Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Earth Day

Last week was Earth Day, and that morning, I received an e-mail from the Bahamas National Trust asking people to plant trees that day. Well, in general, really, but Earth Day *is* a good excuse for those who need one. As I read the e-mail, it dawned on me that there was such a thing as a Bahamas Million Tree Campaign, and that this campaign has been around for 18 months.

Sadly, we seem to be a long way away from reaching the goal of planting one million new trees in our country to combat global warming. In fact, I suspect (I'd be willing to bet) that despite the campaign, there was probably a net loss of trees in this country over the past 18 months (and beyond), due to "development." (You know, tearing down nature to make room for more and more and more and more people on this small 7x20 island most Bahamians live on.)

Anyway, while I was sitting in front of my computer, I wanted to join the Million Tree Campaign, and read a little more on their website, about what kind of trees to plant, how to plant them, etc. Nothing too intellectually challenging, but... then it struck me: where can I plant a tree?

  1. In the bush? Wouldn't that kinda defeat the purpose?
  2. On one of the many cleared lots around the island? Yeah, but how long until the tree gets cut down again, because surely these lands have been cleared for a purpose ("development").
  3. My yard? Well, that's an option, but it is fairly green and tree-rich already. But it's got a few more now, and in some years time, I hope to be harvesting some avocado pears.
  4. Some "public" land - and I don't necessarily mean publicly owned, rather I mean publicly accessible.

And that's what I did. I found a small piece of land on Shirley Street (and that area could do with some extra green) currently covered by dirt only that is not used for anything, and the building on that property is far enough away that the roots of the tree - once it grows bigger - shouldn't be a problem either. Now, I realise that this may not be a feasible option for everyone, and it may even be a little anarchic to simply plant a tree on somebody else's yard, but, hey, we as a nation pledged to a million trees.

A million trees! According to the campaign's website, if I read it correctly, we are now at 1,083 trees. In 18 months. We still have a loooong way to go. So please, go plant a tree if you can, and don't wait for Earth Day, because that won't be for another year.

Thanks for reading,

Bahama Republic.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Education

On Education

Seeing that I finished my last post lamenting the abysmal state of our educational system, I thought it prudent to continue on this topic. Every year, we are told the average grade of the last BGCSE examinations, and every year the Ministry of Education erects smoke screens trying to fool us into believing that things are not as bad as the letter grades (D or F) seem to suggest. I call BS.

However, immediately afterwards, the question asked tends to be, "Who is to blame?" The discussion then circles around the main "stakeholders" (this may actually be too strong a term given some of these folks' involvement - or rather lack thereof - in education) - students, parents, teachers, politicians. One group blames the next, who will deny any responsibility and pass the blame on to the third group, and so on... you get the basic idea. The general assumption, however, is that each one of these groups has a genuine interest in education and in improving the status quo.

Now, my allegation is in direct contradiction to this. Nobody, neither students, nor parents, neither teachers, nor politicians have the slightest interest in improving the state of the Bahamian educational system. Maybe, and this is the kinder version, they are simply too preoccupied with other challenges life has in store for them, or they are - blissfully? - unaware of how bad things are. Or, and this may upset some, they consciously manipulate the educational system to produce generation after generation of ignoramuses!

It is my suspicion that, by and large, students and parents fit into that first category, and do not appreciate the importance of genuine education. Why, how many of today's parents would be better off if they still attended school themselves? Of course this creates problems, but one powerful force in our country prevents us from seeking new ways to address a phenomenon that has gotten worse generation after generation: organised religion. Organised religion tells us - well, our children - that they must remain abstinent, when you and I know that this is unrealistic. Organised religion does not want us teaching our children about contraception, though, because "condoms encourage promiscuity." I call BS.

However, I now have introduced what I have identified as the fifth "stakeholder" group in Bahamian education: organised religion. An unholy alliance of our clergy and our politicians do everything in their power to keep the Bahamian people down, to keep them ignorant, because a downtrodden ignorant people will never, ever hold them accountable. Our clergy preach fear, not love, and it is because of fear that the poorest in our society open their pockets Sunday after Sunday and empty them into the greedy hands of self-proclaimed evangelists. Our politicians, no matter which party, stand to benefit from an unenlightened citizenry, because no matter what the outcome of general elections may be - and let's face it, there are only two colours: red and yellow - the political caste will continue to enjoy its privileged existence, and all victimisation that follows in the wake of every election, only ever occurs at the lower levels of poorly educated, ignorant, blind followers of whichever party just lost.

So where do the teachers fit in? My estimate is that they fit in somewhere in the middle. They cannot claim to be totally oblivious to the shocking state of things, but we also see that it is a certain type of Bahamian student who goes on to become a teacher: the academic underachiever. The above-average student rarely becomes a teacher, as they would rather not put themselves into this ungrateful position with lousy pay, which undoubtedly is another reason for the poor performance of our teachers. Even if you were not the academic underachiever of which I just accused you, how could you possibly be motivated to work hard, when you get paid a starving wage? You went to college or university, like any lawyer or physician, but you get a fraction of the pay, and none of the respect.

So I have just stated that I do not see any attempts made to get us out of this dilemma, but what about the College of the Bahamas, which is headed, at rapid pace, to become the University of the Bahamas? Well, there are only two problems with that:

1. COB can hardly be considered a proper college as it is, whether you judge this by the standard of the students, the facilities, the libraries, or the academic support system - or rather lack thereof.

2. If your overall educational system is in a mess, why would you try and fix it from the top down, rather than build it from the bottom up? The Bahamas does not, at this point in time, have the student numbers to justify a national university, as nice as the general idea may be. It will take a better primary and secondary school system, as well as a generation to go through these, before a Bahamian university becomes viable.

No doubt, COB will become UOB sooner than that, as in our world, all it takes is a new corporate identity (which Karma Design is currently working on for a hefty consultancy fee, no doubt), as well as a pompous ceremony where the Minister of Education unveils the new sign. Let's hope they don't make any spelling mistakes on it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Welcome to Bahama Republic

Welcome to "Bahama Republic," a blog in which I plan to address some issues facing Bahamian society in the 21st century, and in which I hope to give you some food for thought and maybe provoke some reactions, too, leading to a much needed public discourse. In this first entry, allow me to explain why I chose the title "Bahama Republic" for this blog.

Conventionally, the term "republic" denotes a form of government without a hereditary monarch as the head of state, instead a republic would usually have a president. Thus, technically, our Bahamaland is not a republic. However, I would like to assure you that I do not wish for us to sever our last ties with Britain and abolish the monarchy. Why? I will explain later.

The term "republic" comes from the Latin phrase "res publica," which, literally translated, simply means the "public affairs." However, already the Ancient Romans had come to understand their republic to be the opposite of the monarchy, which was overthrown in the year 510 BC. This does not mean, however, that Rome had become a democracy by 510 BC, republics can be characterised by many different forms of government. The Greek philosopher Polybios, who lived as a slave in Ancient Rome during the second century BC, and whose analyses of governments still shape our basic understanding of politics today, characterised the Roman state as a mixed form of the three basic types of government - monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy - and concluded that this system of checks and balances was the basis of Roman might.

The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who considered himself a defender of Rome's republican constitution, wrote a book, "De Re Publica" (usually translated as "On the Commonwealth"), in which he outlines, amongst other things, the duties of a citizen. Cicero lived in the first century BC, and at that time, Rome, which had started as a city state, and whose political system still reflected these humble beginnings, had grown to an empire controlling most of the Mediterranean and Southwestern Europe. Ever since the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) it had become evident that Rome was facing some serious challenges ruling over a vast territorial empire with the toolkit of a city state, but many politicians who tried to reform the system found themselves facing accusations of trying to restore the monarchy - with themselves on the throne. The most notable of these was, of course, none other than Julius Caesar, Cicero's lifelong adversary. Cicero, as a politician and as a political commentator, did everything he could to defend the republic - successfully against Catiline, less successfully against Caesar. After Caesar's assassination, Cicero then fell victim to the revenge of Caesar's heirs, and was murdered on December 7th, 43 BC.

Now I fast forward through several centuries of history, and take a look at the first document establishing the Bahamas as European colonial venture, the "Articles and Orders of the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers." Sometimes referred to as the "first Bahamian constitution," this document also uses the term "republic," which has led some historians - I believe falsely - to suggest that the Eleutheran Adventurers wanted to establish themselves in the Bahamas independently of the British monarchy (Craton & Saunders, Islanders in the Stream I, 1992.). It is easy to see how this mistake might be made though, for when the Articles and Orders were written in 1647, England was in the middle of a civil war that saw a parliamentary faction led by a group of Puritans fighting against the catholic king and his supporters, and the Adventurers were, of course, Puritans, too.

However, the preamble to the document clearly acknowledges King Charles (I) as the rightful king of England (and then some). My argument thus is that the term "Republicke" (sic!) in the same document suggests that the colonial affairs are indeed seen as public affairs and that it is the duty of all settlers to take an active role in their local affairs, while at the same time reaffirming the ties to Britain and its rightful government. While to us the notion of declaring independence from a colonial power is hardly revolutionary - there are very few colonial territories left in the Western hemisphere of the 21st century - the thought probably did not even cross the mind of a 17th-century figure like William Sayle, himself a former colonial governor of Bermuda. Even in the mid to late 18th century, it was considered truly revolutionary when thirteen colonies in North America broke loose from Britain.

In the narrow Bahamian setting of the Eleutheran Adventurers, however, the free settlers were expected to participate in the public affairs, "the republic," and it is with this in mind I chose the title of this blog, because I believe that we as a citizenry today must take a more active role in shaping our nation's future. Therefore, I choose to comment an what I perceive as public matters in urgent need of addressing, because a genuine public discourse might just render results that are more satisfactory than what our politicians might do otherwise.

However, for today's introductory post, I shall just answer the last question that I've raised in the beginning and have not addressed since. Why am I in favour of the status quo of the Bahamas being a monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state? Honestly, I do not care much for the idea of a hereditary monarchy, nor do I care much for the little old lady in Buckingham Palace or her family, despite the fact that I do feel a sense of participation in a broader, supranational entity when I walk the streets of London. However, I do believe there are other important ways in which the Bahamas benefits from the ties it still has with Britain, most notably the fact that the Privy Council is still the highest court of appeal in our country.

The Bahamas is often described as a face-to-face society, a society in which either everybody literally know everybody else, or where at least has a cousin, uncle, aunt, or friend who knows them. This is but one factor that causes the unequal distribution of privilege and justice in this country, as both favouritism and victimisation are indelible elements of Bahamian life. Furthermore, neither before nor after independence has our educational system succeeded in producing a sufficiently large number of competent and qualified individuals to run a country, any country. The same can be said about many other former - and current - British colonies throughout the Caribbean, which is why a larger Caribbean community or Caribbean union, or even just a Caribbean court of appeal is not an idea that I trust sufficiently at this point in time.

Education is one of the areas that urgently needs to be addressed in this country, and as an observer and stakeholder in education, I feel that the discussion so far has turned around in rather pointless circles, but that is another topic...

Thanks for reading,

Bahama Republic.