Bahamians are a very hospitable people

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Most people come to the Bahamas for the climate. But many are learning that the people have a lot to offer. Since the fall of 1975 visitors have taken part in what Bahamians call their "people to people" program.

Many things are relatively costly in the Bahamas, but people-to-people costs nothing.

What's your special interest -- cooking? gardening? dancing? poetry? Whatever it is, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism will find a Bahamian person or family with similar interests. They'll entertain you -- sometimes right in their homes -- for an afternoon, day, or a week, depending on how you hit it off. Before you part you'll know more about the Bahamas than you'll learn from any guide book. Bahamians are a very hospitable people.

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On a recent short visit to Nassau I had one afternoon free. I asked to meet a Bahamian poet and was quickly referred to Susan Wallace. Mrs. Wallace is, strictly speaking, the only recognized Bahamian poet. Her poetry is a reflection of her country -- warm, alive, sparkling with humor. She has published three books including poems, plays, and stories. Many are in the patois English of the ordinary people, although Mrs. Wallace has a master of arts degree from Miami University and has studied in England.

Because of a shortage of time, I met with Mrs. Wallace in her office. She is personnel manager for a large business group. Before that she taught English at high school and college and was an administrator in the department of education. She still makes many public speeches, is active in community life, does play acting, and conducts the choir at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. She recently opened a crafts store for superior Bahamian work. All this while raising five children!

You won't need to meet a historian to learn the history of the country. Most educated Bahamians seem to know that fairly well. As Mrs. Wallace says in one of her poems: Some say one mountain did sink in de sea An' leave all 'ee peaks jookin out: Columbus soon come wid dem sailin' boats tree An' spy dem lil isles ta de Sout'.

The islands -- there are 700 -- were actually discovered 600 years before Columbus by Arawak Indians who migrated through the Antilles from South America. Within a few decades after Columbus landed at what he called San Salvador, the Spaniards had depopulated the islands by shipping the peaceful Indians to slavery in the mines of Hispaniola and Cuba.

The first English claim to the islands was recorded in 1629 and the first settlement established in 1648 by English puritans from Bermuda.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries piracy was rampant in the islands for they were close to important shipping lanes. The pirates were finally crushed by Woods Rogers, the first royal governor, who established orderly government in 1718.

After the American War of Independence between 6,000 and 8,000 Loyalists and their slaves from the former British colonies settled in the Bahamas. Slavery was abolished in 1834 and today the Bahamas has a black government. Tourism began to flourish after World War II and now accounts for 70 percent of the country's gross national product.

To take part in the people-to-people program one has only to obtain a form from the hotel (the cruise director if on a ship), complete it and hand it in.

The Ministry of Tourism will then introduce you to a Bahamian. That could be something to surpass sand, sea, and sun!

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