By Zahra Spencer
I’ve always thought that as a nation, far too often we sell ourselves short. We grumble and complain and criticise, and while this is certainly a healthy part of any democracy I think it is just as important to be deliberate about the words we speak. And though many of us have grown up on the mantra of “spare the rod, spoil the child”, I wonder if we’ve become too comfortable doling out lashes rather than speaking love.
I study global policy and so I have the privilege of learning from colleagues that represent every continent on the globe. Friends who hail from nations that can trace their legacies back to centuries-old dynasties – nations that have had the privilege of retaining their ancestral heritage over time – while here in the Caribbean, we’ve had to create and shape ours with fragmented pieces of disrupted histories. In the grand scheme of things, Barbados is but a child in this vast global space and like all children do, we must discover ourselves along the way.
When our very brave forefathers undertook the mammoth task of building a nation-state from scratch, they laid a strong foundation for us, upon which I think one could arguably say we’ve thrived. After all, we are a country half the size of New York City, devoid of many natural resources, reeling from a cruel and bitter legacy of colonialism and slavery—but goodness, look at how far we’ve come. Look at the feats we have accomplished in a little over 50 years. The strides we have made and the challenges we continue to overcome are testament not only to the strength but the magic of our little island.
And we are not done. We are still in the process of nation-building and self-identifying.
That is why I believe that the stories we tell are more important than ever. Steel donkeys, making conkies, road tennis, chattel houses, rum shops and churches – all important stories. But I think even more important are the stories we tell to ourselves about who we are.
Like the cultural importance of call-in programmes, the way we toot our horn to say thank you on the road, souse on a Saturday, how we season our fish, the elaborate way we give directions and the exuberant greeting we offer someone we haven’t seen in a long time. These are all beautiful bits and pieces of our story and they are as important to nation-building as our monuments and symbols.
And like all good stories, ours are dynamic and multidimensional. Like how we can claim the title of the birthplace of rum while acknowledging that it is an industry built on the backs of our enslaved ancestors. Or the story about the girl from Westbury Road who grew into mega-stardom but we’re still figuring out how to create platforms or avenues so her story isn’t an anomaly. Or how our literacy rate is among the best in the world but we still have too many boys and girls slipping through the cracks.
Our stories are not perfect, but they are ours. And we should be the ones who get to tell them, to define them. And so, when someone says “Bajans are too passive”, we cannot only point to the 1930s riots but also to the rigorous debates on Down to Brasstacks that have actually informed and shifted legislative policy. When we speak about ourselves as Bajans and on Barbados as a nation, we must remember the words we choose carry so much weight and so we should never treat them lightly because this next chapter of our development requires all hands on deck. It requires a nation that is aligned, not only on who we are but who we want to be. We are entering into an unprecedented global era of supply shocks, climate crises, pandemics, rapid digitisation, food insecurity and political polarisation; every day the waters become murkier, but if our little island is to survive, we’ve got to get everyone on board.
We need a shared vision and destination, even if we must first debate the route. This next phase needs both the innovators and the historians to remind us where we’ve come from and also where we’re going. We need both pride and industry to keep us moving along this journey, because like young nations – because that is indeed what we are – growing pains are uncomfortable but so necessary.
The debates, the discord, what sometimes feels like disharmony—these are all part of the process. And so, every time we say Barbados is too this or that, we must remember we are really talking about ourselves. We define this country, not the other way around. And we are responsible for where this country goes next.
And so I hope that when we tell our stories, we are honest and we are also kind. We speak problems and we also speak solutions. We can be nuanced and balanced but, most of all, loving.
When people ask me about Barbados, I always tell the same story. It is one of a vibrant, determined, forthright people. I talk about the best fish cutters I’ve ever had and the unique cadence of our accent. I never ever leave out the sun, sea and sand, as cliché as it might be, because it’s part of who we are as well. But, most of all, the story I tell is one of enormous, beautiful, dazzling potential.