The Sawh dynasty in Barbados – rooted in the Guyanese corner shop
(Barbados Nation) Friday morning, and Sawh Bar & Grocery at Eagle Hall is bustling with activity.
One customer calls for “a Vitamalt and a small comb”. Behind him another shouts: “Sawh, I want a Guinness and a short beer there to go.”
The minibus conductor hops off the bus as it cruises by and rushes into the shop wanting to “collect two dollar juices”.
Proprietor Nelson Sawh is cool and level-headed, moving from “dispatching” purchasers of lottery tickets waiting in a queue, to attending these new customers on the go.
From the tone of the exchanges, its obvious Sawh knows these customers well and they know him.
This is typical of the daily scene in shops operated by the Sawh brothers and their wives. Between them, they carry on the legacy created by a Guyanese father who introduced a different style of doing business to Barbados almost 50 years ago.
Latchmi Persaud Sawh left successful businesses behind in then British Guiana (now Guyana) and migrated to Barbados with his wife and children in February 1963. His intention to eventually settle in Canada. But his wife fell in love with the life here and persuaded him to live in the house on Bay Street he had purchased previously in 1955.
Riots erupted in British Guiana and Sawh’s eldest son, Terrence, and brothers Nelson and Jerry left behind to run the family businesses, soon followed the rest of the family to Barbados and wasted no time setting up a retail business on Tweedside Road. His brother, Charlie, joined him and together they began carving out a niche on Tweedside Road.
Sitting at home watching her sons operate a thriving shop, Sahadai Sawh was soon bitten by the business bug, and Latchmi Persaud acceding to his wife’s pleadings, purchased property at Eagle Hall and opened a shop in 1964.
In keeping with the family tradition, the Sawh children joined their parents. As Charlie Sawh put it: “My father born in business, my mother born in business, and when they produced us, we were born business people.”
At her seaside St James home last week, the ailing matriarch Sahadai told the Sunday Sun: “When we come, the people rushed at us, and people got jealous, and so my husband said, let us divide it up.
“Let them understand that we did not come here to take over. But we liked to reach all the people and we used to open late when everybody else close.”
The elder Sawh talked about that Indian business ethic that espouses hard work and involvement of children in family business.
“When you are in business, you should have your children with you. You can tell them what to do. They are going to listen to you and they are going to do it. You hire people, and they don’t listen to you.
You can get problems getting them to do what you want them to do.”
The couple applied the same discipline to running their business as they did to managing the children.
For the six children engaged in the business, it was “school, home and work”. Above all else, this mother said the life of her family was directed by prayer.
“You must pray morning, noon and night, for your family and and for your business.”
Her daughter Jean, preparing a meal for her mother nearby, chimed in: “They were very strict . . . .”
Jean, the youngest of the seven, recalled crying when she first arrived in Barbados, longing to return to Guyana, but not daring to defy parents “because this is how our people are. You do what your parents say”.
Now retired, Charlie Sawh worked with his brother’s business in Tweedside Road at the outset, enjoying great popularity among the customers for his helpfulness, until his father “borrowed” him to work in the Eagle Hall operation.
He joined siblings Jean, Michael, Jerry and Nelson in the running of that shop, working as the chauffeur, and drawing on his many business sources.
This was the son who had learnt the ropes and built up important business contacts in Barbados and he used those links to strengthen the family business.
“With my acumen, I was able to get the people (into the shop) . . . to keep traffic in the business. Business is a commitment that you have to be born with. You cannot just get up in the morning and say that you are going to go and do business.”
It is a Sawh trait being passed on to succeeding generations.
Sahadai said when she and her husband started business, they recognised there were “poor people in Barbados” who could not afford to go to the big shops, who needed credit, and who wanted to be able to buy “small things” when the big shops closed.
“We felt we had to do business for these people, and we were kind to them. We helped a lot of them, because they did not have nowhere else to go.”
The hours were long, and the Sawh shops today still operate seven days a week.
Latchmi saw his sons launch out on their own, the eldest Terrence remaining in Tweedside Road managing that business with his wife and their children. Another son, Jerry, opened in Bank Hall with his wife, Dolly, and their children; Michael Sawh and wife, Kimini, and their children began operating Sawh Westbury Enterprise, while Nelson took over management of the original family business, Sawh Bar and Grocery at Eagle Hall, which he still manages with the assistance of his former wife, Pansy.
The Sawh wives are an integral part of the the family’s business legacy. They all married into the business, becoming Sawh brides in their teenage years, and following their husbands to Barbados. Betty, former wife of Terrence, said: “We worked hard in those businesses.”
Now retired, she started her own business after separating from her husband.
Kimini Sawh still keeps long hours in the Westbury Road shop she started with her husband, Michael.
“We started in 1979. In those days, we had a lot of the [Bridgetown] Port guys coming in and spending a lot of money with us, and the entire neighbourhood supported me well and still support us.”
“We are very accommodating to the customers. We share their concerns, we assist them with credit them. Some pay and some don’t pay. But we have built a very good relationship with the people over the years.
I treat all my customers as family.”
Nelson Sawh has seen a change in the traffic, with country buses which once brought people to do weekly grocery shopping, being diverted to other routes.
Sawh believes being his own boss, with the attendant satisfaction this brings, his “stickability” and the relationship he has built with customers over the years, have all accounted for his success.
Latchmi Persaud Sawh died in 1992. His wife, now age 92, spends her twilight years being cared for by her youngest child, and there is a sparkle in her eyes when she talks about the Sawh legacy.
Meanwhile, the Sawh sign stands out at Eagle Hall, Westbury Road, Bank Hall and Tweedside Road, a beacon of the contribution to Barbados by this family from Guyana.