Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Family value

My wife's family is extraordinary, not only in a Caribbean context but even seen more broadly. It has been at the heart of many important changes in The Bahamas and stands with heads held proudly. It came from humble origins. It was instrumental in forming one of the major Anglican Churches in Nassau, where the family still worships. The family has had three generations who have studied at university, and all are still living; the next generation looks set to follow this tradition. My wife's uncle (Sir Arthur Foulkes, whose father was Jamaican) was a founding father of a major political party, which is now governing again; one of his sons and a son-in-law are both members of the current government Cabinet. Ironically, none of my wife's immediate family has successfully walked on the political stage. Her father is a lawyer and her mother was a nurse. Her brother is now the Director of Public Prosecutions, which is as close to the government and political process as they have come, if you exclude canvassing at elections. Her three sisters work variously in insurance, cancer treatment, and finance.

The family has been and still is a strong matriarchy, My wife's maternal grandmother held the family together, with the strong support of her husband, but she guided the family. My mother-in-law is now the doyenne and is a firm glue to hold the family (immediate and extended) together through all situations. My father-in-law is solid but he is not in charge. My mother-in-law's brother, Sir Arthur, is the doyen, but knows that he is the male "shoulder" supporting the family's female "head". This side of the family hails from Great Inagua (see link), which is the third largest island in The Bahamas at 596 square mile (1544 km²) and lies about 55 miles (90 km) from the eastern tip of Cuba. However, Inagua's population is only about 1000. The island's main claim to fame is its salt ponds, which have been exploited for many years by the Morton Salt Company to produce sea salt and table salt. A grand-uncle of my wife's (who died recently) was in charge of the National Park on that island and did much to develop and protect the habitat of about 80,000 West Indian, pink, flamingos, who get their colour from eating the shrimps that feed in briny lagoons on the island. Inagua's capital, Matthew Town, is understandably small and quiet.

At Christmas time, which is when I am with this family most, they spend a lot of time together. They talk a lot of social change, not so much about politics. They are very close and often spend time together, at church, eating, caring for children, eating, planning events including their role in the traditional family Christmas dinner. They believe that the strength and closeness of the family is a key link in keeping society stable and safe, and have focused recently on how the disintegration of close family ties seems to be behind a rising wave of crime and social problems in The Bahamas. Certainly, the kinds of social decay that is associated with these problems seem to have been avoided by this family: no teenage girls having children, no teenage boys being fathers, no corrupt politicians, no sex scandals. The family has had its separations but they seem to have had little destabilizing effect as the family has rarely taken antagonistic or adversarial positions for either side.

The social problems besetting The Bahamas are not unique either in the Caribbean or in the western hemisphere. So, it would not seem to make much sense to think that the solutions will be unique. Acknowledging the importance of supportive family structures is one way of avoiding the collapse of an important pillar of a stable society. Building that structure takes time and attitudes that often mean a degree of denial with which many would have little patience. Denial does not mean doing without essentials but thinking hard about luxuries. It also means resolving difficulties in a particular way through negotiation rather through force. Popular images often show force as the way to make progress, and children especially often see these images without having explained to them that this is not the best way. Other pressures on children come from their seeing so many things that have to get added to a "must have" list. Parents have to moderate these images and desires for their children. Parents too have to moderate their own desires; they too clamour for goods, especially if they are seen as signs of success--the flash car, the big house, the jewelry, careless spending.

Denial can mean resisting some (maybe many) of these temptations or moderating them, especially by waiting until such time as more important family goals have been achieved. So build the big house, but make sure that the family can live securely in the meantime; it may mean a five year wait but it's sustainable. Buy a new car, but do that for a real reason, such as the current car is having mechanical problems or has been damaged in a bad accident. Buy the children new toys but try to get them to understand that these things come at a price: they wont understand the value of money for many years but they can quickly appreciate that "money does not grow on trees" but come from hard work and not just from wishes. Women love clothes and Bahamian women love buying clothes more than any group I have ever encountered. Moderating the shopping urge could be the hardest nut to crack--especially when the society has become so rich so quickly--but has to be dealt with. I never grew up with this urge, partly because Jamaica's fortunes have risen much more slowly, but also from a certain English upbringing so can more easily be critical of it. This is not a call for a minimalist approach but that could be an extreme way to go, at least in terms of "one in, one out". If every new item bought was equalled with one item returned, exchanged, or given to a family in need that would be a salutary lesson that is worth learning.

This family has stayed strong by denying itself many things and by having a certain degree of modesty and moderation and by never being afraid to show its faith. From an early age children understand that they have to give thanks to God and never have any sense of shame associated with showing that belief. You are with the church and the church is with you. The main family home is comfortable but is now located in a very unfashionable part of Nassau, which has changed from being residential to mainly commercial. The large yard is an uncommon luxury that the home has, so is its slightly elevated location. It has no signs of great wealth oozing from it.

Every adult in this family has had a stable job for many years and all that has been gained has come from hard work, diligence and honesty. Children have had that held up to them as the way to live life. No one has used violence against someone else to get their way.These also good living examples of "denial" and "moderation"--nothing comes easily. If everyone could resolve to follow those three characteristic do you think social problems would persist? I find it hard to believe that things would not be much better.

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