People equate the word Bahamas with Mr. Howell of Gilligan's Island, or with offshore gambling and banking, and the Atlantis Resort, hundreds of miles away from here. But the Bahamas are in fact one of the last intact wildernesses in North America. Rather than palms and groomed beaches, the Bahamas is a sea, pine, coppice and mangrove wilderness only sparsely dotted by development. Seven hundred islands, but if you count the islets, that number escalates to nearly three-thousand. If you look at a map, the Bahamas encompasses an area that masks most countries.
If the Bahamas is a wilderness and its ethnic history is missing, then what happens in and near those villages and townships today?
We drive south from Crown Haven, through Fox Town and Cedar Harbour, and then we pass over a tiny bridge to Great Abaco. This area contains one of the last unlogged stands of Caribbean Pine in the West Indies.
Cooper’s Town, where the Prime Minister of the Bahamas grew up, is also small, quiet and unassuming. and further south near the entrance to a development called Treasure Cay, is the colorful, somewhat hidden squatter’s camp called the Sandbank Settlement.
For years, I had looked at Sandbank while passing by. Today, my dad and I have a chance to visit Sandbank with a friend who lives there. Havvy, who is thirty years old, came to Abaco ten years ago in a makeshift boat from Haiti, where his wife lives. Like most of the squatters here, he came to make money to wire back to his wife and five children.
Sandbank is a maze of small clapboard shacks and narrow alleyways. Many of the shacks are built on stilts, out over the mangrove water and connected by plywood and corrugated metal walkways.
Although the total area of Sandbank may be an acre or two, there may be upwards of 750 people living here, many of them children. And while the entire island of Abaco has only about 13,000 Bahamian residents, some estimate that an additional 10,000 illegal Haitians live in the Abacos.
Despite living on Abaco for the last ten years, Havvy, who visits his family in Haiti once a year, does not speak English. He is able to explain that many of the small children do not have parents, and are taken in by the community as a whole. These children, who, by being born in the Bahamas are Bahamian citizens, are free to attend public school.
Haitian children from the squatter camps don’t always have the money to pay for school lunches, so they will stay home until they can afford the school lunch. Learning this helped me understand the weirdness of these Abaco shanty towns: Sandbank lies only a few miles from Treasure Cay, a place of enormous wealth. But Sandbank is virtually invisible to the community at Treasure Cay. That invisibility is enforced by just about everybody. The Haitians, for one, are extremely nervous to find two white men walking through their camp. And Havvy himself appears nervous to be escorting us through.