have very little patience in this uncontested oh-so-Bahamian habit of suggesting that spending money on national events is somehow a waste of time; and the more reading I do about our history the more my hair stands on end.

Money more sacred than people

We come from a tradition where it has been an unquestioned truism that money is somehow more sacred than people. It’s more sacred than ideals, and it’s more sacred than collective identities. It is an attitude that pervaded our governance all throughout the twentieth century. Back in the 1920s, the debates surrounding the establishment of a public high school that would make it possible for Bahamians who were not white to have even a hope of a high school education were fuelled by this question of affordability; opponents of the establishment of a government high school (who were, unsurprisingly, pretty exclusively wealthy and white) argued that it would be more cost-effective to establish a reformatory school for children (a sort of work-house perhaps?) because there was nothing in the colony for educated black people to do. (Apparently the idea of creating space for educated black people to exist was not something that was affordable either). Back in the 1940s, the argument for not paying the Bahamian workers on the Windsor Field project American wages was that the colony could not afford the consequent raise in wages that those workers would expect from all of their employers.  Back in the early 1960s, the debates attending on independence which inevitably accompanied the changes that were being made in suffrage were countered by the idea that the colony could not afford the cost of creating its own diplomatic service or its own military—things that, strangely, less than ten years later were suddenly affordable. In the 1980s, for some reason our nation was unable to afford the cost of maintenance of public buildings, or of supplying them; those of us who came of age in that era will well remember the persistent shortage of basic amenities in public offices and buildings, from chalk to toilet paper in our schools, from drugs in our hospitals (this during a time when banks were turning away deposits of cash owing to the success of a very different drug trade) to books in our libraries, from docks on our family islands to places of public renewal (think Jumbey Village) in our urban communities.  And in the 2000s, we were unable to afford an investment in CARIFESTA which might have energized our cultural economy and rejuvenated our tourism product and given us the potential to take advantage of the most vibrant parts of the global economy, culture and tourism, today (though we were more than able to borrow ourselves into an economic depression to deepen our harbour and build roads in New Providence alone—things that make you go “hm”).

Bahamian money: more important than Bahamian people.

Forty years of independence

So I am not likely to jump on the naysayer bandwagon and argue that we can’t afford to celebrate our nationhood by commemorating forty years of independence. On the other hand, though, I am equally unlikely to ratify half-baked and wasteful decisions. I hope that I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe in principle that celebrating our independence is either half-baked or wasteful; but there is such a thing as context, and context changes many things.

My personal challenge is simple. Each week I am called to attend a meeting of  the (recently formed) fortieth anniversary committee. Despite having been asked to serve as its chair in the middle of last year, the committee was appointed in January 2013. We are expected to sit around a table once a week to discuss activities for the year. At the same time, though, as I write, a document is circulating around my place of employment (the College of The Bahamas, for  those who may not know) which calls for fairly drastic budget cuts. These are cuts being imposed upon that institution by the government of the Bahamas, in the form of a (perhaps unprecedented?) reduction of the government’s subvention: a 10% reduction in 2013-2014, rising to 25% reduction in 2014-2015—the same government who has asked me to co-chair a committee that plans activities in honour of our fortieth anniversary of independence. They are cuts that will not simply require the trimming of some fat at what is already a fairly lean institution, but will certainly require the letting of some blood as well—and, if rumours about 2015 and beyond are to be believed, the chopping off of a limb or two. At the same time, 2015 is the year by which my institution is to be a university. Add to the mix the fundamental conservatism by which the institution has come to be governed internally—according to philosophies that privilege central control over shared governance—and also add the ways in which protests have generally been made within that institution—by personal attack, divisiveness and a pitting of one constituency (faculty, for example) against another, and you will understand that the balancing act with which I am currently faced appears impossible.

Falling off the balance beam

On the one hand, I understand the desire to recognize our fortieth anniversary of  independence in some tangible and uplifting manner. Among other things, in this country where our history is as well-known as the speaking of Latin, it has a practical significance that in some ways trumps the symbolic significance that our fiftieth anniversary in 2023 will have; it is the last major anniversary of independence when the people who will shape the Bahamas of the future can converse and work together with the people who laid the foundations of the Bahamian nation (and here I’m not just talking about the political leaders). That we celebrate it appropriately, to my mind, is imperative.

But on the other hand, when we are being asked to “celebrate” in a climate where one of the most solid achievements of our forty years of independence, the College/University of The Bahamas, is being asked to cut services which are already woefully under-funded and under-supported by successive governments, the question of what is appropriate looms large. And the irony of my personal situation is not lost on me. I know one thing for sure: that if the College is forced to cut 25% of its budget in an attempt to meet the shortfall it will face from the 25+% cut in government subvention, the independence that I am called to celebrate will lose much of its meaning not only for me, but also for the generation of Bahamians to come, whether they know it yet or not.

 

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