Losing our steps: Intangible culture, living memory and the space for a culture to exist

By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett

And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. The LORD shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.  Deuteronomy 28: 23 + 28

I cannot say why this quote from Los pasos perdidos (1953) by Alejo Carpentier the Cuban writer and musicologist resonates with the work of capturing or documenting cultural heritage in the Southern Bahamas. However, these words capture beyond reason so much of what time has done in these islands. We, as a people, also treat Bahamians as if they were second-class citizens in their country. The system of paradise and exploitation, created during piracy and continued during colonialism, is not about white against black but rather about a system of exploiting those who cannot—or are not allowed—to speak for self because they are repeatedly told they do not have souls, they are not human and they should be grateful to be allowed to be near such greatness.

Carpentier is a truly incredible writer and is important to us as Bahamians in the Southern Bahamas that once gazed on and spent days learning and shopping in those southern neighbours, who we now turn up our noses at.  His work shows not only the fecund nature of the region, but also how quickly erasure can occur as indicated by the title, the lost steps.  It is not only that the steps are lost, but that they are utterly forgotten and leaders can pretend as if they never happened.  In this magical realism—or marvelous realism—that we inhabit, so much of what is real is more unbelievable than fiction; we are cautioned not to believe the bearers of glad tidings lined with empty promises that only extend a hand that extracts the marrow from the nation and the community.

The Mayaguana 21st Century Airport. Unused chairs lay bare on the outside. All images courtesy of Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett

The marvelous real, where history is forgotten, is upon us in the Southern Bahamas.  Indeed, the efforts to control, manage, package, celebrate and enliven Bahamian tangible and intangible culture are essential to the survival in the modern economy.  Once upon a time, the land was never sold, it was only ever leased. The colonial governors and the Crown ‘lent’ huge tracts of land to other sovereign states, where they set up bases and developments, other large swaths of land were deeded to cousins and other relations. Today, the state gives away swaths of land that holds the lives of Bahamian folk in its balance for cents on the hectare, where no real money changes hands, and the money that does is often kicked back into deals that continue to enrich a small group at the endless expense of the nation.

However, as cultural heritage is safeguarded, it is less easy to squander a people’s patrimony or birthright. The UNESCO project to build and protect our intangible cultural heritage creates legal instruments and an overarching system that sees fit to protect this for future generations. Cultural patrimony is not only about today; it is about all the generations to come. We can see the cultural shifts that occur with time’s swift progress but we can also capture these in art, design and cultural industry that is not limited to arts but is about focusing on all aspect of creativity from fashion and haute couture, fine dining to building and manufacturing; these are creative industries. Food canning and spice and pepper preserves are other excellent areas we can expand in. Instead, we put all the energy into building resorts for people, who may come once and never return, or homes that stand empty for 11 months of the year and may employ one lady to clean part-time.

The ‘New Airport’, Mayaguana. The construction stands in ruins.

The darkness as nature reclaims what was once developed and hides it from memory is salient in a culture that is so rich, yet is exclusively depicted as paradise for pleasure seekers.  It is the poking in the darkness of the middle of the day that resonates particularly as we pretend to attend to investigating our culture.  It is the irony of loss with the promise of the future, roads paved with gold yet devoid of humanity that has struck me as so utterly devastating and tragic.

The Southern Bahamas lives, not in a time forgotten, but in the space of abuse, neglect and ‘political pawnage.’ The nothingness that was once pregnant with promise and potential stands now like a forgotten nightmare, tossed aside, used and very much erased by the vagaries of political cronyism.  Los pasos perdidos is about the splendor of a robust and fecund nature ready to erase the footsteps of those who were once there.  It is reminiscent of the cultural loss that is being visited on these islands and cays and so on the national whole as populations die out, migrate out or are replaced by empty promises of development that would pave over the very nature of the nation.

Intangible cultural heritage is part of the rich tapestry of life that we ignore or simply do not understand but practice daily. The loss of tangible and intangible culture can be seen as a natural progress of time, but when we discuss the lure of ‘cultural tourism,’ we see that we are starting from the back and so we can’t be the swiftest nor the nimblest as we have missed the very essence of cultural tourism.

Ministries of tourism do not make culture, they rather spotlight what already exists, but it must be preserved and conserved to remain.  t cannot be eradicated and still expect to attract visitors from far and wide to gaze on the empty space of where cultural heritage stood but was bulldozed.

Remnants of old US NASA testing base in Mayaguana.

As the ‘nine-seater’ fumbles into the longest landing strip in the Caribbean, we are then greeted by a reality of rot, abandonment and neglect.  So much of what once thrived on these islands of Inagua and Mayaguana has been eclipsed by bush and dereliction of duties that it is hard to imagine what Bahamian prosperity would look like.  The ‘airport’—another misused term when applied to where one lands in Mayaguana—is now waiting to be remembered as the weeds choke out its potential for future joy.  So few Bahamians can access these spaces and know about the wealth these islands and islanders have that we should begin a new course in all schools called learning The Bahamas, our home.  By building awareness of Bahamian culture, tangible and intangible, by developing the creative industries and inviting the world in to see who we are, not whom we are told by the outside we are, we can become great.

Mayaguana needs locally-focused, locally-driven development that may be small-scale but creates wealth for the community; it does not need a multi-million dollar, multi-million-person-a-year resort that shuts down in the offseason, leaves its trash on the land, pollutes the incredible waters, and plucks out the remnants of social history, intangible culture, and the plants and aquatic life that support local culture.  We do not wish to replicate Nassau on every rock, cay, and island in The Bahamas; too many people wish to avoid this place. Why duplicate a pariah of crime, overcrowding and poor zoning, where local life is left a long way from or choked up under the resorts that build walls to block out the ‘stench’ of poverty.

Traveling around the country gathering information has shown how magical reality is and how rich actors become by under-developing their people.  As Walter Rodney demonstrated How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the same is true today where we talk about cultural tourism that means people who come to paradise for an exotic adventure but everything indigenous is for sale, sold, or developed out of the national coffers.  We must embrace our patrimony and develop it so people who live and work here—be they permanent resident, citizen or temporary resident—will enjoy and benefit from it without destroying its uniqueness.