You know you are not in Nassau when the children bid you “good morning,” say please when making a request, and “thank you” when given something.
And, you know you are not in Nassau when the air is fresh and clean and perfumed with bouquets of nature’s most exquisite aromas.
And you know you are definitely not in Nassau when elegant Bahama parrots don their best green and red, and flock to town to greet you.
Of course, this could happen only in Inagua, that southern-most gateway to the Bahamas where who’s who in the avian kingdom come to show off.
You know it is Inagua when you are savouring spicy minced conch, or juicy steamed native wild pork, or digging into a slab of succulent ‘kickin beef’.
Last week, Inagua hosted the Director General of Tourism, Vernice Walkine, Deputy Director General, Ellison ‘Tommy’ Thompson, Director for the Family Islands, Charity Armbrister, Executive Director, Bahamas National Trust, Eric Carey and a horde of media people.
They came to investigate this “best kept secret” Geno D and Ira Storr sing so much about.
While they headed for the salinas chasing flamingos, I made a bee line for Momanez. No visit to Inagua is complete without a courtesy call to this matriarch – Inez Farquharson. She celebrates her centenary in six years. She seemed fit as a fiddle.
“So Mrs Farquharson,” I began, “what kept you in-”
“The Lord kept me here,” she interrupted. “I am here by his grace.”
“But I mean, what kept you in Inagua rather than living in Nassau or Freeport or Abaco or elsewhere?”
“I had no reason to because it was always better in Inagua,” she said. “And it is still better in Inagua.”
Her father Charles Alfred Grey was a leading sea captain. He plied between Inagua and Haiti in his schooner, the Katherine A.
The Inaguas – Great and Little – are located approximately 70 miles northwest of Hispaniola, with Cuba fifty miles to the southwest, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, 30 miles to the north east.
Great Inagua lies almost in the Windward Passage, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Western Hemisphere.
Today it is holding on for dear life, thanks to Morton Salt Company. Besides a few hundred souls comprising the only inhabited settlement, Mathew Town, the Inaguas are the playground for hundreds of thousands, some say millions, of flamingos, parrots, egrets, herons, blue jays, cardinals, warblers, hummingbirds, owls, doves and more. It has its share of wild life from donkeys to boars. Its seas teem.
Momanez is the aunt of MICAL Member of Parliament, V Alfred Gray, whom she described as “the image of my mother. My mother was a black, good-looking woman and Alfred looks just like her.” She took complexion from her father who was at the other end of the spectrum.
She married Theophilus George Farquharson in 1931. They had eight children. He died in 1983. She reigns as the oldest person in Mathew Town.
“My childhood days were very good.” Momanez adjusted her colourful bandana in a bow at her forehead.
“The children of those years were different from the children of today.” Her brows furrowed pensively. “Because then, if the children were misbehaving anybody could have corrected them and the parents were glad for it.
“Now-a-days if you try to correct some of these rude children the parents want to take you to the court. That’s why the children are in the condition that they are.
“Our parents were very strict. We weren’t allowed to run wild. We went where we were sent and we came when we were called.”
The path to the door of her 1890 home is well worn by persons seeking her advice on everything from religion to bush medicine.
“My husband loved people,” she said. “A lot of people passed through this house. Missionaries coming from north going south found a haven here. In those days we had no running water so they bathed in my old zinc tub, and ate at my table.”
Her face lit up as a flock of squealing parrots flew over. “During guinep season if you stand under the tree, they would pelt you with seeds.”
“A parrot red and blue and green was at a farmhouse often seen,” she said relating the tale of the Parrot and the Crows from the Royal Reader series. “He flew about from tree to tree as blithe and happy as can be.”
“The cottage was a thatched one,” I chimed in, “the outside old and mean.”
“Yet everything within that cot,” she interjected, “was wondrous, neat and clean.”
“Would you come into my parlour,” I challenged.
“Said the spider to the fly.” She laughed.
And so on we went trading Royal Reader tales and talking about life in Inagua when I realised that time had taken wings on me.
Mrs Drucilla Higgs must believe I was not coming anymore. For 25 years she provided lunch for the students of Inagua All-Age School. She watched children become grandparents.
“You know Henry Nixon, the game warden here?” she said. “I served him. He still owes me 50 cents for conch fritter. Now he has grands. There are many others.
“I love children.” Her father, Benjamin Archer, was a fisherman from Abaco. She was married to seaman, Franklyn Higgs, from the Turks and Caicos Islands. “I had seven girls and five boys, but in all I raised 18 children.”
Some things have changed; some have remained the same.
“The people now are different from when I was growing up but, Mathew Town is still peaceful and quiet and you can leave your door open. The people are very friendly. If you don’t have something you can always ask somebody and get it.
“I don’t think I could live in Nassau. I am afraid of Nassau. I sleep in this house alone and I feel contented. But in Nassau, the least little sound I hear, I get up.”
The Bahama parrots are no friends of hers. “I hate them,” she said sharply, pointing to the sprawling sapodilla tree in her backyard.
“They destroy all my dillies. Some years when that tree bears heavily, I could earn over $400 from what I sell, not to mention what I give away.
“But when the parrots come down, they destroy every bit of it. And there is nothing you could do.
“They use to be afraid of smoke, now when you make smoke they just laugh at you. If I was able to use a gun I would have gone to jail already for those birds.”
“I haven’t seen any donkeys yet,” I said. “Are they on the decline?”
“No, but I am glad they are not coming around often. That’s where I could raise my potatoes here in the yard.
“They come in town among the people so much, some of them are tamed. If you try to chase them away, they would just blow at you.
“When they are really around, sometimes you could count two dozen in this yard alone, and they are heavy.”
I bade Mrs Higgs good day, and wended my way past the Inagua Union Society Hall, 1874, to St Philip’s GUO of OF Lodge, 1891.
General contractor Tom Daxon was doing some sprucing up. The lodge was opening its hall as a community centre.
Opposite the lodge is Wesley Methodist Church, re-opened in 1953, and across the way is St Philip’s Anglican Church, dedicated in 1855. Daxon traces his roots to Rev Thomas Daxon who founded the Church of God of Prophecy here.
He remembered when Mathew Town was swinging. Celebrated clubs like the Pride of Inagua, the Glass Bucket, and the Hideout Café, all once the stomping grounds of super stars like Smokey 007 and Count Bernadino, now lay in ruins.
“A lot of our people went to Nassau and elsewhere because they didn’t want to work for Morton and there was nothing else here to do for a living.
“But a lot of our people in Nassau now want to come home,” said Daxon. “With the crime rate the way it is in Nassau now, they would come home and work for less because they would be comfortable here.
“We have to stop depending on the government for everything. We have to get up off our backsides and do some things for ourselves. Come back to your island home and do something.”
Inaguans are never short of relish. Fish and conch are in abundance as are wild cows, goats, hogs, chickens, and the island’s delight, ‘kickin beef’.
“Yeh man,” he said. “Donkey is a clean animal. They are much cleaner than hogs. Donkeys are vegetarians; hogs eat anything.
“I use to eat kickin beef a lot when I was a child. It tastes like cow but milder and is very tender the way the people fix it here.”
As I went in search of a meal of kickin beef, I ran into historian Stephen Fawkes, Morton Salt’s marine superintendent.
He told of when Inagua was “the focal economic point in the country. We were the cosmopolitan, metropolitan, El Dorado of The Bahamas. Nassau then was a glorified little fishing village.”
Mathew Town was named after George B Mathew, governor of the then Colony of The Bahamas, 1844-1848.
By 1907 Inagua had two newspapers – The Record published by Alfred Mellot, and the Searchlight by Lewis Duvalier, first cousin of former president of Haiti, Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.
And yes, he insisted, ‘Papa Doc’ was born in Inagua. His father came from Martinique attracted by the burgeoning trade with Haiti.
“My grand aunt, Hannah Ford who was 102, told me Papa Doc was born on Great Inagua, but he left for Haiti with his father when he was five,” said Fawkes.
He boasted of Inagua’s many firsts – the first planned town in the country, first port of entry, first island where baseball was played, first registered trade union, first resident consulate for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and the first island that attempted to secede.
He spoke with glee of Inaguans like Theophilus Farquharson who founded the West India Improvement Association, stevedoring agent Wentworth Richardson, businessman and diplomat Arthur Symonette, educator T G Glover, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral William Granger, Judge Maxwell Thompson and others.
Inagua must have impressed Tourism’s Director General, Ms Walkine and her team. They were all so excited.
“I was very pleasantly surprised at what I discovered here,” she said.
“I have never seen so many birds in one place, and of all kinds, and the donkeys, and the openness of the place has been unbelievable. It is a beautiful environment. Very impressive.
“More people are discovering Inagua’s natural beauty and that is a very good thing. It shows that Inagua certainly has the potential to develop along lines consistent with its environment.
“We have here an opportunity to encourage small boutique-type hotels, allowing more visitors to enjoy the natural environment that is here in abundance.”
As Bahamasair winged us northwards, I reached into my greasy brown paper bag.
Ummmm. Kickin beef.