In the first of a series of articles compiled by the University of The Bahamas - entitled the Mangrove Series - writers take a critical look at what it is that we value as a Bahamian people and the risks that a changing climate poses to these treasures. The series was inspired by the mandate issued to “From Dat Time”: The Oral & Public History Institute of University of The Bahamas in 2012 to document and disseminate the Bahamian story in the face of generational demise and climate threats.
By Niambi Hall Campbell-Dean, PhD.
Epistemology: “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.” - Merriam Webster Dictionary
Worldview: “a structure of philosophical assumptions, values, and principles upon which a way of perceiving the world is based.” - Montgomery, Fine, & James-Myers, L. (1990).
Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality. - Malcolm X
I left The Bahamas for college when I was 17 years old with the belief I was fully prepared to interact with all of my new American colleagues. After all, I had been raised on American TV and read all of The Baby-Sitters Club books. I was confident in my ability to master the American slang and therefore able to eliminate any errors in communication. I was ready for America and was sure of it.
Imagine my surprise then, when during my first full week at university, practically no one could understand me. I was constantly being asked to repeat myself and it was frustrating. There were words they did not know like “sprying” which I assumed every English speaking person used with relative frequency. The differences in language and speech were big, but now everything in America seemed a little bit different and that shocked me. For example, they ate grits but I couldn’t find a yellow grit to save my life. It was a difference I was not prepared for, but one that my soul recognised even though I did not yet have the language to articulate how.
Indeed, I would not have the language to express this knowing until I entered the Afrocentric Graduate Psychology programme at Florida A&M University. There, under the tutelage of Dr Kobi Kambon I learned about worldviews, cultural paradigms and ideologies.
I began to understand that the Bahamian usage of terms like “God willing” was a recognition that ontologically, the true nature of our reality is a spiritual one in which material things have limited control. I was able to piece together that it was a Bahamian axiology of valuing people that ensures that a person is fed when they visit your home.
An epistemology, a way of perceiving knowledge, that understands that we go in the bush for cerasee to break a fever instead of over the counter for a pharmaceutical drug and a cosmology that innately structures the universe as an orderly space thereby eliminating the need to rush, living in time rather than on it. These elements are the foundational aspects of our worldview. Separately, they may not appear unique to a Bahamian experience but when each is taken and mixed like conch salad in our contexts, what emerges is undeniably “who we is”.
This mix, this group of seemingly insignificant fabrics of Bahamian life, this knowing, is what I value and it is exactly these intangibles that are in danger of being lost due to climate change. (Conch itself, is also in danger but that loss and all its implications are a connected but separate issue).
With climate change, the reality is we will all have to leave The Bahamas as our entire archipelago is at risk of one day becoming a nation of climate refugees. The tragedy is that unlike when I went to school, we will not be able to return Home because there will be no Home to come back to and the value of what the ocean will reclaim will be lost.
The tragedy still is that I had to leave to get me. At 17, I did not know how Bahamian I was because this knowing was not made salient until it was placed into comparison with an Other. It was this uniqueness, this mix and this worldview however that was and is our power.
So, when tasked to write about what I, as a Bahamian psychologist, value that is at danger of being lost to climate change, I choose our Bahamian worldview. Specifically, our epistemology because how we come to know ourselves is the key to our liberation. It is our identity.
I value that spry is a real and valid meteorological term, that real grits should be as yellow as the sun and that no matter where in the world a Bahamian resides, Home, always refers to that special little pile of over 700 islands, rocks and cays, right off the coast of Florida and above Cuba and Hispaniola.
I value this knowing but am deeply saddened by the thought that we may not have enough time to recognise, en masse, that this knowing, this epistemology is what we must use to emancipate ourselves and this epistemology cannot be separated from the land.
This is the emancipation that Marcus Garvey identifies as that which will emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Free to decolonise and navigate all of these spaces, both above and below the ocean, as our own. Free to truly love our black selves and trust them and honour them without limits, fear or boundaries. Free to know who we are and to be that without apology.
This freedom, both psychological and tangible is predicated on the notion that if we know how we have come to believe, the things that we as a people believe, then we can begin to change the beliefs that no longer serve us. Beliefs that hold us hostage to foreign values of beauty and worth, foreign concepts of power and even what it means to be human. This work requires a knowing of this land and, for me this work required the perspective gained from leaving and returning to this land. With the advent of climate change, the land is at stake of being lost and with it is the perspective of being able to return.
Climate change may threaten our ability to do this work, but our ability to do this work is what is needed to guard against the impacts of climate change.
Let’s use conch salad as an example. Conch and conch salad are an integral part of the Bahamian diet, lifestyle and ethos yet the majority of young Bahamians do not perceive the art of making conch salad as valuable, or an avenue with which to be profitable. They eat conch salad on a weekly basis but take for granted that when they want it, that it will be available to them. What is not considered is who is making the salad, what makes this dish so simple yet uniquely delicious, where the conch comes from to make the salad and how that conch is sourced.
If the dish was truly valued then the answer to these questions would be readily available on the lips of every Bahamian and every Bahamian would know how to measure the maturity of a conch by evaluating its lip size. This would be an important tool in ensuring the use of mature conch only thereby allowing baby conch to grow. Conch can only grow, however, in healthy sea beds and they are in danger of extinction in part because of climate change.
Recognising this, my husband and I initiated the King of The Conch Expo in 2017 with the theme of “setting our culture free”. The idea was to promote conchservation by highlighting how valuable and exciting our culture is through a conch salad making competition. It was a mammoth task but an example of how knowing who we are as a people can create opportunities and produce efforts to use our resources in a sustainable way.
King of the Conch also demonstrated that we can work to mitigate these changes using a Bahamian epistemology! One in which we know ourselves, by ourselves, for ourselves – because if we don’t, then what will being a Bahamian really mean and how will we ever know?