By ALICIA WALLACE
WE are consumed by our private lives. In many ways, we see our lives and experiences as synonymous with the Bahamian experience or the human experience.
We wake up, get ready, eat, spend time in traffic, go to work, take a few phone calls, engage in artificial conversations and debates about the state of affairs, squeeze in an hour at the gym, go to the grocery store, cook, watch a few television shows, and go to bed.
We know what time to leave the east if we need to be downtown by nine o’clock. We can make good guesses at the prices of tuna, lettuce, milk, our favourite cereals, and a chocolate bar. Some of us know who has the cheapest gas.
Many of us are our own advanced GPS devices that somehow know the exact locations of potholes. There is a tremendous amount of information, however, that we do not have because it exists outside of our lived experiences.
There are some things we will not know because we are not in a particular profession, do not have a certain kind of family, do not participate in specific activities, or do not run in certain circles.
It is fine, sometimes, not to have particular kinds of information, but every now and then we happen upon something by chance and cannot believe we had never known. The things we would have said and done, had we only known what was happening.
I am learning more about systems and non-systems in The Bahamas as I undertake hurricane relief work. I have had guesses confirmed, been perplexed by processes (or lack thereof), and wondered why far too many things are not publicly discussed, critiqued, and improved.
Over the past few weeks, I have been given far too many reasons for children being out of school. We are in a post-hurricane crisis, and registering children for school and getting them in their seats is one of the most challenging undertakings for those who have evacuated to Nassau.
Numerous people have come to Equality Bahamas and Lend a Hand Bahamas – and I am sure many have appealed to other organisations and individuals – for uniform assistance.
Even for primary school students, a uniform can cost $60. Prices depend on whether or not there is a crest or monogram, whether skirts are plaid or solid, and the size. Many families have said Social Services provided them with one uniform per child which is clearly insufficient.
One uniform would not be enough in any situation, but especially for families now living in shelters or with family members or friends where they have very little space. Where are they to hang clothes in hopes that they will dry in twelve hours or less?
Another barrier to getting children in school is the school supplies required. Parents have been asking for help with school supplies, and we have put calls out for composition books, pencils, pens, geometry sets, backpacks, and lunch bags.
We are now receiving supply lists that include cleaning products and a range of other items. Not only do families need to get uniforms and basic school supplies, but they are now tasked with sourcing copy paper – at least one school has asked every child to bring two packs – Lysol spray, large hand sanitizer, paper towel, and large hand soap among other things.
Why should this be the duty and expense of parents sending their children to public schools? It seems as though we accept this.
I have raised the issue with a few people, and they have calmly told me that this is nothing new. That makes it even more outrageous. It may have become a norm, but it is not right. It is not acceptable at any time, but especially now.
There is no way we should be asking families that have been displaced to purchase these items, creating another barrier to children’s access to education.
In the short term, these requirements need to be waived for families from Abaco and Grand Bahama. Going forward, this practice must discontinue.
In fact, we need to see the budget of the Ministry of Education to see how money is being spent in and on public schools. This cannot be overlooked or excused. We are not sending children to a potluck, and publicly funded schools should not be crowdsourcing cleaning supplies.
What to give
Needs are changing on a daily basis and it is evident in the donation and distribution centre at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. We are receiving more requests for school uniform assistance and school supply assistance.
Equality Bahamas and Lend a Hand Bahamas can provide a school name and size so that you can personally make the purchase, and we will also accept cash donations to make the purchases.
There has also been an increase in requests for help in finding work. People need business attire, assistance with resumés and cover letters, and opportunities to build skills.
Several human resources professionals have organised sessions focused on resumé and cover letter writing, and we will be offering workshops in the weeks to come.
People who have evacuated to Nassau from Abaco and Grand Bahama continue to prioritise hygiene items and food. While donations have been coming in, a number of items are often neglected.
We rarely receive donations of deodorant, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, underwear, laundry detergent, or cleaning products.
People have also been asking for air mattresses as they are sleeping on the floor in family members’ and friends’ houses.
There have also been requests for tomato paste, pasta sauce, seasonings, and children’s snacks and juices.
Wherever you choose to donate, please keep these items in mind, and think about what you would need if you had to spend weeks or months in someone else’s home without being able to pack anything.
Considering climate change in our response
This is not the last time we will have this experience. Our geographic location makes us particularly vulnerable to climate events.
While “developed” countries are the main culprits of pollution and emissions, we bear the consequences. This does not mean we do not have work to do here.
We are making a step in the right direction with the single-use plastic ban starting in 2020, but that is just the beginning.
Two of the main reasons for our consumption of single-use plastic are convenience and cost. It is difficult to watch as we, in the midst of climate crisis, call for, purchase, and distribute thousands of plastic bottles of water.
There are some cases where this is unavoidable, but in others, we can look for alternatives. What would it take to provide everyone with reusable bottles, designate areas for refills, and have mobile water refill stations to reach those who cannot leave their homes?
It would definitely come at a financial cost, but so does the current practice. It is something to consider, to spark innovation, and to change. We do not need the added disaster of an exorbitant level of waste that we cannot manage and that will never really go away.
We continue to spring into action, day after day. As circumstances change, we have to adapt quickly to ensure that our response meets current needs.
Sometimes we need the quick answer, even if it is really just a bandaid, but as we make mistakes, learn, receive criticism, and reflect, we need to build real solutions. The people on the frontlines may not have the capacity to do it right now, but there are others who have the time and ability to take notes. While people are on the ground, distributing bottled water, others can raise money, mobilise, and get reusable water bottles here.
It doesn’t stop at water bottles. Several organisations are distributing hot meals every day. How can we use better material, give people what they need in containers they can use again, and set a high bar for island nations and “developed” countries with our innovative, environmentally-friendly responses in the midst of crisis?
We have the people with knowledge, skills, and creativity to make a way where there is none. We often need only see them, listen to them, and support them by trusting their expertise, giving them what they need, and getting out of the way.
This is a small place with great people working through difficult circumstances. Big things can happen if we let them!