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By Nicolette Bethel

Tuesday, September 29, 2009.

There is a village in Jamaica called Martha Brae. It is located today in the heart of the tourist playground of the island’s north coast, and if you look its name up on the internet, most of the links that come up will be tourist-related. Most of them will speak of Martha Brae as a river, and will say nothing about the village. Most of them expect tourists to be living in Montego Bay, the nearest city. But as is the wont of the tourist industry, which is in many ways the plantation writ new, very few of them will lead the curious to anything that talks about the people or the culture of Jamaica.

We live in a world of unequal wealth and power. We happen to live in a part of that world that balances on the cliff-edge of prosperity. There are few, if any, sovereign Black nations that boast more than The Bahamas does in the way of wealth, comfort, infrastructure and standard of living. Nevertheless, our wealth, our way of life which the vast majority of us take for granted are more precarious than we imagine.

The recent study on poverty levels in The Bahamas indicates that 9% of the population lives below the poverty line, which is calculated at $7.84 per day ($2,863 per year). It further reveals that the distribution of the Bahamian poor is uneven; that the poorest Bahamians live on the southern Family Islands, where the poverty rate is 21%.

A closer look at the statistics proves interesting. Only 6% of the total population of poor Bahamians lives in the Family Islands; the majority of the poor live in the cities of New Providence and Grand Bahama. Moreover, the gap between the two largest ethnic groups whose people live in poverty is wide; 25% of the Haitian/Haitian-Bahamian population live below the poverty line, compared to 8.7% of Bahamians.

Now when compared with the poverty rate of the Latin American and Caribbean region as a whole, which stands well over one-third, we are doing well. That isn’t to say that we must be complacent about our poverty rates; the fact that 76% of our poor live in our cities, where our affluent also live, suggests that we have plenty of work to do. But I would also suggest that we consider something else. The study calculates poverty in terms of cash income, and assumes that one needs cash to purchase everything that one needs. Now as far as Nassau and Freeport and perhaps Marsh Harbour go, that is true. But in the case of the southern islands, where the cash poverty rate is the highest, that is not so.

You see, people in the Family Islands still fish and farm. Now that may be a foreign idea to those of us who like me make their living by getting into cars or buses and travelling to jobs, the most preferable of which involve sitting in air-conditioned offices making contact with other people by telephone, and spending our cash to eat our breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

But foreign as it may be, many Family Islanders still have less need for cash on a daily basis than we do here in New Providence. So while $7.84 a day per person may not buy very much in New Providence, and while it may buy even less on a Family Island, the need to spend that $7.84 is less crucial. As long as Titta is growing her corn and grinding it into grits, as long as Pa is fishing off the rock or on the shoals, doesn’t matter, or Co’n Slim is conching, as long as the whole family is crabbing when it rains, the basics of nutrition are cheaper in cash terms than they are in the cities. Bahamians in the southern islands may be poor, but they don’t have to starve.

Not yet, anyway.

It’s important, when looking at statistics and working out what to do about them, to remember that numbers aren’t people. Numbers lie there on the page and let you look at them, while people get up each morning, pray to God, and go about their business. Bahamians have been doing that for centuries. It’s important to remember that the last sixty years of our history mark the first time that two whole generations of Bahamians have had the ability to live a better life than their parents had. And it’s important to remember, and to celebrate, what it was that allowed us to survive back in the days before the tourist dollar never done.

It was land.

You see, The Bahamas has only become cash-rich since we’ve discovered the benefits of prostitution. I am not talking about the literal exchange of sexual favours here. For the past sixty years, we’ve been placing a price tag on land the very thing that saved us from poverty in the past.

These days, we’re selling everything that we previously considered useless, from the powdery white and pink sand that can’t grow anything good to eat, to the arid hills that have no water beneath them, to the marshland that is impossible to farm, to the mangrove stands that are difficult to fish. Our newest policy: to sell off empty land throughout the Family Islands to wealthy northerners for their second homes. The idea is to get chunks of cash for land that isn’t being used, and to generate jobs for the locals, thus raising their daily cash income. It’s a bit like mining; you go into spaces no one would ever go to dig out the gold, and get rich quickly in the process.

It’s a good idea, especially for politicians, who work in five-year increments and rarely calculate beyond the nearest election or two. But, like most easy things, it’s a bad idea in the long term.

You see, the village of Martha Brae is a very special place, because it is a plot of land that Jamaicans who were formerly slaves bought for themselves. They bought it collectively, painfully, over a period of years; but it means everything to them because there after slavery was no good land left for the ex-slaves to live on. The best land on the island was owned by people who lived far, far away. Martha Brae was an affirmation of independence, a celebration of freedom and sovereignty, and poor as the inhabitants are, they have the dignity of their history, and they have their pride.

We, who are still land-rich, must be careful in our quest for quick cash. Our zeal to eradicate the poverty rate in the Family Islands must not lead us to make the mistake of thinking that cash is the only way of measuring wealth. We must always remember the fundamental truth of all ex-slave societies: that prosperity built on servitude is not prosperity at all.


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