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CELEBRATING CAYMAN WRITERS, WRITINGS, & THE ARTS. Renford “Mr Rennie” Barnes: Preserving Cayman Traditions Through Old Time Stories. Part One

Arts and Culture 08 Apr, 2021 Follow News

Renford “Mr Rennie” Barnes & Ms Pam

Dr Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper is an Associate Professor of English at the UCCI

From his vantage point as long-time bus driver of Cayman’s youth, Renford “Mr Rennie” Barnes, has heard many stories and has many stories to tell. Driving since age 16, he owns and operates the Barnes Bus Transport, school buses that cater to Cayman’s children. Mr Rennie believes he has driven all of Cayman – “the premiere, his siblings – everywhere I go I see people that I drove, now big women and men”. His father originated from St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, and was the first bus driver in the Cayman Islands. He also owned the first bakery, located where First Caribbean Bank now is in George Town. Mr Rennie says, “because I drive buses, I see the changes in Cayman firsthand. I see the kids grow up into adults. I have intimate knowledge of Cayman and have seen changes in the town and in families over the years”.

Though hesitant to share his work, Mr Rennie has written poems that capture important local events, like Hurricane Ivan and yes, even COVID-19. These poems celebrate and preserve Caymanian traditions. Mr Rennie’s impressive collection of old Cayman things is worth mentioning, as are his efforts to bring Caymanian seniors together monthly to walk down memory lane. A repository of local lore, Mr Rennie proves true the idea of American professor, Kevin Decora, that the “holistic value of storytelling is its link to community”. Mr Rennie’s stories teach life lessons, celebrate his family’s history, and bring people together.


“Take Me Back”

His poem “Take me Back” is a longing for what was, as he remembers the days of “cisterns”, “going to school and classes were under the shady tree”, “the old bath pan in my Mama’s kitchen”, “when one shilling could buy bulla and cheese”, and a time when “young people dressed to the best and covered all the rest”. With a nostalgic smile on his face, Mr Rennie shared this poem and many stories, and they were a wonderful reminder that storytelling is the earliest form of entertainment and of passing on important messages.

He shared his memories of going to ‘government school’ on the waterfront. The children would play in a sandy area and with the blowholes. He remembers saving a now prominent Cayman gentleman who, as a student, nearly drowned in the nearby waters. The waterfront school was not safe, and so the “moms and the children marched to government house in peaceful protest and insisted on a safe school for the children. This is how the Annex, now George Town Primary School, came about, with the first principal being Teacher McField, and Clifton Hunter as the Education Officer at the time”. Mr Rennie remembers that “at the Annex, the children with promise were separated and trained before going to Jamaica to do their schooling. Persons like Gilbert McLean, Roy Bodden, Lillian Archer, Lucille Seymour, went off to do their teacher course and other studies”.

He was working by age 12, firstly as a caretaker of the Elmslie church where he would ring or bang the bell to indicate start time or inform the community that someone had died. Mr Rennie jokingly admits that in those days you went to church if you wanted a government job. True to tradition, though he joined his dad in driving buses at age 16, by 17 he was working as a messenger boy in “government house”. He recalls working with “Sir Vassel Johnson, Sybil McLaughlin, and others who were the ones running government, but at that time they had no phones so we as young boys would carry messages from one government department to another. We were the communication system”.

For this Caymanian gentleman, it is sad that Caymanian traditions are not being preserved extensively for the youth in Cayman. Like any good storyteller, however, Mr Rennie is doing his part to preserve traditions. “When my wife taught at a George Town school, I would go dressed as an old Caymanian and would take cultural items to the school to talk with the kids. Sadly, the kids would identify calabash as pumpkin or some such. I would tell them what it is and show them what it was used for”.

Mr Rennie told stories of changes in Cayman. It was then that I met his sister, Ms Pam, well into her eighties, who Mr Rennie turned to when he could not remember all the dates. And what an impressive memory she has! Ms Pam remembers dates and events by linking them with her children’s birth, or death of a family member. She reminisced that the march of the mothers occurred in ’58 or ’59; she remembers the first road, now Eastern Avenue, built by Mike Simmons in ’56; and, “Radio Cayman started between ’74 and ’76 when I left for Canada”. They spoke of Cayman sports day, when the various districts would all compete “district against district, pretty much like what schools do now”. This would happen on the grounds where the government building is now, and at the Annex. They further recall that cops had to be a certain height then, and Cayman’s police force comprised of local, Jamaican, and Barbadian men. The first teachers of Cayman Prep all came from Jamaica, and bars could not open till after church – “nowhere would open till after church. Cayman was strict in those days”.

The siblings had many other stories to share, and I enjoyed them all! Then Mr Rennie and I took a short trip to what I am calling his mini museum where he and other senior Caymanians meet monthly to share memories, play games, and discuss local happenings. There I met his poems and heard several other stories, but those I will share in another few weeks.

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