The Plait Lady
Miss Omeilia Marshall of Red Bays, Andros
Andros, the largest Bahamian island is the most unexplored land in the Western Hemisphere. It is known for bone fishing and diving yet much about the island remains mysterious. Covered with pine trees and criss-crossed with fresh water inlets, Andros holds secrets. In fact, its northern village of Red Bays was discovered only a few decades ago. The village is extraordinary because the people descend from the intermarriage of persecuted Seminole Indians and runaway slaves, two groups who both fled Florida in the 1820s. I was drawn to this island because I was intrigued by Red Bays's strange, blended culture. Through intermarriage, a West African and a Native American heritage were fused to create an unusual tribal community.
Traveling to Red Bays from the tiny airport at Fresh Creek was unusual in itself. My local guide Donna and I passed a hundred miles of pine trees and streams and little else. As we drove, Donna, waved to every single car that we saw on the one lane road. "Do you know all these drivers?" I asked. "No," she laughed, "but it's like passing people on the street; it'd be rude not to greet them!"
At Red Bays, we found small cottages tucked among pines and palms, mountains of smelly sea sponges set out to dry, and a friendly people. We visited Miss Omeilia Marshall, the village's 84-year old matriarch. As the midwife, she has delivered just about everyone here including all her great grandchildren. As a medicine woman, she cures the community with her own "pinkie winkie strengthening medicine." But, nowadays she is best known for being "The Plait Lady." The moniker comes from her beautiful baskets that fuse Seminole and Congolese weaving styles.
"My daddy was a Seminole and when I was a baby he learned me how to sew." The "sewing" she refers to is weaving in the traditional Seminole heavy coil technique that incorporates the local Androsia batik and boasts fanciful, twisted handles. It is a technique she has taught to nearly every one in Red Bays - man, woman and child.
When I visited her, she was sitting on the ground in front of her former home, a Seminole "tatch" hut made from palmetto fiber. Beside her, simmered a pot of black eye peas on an open fire and all around sat her great grandchildren, some as young as four, weaving silver top palm baskets, and coconut straw purses and hats with her trademark herringbone band. In Miss Omeilia Marshall's youth, the baskets were used for storing drink and food so the weaving is water-tight. She swears one basket she made was so tight and so large that when she washed it in the river, "it floated away from me and sailed like a boat all the way to America."
The people of Red Bays bring their baskets to her where she sells them from a shed. They don't need to put their names on the baskets; she can take one look at a basket and know who made it. "That's Joan Russell" she said after I picked out one with particularly tightly woven coils.
Today, the adventurous tourists to Andros have discovered her as she's become well-known since winning the prestigious Bahamas Casique Arts Award two years ago. But fame has been a bit troublesome for Miss Omeilia Marshall. It used to take her two to three hours to make a basket and now it takes that many days because she's constantly interrupted. Anthropologists and university students are always interviewing her. And, what with watching all the great grandchildren, weeding, planting her beans and yams, making cassava bread, picking all the Jamaica apples, and boiling up her slippery violet and pinkie winkie medicine, time is precious! Yet she's proud of the rare art she learned from her Seminole father when she was three and declares with wonder "I'm 84 and still plaiting!"
How to buy baskets in Andros
On Andros, many people in Red Bays make and sell baskets. Miss Marshall's grandchildren: John Grant and Joan Russell are two of the finest. There are no stores here; buying is a casual affair. Ask around and you'll be guided directly to their homes. Ask anyone where Miss Omeilia Marshall lives so you can visit her and choose from a variety of baskets, hats and bags directly from her. Purchase is with cash only. A small selection of Red Bays baskets are also in the boutique at Small Hope Bay Lodge at Fresh Creek. (242) 368-2013/4. Credit cards accepted.
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Ethan Schur: Miss
Omeilia's great grandson; Joan Russell proudly holding a basket