Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper

It’s been a long time since I was one for debating politics. I’m not saying it never happened. I am a Bahamian after all. But I’ve since recovered from that particular illness. There is little to debate. There is little that is happening worth debating.

OK, so I know that the pundits and the newspapers might disagree with me here. After all, you have only to open a computer or a newspaper and you will see drama splashed across the page or screen. Hit men. Foreign investors. Referenda. Rogue politicians insulting people. The wry satire of political one-liners. The rabid hate of, well, haters. And crime, crime, crime.

But there is nothing to debate about these things. There are simply facts. They are sobering facts. They tell us very serious things about who and where we are as a people and a nation. And yet we do nothing about the facts. Rather, we use them for entertainment. We use them to point fingers at public figures, to rack up Likes on Facebook, to provide “commentary” on what we generously call “politics”, to delude ourselves that engaging in that kind of conversation is making any kind of difference.

We are in decline, because we spend too much time talking about people and situations, and too little time doing anything to bring about change.  We continue to assume that those people who present themselves for election to public office can make any kind of dent in this decline, and waste hours and breath bigging up or tearing down this or the other of those people.

We willfully ignore another fact: that far too many of today’s public political actors are either devoid of any shred of integrity or compassion or intelligence, or else have compromised so much of themselves that integrity, compassion and intelligence have been bartered away for nominations, political ascendency, power. We disregard the very clear truth that virtually all the people we’re currently faced with electing have had to choose between their personal convictions, their values, their goals for their nation (assuming they began with these), and their place in their particular political party—and that virtually all of them have made the wrong choice. What we see in the political sphere are greed, truthlessness, cowardice, megalomania, and lunacy.  When last did we see our politicians display qualities like honesty, humility, or common sense? These days, party politics are a corrosion which destroys everything it touches.

And so I have absolutely nothing to say about political parties. Do not ask me to say anything; do not ask me to comment on any one of them; they are all compromised, all tarnished, all corrupt in many ways, big and small. One or two individuals stand up head and shoulders above the crowd; but even these have sacrificed their ability to bring about real change for the perceived security of remaining tethered to their parties.

But I do have something to say about this:

We need a movement.
I am the first Volunteer.
I am not going to create a new initiative. I am going out from the studio everyday, and I am going to help those who are already helping others; I am going to serve our people and I am going to ask you to send them what you can to help, but more than that, I am going to ask you to join me.

Simply put, My Fellow Bahamians, we are in the midst of an unprecedented national emergency. A crisis of faith, a crisis of conscience, and ultimately, a crisis, not just of leadership but of servant leadership.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Anyone can become great, because anyone can serve. In service is our greatness”. Therefore, my friends, I will do everything in my power everyday from here forward not to permit any Bahamian child to go to bed hungry, homeless or in fear.

I am going to live Dr. Kings message.
And, I am asking you to join me.

–Jeff Lloyd

Amen. I am on board. It’s a new day. Talking about a revolution sounds like a whisper, and I’m whispering.

Back to the Referendum

Eighteen months ago, I was invited to write an article for Global Voices about the proposed referendum on gender equality in The Bahamas. It was published in October 2014, a month before the referendum was initially scheduled to take place. That the referendum didn’t take place is common knowledge now; it was postponed to allow “public education” to take place. Well, it’s now back on the national agenda, and I’m not sure how much education has happened. So I am now going to publish what I wrote back then in its entirety in an attempt to inform the discussion we are now having with some facts.

The Commonwealth of The Bahamas is amending its 41-year-old constitution. I’m using the present continuous tense, because the amendment is a process, one that began some twelve years ago in 2002. Back then, a constitutional referendum was held and failed—the proposed amendments to the Constitution were rejected by the general public. But the need for amendment has persisted, and ever since 2012 a constitutional referendum has been imminent.

The main issue at hand is the question of equality between the sexes under the constitution. The most striking instance of inequality in our constitution is that between men and women in relation to their ability to pass on Bahamian citizenship, but, as the most recent Constitutional Commission has noted, the inequalities in the current constitution are manifold. This Commission has narrowed them down to the following categories: inequality between men and women, between children and between married and single people. To this we can add inequality based on place of birth.

The last item on that list notwithstanding, the Constitutional Commission has drafted four bills which, if passed by the two Houses of Parliament and agreed to by the general public, will make Bahamian citizens more equal than non-Bahamians by seeking to address the first three inequalities.

Put simply, the main inequalities are as follows:

– Married Bahamian men and unmarried Bahamian women automatically pass their citizenship on to their children at birth.

  • Bahamian women cannot pass their citizenship on to their overseas-born children at birth, if they are married to a non-Bahamian.
  • Single fathers may not pass their citizenship on to their children, as the constitution defines children born out of wedlock as not having a father.
  • The non-Bahamian wives of Bahamian men are afforded the right to be granted citizenship upon application.
  • The non-Bahamian husbands of Bahamian women are afforded no such right.

The issue, however, is complicated by several other requirements that make the passing on of citizenship from parent to child less straightforward. Primary among these is a clause which addresses the institution of marriage. Under this clause, unmarried Bahamian mothers are defined as “fathers” for the purpose of passing on their national status to their babies. This particular clause also nullifies single Bahamian fathers’ ability to pass on their citizenship.

The four bills drafted to amend the constitution seek to rectify the situation. They are designed to promote equality for children, among men and women, and to enshrine the principle of equality throughout the constitution. The first of these seeks to award the children of both Bahamian men and women citizenship at birth. The second entitles all non-Bahamian spouses of Bahamian citizens to Bahamian citizenship. The third allows single Bahamian fathers to pass their citizenship on to their offspring. And the fourth bill seeks to enshrine the principle of equality between the sexes in the constitution by adding the word “sex” to the list of categories under which discrimination is prohibited.

On the surface, this seems a simple enough task. It is complicated, however, by a public discussion which has focused mainly on the fourth amendment—the one which is, in its own way, the simplest of the proposed changes: the adding of “sex” to the categories prohibiting discrimination.

The current categories include race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, and creed, but exclude sex. The opponents of this amendment have construed the word “sex” as relating to sexual orientation, and have gained much traction in the eyes of the public by claiming the constitutional amendments are designed to permit same-sex marriage. If this Article is amended, their story goes, Bahamians will be giving the government permission to allow same-sex marriages to take place. These arguments obscure the principle of equality between the sexes and make this clause appear the most controversial—which also makes it the most threatened as the time for the referendum draws near.

And there are other questions of inequality that have not been addressed. Most notable among them is the question of birthplace and its effect on the awarding of citizenship to Bahamian children. There are two elements at work here. The first is the fact that birth on Bahamian territory is no avenue to citizenship if neither of one’s parents is Bahamian. The most that a person born in the Bahamas is entitled to is the right to be registered as a citizen upon making application at the age of 18.

The second, more difficult challenge, is the kind of citizenship one is granted if one is born abroad to Bahamian parents. One peculiarity of the current constitution which has not been put forward for amendment, is that children born to Bahamians abroad, even if they are classified as citizens, have no automatic right to pass their citizenship on to their own offspring. In other words, children born to Bahamians studying or working abroad, or giving birth in another country for reasons of health, may be classified as Bahamian citizens. However, if they themselves have children outside of The Bahamas, those children are not Bahamians at birth, and have no right to claim Bahamian citizenship whatsoever.

The issue is complicated, and most Bahamians are not aware of this stipulation. Most of the discussion relating to citizenship and our constitution has focused on the next generation—on our children. We have not yet thought about our grandchildren. What the current situation does ensure, though, is that not one of us, whatever the outcome of the referendum and whatever amendments are made to the constitution, can be confident that our grandchildren will be Bahamians at birth.

Let me bring this home. In my family, I have cousins who were born abroad because their Bahamian father was studying in the UK at the time of their birth. They are Bahamian. Their children, though, unless they are born in The Bahamas, are not.

Similarly, I have a nephew who, once again, was born in Canada when his Bahamian father was studying. He is a Bahamian, but his children, unless they are born in The Bahamas, will not be.

Finally, I have another young cousin who was born in Miami while his parents were there getting medical treatment for their older son. That cousin, even though both his parents are citizens, will not be able to pass on his citizenship unless his children are born in The Bahamas.

And none of these issues even begins to address the question of statehood for the many children of undocumented immigrants (most of them of Haitian origin) in The Bahamas. Most of those children currently have no national status at all. It is a situation which must be addressed, but which has not been touched upon in the present referendum.

So critical is this question of citizenship that a 2013 Report on the constitution recommended appointing a second commission altogether to focus exclusively on the issue of statelessness in The Bahamas, as the commissioners did not feel they could give it the necessary attention. No such move has yet been made.

The constitutional amendments are long overdue. They will go some way to equalizing the granting of Bahamian citizenship to children, and to even out the distinction between male and female, married and unmarried, that currently exists. But they are only a beginning. Serious issues of inequality remain, and the climate in which the discussions regarding the referendum is taking place has grown fraught with misdirection. The popular interpretation that the addition of “sex” to the categories where discrimination is prohibited is an endorsement of same-sex marriage plays into a deep-seated homophobia in Bahamian society. But it’s also worrying for another reason: it is entirely possible that this relates to homophobia only tangentially, and is in fact a strategic move to campaign for constitutionally-sanctioned misogyny without openly admitting that fact.

Bahamas Junkanoo 2015/16 – Chinphotographics

I am indeed impressed with the strength and tenacity of the Bahamian people – those who participated in the parade and those who came out in their droves to watch, cheer, dance and support. Being the main symbol of the African past as well as national identity, Junkanoo in the Bahamas flourishes and lives on in the consciousness of every Bahamian at home or away. Where is this cultural identity in our other Caribbean countries? Other countries such as Trinidad and Jamaica have over-commercialized their carnival parade to the point where it has become less about rituals, national identity and pride and more about partying and making money. These carnivals have become a huge parade of people scantily clad (some wearing costumes), gyrating on each other, getting drunk and “having a good time”. Junkanoo in the Bahamas has compressed the celebration of family, tradition, rituals, and national identity into one colourful event that showcases the true pride of the people on Boxing Day and New years Day.

Source: Bahamas Junkanoo 2015/16 – Chinphotographics

On Revolution

Ladies and gentlemen, I am working for the revolution.

I have disengaged from many of the channels that purport to give news or share ideas. I maintain a presence on Facebook, but more often than not I check my newsfeed only after someone I know and trust has told me of some intervention that has happened in that space that piques my interest. I have stopped listening to radio talk shows often and I do not watch the news. I skim newspaper headlines but do not take them seriously enough to do so every day. I check my Twitter feed because the people I follow in Tweetville are pretty sensible and are still able to inspire original thought or honest reaction from me, but even so. I correspond on an irregular basis with groups of activists whose approach to politics and social issues does not focus on personalities or on partisan mythology but attempts to rest on principle and fact. This is not something that is limited to here in The Bahamas; I am not following the American campaign for the same reasons. Personality and partisan mythologies guide public discussion, and both slather reality with a toxic frosting of lies.

I live my life in college classrooms and theatre spaces and tiny crowded meeting rooms because I have a need to engage with constructive, original thinking. I’m working for a revolution that is not happening in the world of current affairs. My best conversations are with those people who are struggling to identify and comprehend root problems and then seek to solve them with ideas and action. I have worked for two and a half years now with a group of researchers about whom I was initially sceptical, but whose perseverance, openness to change and willingness to engage with people on the ground, to listen to their challenges, observe their lives and recognize their needs (some of which those people did not know they had) has transformed the way I think about my country and its problems, and I no longer have patience for the run-of-the-mill approach to social ills.

So I’m working for the revolution.

***

The revolution? you ask. What revolution?

Well, here’s the thing. We have created a society in which young Bahamians do not want to remain. I have had and overheard more conversations about emigration than I ever could have imagined I would. Once upon a time the thing that distinguished The Bahamas was the fact that ours was a society into which people immigrated, not from which they emigrated; but in the second decade of the twenty-first century the tables have changed. More and more, Bahamians, young and old, are considering leaving the country of their birth to find another permanent home.

The reason? We have systematically and proudly created a society in which all are welcome to flourish except our own children. We have created an open economy which invites expatriates to make investments in our society but which does not allow much room at all for citizens to compete on any level field; which offers concessions to foreigners but does not give breaks or incentives for locals; which encourages education and offers scholarships to virtually anyone who wants a higher education, but does not provide any opportunity within our country for those people who have attained that education to pursue the careers of which they dream.

We live in a society that ignores, splendidly and in the full assumption of correctness, the painfully obvious: that our refusal to deal with the question of waste has affected the quality of the air we breathe, contaminates our groundwater, and poisons our land; that our neglect of the many islands that constitute The Bahamas has resulted in severe overcrowding in the capital and an exacerbation of social ills; that the islands on which we live, low-lying and porous, are dangerously vulnerable to rising sea levels; that the structures and institutions to which we have clung ever since we inherited them from the British are inadequate to meet our current needs; that our collective bigotry blinds us to the realities of our population and our labour force; that our addiction to fundamentalist ideologies has blocked us from considering different ways of being in this world.

Our children can see very well what we refuse to, and those who can move are choosing to live their lives elsewhere.  We live in a nation which once flourished, but we are smothering it by our collective actions.

And so: I’m working for the revolution.

The revolution will truly put Bahamians first.  I will not argue here with those people who insist that without foreign investment the Bahamas will sink and die; but I will say that no society that does not make room for its own citizens can hope to survive.

The revolution will reward merit, not longevity.

The revolution will reward innovation. The revolution will call for it.

The revolution will imagine greatness and seek to achieve it. I have been to places in this world where stunning achievements were made by madmen/dreamers: Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro is one of them, the Taj Mahal is another; the pyramids a third. Our society currently smothers such dreamers, laughing them down, and rewards pragmatists who make our country smaller and less remarkable because we make no room for risk. The revolution will take risks.

The revolution will make room for young people. Their ideas can save the world.

The revolution will break the stranglehold the single tier of government has placed on our whole nation. It will free the islands from the clutches of Nassau, and will encourage development across our whole archipelago all at the same time.

The revolution will privilege the rule of law over the rule of expediency.

The revolution will try wild ideas and when they fail try more of them until it finds the idea that’s so wild it makes sense.

And that’s just the beginning.

So: I’m working for the revolution. I’m sowing seeds in 2016. Let’s see what trees they grow, and when.

Nicolette Bethel's Blog