A TEACH’ IN THE BAHAMAS - EXTRACTS 1970-73
By Merrilyn Cowley-Montini
The salary we had been proposed, to teach in The Bahamas, seemed to be more than indecent, before I left the UK. Earning that kind of money at home, I would have considered myself as one of the wealthy few. I must admit that it was not for do-good reasons that I decided to expatriate myself but purely financial ones, if pecuniary reasons can be pure.
Big mistake. Almost everything there was imported, and so very expensive. Even the local mangos were not as good as the Haitian ones that arrived. So it was not surprising that I found myself, yet again at the bottom of the barrel. All the other ex-pats earned more than us. Nassau, being a tax free haven, provided jobs for hundreds of ex-pats . Just above us teachers, were the accountants and from there, incomes went skywards. At that time, most people employed in finance and banking were men, so all was not lost - the few, single females that were around became highly sought after and the social life that followed was a very far throw from the Astoria and from Wolverhampton. It goes without saying that it was also a millionaire’s paradise, too. No wonder the newly married male teachers who came out on the same charter plane, clung on to their wives wherever they went.
The charter plane taking us from Stansted was full of teachers, many of them newly-weds and it goes without saying that we were very late leaving. An hour after take off, just before we were to be fed, the captain came on the speakers and announced that he regretted to tell us that we would have to go back but that first of all, we would be circling in order to jettison the fuel. Stunned silence. He continued to say that the bar would be open and drinks on the house. So every cloud has a silver lining. We never did know what the problem was but the local firemen must have been having a very quiet night - they had all come along and were on the run way with their engines, watching the plane land.
We did eventually land in Nassau but it was a pea-souper that greeted us; not the kind we had back home, the sky was blue and the sun shining, but it felt like you had fallen into a pan of pea-soup and were trying to wade through it. We soon learnt that this was summer humidity and if you could, you got off the island at that time or you got into a boat. Few tourists arrived then.
We were allocated our schools the next day; many of the young couples were sent to the out islands. The main island, New Providence, was for all purposes, divided into two parts. All around the coast was the mainly “white” part, the hotels, government buildings, shops, banks and luxury condominiums and homes. The middle part, known as “over the hill” was the mainly native, poor part. All our schools were over the hill. They were new and all built on the same model - a big, open square which was the assembly /play area, and where local food vendors came to set up their stalls of fried chicken and sandwiches and sweet cakes, every lunch time. Around this area, and opening on to it, were the classrooms, on two levels. A bit like a roman dwelling, if you like. There was a gym and out door sports areas.
I was struck instantly by the uniforms. Our girls wore yellow blouses and green pleated skirts that were so heavily starched and stiff that the girls stood them up in the changing rooms. They were spotless and woe betide anyone who touched or dirtied their uniforms. They and their parents were so proud of them.
Meeting the same kids after school, when their uniforms had been carefully put away, they were back to their bare feet and raggedy clothes.
It was my intention to start off as I meant to go on. Continuing the Hathershaw tradition, I announced that after phys. ed. they would be expected to take a shower. They would need a towel. Fine words. That’s when I started to learn their first signs of disapproval - they’d turn their profiles to you , slide their eyes round to look you slowly up and down and then “suck” their teeth.
Evidently, as good as my word, I put words into actions the first lesson but there were very few towels. This was where Mrs Healey was remembered. OK. No towel - hands were invented before towels……. As the posse began to form, I demonstrated a very good reverse hop, step and jump into the staff changing room. Actually, the showers came in very handy for storing the bats and balls. Thank you Mrs Healey.
I suppose that girls are the same the world over - there are those who like phys. ed. and a few that don’t. The ones that enjoyed games liked me and those that didn’t, just didn’t. I sometimes heard a muffled voice somewhere telling me to take my “sh***y white ass back where it came from” .The main sports that I taught were basketball and softball. They could find many ways to disrupt the lessons. One was trying to play basketball with their hands covering their faces. When told to catch the ball and play, the reply was first, the teeth sucking and then, “I’s black enough - no-one ain’t gonna marry me if I’s too black”. There’s no answer to that, so I learnt to suck my teeth too.
As the schools were not fenced in, or not adequately, there were always people passing through the school and very often, right through your game. They’d always walked that way before the school was built so……normal. Even the Bahamian headteacher thought it normal. Evidently, if the girls knew the passers- through, there was sure to be some conversation which would end up including everyone, even me. One frequent passer-through was a young man with the biggest, fattest snake I’d ever seen, coiled around his neck and body. His visits marked the end of the lesson, as the girls ran off, shrieking into the bush.
Those who played in the school teams were highly competitive and it was a joy to work with them. The kids were very proud of their schools and match results, the whole school took personally. But away games were what I dreaded. If you went to another school and lost, you left their premises under a barrage of snears, jears, and comments about your mother. But if you won……..you grabbed your belongings and got out as quickly as possible under a hail of stones. All in the game.
School basketball team - me on the right
Next day, when the head announced the results, the whole school had won or lost. “Lost..” was greeted by teeth-sucking and feet shuffling and “won…” by jubilation.
In The Bahamas, netball was principally an ex-pat sport. The main influence being the American games of basketball and softball. There was a netball club which I soon joined but there were few Bahamians. Those involved had been converted from basketball by their ex-pat teachers. The World Netball Tournament was due to be held in Kingston, Jamaica in December 1970 and The Bahamas was going to send a team; I believe that it was the first time that they did so. As I was able-bodied and willing, I was included. Training wasn’t taken so seriously then and we met a couple of times a week and were given a short daily workout to do at home - nothing more than a few sit-ups and squats.
The Bahamas Netball Team 1970. That's me standing on right
There were about nine countries competing and we were lodged and trained on the university of Kingston campus. All the biggies were there - Australia (who finally won), New Zealand (the previous champions), England, Scotland, Ireland and other commonwealth countries. I don’t know if we drew the short straw or were just not highly considered, but we got the use of the main training facilities at 6am until 7.30 or 8am. We used to include jogging and it was from then, that I became hooked on it and still run daily, moreorless where ever I am.
I’d never been to Jamaica before and as I had a Jamaican friend there from my days in Wolverhampton, I never had a spare moment. Matches were usually in the afternoons but in the evenings, we were not supposed to go out and lights had to be off at 9.30pm. That was tricky, as once you start meeting a Jamaican’s family, you have to visit them all and they seem to have at least half a dozen grannies and then there’s all the cousins etc. I didn’t often meet curfew but as I had no problem getting up early and could play pretty much anywhere, I was included in all the games. We were slaughtered by the Aussies and the New Zealand team and weren’t brilliant against the England girls and the other teams too, ran rings around us. I’d never seen netball played like that; once the ball was in their hands, it was a sure point. The only match where it was touch and go was against Ireland but even they finally beat us. So there we were, at the bottom, with Ireland just above us. I did go home with a bagful of trinkets and ashtrays that the other teams had given us, as is custom, and of course a medal.
Me in action in the middle!
There was an article, later, in the Oldham Chronicle, proud that a local girl had been “capped”.
Don’t know who told them - probably my dad.
Since then, The Bahamas has continued to send a team to the world championships and I believe they have gone from bad to very good.
They have some great athletes now.