Sunday, January 13, 2013

'Pigmentocracy still rules': Vaughan Rapatahana visits Mauritius

Summer is a time of year when many of us retire to a familiar place - to a caravan park or bach beside the sea, or the relatives' house in a sunny city. When it comes to holidaying, we like repetition. 

Vaughan Rapatahana has a very different attitude to his holidays. The more obscure and unfamiliar a potential destination seems, the more it attracts him. In my whole life, I've visited only seven overseas nations; Vaughan has visited seven in the last three months. Vaughan is a poet and a scholar of language and culture, and he treats his holidays as field trips, rather than as simple exercises in relaxation or excess. He might hit the beach or the bar during his trips, but he'll do so with a notebook in hand.

During an interview on this blog back in 2011, Vaughan described a journey to Guam, an island few Kiwis ever think about, let alone visit; in an article reproduced here in the same year he narrated a trip to Nauru, a nation so inaccessible and ravaged that not even Lonely Planet bothers to investigate it firsthand. 

Here are some notes Vaughan sent me about a journey he recently made to Mauritius. Apart from introducing us to another unjustly neglected nation, Vaughan's text resonates with the response I recently published to a couple of his books of poetry. Although I was generally very positive about Vaughan's poems, I did ask whether they made a somewhat simplistic contrast between oppressed brown people and oppressive white people, and ignored some of the complexities of colonial history in New Zealand and the wider Pacific. Vaughan may well disagree with me, but I interpret his remarks about the prosperous dark-skinned tourists who are nowadays visiting Mauritius in large numbers as the sort of acknowledgement of the complexity that ethnic relations can have, even when one ethnic group generally dominates another. 

Mauritius Visit, December, 2012 – January, 2013

Mauritius is a lagoon of contradictions resting inside a coral reef of pluralities.

My wife Leticia and I just spent over a week traveling throughout the island (population about 1.3 million).

We really liked the ambience because it is unlike anything else we had previously encountered – and we are inveterate travellers, having been to over seven different countries in the past three months alone. The weather was hot and pleasant – except for Christmas Day when it rained all day; the beaches are white-sand lovely; the food is yummy (lots of East Indian touches and there’s plenty of fresh fruit) and above all else it’s a safe place to holiday in. Serious crime does exist, but it is not rampant, and any major violence had been more to do with intra-ethnic strife than anything else.

The largest proportion of the population - about 68% - are of Indian ethnicity, 27% are of African stock, and 3% belong to a Sino-Mauritian minority. None are Indigenous in the sense of being First Nation Peoples, but all have existed on the island for generations. Mauritius was uninhabited until about 400 years ago.

All had predecessors who were introduced as either slaves or indentured labourers (same thing to me, if truth be told) for the usual array of Imperialist Bunnies – Holland, France, England – in that order of hopping. They were nabbed and sent to Mauritius to harvest the massive sugar cane crops which are still a major component of the Mauritian economy, along with – increasingly – the textile industry and finance. The two largest ethnic groupings are generally stuck in the lower echelons of society. Many are (increasingly) unemployed as tourism – the regnant cash crop of the island nowadays – falters; most have never ever even been able to leave the island and visit their ancestral homelands. They count themselves as pure Mauritians, even if to look at they seem very similar to folk beyond their shores, and even if they share the predominant world religions of Hindu, Islam and Roman Catholicism.
So all are Mauritian first and foremost, given that there is some debate as to what exactly a Mauritian is and indeed as to what Mauritius itself essentially can be categorized as – the community is so diverse, complex and somewhat paradoxical. For example, the country is a member of both La Francophonie and the British Commonwealth. Some would say it is an ‘just’ an offbeat outpost of India; others would stress that it is its own independent democratic republic – Mauritius obtained independence in 1968; others would scoff and claim that it is ‘merely’ a holiday playground for rich Frenchmen and women...

All inhabitants speak French or this very French-based Kreole, with a significant minority also speaking the diminishing Mauritian Bhojpuri tongue. All can speak English if need be, but it is by no means their language of choice (it is spoken as a first language “by less than 1%” according to the 2011 census): more, it is imposed on them at school level by a still colonialist-flavoured government, to the extent that arcane Cambridge examinations prevail and that up until 2012, at least, no Kreole was even offered in schools (Kreole was made into an optional subject in primary schools this year)...
Admittedly many Mauritians do see – or have been duped to believe, however you want to explain this process - English language as an access route to a supposed ‘westernization’ qua power/money acquisition, but many, many more do not ‘succeed’ at school and drop out of a system that seems earmarked for an entirely alternative universe that is nowhere near theirs. “It is a bizarre situation in which English is effectively the official language but is no one’s mother tongue,” exclaimed Tim Cleary in 2011.

Mauritius is a lovely place to swim and suntan and shop for novelty knickknacks – especially if you are a visiting Frenchman (the French comprise 2% of the population but are still the dominant small, land-owning minority) or Brit – and huge flight flotillas of these two nationalities arrive at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International airport down in the south-east every summer season – boosting the manifold beachfront hotels and the two Club Meds near Grande Baie and also fostering their own delectable seaside private mansions, which are in complete contrast to the non-whites' unpainted low-level cinder-block homes, green and white Muslim mosques and ubiquitous plain domed Hindu temples. 

The contrast is all-too-obvious between Mahebourg – a scenic but run-down city where the original Dutch colonizers and Dodo-decimators first arrived - as compared to the nearby Blue Bay which is an impressive array of these sprawling several-storied on-the-sand mansions owned by the Europeans and serviced by the descendants of slaves brought to L’Isle de France, as the French called Mauritius, by the antecedents of these European Godfathers only a few hundred years earlier.

So pigmentocracy still rules in Mauritius – the whiter you are, somehow the ‘better’ you are seen to be, to the extent there is a sort of caste system on the island and it is somewhat alarming that the (financially-speaking only) lowest of the low are the darker-skinned, especially the completely eviscerated Chagos Islanders who were expelled from their Chagos Archipelago relatively recently by the scheming British and Americanos so as the latter could construct their massive Diego Garcia airbase to rendition and redact at will. 

These poor indigenous folks (for they too were sealed, signed and delivered to Chagos, from Africa in the main, to work in the coconut industry among others) exact whereabouts are unknown generally to their ‘fellow’ Mauritians other than the fact that they are lingering lost ‘somewhere’ in several villages and also in the outskirt slums of Port Louis – the sprawling and largely mundane capital city, highlighted by an impressive deep-water harbour, a scuttle of slightly high-rise shopping arcades at the water’s edge, the bustling Central Market festering in spices, and the old British Fort Adelaide built especially to protect their women and children during the historical Anglo-French land-squabbles and sea battles in and around Mauritius – one of which the French actually won in 1810 and recorded as their sole naval victory over the English on the L’Arc de Triomphe!
An irony here relating to the Chagossians – who lost out even further on the 20 December, 2012 when the European Court of ‘Human Rights’ turned down their bids for recompense and a return to their distant homelands – some Christmas present, eh - is that their Mauritian ‘cousins’ own pre-Independence administration literally sold them down the river too, as is all so well-articulated in the impressive book by Jean Claude de L’Estrac entitled Next Year in Diego Garcia from 2011, which really sets in stone the duplicitous and nefarious scheming by the recondite Anglo-American imperialists. “This story is one of deceit, lies and cowardice. Perhaps worse” L'Estrac observes. The plight of the Chagossians is – most definitely for me - one of the major blots on the Anglo-American copybook of the last forty years. An excellent fictionalized account of the Chagossians' story is included in Lindsey Collen’s novel Mutiny, which was included in the Guardian's list of ‘greatest underrated fictions of the noughties.’
To go back to my earlier kaupapa, and to quote Cleary once more about the local intra-discriminatory culture: “Identity is related to community and to the competition between the various groups for the country’s resources and labour market…there is a surprising amount of religious intolerance on the island.”  Cleary majority Indo-Mauritian Hindu now dominate in business and politics and form a burgeoning middle-class, given they still subsist below the French elite, who maintain, even in 2013, whites-only clubs in Port Louis. Indeed, one of Mauritius’ greatest writers, Malcolm de Chazal, once categorized his homeland as ”cultivating only sugarcane and prejudice.”

All of which is hugely ironic as so many tourists to Mauritius are black-skinned English bankers who were born and bred in London and are rabid fans of Manchester United(!), or members of the rapidly rising black South African middle-class with the funds to spring over to Belle Mare beaches from Johannesburg. We met some of these types when we went on a guided tour to the impressive Botanical Gardens in Pamplemousses and the Sugar Factory Museum on the outskirts of Port Louis. We all ended up at the lovely lunchtime restaurant at this selfsame ex-Sugar Cane Factory and shared tales about Aotearoa-New Zealand rugby over the luscious sugar cane rum of many varieties, as well as the equally impressive local Phoenix beer. It’s when a 14 year old non-white J’burg boy tells a Maori that his favourite rugby player is Richie McCaw you know that – for some ethnicities in some places, at least - it’s all far too simplistic to cast everything in clear cut black and white tones nowadays: which is all a very good thing...

In many ways Mauritius is a time-warp where the past rubs up against the immediate present and an indubitable and inevitable widening future: where black men and women cater to other black men and women with more money than them. One group speaks French, the other English. It’s just that Mauritius has yet to inherit the prosperity that fuels the visitors from its former colonies, (some its near neighbours), who have successfully begun to throw off the shackles of their selfsame colonisers! Ironies abound - rather like the piles of lank green kelp, which are consistently being cleared off the seashore by teams of – you guessed it – Creoles and Indo-Mauritians stewing under the noon day sun.
An interesting place with the potential for explosion methinks. We sensed beneath the placid and polite and peaceful exteriors of the mass of the people we met a sort of frustration, a form of resignation, an element of indignation at having to learn English, to accept lower paid employment as taxi drivers and housemaids and tourist guides. And to have to survive by being kelp pickers while the white men and women – and to be fair - the much darker skinned Indian tourists and black Englishmen and black South Africans lolled on their deckchairs in the broiling sun and gestured for cool drinks to be delivered.

Globalisation at play, maybe, but any leveling process has yet to eke through to the ‘average’ Mauritian in their own rather wondrous and spectacularly verdant homeland, operating on a distinct Mauritian time, whereby one waits just a bit longer than one would in Hong Kong or parts of Auckland: Leticia and I were going to be picked up by taxi at 5.00 one evening to be taken on an hour-long drive to the very touristy Grand Baie before the sun went down. Our affable driver finally arrived at 6.10 pm. C’est la vie, n’est-ce-pas mes amis?

And we cannot forget sega – the endemic and idiosyncratic and Mauritius unique meta-dance-music that quintessentially sums up this island overall: a kaleidoscopic cross-pollination of variegated nuances, fragrances, tones, credos, aftertastes and tongues – and for us now already – delightful memories.


Anonymous 1501 said...

Isn't VR one of the tourists he criticises????

8:07 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

I have always stated that things are never a clearcut black and white scenario - an acknowledgement indeed of 'the complexity that ethnic relations can have, even when one ethnic group generally dominates another' This is fine by me... particularly in this day and age. It will continue to become even more complicated, especially in the maturing colonised and - ironically - the colonizers societies.

I also didn't actually criticize any tourists in this piece - just decribed them. Indeed Mauritius needs these tourists to support the economy bigtime.

But generally speaking it is hard to evade the bottom line re: not only Mauritius and Chagos - that English-language agencies still dominate and determine the social striations of another country, given the French ambience. And that the past remains potent. (The same pervades the Philippines, where we will again be early next month. That's a whole other ball-game, yet the same ground rules apply there, eh.)

More significantly here, what the Anglo-Americans are doing in/to Chagos is a crime against humanity.

2:22 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I agree with you completely about the deportation of the Chagossians, Vaughan. Their situation reminds me a little of the experience of the people of Niuafo'ou, who were taken off their island in northern Tonga in 1946. The Niuafo'ouans were eventually able to return: they didn't have the combined might of the US and UK militaries to contend with!

9:40 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Vaughan,

what is your opinion of the MMM? Can they change Mauritius for the better?

8:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I worked with a bloke from Mauritius in about 1966 at the freezing works. Indian ethnicity from recall.

I saw a documentary I think done by John Pilger about the forced evacuation of Diego Garcia. That is indeed a great injustice.

It is like (other actions of European colonizers etc) and one example is or are The Marshall Islands where the US military just took over the place to test military weapons and nuclear bombs. (Many other examples).

Diego Garcia is another of those big wrongs that has been neglected.

Good report. Very informative also.

9:28 pm  
Anonymous Vaughan Rapatahana said...

Cannot add much about MMM as I know little about them, other that they are a socialist-inspired political movement who aspire to greater equality for all Mauritians. If they were ever elected they may well even up the gender, class/caste and ethnic inequalities on Mauritius - which is by NO means in a bad way after all. We saw bugger all beggars or rampant poverty...although there are some very poor areas in Port Louis.

As for Marshalls - does anyone still remember Bikini Atoll - which still remains uninhabitable? Same agencies, same case of the indigenous being shunted off...

As for Marshalls anyway - now there IS poverty in Majuro. Sad sights all round. We used to travel there from Nauru and although I haven't been there for a while I am told by contacts there that it remains overcrowded and rather run-down. Lots of stray dogs.

Which reminds me of Americanos actually - still quite a few strays who are on Bikini Atoll (not all divers as there are also DoE workers who somehow remain there) and funny how they kennel in certain places around the globe (American Samoa; Puerto Rico, Guam et al) but never grant statehood to these nations.

Which inevitably brings me back to Philippines - another such 'place of convenience' for Americanos - I reckon Subic and Clark will soon be back with Obama...

2:55 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, the British and the French (and others) have also committed wrongs in the Pacific. (But some of that process has possibly been inevitable and not all "clashes of culture" have been bad, as Maps says.

And Maralinga in Australia was used for nuclear testing by the British. There is no way you can compensate for destructive actions such as that although money was paid out. The damage done is virtually irreversible.

Also Christmas Island.

12:03 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Here's something on it:

A Report or Comment by Professor Waden Narsey.

Here is the start of it:

"During 1957 and 1958, Britain conducted nuclear tests in the Pacific—three at Malden Island, and six at Christmas Island. Both these islands were part of the British colony then called Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now known as Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively).
British, Australian, New Zealand and Fijian servicemen were exposed to risks of radiation. So also possibly were indigenous Gilbertese (now referred to as i-Kiribati) in the test zones.
A book (Kirisimasi: Fijian Troops at Britain’s Christmas Island Nuclear Tests) launched some 10 years ago by the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre outlines the personal case histories of the many Fijians who suffered the ill-effects of radiation at the test sites, as well as the continuing effects on their children. ..."

Have we or are we reaching the end? There seems to be no end to this kind of atrocity in human history.

Ted Jenner and Jack Ross think the world is over populated and global warming is inevitable. This (if true) means we we may be approaching the end of human history.

Cockraoches, rats and much else may survive but we are perhaps too intelligent.

Maybe Scott is wasting his time in Tonga. There may be no hope. We and this earth, pushed by sex and Dawkins's selfish and savage gene, may be slowly or more quickly dying.

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