Rashema Ingraham has always known one thing: that there is nothing more important to her than protecting and preserving her island world.
By Lauren Evans.
Photos by ©Peyton Fulford, courtesy of Culture Trip.
It’s high noon on Grand Bahama, and the sun is glinting off the pale turquoise waters of Bahama Beach. This — the near-cloudless sky, the gentle breeze rustling the palms — is precisely what tourists had in mind when they booked their flights here from Canada, the Northeastern United States and other frigid places, hoping to escape the harsh March weather.
But the 13 Bahamian teenagers in Rashema Ingraham’s charge are not here to lounge in beach chairs, and they pay no mind to the pale sunbathers sipping margaritas nearby. For them, the crystalline water isn’t an exotic escape, but a vibrant, teeming ecosystem whose organisms they will spend the next several hours identifying — and, Rashema hopes, eventually grow up to save.
Out in the water, luminous multicolored fish dip in and out of reef balls strung along the coastline like a necklace. The kids, as they snorkel, nudge each other, point and grab pencils tied with string to halved PVC pipes they wear on their arms like medieval wrist guards, diligently jotting down each new discovery. To a novice like me, the fish populating the reef are simply beautiful and splendidly various: some striped, some wide and flat, some with funny-looking mouths. But the students see more than I do. They know these fish. They recognize them from the pages of a glossy book they browsed through on the bus ride from the local YMCA, from previous trips; from studying they’ve done for months as “Waterkeepers Bahamas Cadets.” Over the course of the afternoon, it wasn’t necessarily the stingray that glided by close enough to touch, or even the sea turtle, with its wise face and waving flippers, that thrilled the kids the most. When I asked one student to tell me his favorite of the fish he had identified that day, he replied: “A snapper.”
This ability to get teenagers excited about fish — on a Saturday, no less — comes naturally to Rashema. After all, long before she became the Bimini Coastal Waterkeeper and the executive director of Waterkeepers Bahamas, she was just such a kid, with a deep love for the natural world.
Rashema’s grandfather was a fisherman on Bimini, the westernmost of the roughly 700 islands that make up the Bahamas. Growing up, she and her two sisters spent a lot of time at his house, which was just 70 feet from the ocean and 200 feet from the bay. No matter where you looked, there was water. “There was no way for me to escape that,” she says, laughing.
She was seven years old the first time she accompanied her grandfather to fish in his handmade boat, which is when she became aware of the vast underwater world right outside his home. They were close enough to shore that he was able to maneuver the boat through the water using only a pole, prodding the bottom that lay just 10 feet below the surface. As he dropped his line and sinker into the seagrasses for catch, she gazed down into the limpid waters, where she saw schools of fish, a lemon shark, and a nurse shark gliding near the boat.
The more time Rashema spent examining the living things around her, the more enamored of them she became — and the more aware of their fragility. Throughout her childhood, she spent many Saturday mornings lingering in her backyard on Grand Bahama, observing everything from fallen trees to crawling lizards. Even then, she says, “I could see that weather really determined whether or not organisms would move about.”
Her fascination with the natural world endures, and her concern for it has grown. Through her work with the cadets, and the even younger “Youth Ambassadors,” Rashema hopes to educate the next generation about the environmental challenges the Bahamas faces.
“If they wanted to work with us on a better way of sending that message out, then fine. But that wasn’t their purpose. It was, ‘We need you to be quiet.’”
Despite its image as a postcard-ready tourist destination, the Bahamas is confronting a number of threats to its ecosystem. Overfishing is endangering the conch populations on which many Bahamians’ diets and livelihoods depend. Reckless development is destroying the groves of sprawling coastal mangrove forests that provide habitats for multiple species of fish, stabilize the coastline, and act as natural filters for pollutants that would otherwise run out to sea. Hurricanes are becoming more severe and more frequent, and sea-level rise is imminent. (As the waters invade the land, Rashema is working with the group SwimTayka to teach basic swimming skills to young Bahamians who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn.)
Although Bahamian government officials frequently state that the environment is a priority, the country’s ineffectual patchwork of laws says otherwise. For instance, while the country has enacted legislation to protect sharks, it has no such protections for the mangroves that serve as a habitat for their young. Every election season, politicians print up glossy pamphlets trumpeting their sustainable-development goals. But the goals, Rashema says, are too modest for the scope of the challenge.
The main problem, as in many places, is that effectively addressing the looming environmental catastrophe facing the Bahamas would mean acknowledging the extent of the problem in the first place – and the government has not, so far, done so.
“The focus has always been on tourism dollars,” Rashema says — even if attracting those dollars means hiding the truth about what’s happening.
One of the jobs Rashema has taken on is revealing that truth to the public. In addition to her work with the youth programs, she has helped implement a water-monitoring program, which focuses on collecting water samples, testing them, and posting the findings publicly, allowing beachgoers to know whether or not the water is safe for swimming. This service has not always been well received by the government. Shortly after a local newspaper published an article about the Waterkeeper’s efforts, Rashema got a call from the prime minister’s office, urgently insisting that officials there meet with her to discuss the testing — specifically, why she was doing it. Rashema and her colleagues explained at the meeting that they were offering a public service, and assured the officials they were using the standards of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which were also being used by their own government. They offered to let government representatives accompany their next water-testing outing (which they did, once).
“If they wanted to work with us on a better way of sending that message out, then fine,” Rashema says. But that wasn’t their purpose. “It was, ‘We need you to be quiet.’”
She pauses. “And I am not going to be quiet.”
Rashema didn’t always want a career fighting for the Bahamas’ waters. She initially thought she would become a meteorologist. Then she decided to earn a bachelor’s degree in tourism management from the College (now University) of the Bahamas in Nassau, where many of her courses focused on the environment and geography. After graduating in 2008, she went to work as a secretary and paralegal at the law firm Callenders & Co., but her interest in her natural surroundings never waned. In her spare time, she launched a nonprofit company that provided roadside garbage bins.
In 2013 the law firm took on a client that would change Rashema’s life: a nonprofit called “Save the Bays,” which hired Callenders to help challenge damaging practices around Clifton Bay in Nassau – specifically, oil-spills by a government-run power company, which was dredging and building docks without permits. These, as well as other environmentally destructive activities, were enabled by lax — or nonexistent — laws.
“It was almost as though the universe was saying to me, ‘Now is the time,’” Rashema recalls.
An education director for Save the Bays asked her to join them as a volunteer, helping create programs that would extend the group’s reach to schools and the public. She did that for three years. In 2014 the chairman of Save the Bays, Joseph Darville, a well-known environmental and human rights advocate in the Bahamas, decided to join Waterkeeper Alliance, convinced that being part of the world’s leading water-advocacy organization would help his group amplify its message.
Rashema became a full-time staff member at Save the Bays in 2016, and took it upon herself to learn everything she could about Waterkeeper Alliance and its mission. In 2017 she was named both Bimini Coastal Waterkeeper and executive director of Waterkeepers Bahamas. In those positions she has worked tirelessly to educate the people of the Bahamas on why fighting to preserve the island-nation’s pristine waters is so important.
While the two jobs are obviously related, they’re also distinct: As the head of Waterkeepers Bahamas, her job is to represent all the islands’ Waterkeepers, including Grand Bahama Waterkeeper, led by Joseph Darville, and Clifton Western Bays Waterkeeper, led by Frederick Smith.
Darville recalls that he “was designated unofficially as the president for Waterkeepers Bahamas.” But he is 77 years old now and wanted to find someone with a passion like his for environmental causes but with even more energy. “Rashema is fulfilling that wish to the nth degree,” he says.
Rashema is considering the possibility of becoming a lawyer — at 36, she has plenty of time. But for now, she still sees it as her mission to educate the youth of the Bahamas about the realities of what is happening to their home, and the uncertain future that lies ahead if action isn’t taken.
“Rashema’s grandfather was a fisherman on Bimini. Growing up, she and her two sisters spent a lot of time at his house, which was just 70 feet from the ocean and 200 feet from the bay. ‘No matter where you looked, there was water. There was no way for me to escape that’”
“A lot of young people aren’t talking about climate-change issues,” she observes. “They’re not talking about how much more powerful and destructive hurricanes have become over the last 10 years, or paying attention to the fact that hurricanes are happening outside of the hurricane season now” — even though storms have wiped out neighborhoods on Grand Bahama and on the southern islands.
But Rashema is working to change this. And based on her students’ enthusiasm in the water, it seems to be having an impact. Cheri Wood, a volunteer instructor who works with the Waterkeepers’ youth programs, says that Rashema’s passion, paired with her incredible appetite for learning, is what makes her such a great leader.
“Rashema is dedicated,” she says, “not just to the environment, but to educating the next generation to care about the environment and to take care of it.”
Rashema’s hope is that at least some of the cadets will go on to careers as policymakers, civil engineers, coastal engineers, developers “who are creating greener spaces and appreciating the ecosystems around them.” In the Bahamas particularly, she wants young people to have stronger voices when it comes to demanding more stringent environmental regulations. After all, they’re the ones whose futures hang in the balance.
By now, the sun is beginning to sink below the horizon, the water beneath it bursting with light. As Rashema and the Waterkeepers Bahamas Cadets ride home, the sea dips in and out of view, although it’s never out of sight for more than a few moments. In the island world that is the Bahamas, water is omnipresent, and for that reason, says Rashema Ingraham, “We are constantly reminded of why we need to be fighting.”
Lauren Evans is a freelance writer who covers the environment, gender, and the developing world. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenfaceevans.
Editor’s Note: This profile of Rashema Ingraham, Bimini Coastal Waterkeeper and Executive Director of Waterkeepers Bahamas, was written before Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas on September 1, 2019, as a category 5 hurricane, leaving devastation in its wake. A nearly 20-foot storm-surge inundated many of the islands’ drinking water sources with saltwater. And Dorian’s sustained 185 mph winds ripped open the covers of several large oil-storage tanks on East Grand Bahama, contaminating significant coastal habitat, as well as freshwater sources for local residents. In the aftermath, the lack of water for drinking, bathing and cooking added to the stress on those already displaced. Rashema’s own home was destroyed; nevertheless, she quickly went to work leading response efforts.