By ALICIA WALLACE
It is, unfortunately, not unusual for Members of Parliament and Cabinet Ministers to insult the Bahamian people, especially in their bids to excuse their own actions. They believe we can be shamed into silent submission when our criticism is characterised as ignorance. We have heard from several messengers, and now we add Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry and Immigration Elsworth Johnson to that list.
We have been on the losing end of a battle to get reliable - dare we say renewable - electricity supply we can afford. After suffering through months of outages, we have been presented with a solution - to refinance a legacy debt of $321 million and raise additional funds by increasing electricity bills by $20 to $30 per month. It, like other measures taken by this administration, will disproportionately affect people experiencing poverty. Apparently, this is our own fault because we travel and buy clothes too much. The people we elect - some of whom are appointed to the Cabinet - swiftly forget they represent and are paid by us, not a political party or a particular government administration. It is unacceptable for them to suggest the Bahamian people are struggling financially because of our spending habits.
Johnson is correct in saying we “have not been as diligent as we should have been” because we have certainly done a fair amount of complaining without taking action. We have watched as this administration made decision after decision that negatively affects us. Free National Movement supporters insisted we give this administration a bit more time, pleading “they just reach”. Others did not want to be branded as supporters of another party or simply did not have the interest, time and energy required to do anything about their dissatisfaction. We, as citizens, have not done enough. That said, our spending has nothing to do with the situation Bahamas Power and Light is now in, or the decision to pass the burden on to us.
There are a few things to highlight for Johnson, in no particular order. The cost of living in the Bahamas is one of the highest in the world. It is recommended that no more than 30 percent of gross income is spent on rent, and many people are currently spending at least 50 percent of their income on rent. Many people in The Bahamas are not able to save the recommended 20 percent of their incomes. It was reported in 2017 that 90 percent of deposit accounts had less than $5000. These facts are not unrelated. People cannot afford to save. If given a choice between clothes and electricity, we would all choose electricity.
It is easy to look from the outside and draw completely incorrect conclusions about people. Yes, people are traveling. I know numerous people who travel for work, training and to gain access to other opportunities. They do not announce the source of funds to travel because it is both unnecessary and no one’s business. Can you tell how a trip is financed by the stamps in a passport? No, and you also cannot determine the purpose. I know several people who have no choice but to travel to access medical care and medication. It does not mean they can afford to travel. Some cannot afford not to travel.
On another note, people deserve leisure. We deserve pleasure. We should be able to visit other places. People deserve clothing. We have come to think that people receiving low incomes must satisfy themselves with the little they can afford and be both unseen and unheard. They do not deserve the blazer that, in this environment, could help them to move to the next level. They do not deserve a wig or manicure because these are frivolous. If only more people were exposed to the true requirements of the business world and the informal economy. Not only are these “frivolous” items often necessary, but sometimes people want something nice, just once. Does than mean they should have to pay $30 more per month on their electricity bill?
Consider the situation. The cost of living is high. Taxes are increasing. There is no social safety net.
Rather than blame us for the symptoms of the system we are stuck in, our representatives need to find ways to serve us better. If they are concerned about our spending, they can help improve financial literacy. People need to have a better understanding of money - income, taxes, loans, savings and investments. What is an interest rate? Why it is easy to get some loans, but difficult to get others? How do you build credit? What is required for a mortgage? Can we buy stocks and bonds?
Where are people to get this information? When they have it, what are they to do with it when they make $210 per week? Make no mistake. The issue here is not plane tickets and new jeans.
What my great-grandmother, now 100, has taught me
My great-grandmother became a centenarian this week. There are not many people who have had the pleasure of knowing any of their great-grandparents. I have spent a great deal of time with my great-grandmother, seeing her in various contexts including home, work, church and social and service clubs, learning more from the way she has lived than from her firm instruction.
I have never known my great-grandmother to sit down for very long, much less watch soap operas, knit, keep children or spend very long talking on the phone. She has always had an active life, largely outside of her home. A business owner, she chose to work until the age of 90, fully enjoying daily interaction with people. I have never met anyone quite as enamoured by fashion and style as she has always been. When we travelled together, I got to see her make thoughtful selections for her store, carefully choose pieces for her own wardrobe and items perfectly suited to family members. She has always been about the business, determined to have fun and thinking about everyone else, all at the same time.
Whenever I am tempted to make a decision based solely on what is expected of me, I think of this fierce woman. While she would like to push in certain directions from time to time, she always concludes, with sincerity: “It’s your life. Do what you want with it.” She reminds us her grandchildren and great-grandchildren that we have been raised with a set of values we will not forget, but have to choose to activate. She has always encouraged us to make the right choices for ourselves, even if others disapprove. What has been non-negotiable from the very beginning and will not change, no matter how old we get, is that our presence is required at family gatherings and we keep in touch as best we can if we happen to be away. If she cannot see us, she wants to know that we are doing well.
She did not allow herself to be boxed in by convention, tradition or social constructs. Many of her achievements, especially when put in historical context, are beyond commendable. It is clear she has, for most of her life, done exactly what she wanted to do and been unafraid to speak her mind. Most of what I have learned from her has come from close observation. If you’re going to do it, do it well. Don’t just be grateful, but express your gratitude. When you need help, ask for it, and don’t be too proud to accept it. Focus on learning from your mistakes instead of blaming another person or a circumstance for them. The things the world decides you are supposed to do are not always as important as the things you know you need to do for yourself. Go out and see the world.
These days, she is not hustling and bustling about as she did before. “The shop,” as the family has always called it, is closed. Since then, she shifted to a more relaxing life with word search and crossword puzzles, game shows, world needs, midweek church service, regular ladies’ luncheons and receiving visitors. She has admitted to missing the go-go-go we all know her for, preferring to be occupied in different ways, but is making her peace with the changing seasons of life. I take pleasure in telling her who I’ve seen recently, how much they miss shopping at Oralee’s, and the personal message they sent. I can only imagine what it is like to have so many years of memories and the joy that must come with being remembered and endlessly loved.