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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

In Conversation with India Hicks

Xander Haveron-Jones talks with Prince Charles’ goddaughter on her recent charity work in her home of the Bahamas and the international effects of COVID-19 for someone who leads a “global life”.

Although having enjoyed a varied career, India Hicks is perhaps best known for two things: her eponymous lifestyle brand (now defunct), and being Prince Charles’ goddaughter – and the bridesmaid to Princess Diana at the 1981 wedding, watched by 750 million people. Second-cousin to the Prince, she is the daughter of David Hicks – renowned interior decorator – and Lady Pamela Hicks, daughter of Louis Mountbatten 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was assassinated by an IRA bomb in 1979. 

Raised in Oxfordshire and attending boarding school in Scotland, India’s was an upbringing more traditional than her – perhaps unexpected – later relocation to the Bahamas, where she has lived for the past 24 years with her husband and their five children. Since closing her lifestyle brand in 2019, India has become increasingly dedicated to charity work, presently supporting her Bahamian community following a devastating hurricane in early September and – of course – the more recent outbreak of coronavirus, which has overwhelmed the area she calls home.

Speaking with India on Skype, she tells me that from a young age she was taught the importance of supporting those less fortunate in both the local and global community: “I’ve always done as much as I can; we were brought up to give back. I have grandparents who set a very good example of that.” India took with her this proclivity for charitable work when she relocated to the Bahamas in 1996: “Every year here, I would bike a hundred miles in a bike race, raising money for breast cancer in the Bahamas – which is very prevalent here in the Bahamas because of a gene in Black African women to have this predisposition to have breast cancer.” Indeed, India and her husband adopted their child Wesley after his Bahamian mother and aunt died from the disease. 

It was in September 2019 that a devastating hurricane hit the surrounding islands and destroyed two neighbouring communities. Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane, was the most intense cyclone on record to have struck the Bahamas, and is estimated to have cost almost $3.4 billion in damage. Sitting on the advisory board of the Global Empowerment Mission, India says that she – following the coinciding closure of her business – “had the ability and the time to get very involved” in the efforts to support her fellow islanders in the wake of the disaster. 

To the foreign eye, India acknowledges that poverty and the effects of such disasters are “masked by sunshine and pink sand beaches, whereas in England it’s grey skies.” She tells me that people are distracted by the beauty of the idyllic island – the foamy coastline, leaning palm trees, cloudless blue sky. But 60% of the homes in Abaco were damaged or destroyed; the power grid serving the entirety of the islands was ruined. For several days, much of the island – including its airport – was underwater.

“I went out with them first [relief workers from the Global Empowerment Mission] to Abaco, and they were doing very interesting things; for example, taking batteries so that people could  actually get their phones charged in order to call people to let them know that they were still alive … Disaster relief work is very immediate. There’s the immediate horror of what’s happening … and then it disappears off, and people get very distracted by the next thing: it’s a bushfire in Australia, or there is a flood in India, or there is an earthquake in Sri Lanka. I wanted the attention to stay on the Bahamas because the work had hardly even begun. We’re coming up to a year later and people are still living in tents; there is still no power; the government is still fairly ineffectual when it comes to those hurricane victims.”

Though India built a social media following (some 223k followers) promoting her branded fashion items and sharing aesthetic glimpses of her life flitting between England and the Bahamas, she recognised immediately that her platform could – and should – be utilised to promote her charitable efforts: “I realised that I was lucky enough to have built some following from a social media standpoint, and suddenly there was some point to the social media – which was being able to tell these stories … I think people were ready to listen, so I was able to raise money as well as get a message out.”

“If we’re living in an age where social media has such an importance, then let’s use it if we can. The disappointing part of this, of course, is that people are much more interested in my dog, and my daughter making donuts than they are in the charity work we do – so I try … to come at it from a slightly different point of view. I’m now trying to think more creatively about the messaging of it all – but you have to be very careful that it’s not all ‘me, me, me’. And, yet, the way that we’re able to raise money is through me talking about it. So I feel slightly conflicted there.”

By experiencing first-hand the effects of the hurricane on her community, India describes feeling that she had been given “a new job – a new purpose”; she tells me about the importance of communicating stories when asking for people’s donations, emphasising the significance of how requests for help are conveyed in relation to securing contributions: “It’s finding ways of finessing stories in order to keep coming back to the same audience and asking for more.”

While the Bahamas might sound an exotically ‘far away’ location to the British reader, the desolation of the hurricane couldn’t have been closer to home for India, who described the aftermath as “happening right on my doorstep – literally. At the end of my drive, there are families who have been so affected by the tourism economy closing down overnight that there are a staggering amount of families who can no longer feed themselves.”

But as the devastation caused by the disaster are localised, so too are relief efforts: India works in a team which was drawn from residents of the community, each contributing skills to the operation of a wide-spread aid effort. India herself sits-in on discussions with their local MP, church and school authorities, and the local councils. 

India’s close involvement in the organisation of efforts to rebuild the island and support its inhabitants, she says, is crucial: “If I’m asking someone to donate money – whether it be $20 or $20,000 – I am able to assure that person … I can hear the decisions that are being made; I get out at 6:30am on a Saturday and I’m there packing the bags; I see the church vehicles going out; I see the recipients – I see the process from beginning to end … When you give us your dollars, I can account for it. I know where every cent is going – there’s transparency from beginning to end.” 

However, being so intimately affiliated with the community she and the team work to restore, she has come across the moral complexities of charity work: “It becomes really difficult when it comes down to the ‘need’ versus the ‘want’ – who wants the food bag, who needs the food bag.” A fair means of decision seems to be that the leaders of the islands’ churches decide who most urgently needs the food and supplies provided by the team.

The recent wake of COVID-19 added to the Bahamian devestation: with a significant proportion of the island relying on the profits from tourism and travel, the necessary halt of tourist footfall to the islands is perhaps a lesser-considered effect of the pandemic: “I’m daily having conversations with people about when the borders will open; when the tourists will be back; ‘when do we think the food bank needs to be teamed until?’; ‘when will life get back to normal?’”

While the residents of the islands are keen to see tourists return, bringing with them much-needed revenue, India reflects on her own situation amidst the uncertainty of travel. Considering herself a ‘global’ sort of person, India has children at school in the UK, the US, and a mother and family in England. “Suddenly, I feel much more remote,” she says; “much more isolated than I have for the twenty-four years [of living in the Bahamas] … it makes me very nervous that I may have to make tougher decisions about when I get to see my mother and if I’m able to freely travel and come back and forth.”

Reflecting on her childhood in Oxfordshire, India considers how it might be if she were isolating with her family back in the UK: “If I lived in Oxford, I wouldn’t have this innate fear, because I would be in a much bigger country, my mother would be two fields away, my kids could possibly go to college somewhere in England. But, because we’ve built a global life for ourselves, I am fearful what the future holds … My fear is that I have taken travel for granted. I’ve taken the fact that I live in the Bahamas, but can nip on a flight at a fairly reasonable price over to England. I’ve seen the world like that – that it is so global, that it is so easy to travel. And now, suddenly, that is probably going to be removed – the luxury of being able to travel when I want.”

India spoke of the precariousness of the situation – how she feels that she’s “blindly finding [my] way forward, because nobody knows when the effects of the closures will ease-up. Really, we’ve been doing a lot of work in raising awareness and raising money. The challenges are there, of course – as it’s global, it’s very hard.” But she continues to work hard to alleviate the twofold devastation of the hurricane and COVID-19 on her community, and she – along with her fellow Bahamians – will undoubtedly celebrate when travel resumes.

Donations can be made here to support families whose jobs have been lost or put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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