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Too Many Unanswered Questions and Lack of Respect

We are now in our second week of lockdown and received a national address from the Prime Minister on Sunday evening which gave very little information. Last week’s Ministry of Health briefing gave the usual information, though all of the questions posed by journalists were not answered. In response to some of them, health officials said the Prime Minister would address the issues on Sunday. Unsurprisingly, he did not.

Since the action by doctors and nurses, we have been asking for details on the PPE inventory and availability. This was glossed over with no numbers or policies provided. It was only said that there are PPE supplies available and they are topped up as needed. We do not know who controls access to them, how often staff are able to change them, if there was ever a shortage, or why there is a huge gap between reports from doctors and nurses and those from authorities. This needs to be properly addressed.

PPE is not the only issue on which authorities refuse to give clarity. It was not even possible to probe further as the Prime Minister insists on giving national addresses instead of press conferences which allow for questions from the press. One-sided communication is insufficient and unacceptable. The government works for us and it needs to answer our questions.

The Prime Minister’s limited communication with the nation has been severely lacking. His speeches are still padded, far too long and condescending. National addresses should not be sermons. They should not be lectures. They should not be scoldings. At the very least, they should provide basic information and respond to the questions deferred from the previous Ministry of Health press briefing.

Is no one making note of those unanswered questions? There is specific information Bahamians would like to have. What changes have been made to the budget? What is being done to prepare the hospital and other facilities to handle the increase in COVID-19 cases? What is the current pace of the National Insurance Board and Social Services in fulfilling requests for benefits and assistance and what changes are being made to accommodate more people and expedite the process? What factors will determine whether or not the lockdown is extended beyond the set two weeks?

In a 45-minute address, these kinds of details should be clearly communicated.

While we know these are uncertain times, the people want, at the very least, certainty that they will be kept up to date on COVID-19-related issues. Every time a national address is announced, people get anxious and start to make assumptions about what will be said. Ahead of the last address, many were expecting the lockdown to be extended due to the continued rise in cases. There was no mention of this in the address and it was a reminder that we are never given that much notice.

The delay in communication does not appear to be a consequence of days-long deliberation or snap decisions, but a conscious decision to give us the smallest possible window of time to make preparations. Yes, we know that with the announcement of lockdown comes the rush to grocery stores and gas stations, but we also know this is due to both household circumstances and the lack of trust people have in the government. We have been caught off guard before, and no one wants to be left unprepared.

There is a need to build trust and assure people that they will be able to get what they need. If this does not happen, there will always be a rush, and the small windows for preparation do not alleviate this. Instead, they concentrate it. This tactic does not make sense.

This country is not a kingdom or a classroom and should not be treated as such. We need clear communication, and that includes letting us know when authorities are considering a particular action that will affect our daily lives. It is not much to ask. If this lockdown is to be extended, the least the Prime Minister could do is let us know before this weekend so we are not all at the grocery store on Monday.

Have a plan to handle the lockdown at home

At this point, it makes sense for households and individuals to have lockdown plans in place. Here are some items to include in those plans.

  1. Decide who will be responsible for household errands. This person does the grocery shopping, fills prescriptions, gets water, and anything else that will likely require queueing. This person has a routine they meticulously follow to ensure that their household is not compromised. This may include taking no personal items aside from a card or cash for payment into the place of business, wearing gloves while in-store and handling packages (which requires a well-thought out plan), and calling someone to open the door to the house so they don’t touch anything. This should be the person in the best health.

  2. Do as much as possible online. Set up online bill payment with utility companies to avoid more lines and time in close quarters with other people. Ask your bank about paying bills using online banking. If you are nervous about using your credit or debit card online, there are ways to make payments directly from your bank account. You can all purchase a gift card to be used during lockdown for bill payment, ensuring that potential compromises have no effect on your bank account.

  3. Get on the same page with everyone in your household. If anyone breaks the lockdown, everyone in the household is at risk. Households should not mix. Agree to give up the parties and other events you usually host or attend, or find ways to do them virtually. The lockdown puts a barrier between you and other people. Don’t think only of the person you want to see outside of your household, but all of the people to whom they have been exposed, and the people to whom they have been exposed. You do not want to be a part of a contact-tracing chain, so stick with your household and get everyone else to do the same.

  4. Set up a workstation if you and others in your household need to work from home. It can be tempting to operate from your bedroom, but this can disrupt your sleep. Choose a space with good lighting, strong wifi (or the strongest available in your house), a cooling device, and a proper chair. Make it a practice to sit there during work hours so your brain understands what it needs to do when you are in that position and location.

  5. Share the load. No one person should be expected to work from home, keep the house clean, occupy and supervise the children, and prepare meals. Figure out how to balance the workload.

  6. Check in with yourself every day. Pay attention to the way your body feels, the way you are progressing with work, and your mood. Make sure you are eating on time, drinking enough water, getting fresh air, and able to think and talk about more than just the current circumstances. If you are in need of mental health support, call the Bahamas Psychological Association hotline—819-7652, 816-3799, 812-0576, or 815-5850.

As we spend more time at home, it can be tempting to fall into habits like working in bed, binge watching television shows, eating all day, and online shopping. Pay attention to the amount of time spent on these activities, the financial cost, and the effects on your well-being. There is a difference between a carefree day and general disorder. By now, you know what you are likely to do and can identify your coping mechanisms. Give yourself allowances and limitations. If you need help finding balance, ask someone in your household to help or set up a virtual buddy system. We are all trying to make it through difficult days. Remember that others are working through some of the same challenges and talking about them, setting goals together, and checking in can help. Even though we should not physically gather, don’t underestimate the importance of community.

Published in my weekly column in The Tribune on August 12, 2020.

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Choose Life, Play by the Rules

We are almost two weeks into our new and temporary way of living. It has been extended, as many of us expected, and it is in our best interest to follow the guidelines provided.

It became clear from very early that there are people determined to be defiant. It is not clear whether those people are just ignorant or have other issues. Many of us were concerned about the emergency orders and the power it put in the hands of a few from the very beginning. Most of us, however, have been able to reconcile that it is critical for us to take guidance from medical professionals, practice being “together alone,” and do our part to flatten the curve.

This is not a conspiracy. This is a matter of life and death. By staying in our homes, except for essential tasks, we choose life not only for ourselves, but for each other. We know the healthcare system does not have large capacity and COVID-19 could complete overwhelm it. It is currently within our power to prevent that from happening and protect the elderly and immuno-compromised.

I remain concerned about the most vulnerable among us and more people and organisations should be talking about and advocating for them. At one of the first press conferences, a journalist asked: “What about homeless people?” It was distressing to see and hear officials in the room laugh in response, as though the unhoused are not people, they do not deserve consideration and it is not required of officials to intentionally make provisions for them. Days later, we saw that unhoused people were arrested for breaking the curfew.

Let’s be clear. This is not funny, and this is not the fault of the unhoused. This is an embarrassment. It is evidence of the need to consider vulnerable groups. What are people without homes expected to do? Did anyone check the hotspots and attempt to provide housing for those without it? Well, they could not even be bothered to give serious thought to the simple question posed at the press conference.

Little has been said about women experiencing domestic violence. We can expect their situations to worsen as they are effectively trapped in their homes with abusers. Abused children are in the same situation. There were no messages directed at them. They were not even given a phone number to call if they felt unsafe and wanted to be rehoused for safety reasons.

There was no promotion of domestic violence hotlines or ways to reach police officer trained to respond to domestic violence reports. Again, a journalist asked about domestic violence and the expected surge, and all the prime minister said was they could call the police. In case you have never had to call the police to report domestic violence, let me tell you that it is not always helpful. It is often difficult to get officers to take it seriously under regular circumstances. How much worse would it be now, with a curfew?

We must hold this government accountable for the effects of its decisions and its refusal to put safeguards in place for vulnerable people. Unhoused people and those experiencing domestic violence are just two groups. Who else is being left out, and what are we, as citizens of privilege, prepared to do about it?

More questions please

A group of people, always on the job and keeping us informed, is one we do not always remember or thank. We see them on television screens and livestreams of the news and read their stories, but a lot of the work they do is invisible. They are members of the press. They tell us when Members of Parliament have failed to disclose their assets and liabilities. They report election results. They attend Parliament and let us know what took place. They find the right people and ask the right questions in order to keep us informed.

These days, they are focused on COVID-19 and the way the government is handling it. They are keeping abreast of the numbers, watching as things unfold in other countries, researching the virus and the varying national responses to it, and asking questions that help to give us a better understanding of the virus itself, what is being done to contain it and how effective our efforts will be over time.

It is important to note many of the journalists attending press conferences and covering the COVID-19 crisis are young people. They are researching, monitoring social media, thinking critically and asking questions we all want answered. The answers do not always come easily, or at all, but they are persevering. It must also be noted they remain professional in difficult circumstances, including in the face of outright rudeness.

The question and answer portion of the press conferences are quite limited. It seems each journalist is allowed a maximum of two questions and there is little room for follow-ups. It lacks flow, completely impeded by an unnecessary moderator. There is no need for anyone to interrupt the question and answer portion. Questions should be asked and then answered by the person best equipped to give accurate information.

It is also unhelpful for the journalists, already in the room so presumably checked and approved, to be badgered about where they work and how many people present are from that particular media house. Those issues need to be sorted at the point of entry. With less time spent on micromanaging journalists and offering largely useless commentary, it would be possible for them to ask more than two questions, or at least be permitted to follow up as needed.

A cursory look at the comments on the live feeds and social media commentary makes it clear many are frustrated by this “moderation” and would appreciate the facilitation of the media doing its job – getting pertinent information to us.

Focus on what matters

There is no denying this is a difficult time. We are practicing social distancing, losing income, trying to find credible information, being duped or trying to help others not to be duped by false information, unsure about how long this crisis will last, tired of the people in our households, upset that we cannot walk or run our usual strip and worrying about people in other households. It is amazing that so much is going on when we are not even moving. We have to do what we can to improve our mental health.

We need to limit news consumption, especially if it is a source of stress. There is no need to be online all day, every day, taking in reports from all over the world, anticipating the challenges we will face and getting riled up by radio talk shows. Take breaks. Decide how much news you can consume in a healthy way. This may be the morning news and evening news, it may be one or the other and it could be 15 minutes on social media. Decide what works for you, set the limit, and stick with it.

A lot is out of our control. This can stressful. Some of us want to stop our neighbours from going out. Some of us wish we could cook for our grandparents who live somewhere else. Some of us have no idea how we will pay the next bill. While these are valid concerns, we need to focus on what we can control. We cannot visit other homes, but we can call daily to check on people. We cannot make money appear in our bank accounts, but we can work on our resumes and cover letters, and we can work on passion projects. Let’s so what we can, and think less about what we cannot change.

One of the things we can do to restore some normalcy and bring joy to our days is connecting with loved ones. Check on those aunts, uncles, godparents and long distance friends. Set up video chats. Have virtual lunch dates, watch TV shows together and show off your gardens. I have had at least one video chat per day since Saturday and it has been great to catch up with friends I have not seen in a long time.

Admittedly, we talked a lot about the situations in our countries, but we also got into more pleasant conversation about favourite TV shows, best books we read so far this year, new relationships and what we are cooking. Talking to friends about ordinary matters is a reminder that we are people, there is good in the world and human connection feels good.

Let’s do our best to connect, find and spread joy and put our attention on the things we can control. Whatever energy we have, let it be put to good use, produce what we need and help people whose needs are greater than our own. While tourism is paused, let us be more hospitable to one another.

Published by The Tribune on April 1, 2020.

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Culture Clash: We Need to Prepare for a Plastic-Free Bahamas

The commitment has been made to ban single-use plastic in The Bahamas by next year. There have been a few mentions in the media since 2018, but I have not seen much happening to prepare the public for the changes to come.

Earlier this year, I read that single-use plastic bags would be banned in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the end of this year. I was surprised because plastic bags were being phased out for years. When I attended university there, it was a norm to separate waste. When I came back to Nassau on breaks, I’d walk around with cans or bottles for a long time before realising I would not come across the appropriate bin since we do not sort waste. In addition, while I was there, grocery stores started charging for plastic bags. The options were simple — pay ten cents for each plastic bag, buy a reusable bag from the grocery store, or bring your own reusable bag. Everyone there, including students from other countries, got with the programme. Eventually, plastic bags were not even an option in some of the stores.

On a recent trip to Antigua, I quickly realised there were no plastic bags. Some stores offered paper bags, some sold reusable tote bags and others encouraged customers to bring their own. I kept a canvas tote bag hanging on my door to remind myself to take it with me when I went to any store. Here, we fuss about certain items not being double-bagged and I have never seen anyone take their own bags to the grocery store. I rarely see anyone refuse a bag when they could put their small purchase in a bag they already have. How will we adjust when the ban is in place?

Major grocery stores should be taking the lead in preparing the public for the changes. They could start selling reusable bags at a reasonable price. Takeout restaurants and coffee shops could encourage customers to bring their own cups by offering discounts on beverages and promoting the option. It is time for a small business to make reusable utensils and lunch kits available for sale. We may even have the raw material to make them. Find out how the Small Business Development Centre can assist in getting that kind of business off the ground. Individuals can start buying the necessities, if only one item per month, to avoid a heavier burden at the end of the year. We don’t all want to get bamboo forks, spoons and straws for Christmas, nor do we want to see significant increases takeout prices in 2020. Let’s start talking about the options that exist, and those we can create. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

It is also important to note the ban on plastic straws is not as simple as it may seem. If it is not already, the Ministry of Environmental Health Services needs to specifically engage the disabilities community as bendable plastic straws are necessary – and not substitutable – for some people living with disabilities. The ban on single-use plastic will affect some of us more than others.

If this is the tunnel, where is the light?

While many celebrate the arrival of summer, this has to be the most difficult time to be in Nassau. It is hot with seemingly no relief unless you have the luxury of air conditioning. It is infuriating that something so basic – and increasingly necessary over the years as temperatures rise – is so cost-prohibitive. Many forgo the use of air conditioning because electricity bills are already too high. Even some who are willing to make the sacrifice are made to suffer as Bahamas Power and Light fails to properly manage its equipment. Even the free relief — dipping in the ocean — has been halted due to reports of sea lice or thimbles that bite and leave people itching for days. In this kind of heat, that is a risk many of us are not willing to take.

The outages come without warning, and there are two types of people — those who charge every device when they get below 80 percent and have a battery-operated fan, and those who are caught off guard every time and have come to almost enjoy posting angry comments on social media.

The bar for Bahamas Power and Light is so low that some of us were impressed when a load-shedding schedule was shared last week Monday. Unfortunately, it did not include every area, and the practice did not continue. We were, the very next day, back to being completely in the dark. We are all upset. We all say we’ve had enough. How many of us are prepared to stop paying the bill? How many are prepared to be without electricity? How many are willing to take action to compel BPL and the government to clean up the mess and provide one of the most basic needs for the residents of this country?

We are often stuck in cycles of recognising an issue, complaining about it, getting temporary relief (often knowing it will not last) and descending to the previous condition. The ongoing issue with BPL is one example. We are at the place where we do not care about the transformer problems and illegal dumping excuses. We want the problem resolved, but we keep getting bandaids. As we continue to pay electricity bills, however high the climb, sweat it out in our corners, purchase generators and keep them fuelled – and drive around for hours just to be in air conditioning – we ease the pressure. We signal that, even in our frustration, we are only prepared to whine about it for a few minutes.

BPL cannot even be bothered to give us schedule. It does not believe that we, as customers, deserve to know when the service we pay for will be disrupted. They are making decisions about who will be turned off and when, and choosing not to advise the public. Is this not enough to fire us up? To stop all payments? To get comfortable in the air conditioning on Tucker Road for a few hours? Maybe that is too extreme, requires too much planning and convincing, or would inconvenience us too much. Maybe there is another way to demonstrate our displeasure and apply pressure to the people who can do something about it for more than a few hours at a time. Are we ready to imagine, discuss and act on it yet?

The battery-operated fans, generators, air conditioned cars and mobile data are making us more comfortable and, yes, helping us to function, but let’s not get complacent. The problem still exists and it’s getting worse. We, the affected, may have to be the ones to inspire the resolution.

Published by The Tribune on July 17, 2019.

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Bring On Political Quotas

Last week, when questioned about the lack of representation of women in parliament, Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis said 30 to 40 percent of the Progressive Liberal Party’s 2022 slate of candidates will be women. He noted the best proportion could be higher, but it depends on who makes themselves available. Both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement both had outrageously low numbers of female candidates in the 2017 general election. It is clear political parties in The Bahamas are not paying enough attention to issues of gender, how they contribute to them, or the ways they can bring transformation.

Public sentiment about political quotas has been negative over the past few years. The topic draws commentary from people who are not only annoyed by conversations about gender equality, but do not understand how quotas work. Political quotas are not about arbitrarily putting women in seats. They are about creating environments in which women have the opportunity to receive the necessary training, education and experience, present themselves as candidates, receive party and public support to run for winnable seats and represent their constituencies well. Quotas encourage political parties to make adjustments that result in increased access for women. If every political party has to ensure 30 percent of its slate is women, they will have to invest in better recruitment and training practices because they want to win. Their wins are inextricably tied to the performance of individual candidates and women should be included.

It is important to dispel the most widespread myth about political quotas. We do not advocate for a political quota only to see a high number of women candidates in a general election. We want great representation. Our support will go to exceptional candidates who show understanding of issues of national concern, critical thinking skills, ability to develop solutions and other characteristics and relationships that ensure they will be effective (such as the full support of the political party and its leadership). Today, we are not convinced candidates with the greatest potential truly have access.

Can they engage in the process to become candidates? Do they have the support they need, especially if they are not already well-known? How can they compete with people who embody what so many believe a leader to be, just by being men?

Women, feminists and women’s rights advocates want true representation and are as concerned about the quality of candidates as everyone else, if not more. We have seen what appointing a woman just because she is a woman can do. We want excellent candidates. A political quota would help us to ensure such candidates are able to participate and not blocked because it is more politically expedient to run someone who is more readily seen as capable because he is a man. We have to intentionally make space for women and, by doing so, change the way we see women, leadership and women in positions of leadership.

In some countries, there are political parties that have instituted quotas. Voluntary quotas have been adopted by political parties in Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Kenya and Malta among others. If the Progressive Liberal Party is serious about ensuring women are given equal opportunity to participate in frontline politics by responding by the inequalities in systems and practices, it has the opportunity to set a precedent. It can be the first political party in The Bahamas to reserve a proportion of its slate for women and develop a process for recruitment, training and campaign management that accounts for gender relations. This needs to happen and it is imperative it is not a one-time deal, but is embedded in the party’s constitution, pushing others to do the same. The political quota is not the only need, but will prompt the systemic changes we need in order to move toward gender equality more broadly and proper representation in frontline politics in particular.

When we begin to see women as leaders and as effective representatives, we will no longer need a political quota. For now, it can only help us to move further along with people in parliament who look like us, live like us, understand us and can advocate for our specific needs as a constituency.

Published by The Tribune on June 12, 2019.

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Religious Leaders Need to Work to End Sexual Violence

Bishop Simeon Hall recently called on the church to take a stance against sexual violence, specifically including acts within families and marriage. He made a distinction between the desire for sex and the attempt to gain power which leads to sexual violence. Hall also correctly made the connection between the dehumanisation of women and failure to see us as valuable people, noting society must value women in order for sexual violence rates to go down.

We need more leaders of the church to not only “boldly decry” sexual violence, but to implement programmes and policies that address the issue and support survivors. Hall encouraged women to report to the police, seek medical care, and take their time to heal. These are all important to hear, particularly for women who have been taught their wellbeing is worth less than the reputation of male relatives.

Many churches have men’s groups and women’s groups. Are they talking about sexual violence, making a distinction between sex and rape, making members aware of available resources, and advising of the support they can expect from the church and its leadership? They need to do all of this, but also to sensitise members to the issue and encourage them to support survivors and refrain from trying to silence them for any reason, biblical or otherwise.

A troubling part of Hall’s statement, however, was his comment about Bahamian women accepting and promoting “a low self-image of themselves and other women”. It is not clear exactly what he meant, but it appears to be a form of victim-blaming — pointing to women’s own behaviour or beliefs as contributing factors.

It is important to understand that nothing women do outside of perpetrating acts of sexual violence is a cause of sexual violence. Self-image could mean appearance in which case I emphatically state that nothing about a woman’s appearance is a cause of rape, whether she looks a certain age, wears a particular outfit, is visibly differently-abled, or seems to earn a low income. There is no such thing as asking for sexual violence.

Self-image could also refer to sense of self including abilities and value. Again, this is not a cause of sexual violence. It is, however, important to separate perceptions of women (including our perceptions of ourselves) from the value of women as human beings and as contributors to family, society, and economy in a system rigged to extract our labour in excessive amounts without appropriate compensation or consideration to the need for change.

Men do not just need to learn to take rejection. They need to respect women and recognise us as human beings. They need to be taught about consent and agency which is our ability to make decisions on our own. It is critical we all understand consent where agreement to participate in a specific activity is given freely and enthusiastically without coaxing and can be withdrawn at any time, whether or not the activity has started.

Some structures function to limit us and force non-consensual activities such as the belief that men are entitled to the bodies of their wives and wives are biblically bound by a one-time consent rule. These cause harm on multiple levels and are contributing factors in the high rate of sexual violence in The Bahamas. People look to the church for direction, and the leadership needs to stand up and provide it in ways that create change.

Published by The Tribune on May 1, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Minnis’ Cabinet Shuffle

No matter how low we set our expectations, there seems to be surprise, embarrassment, and frustration at every turn. There has not been much to celebrate in recent weeks, the increase in Value Added Tax bringing a muddy tinge to our reality. It puts everything in a different perspective. We do not think about anything without considering the twelve percent VAT added onto it, or the twelve percent VAT that should cover it. This is about more than grocery. It is about management of funds, yes, but also about government operations and the way resources — especially human resources — are used.

We are more watchful, critical, and vocal when it feels like the money is coming directly out of our pockets, and it is. From the decision not to appoint new parliamentary secretaries with a reason — that the positions are unnecessary — pointing to a waste of $90,000 to reneging on the commitment to host the IAAF World Relays and, at the same time, claiming the Bahamian people “accepted” the VAT increase, the Prime Minister is obviously determined to do as he likes whenever he likes and create false narratives while refusing to acknowledge criticism.

Cabinet shuffle on our dime

The cabinet shuffle came at an unexpected time. This administration has not even been in for eighteen months and we have already ministers and permanent secretaries moved from one ministry to another. How is this beneficial to the Bahamian people? Is is cost-effective? Does it increase productivity? Is it a morale boost? There is no reason anyone can find to support this move.

When asked to explain the reason for the shuffle, Minnis said, “It gives individuals exposure and experience in all the different ministries. That’s why I don’t have any ministry. I have no ministry so I can look at all and learn about all.”

This raises even more questions. Why is the Government of The Bahamas in the business of offering work-study placements? We all know cabinet appointments are rewards to the faithful and the spineless. Prime Ministers treat those who have supported and spoken no ill of them with favor in the form of an additional salary. They would have us believe it is too much to ask for some consideration to the qualifications and experience suitable for each post.

It is clear that the intention is not to put people where they will perform best, or give ministries the benefit of experienced ministers. Minnis said, “Individuals are moved and they become knowledgeable in certain things. There is no so-called pre-training before you engage in a post. You learn and you become very good.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As long as the Ministers are benefitting from these educational experiences, right?

Of course most appointments depend on the limited range of education, skills, and experience of members of parliament elected, but due consideration to the optimal mix should be a part of the nomination process. There is no excuse for using government ministries — responsible for areas critical to our economic, social, and physical wellbeing such as health, education, youth, sports, culture, and tourism — as training grounds for people paid tens of thousands of dollars from the public purse. This is an insult and an outrage.

Minnis: Looking and learning or primary duties only?

As for the statement that Minnis has no ministry so that he can “look at all and learn about all,” similar concerns arise. Minnis is not the Prime Minister so he can get paid work experience in numerous fields. It is doubly troubling when we bring to mind his 2017 explanation for having no ministerial portfolio which is quite the opposite of this new line of reasoning.

“I made this decision in order to perform my primary constitutional duty as prime minister. This primary constitutional duty is the coordination and oversight of the Cabinet of the Bahamas,” Minnis said.

There is a difference between looking at and learning about all ministries and performing the primary duty of the Prime Minister. He should be able to entrust ministers with the task of overseeing their ministries and the departments therein and communicate regularly with the permanent secretaries, department heads, and cabinet. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to be intimately involved in every ministry, and no explanation for the waste of resources in reassignments and loss of productivity due to unnecessary, often disruptive changes.

Minnis said it himself. “You go in, you read, you understand, and many instances you become better than who was there, sometimes you’re not.”

A more believable version

Maybe we choose to buy the “exposure” story because it is easier to accept that the Prime Minister really thinks governance is a game of musical chairs, or appointments are collectible items and his people need to get as many as possible. What if there is another version of the story? Recall the appointment of Lanisha Rolle as Minister of Social Services and Community Development. People were not happy about it; least of all the people who celebrated the upgrade of The Bureau of Women’s Affairs to the Department of Gender and Family Affairs in 2016. The establishment of the Department felt like a step into the twenty-first century, but Rolle’s appointment was disappointing at best, terrifying at worst. She had already made it clear that she did not stand with the women’s rights advocates in The Bahamas.

It was, as expected, a disaster. The RISE (conditional cash transfer) program was discontinued in less than two months, never to be discussed again. Little, if any, information was provided to the press on this or any other issue. Regular meetings with women’s organizations suddenly stopped. It became more difficult members of civil society to get information. The then Minister of Social Services and Community Development outright refused to meet with many stakeholders. It seemed every single thing needed her approval, and this resulted in very little being done, and last minute announcements of events like National Women’s Week and International Women’s Day.

We learned from observation that her brand of empowerment, for women and those living in poverty, was the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps variety. There have been reports of her blatant disrespect of others and intentionally impeding progress on new and existing projects. She was certainly ill-suited to this ministerial portfolio, and it took far too long for her to be moved. Now, the question. Was this the real reason for the cabinet shuffle? Did Minnis finally get the memo — that Rolle needed to be moved from the Ministry — and choose other people to move at the same time in hopes that it would be less obvious?

If this is not the case, it is quite strange that the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture lost Michael Pintard. It is odd that only four ministers are being shuffled. The others must be just as deserving of the “exposure” Minnis is giving out at our expense.

There is more than enough happening — and not happening — to upset us. One of the most frustrating is certainly the lack of honesty and integrity that would prompt leaders and representatives to plainly state the reasons for their action. Lay out the logic behind decisions. It is not good enough to give a quick response to move on to the next question or end the engagement. Bahamian citizens must demand to be treated with respect. After all, we are the employers. We pay twelve percent VAT. That has to count for something.

Published in The Tribune on July 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Playing Follow the Leader

When we talk about leadership, we usually point to government as an example. The Prime Minister is seen as the ultimate leader. There is no one with more control. No one with greater power. No one with more responsibility. No one in a more important position. No one more unquestionable or beyond reproach. No one more silencing, domineering or undoubtedly correct. The prime minister is synonymous with leadership.

If you have managed not to rip this page to shreds, which of those statements made you uncomfortable? In which parts did you find irony? At which point did you think I could not be serious? What does this tell you about the way you feel about leadership in The Bahamas, and the positions and people we typically view as leaders?

Who’s in charge here?

It is interesting that we view politicians as leaders, even more than we see members of parliament as representatives. When we talk about leadership, it is often in ways that validate and celebrate dictatorial practices. One makes the decision for many. Consultation, if it exists at all, is at a minimum. The attitude is: “you put me here, so let me do my job”. This, however, only seems to work in one direction.

Members of parliament manage to say or demonstrate this to constituents, but ministers can not say this to the prime minister. It seems everyone is a leader until they have a leader, and in the presence of a high-level leader, all other leaders are stripped of the title.

Those who dare to behave like leaders, rather than subjects of the high-level leader, are scolded, belittled and threatened. The firstborn loses all authority when the parents get home from work.

What kind of leadership are we practicing if it is threatened by anyone else – even on our team – asserting themselves, offering criticism and developing solutions?

Leadership of a different kind

Minister of state for legal affairs Elsworth Johnson has been one of the only a few people to dare speak on even mildly controversial issues with any degree of honesty and both personal and professional understanding and obligation. In November 2017, he spoke strongly in support of proposed changes to citizenship law. Without pressing for people to adopt his position, he implored the Bahamian people to “come up to a higher level and accept certain truths as they exist in our society.” He encouraged respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

In March 2018, Johnson spoke to the issue of marital rape, noting people are not property. He encouraged a consultative process, accountability and transparency. He said: “It is accepted international standard that information maintained by the government is vital to civil society. That information when properly dispensed to members of civil society undergirds a democracy to give life to it and it allows people to properly involve themselves in the governance of the country.”

This is what we should expect of a leader. Willingness and ability to state positions on issues. Pushing the government to make information accessible to the public and provide opportunities for engagement.

Encouraging the public to participate in the process, access information and come to informed decisions. Johnson has demonstrated and exercised the ability to think for himself, challenge his colleagues and invite public discourse.

This flies in the face of the unspoken mandate of Bahamian ministers and members of parliament who are to tow the party line. The only opinion is the party’s opinion, the only challenge is to the Opposition, and the only reason to engage the citizenry is for votes.

Compare Johnson’s leadership with that of the “leaders” who refuse to take positions on hot button issues, sit small until their names are called, shy away from any forum giving citizens the opportunity to address them. Which do you prefer and which is most expedient for the head leader in charge?

Last week, Johnson went too far out of bounds. He dared to call for a chief justice to be appointed. Following the Bahamas Bar Association’s characterisation of no appointed chief justice as an “existential and constitutional crisis”, the former president of the Association spoke up. He said: “the right, transparent and accountable thing to do is for the PM to exercise his constitutional authority and appoint a chief justice”.

If a Minister disagrees and no one hears it, does it make a difference?

This is not disrespect. This is not unreasonable. This is a thought-out and explained position. Johnson said, rightly, that the vacancy should be filled. This is obvious. Without directly referencing the current state of the office – where senior justice Stephen Isaacs now serves as acting chief justice – Johnson challenged the self-loathing we all know exists in The Bahamas, and suggested that a foreign appointee would be properly compensated. Where is the lie?

Better yet, what is the problem? It is not what was said. It is where it was said, and who could hear it.

This must have made Prime Minister Hubert Minnis uncomfortable. Making this appointment was not on his agenda. He is busy balancing people’s-person and man-in-charge. It is not easy.

How can you be seen as a nice guy, but also have the respect of the people – especially those you consider to be beneath you? Having already called for a resignation and fired someone else very recently, we can only imagine the action taken to elicit the apology Johnson issued last week.

An apology for stating publicly what some say should have been a private conversation. A private conversation about a public matter.

We have grown so accustomed to being in the dark, to electing people and walking away, to being told our business is none of our business that anyone who attempts to involve us in the conversation is seen as out of order. We forget that they are employed by us. We, the people.

Who will lead next?

We have had a leadership crisis for some time now, and it continues. There are many new faces in the current administration, but has there been any real change? Can there be any substantive change within the same system that recycles not only people, but form and function?

The Bahamas is being governed using the same tactics we look back on and criticise, believing ourselves much evolved since the ‘70s. The play is the same. Same script, different cast. The actors of today learned from those of yesterday. They study and follow the notes left behind. They have bought into the same values, and have the same single-mindedness we rebuke and swear off with every election season. They are worn down. They join the cult.

Look at the ages of the people in positions of leadership, then look at the ages of the people in tomorrow’s obituary.

Look at the ages of the people locked out of the system or, when let in, are either silenced or brainwashed.

The leadership crisis continues. The crisis of representation continues.

We know public life is not easy, but do not often acknowledge that it is without reward for those determined to participate differently. Those who do not follow script. Those who speak out of turn. Those who do not bind themselves to convention or tradition, and do not feel indebted to the people or systems that brought them in to the point that they must become puppets.

We need to concern ourselves with the development of a new generation of leaders. In 20 years, who do we want to be at the helm, and how will we prepare them?

Watching Bahamian governance and listening to commentary would not encourage many people to be different. To speak up. To object. To demand better. To use positions of power to create change. We make leadership about popularity and longevity; not authenticity in the process of visioning, charting a path and equipping people for the journey.

Until we redefine it, it will be practiced in the same way, and we deserve to see change in more than time and faces.

Published by The Tribune on April 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Transforming Spaces 2018

Transforming Spaces — an annual art bus tour in Nassau, Bahamas — was last weekend, and I took too long to purchase a ticket. It sold out quickly and so I was left to either sulk, or make my own way from gallery to gallery to see the work of Bahamian artists.

I buddied up with Charlotte Henay — storyteller and researcher who writes about cultural memory — and we moved from one gallery to the next, starting with The Current at Baha Mar and ending at Doongalik on Village Road.

Though we had both seen photos and social media commentary on the tour, we wondered what themes we would find as we explored the work on our own. We had been talking about the politics of storytelling, necessity of historical understanding, and what it means to be here now. As you would expect, this conversation informed and coloured my experience of the self-guided Transforming Spaces tour.

Baha Mar presented Instinct II: From Darkness to Light — “an investigation of dichotomies of concepts” that heavily references the Old Testament of The Bible with particular emphasis on Genesis 1. It was interesting to be surrounded by the work of women artists.

I was particularly interested in Sue Katz Lightbourn’s two pieces on plaster, shaped like bustiers. Installed next to each other, they immediately brought to mind the idea of leather versus lace. One is black, adorned with industrial material including screws and dark words like “scary,” “horror,” “arrgh,” and “eek”. The white, more bridal piece is covered by flowers, garter-like material, and soft words like “love,” “art,” and “I’m the happiest girl alive”.

There is no artist statement paired with the work to give context, making it even more interesting to consider. At a glance, it appears to be a commentary on womanhood, the balance of hard and soft, and challenging the idea of dichotomy as opposed to layered, complicated lives.

Occupying space at Baha Mar, however, it led me to wonder about what the space represents and how we show ourselves, as a country, to the outsider looking in from afar or dropping by for a brief, controlled visit. How do we define the hard and the soft? Which do we hide behind, and why? How can we complicate the narrative of The Bahamas and the deceptively narrow space between paradise and plantation?

Jessica Colebrooke’s work, one two sides of one wall, hints at answers to these questions. On one side, there are ocean-inspired framed pieces, perfect for the island home with wicker furniture, or the office desk as a memento from vacation days spent with toes dug into golden sand. They are normal for island life. They are simplicity. On the reverse, Entangled I and Entangled II stand out. They are both like a ball of yarn spun with care, but confusing to the unknowing eye.

We, as people and as a nation, can be complicated. We can recognise the surface beauty while acknowledging the complications of our existence and how we came to be. Investigating origin and history may not lead to a simple timeline, and the way we discover truth may not be linear, but there are ways to work from one end to another. Recognising the difficult and the troubling is not a slap in the face to the beauty we deserve to enjoy. We have the skill to do them both, and the outcome depends almost completely on our interest.

Hillside House, in its collaboration with the University of The Bahamas Visual Arts, deliberately looked back while creating a cultural experience through interactive programing that including the visual art exhibition, workshops in printmaking and bookbinding, a music panel, and poetry night among other activities.

The exhibition in the gallery space runs the gamut, from the copper sculptures by Q. Kimetria Pratt placing women on stage as superior, intentional beings to the poetry of Suhayla Hepburn remembering and reminding us of the grandmother we pay may not mind, even after she minded us on the porch we all know so well. Nowé Harris-Smith’s Colonial Subjection is a reminder of the chain around the necks of Bahamian men and women as we navigate or pretend not to notice the persisting, lingering ramifications of a history we cannot undo or escape, but also cannot transcend without conversation and restoration that must include reparations.

The work in this space, from artists of varied backgrounds taking on a wide range of subthemes, calls out the tendency to refrain, ignore, and accept, and call us to occupy, face, and reclaim by standing in our own power.

Doongalik is a place of pure, child-like joy and wonder. Few things bring the energy and excitement or highlight the skill and boundlessness of the Bahamian. It is always a pleasure to be in conversation with Pam Burnside whose love for Bahamian culture and dedication to its preservation is incomparable. She walked us through the space and we talked, at length, about Junkanoo, its “evolution,” and our role in ensuring it outlives us.

Having never visited a Junkanoo shack, the mini-shack by Junkanoo Commandos is a fun place to be. JuJukanoo Arts bring fun and nostalgia to Doongalik’s Junkanoo exhibition with its Junkanoo figures, pasted and fringed, free of feathers. The burst of colour and up cycling of Bahamian soda cans made us feel energised at the end of a long day. We marvelled at the fine work and imagined, together, what is would be like for Junkanoo to take its rightful place in The Bahamas.

Art and art galleries can feel like closed, exclusive places. We do not all feel welcome in these spaces, or even deserving. It can feel like a mysterious world, open only to those who have studied, collected and created works of art. Transforming Spaces has been a vehicle to transport the supposed outsider — the person who cannot afford a gallery entrance fee, much less an original painting, or the person who does not instantly understand a piece and is afraid of feeling lost or confused. It is an entry point, and one we should scale and replicate, not only in the art world, but in every industry.

Things do not exist for themselves, but for the people who can enjoy and benefit from them, whether through experience, direct engagement, or conversation. The Bahamas is no different. It is not here for its own good, nor is it here for the people who pass through once in a lifetime or spend a few months here per year.

Our conversations about who gets to visit, own, and claim The Bahamas are taking place in many different spaces among people of various backgrounds. If you are interested in having it, whether with or without other people, Transforming Spaces may be a good place to start. We could certainly benefit from more people talking about change-making as a practice, and seeing art as one of many ways to reflect on the past as we create our own future.

Published by The Tribune on March 21, 2018.

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Culture Clash: What are the Women in Your Life Worth?

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is Press for Progress. The annual year-long campaign inspires people all over the world to consider the issues women face year-round, think about solutions and bring people together to take action for change.

Last year, the US women’s hockey team adopted the #BeBoldForChange theme, rallied for equal pay and caused a stir when it refused to play in the national finals without a satisfactory deal. They were inspired by the campaign and found a way to use it to their benefit. Throughout the rest of 2018, we are called to press for progress.

We have to do more than think, ask and wait and we certainly cannot settle. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about work — what we do and do not see as work, what we think deserves pay and who we think should do specific kinds of work. Work is political.

As a gender rights activist, I spend at least a part of every day thinking about feminism, gender equality, the current state of affairs and what it will take to create the change we need. Around International Women’s Day, I think more deeply about where we are and what the campaign theme inspires. This time around, admittedly, my thoughts are at least partly guided by social media activity.

As I scrolled Facebook on Monday, I noticed a number of friends had shared an interesting article — “The Invisible Workload of Motherhood is Killing Me” — from the Scary Mommy website. It clearly struck a nerve with many mothers, in The Bahamas and elsewhere, who relate to having a long list of tasks no one else notices unless they go undone. Many of them seem like small things, like remembering birthdays, but when considered cumulatively, we have to admit they can be overwhelming.

We see some of the work mothers do. Meal preparation, laundry, shuttling children to and fro and constant cleaning are in plain sight.

This article, though, was focused on the mental and emotional work undertaken by mothers.

Knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes, remembering which grocery items need to be used before they expire or spoil, keeping track of permission slips and field trips, planning celebrations and making childcare arrangements are all in a day’s work.

How often do we think about these things and recognise them as labour? If someone outside of the household was responsible for this work, would we pay them? If we had to do this work for other people, would we expect to be paid?

I was reminded of the old song, “No Charge.” You’ve probably heard the Shirley Caesar version, especially if you spent any amount of time at your grandparents’ house listening to 1540AM. It’s about a little boy who went to his mother with a bill, itemising and pricing all of the tasks he’d completed. He charged five dollars for mowing the lawn, 50 cents for a trip to the grocery store and even charged five dollars for his own good grades.

It’s cute and funny, imagining a child demanding payment, but interesting that he recognised it all as work.

Seeing it as a teachable moment, the mother listed some work of her own, emphasising that she didn’t charge a dime.

For the nine months I carried you, holding you inside me, no charge

For the nights I sat up with, doctored you, and prayed for you, no charge

For the time and tears and the costs throughout the years

There is no charge

When you add it all up the full cost of my love is no charge

Summing it up in the last verse of the song, Caesar sings about Jesus giving his life for her, paying the price so she had no debt. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, moving comparison. On the other, how costly and how sad is it that mothers are, all at once, our salvation and our source of endless unpaid labour?

Unpaid labour doesn’t begin and end with mothers. It extends to sisters and daughters too. At a recent Women’s Wednesdays event, we heard from a number of women who talked about the burden of unpaid labour in their own homes.

They told stories of expectations and demands, made to do work that wasn’t required of their brothers. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of other siblings are duties generally relegated to girls and the pattern continues into adulthood.

Who is usually responsible for the care of elderly relatives? It was even pointed out that we understand the need to pay non-relatives when they cook, clean and care for us, but do not put the same value to work by our family members. Many of us don’t even think to offer our help.

In another Women’s Wednesdays conversation, this time about money, panelists agreed women should consider getting paid help in the home.

This led to two other points — every woman can’t afford to pay for help in the home and the women who are paid to help in others’ homes are generally underpaid. The conversation was a reminder and perfect example of how layered these issues are and how much work is left to be done.

We can agree it’s great to have help in the home, but what about the people who can’t afford it? How can we better at sharing the workload? It’s great to find affordable help, but what is the cost to all of us when they don’t get a living wage?

This International Women’s Day, I am imagining new ways of thinking and going about our work. I’m thinking about the women who have ten jobs, but only get paid for one. The people who get home from work to work even harder than they did at their full-time jobs are on my mind. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the people who are so desperate for help they don’t think about the long-term effects of underpaying the people they hire to help.

I wonder what I can do, you can do, we can do to see work — no matter where it’s done or who does it — as work, and figure out appropriate compensation, or how to share the burden.

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Culture Clash: Time to Face the Reality of Mental Health

Last weekend, I spent several hours at a book club meeting. We chose Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman as our February read, and it gave us more to think and talk about than we expected. Half of us did not even expect to like the book, but quickly realised it was a reflection of some of our own experiences, far-fetched as it seemed at first glance. Mental health was a dominant theme and it was easy to talk, at length, about the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the urgent need to address the inadequacies of health services, family support and often debilitating stigma.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the level of emotional, psychological and social well-being and our ability to manage stress. Like physical health, it can change over time, and conditions can be transient or chronic. They are sometimes biological, but can also be triggered by life experiences or trauma.

Two conditions resulting from life experience or trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression. Many people heavily and personally impacted by recent hurricanes now deal with PTSD, some of them triggered by the sounds of rain or wind. Experiences of postpartum depression are not often shared, but in recent years, celebrities have shared their experiences to help women going through it and to sensitise family members and community members to the experiences of new mothers who must also contend with a condition they cannot control on their own.

Crazy talk

We are quick to call people “crazy,” and make assumptions about their lives, particularly when their mental health conditions do not allow them to fully function, or they are homeless or under-housed. Maybe worse, some of us use neuroatypical people as a source of entertainment, recording videos of them and sharing them on social media.

People’s everyday lives become a joke, and we ignore their humanity. We forget they are people with histories, families and daily challenges to overcome. To us, they are just “crazy” and we assume their situations are their own fault.

In our careless commentary and self-serving entertainment, we can unknowingly alienate and offend people who may be high-functioning while dealing with mental health challenges. Even worse, when made aware of the offensive nature of our language — and interpretation of what have become common words and phrases — our reaction, far too often, is to become defensive, or reject the idea that we could ever unintentionally harm someone.

It’s difficult to change the way we speak, but becomes easier when we work on one thing at a time. With a few years of practice, I’ve taken “crazy” out of my vocabulary. It was not easy, but it was important to me, especially as a human rights supporter, a family member and friend of people with mental health challenges and a person who is not vaccinated against mental health challenges.

Support loved ones

Videos have been circulating of a man named Jeremy. Members of his family have said his life changed as a result of a laced joint. He walks the streets and, every now and then, they are able to get him to return home, but never for a long time. He has tried to get professional help, but like many patients, he does not like the way the medication makes him feel.

Medication for mental health conditions alter the chemistry of the brain. It can sometimes cause people to feel numb, or like they are losing parts of themselves. It is rare for a person to be prescribed the best possible medication the first time around. It can take a few tries to find the medication that helps a person to function without making them feel less than human, or even making their condition worse.

There is little support available for people facing mental health challenges, especially if they do not have the money to pay for care. Imagine having a health challenge, saving enough money to see a doctor, then saving enough money to purchase medication only to find that it is not the right one for you. You have to go back to the doctor, pay for the visit and purchase another medication. It is already not easy to get well. Think about how much harder is it to navigate all of this without support, or while seeing and hearing discriminatory remarks that aren’t even meant to hurt you, but they do anyway.

We all know people with mental health challenges. We may not know it, or know exactly what those challenges are, but they exist. The stigma around mental illness is more than inconvenient or sad. It can keep us from seeking the help we know and feel we need.

Because it so difficult for people to admit to struggles with mental health, seeking professional help and asking for support from family members and friends, it is important for us to pay attention to our loved ones. We often notice changes in people or the way they interact with us, but find easy answers to our own questions. “She got problems,” or “He got a bad attitude,” become our diagnoses. “Something wrong with them.” Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a health issue, but assume people have made conscious decisions to behave differently.

Seeing the signs

We need to learn to see the signs of mental health challenges and how to address them. Pay attention to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, energy levels and interest in hobbies. Listen to the ways loved ones describe how they are feeling. If they feel numb, hopeless, helpless, like nothing matters, or think about harming themselves or others, do not ignore or conclude that they are being dramatic. It’s time to listen. It’s time to find the necessary resources to help your loved one to get well.

Seeing a general practitioner is a good start as they are able to make referrals and, if you have a relationship with your GP, they may have a better idea of your personality and which psychologists and psychiatrists would be able to work best with you.

Mental hygiene

Mental health, like physical health, is not static. It does not stay the same over the course of your life. Just as important as recognising and addressing mental health challenges is practicing good mental hygiene. Take time to take care of yourself. Conduct regular mental scans. How are you feeling? Are you tired? Unmotivated? Wanting to be alone more than usual? Diving into work to avoid thinking or feeling? Pay attention to your coping mechanisms.

A lot of us find ways to take care of our mental health, whether through unscheduled days off, exercise, or regular practices like yoga or meditation. Some of us, however, need help with maintaining our mental health – and it does not mean we are “crazy.” It means we are self-aware and willing to commit to improving our lives.

Whether weekly therapy sessions or medication, there are options available to us, but mostly to those who can afford it. If you’re interested in group therapy, reach out to The Family – People Helping People which offers free sessions in communities all over New Providence. While we work to combat the stigma around mental health challenges, we also need to raise our voices to ensure it is included in national health initiatives. The mind is no less important than the body, and it needs care too.

Published by The Tribune on February 27, 2018.