Cultural Heritage & Erasure: “Protecting our inheritance and patrimony”

By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett

How do we forget that when we lose our tangible culture, we actually also lose our intangible culture?  They usually go together.  Culture is not just a product that we package and sell.  It is actually a process, a way of life, a rhythm that is embodied in a place.  Exuma and Long Island, Acklins and Bimini have very different rhythms. They do not all practice Rake ‘n’ Scrape the same way, nor do they cook the same dishes in the same fashion.  Boat building on Abaco is different from boat building in Long Island; each community has its own identity and rhythm that does not conform to national structures.

As we travel around the country, touching down in various islands and moving from settlement to settlement, we begin to see the major impact time has wreaked on local development.  It is neither a pleasant nor positive sight.  Many communities that would have been thriving hubs of life, the passage of time, fortune and misfortune have altered them to the point where they are almost unrecognisable when compared to their former selves.

Many settlements have been utterly depopulated and the intangible culture that resided in those spaces has been left to die with the decaying infrastructure and crumbling ruins.  Ironically, we invest so much time in promoting culture and The Bahamas to an outside audience that we forget what and who we are and how we live.  As we drive down Queen’s Highway on Long Island, for example, we no longer see the thriving and burgeoning development on the island that would have been evidenced after the 1992 change when electricity and paved roads became more common realities.  A government had been in place for over 20 years that had almost killed a community.  Yet that community insisted on its continuity.  The turnaround visible on Long Island after that change of government was amazing: people started returning to an island that had once thrived, but was encouraged into decline through depopulation and disenfranchisement.

Dying settlements on Exuma, abandoned schools and clinics after the passage of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (2011, 2012 respectively. All photographs courtesy of Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett.

The burgeoning development was soon eclipsed by the nightmare of two extremely destructive financial recessions, one in 2001 and the other in 2008 and that showed we should not put all our eggs in tourism’s fickle basket; when recession hits, tourists stop coming, people lose jobs, homes and communities disappear. This devastation was then compounded by th destructive Hurricane Joaquin, which left serious and deep scars on the already-marked island geography.  Homes stand empty, some roofless, others have only front walls, windows are gone and others are being rebuilt, slowly, but the island communities of the 1990s and early 2000s are shadows of a former vibrancy.

As we progress, we have soundly destroyed many unique cultural aspects of island communities.  Many communities have been erased by the march of time and the vagaries of the market.  Music used to attract people to Bahamian shores, yet it has been neglected by a government that has accordingly promoted culture of The Bahamas.  Nassuvians often talk of the Family Islands as if they were countries separate and apart from the capital and of the people who migrate to New Providence from them as strange beings, they speak differently and do things differently.  We refuse to recognise their cultural agency and uniqueness when we talk of Bahamian culture.

On Exuma, communities in Forbes Hill and Williams Town stand in ruins, save for a few individuals who resist the push out.  At the same time, we have built developments that attract exclusively foreign residents. These communities are not a problem per se, but when they become the de facto representation of a place, we should understand that local development has been eclipsed.

Dying settlements on Exuma, abandoned schools and clinics after the passage of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (2011, 2012 respectively. All photographs courtesy of Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett.

Money is withdrawn from small indigenous communities, schools, clinics, community centres and churches that fall victim to central government decisions to move benefits to the off-shore communities, who temporarily come in and bring their own culture with them.  The cultural impact of this shift is devastating to local identity.  We embrace them, but when government defunds local development and hurricane relief funds evaporate without touching devastated communities, something is wrong.

As we explore Junkanoo and Rake ‘n’ Scrape we should see that not all communities practice these the same way.  Some spaces use saws some use bottles and spoons, a few do not celebrate Junkanoo, and others do.  As elders die out, the old story talk and community tales of events and the folklore of place are quickly lost to the pervasive culture of Westernisation.  Many students on these islands no longer know that plantation ruins exist.  They have no knowledge of indigenous plants and curative practices because these things are old people stuff, and actually, as land is cleared for gated communities on islands with minute indigenous populations, the medicinal plants, rocks and sands used to perform certain cultural practices become harder to find and are lost forever.

We have been quick to get rid of personal identity unique to Bahamian spaces and places.  We must always be cognizant that spaces create identity, because identity is space and time based and specific.  The identity that one has here on the mainland is not the same as the identity in Mangrove Cay Andros or in Deadman’s Cay, Long Island.  However, we have taken on this broad-brush approach to Bahamian identity that negates the cultural specificity of the individual experience.  We have determined as a people that everyone should be cookie-cutter uniform.  This idea has given rise to an exclusive focus on international tourism as the savior of the country.

Rake ‘n’ Scrape master, Orlando Turnquest, demonstrating how to clean a goat skin in lime and water in Long Island.

As we document cultural practices, we find it increasingly hard to find living sources of the same.  The displacement of the clapboard shack, the small two room block house to accommodate the five-bedroom, air-conditioned generator-powered, tropically flavoured house occupied every few months for a brief period, much like the now ubiquitous sailing yachts and marinas filled with sprawling luxury yachts, have become the local landscape.  The Bahamian vernacular has changed.  In short order, it will be lost to an international vernacular that focuses on tropicality, with little Bahamian authenticity.  It is not to say that the two cannot co-exist, but the one cannot replace the other without erasure of cultural heritage.  The work of national entities such as schools, galleries, museums and clinics is to give indigenous Bahamians access to their cultural history and a past that is running quickly down the drain.  Museums and libraries that have been destroyed or damaged, clinics and schools that are ‘waiting’ to be reoccupied quickly fall apart and result ultimately in indigenous cultural erasure.  This view is not for me, but for someone who does not see me other than as a person to serve them.  We are losing small communities rapidly and with them go many elements of cultural heritage.