There was a time when children itched to get outdoors to roll around in the grass, climb trees, and just generally engage in whatever they found to amuse themselves with. Today, they have no problem staying indoors with their electronic gadgets engaging in the latest game or “conversing” with friends. This isn’t a Bahamian phenomenon – it’s a worldwide one. But it was just a few decades ago in The Bahamas that it was almost normal to see families, especially those engaged in the straw industry, sitting on porches together engaged in real conversation while grandma, her children, and her grandchildren plaited straw and “worked” bags as they called it to sell to the tourist market. This practice and these kinds of scenes are virtually non-existent now. It’s a dying art that the Ministry of Tourism is looking to resurrect to foster the sustainability of through craft demonstrations at the Junkanoo Summer Festival (JSF).
The goal is to also send a message to people in the tourism industry that there is actually no need for the products to be imported due to the abundance of raw materials available locally and the fact that there are people crafting the products.
Tourists and locals over four weeks of the JSF are able to avail themselves of the opportunity to try their hand at various crafts with artisans who are still practicing, what is becoming a dying art – from straw plaiting to basket-weaving, glassblowing, and jewelry making from indigenous products.
On Saturday past, Norma Knowles of Red Bays, Andros, demonstrated the famous curl and sew technique to the basket-weaving technique passed down from the Seminole Indians to Androsians, which is unique to Bahamians, as they are started in the form of a coaster fashion, and when completed, are reputed to be weaved so tightly that they can hold water.
Betty Turnquest was tasked with teaching straw plaiting techniques.
“In The Bahamas we know that the straw can be plait in the three, the five, the seven, the 11 … and the list goes on, typically in odd numbers. The straw plaiting is unique,” said Dereka Moultrie, coordinator of the authentically Bahamian unit at the Ministry of Tourism. “We know that a lot of persons create straw products in the form of straw bags, straw clutches – we even have persons venturing out into straw jewelry and straw shoes, but the straw plaiting is the first stage of these products because the plait has to be created, and that is a dying art.”
She said a lot of people are learning how to make the finished product, but she said the younger generations haven’t learnt to actually plait the straw.
“This is what we’re trying to foster from a sustainability aspect,” said Moultrie.
While I’ve never tried my hand at either plaiting straw or basket weaving, I encouraged my nephew Justin Smith, six, and niece Deja Taylor, 10, who I took to JSF last weekend to give it the basket weaving a whirl.
Initially, Justin seemed bored and his attention wavered as Knowles spoke to and demonstrated the proper sewing technique on the bottom coaster for a basket, but when he got his hands on the needle, straw, and coaster bottom, he literally didn’t want to put it down; and after a quick tutelage under Knowles’ keen eye, Deja, happily sat sewing away while Knowles corrected her from time-to-time.
“I liked it,” said Justin afterwards. “I liked pulling the needle in and pulling it out,” he said. He declared that he felt he did a good job.
Deja, also said she enjoyed the activity.
“I liked when she spoke to about our culture and what people could do to make money.”
She also liked getting the opportunity to weave a basket.
“I like that type of thing, ‘cause I like to sew. I don’t do it often, but I used to do it all the time when I had skirts with hooks,” she said. Her grandmother’s neighbor, Vinteerie Cowan, who she calls Aunt Winnie showed her how to sew her hooks on her school skirts when they came off, and she said she’s enjoyed sewing ever since. Deja said weaving the basket felt like the same thing.
By giving Bahamians hands-on experiences through the craft demonstrations, Moultrie said they want to show locals that there is no need to import finished products, as with the abundance of raw materials in The Bahamas, and that once they learn the craft, that it can be a viable option. Simultaneously she said it allows tourists to see that crafts and souvenirs are made locally and are indigenous to the country – made in The Bahamas by Bahamians and of raw materials.
“We not only want to foster sustainability in the craft and souvenir industry, but for Bahamians to see that there are opportunities available to them from an entrepreneurial aspect within the craft and souvenir industry. We know that every year there are roughly some 6,000 to 7,000 graduates leaving school and the employment market is somewhat challenged at this time and persons are good with their hands – because of the fact that we have these natural resources within the 700 islands and cays, it gives persons the opportunity to see that they can be their own entrepreneur, they can open their own business, they can make craft, and the possibilities are endless, and so the focus is two-pronged – we want the visitors to have an appreciation that the products are made locally and not rubber-stamped products, and so that Bahamians can see there is an opportunity for them in the tourism industry which is a part of the craft and souvenir sector.”
Most people have heard the adage money doesn’t grow on trees, but Moultrie says she’s a believer that money grows on trees.
“When we look at our Poinciana trees we get pods from them – pods can be used for jewelry, for signs; we have an abundance of sand that can be used on picture frames; the ocean gives back to us reclaimed sea glass which are known throughout the industry to be very rare, particularly the colors and so persons can make jewelry with the sea glass as well as ornamental pieces as well. And so, I like to say money grows on trees because of the fact that we are trying to improve the tourism industry and create these cultural experiences as well. It also fosters a relationship between the visitor and the Bahamian with conversations between the artist.”
With two more weekends for JSF glassblowing as well as how to make jewelry from sea glass will be featured on Saturday, August 3; and straw plaiting and jewelry making and accent pieces out of straw and sand the focus during the close-out event on Saturday, August 10.