The French language has captured the imagination of millions of people worldwide. It’s romantic. Classy. Chic. People love the way it sounds. It’s also a language I loved learning. There are 80 million native French speakers; and another 140 million who speak it as a second language. French is one of the eight languages that I know fluently.
Growing up in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean around 2,000km off the southeast coast of the African continent, I spoke and knew more Asian languages than Swahili, the lost spoken linga in Sub Saharan Africa.
“She’s also fluent in sarcasm,” my husband would agree to. I would take a cloud if you didn’t laugh … It’s not everyday one of my Skype/Whatsapp conversations gets a backfire. Feisty and funny, that’s how I would like you to describe me and also most assertive and independent. I can always count upon myself to speak out my mind.
Language and accent is a big thing in Mauritius. How you use French and Creole to express yourself is a clear indicator of who you are in society and where you hail from, I know it is lame but that’s the way it is. Nobody questions it.
People are aware of the white presence in Mauritius. Franco-Mauritians are rich and own all the best parts of the island with the most gorgeous beaches which they have leased to big international chain of 5 star hotels. Franco-Whites do not even speak French like the French from France. They are lost in translation in Paris when they try their heavy weight ‘French’. The roots of their accents can be traced back to Medieval French and they haven’t moved on from there. How could they? cut off from motherland some 12 hours flight from and 6 months sailing time, taken over by Brits and then the people who became independent. While they stayed on, and made more money from the land.
Non-whites have an amicable relationship with them, but there is a particular kind of accent and attitude that the Franco-Mauritians have. Nepotism is common. They even marry amongst themselves. To the detrimental lineage they produce. Most youth do not make any effort to do anything, as they know they will live off the wealth and inheritance of their family. Struggle is only synonym to the non whites. It is not South Africa, but if would not be too far from apartheid, if unspeakable white and black ghettos are mentioned. Creoles or blacks remain the lowly class and stick with poverty. Many ending working in hotels and desperately looking for that lone tourist who could swipe them off their feet and take them away. The Indians have climbed the ladder in accumulating wealth from agricultural land they own and investing in businesses. Education remains their bed rock to success and they rule the island with the majority of population of Indian origin while maintaining their headships in politics.
Franco-Mauritians have ‘fun’ with people from other cultures, but ultimately marry who they are supposed to marry. That is a White, most often. There are a lot of white South Africans coming to Mauritius and Franco-Mauritians don’t like it. There’s segregation and hierarchy even amongst the whites.
We humans really know how to complicate our own lives, don’t we?
This segregation and hierarchy exists amongst the non-whites as well. Neighbouring Reunion Island is still a French colony; and Rodrigues Island, which is part of Mauritius – view Mauritians as arrogant.
They call us ‘granwar’ (Grand Noir) ironically meaning big black. During the slavery time it would have been the black guy who’s been called by the white master to manage all the black people.
Black River, once a fishing village where only black people lived has now turned into a posh area where only …. white people live in their villas right on the beach. The fiery sun still shines bright there to dry the salt in the salt pans, but the White man remains white.
“You still have people earning their living as fishermen. People live in relative, not absolute, poverty. There is a gap between people who have and who don’t have money. But everyone still enjoys a cool beer under the shade of the tree or a nice verandah and look out at the mesmerizing horizon over the shimmering water of the blue turquoise lagoon.
Don’t be mislead that paradise island breeds angels. There’s inequality in Mauritius, but people are more accepting. The notion of the other is not suppressed. There is a difference between ethnicities in Mauritius, but it’s not vilified. And the festivals year round to please each ethnic group in the form of a public holiday makes the joy of the other. Hence, Muslims for example, are very happy to ‘celebrate’ Chinese Spring festival although they don’t eat pork …. but they enjoy the holiday with a big pot of ‘briani’ by the beach. And so forth for the rest of the other ethnic groups. I would lie if I said Mauritians do not like public holidays. As we have grown up celebrating every single holiday we could fathom. Any reason to have a picnic by the beach is worth the respect. A golden one.
People looking me are common, Indian? Creole? French Metisse, Asian? can’t place it, unless you have very pronounced afro hair or asian slit eyes. Most look a bit like a cook up, i.e, a mixture of everything. But, you can still figure out our backgrounds by our names. In Mauritius, you see a human being and then you dig into their background, which family they come from, which town and lo and there! you have the whole history. It’s a bit like a dog meeting another dog, butt sniffing for a few minutes and all ID is displayed. It is up to you to decide whether you want to continue with the conversation or retreat. Mauritians do react like that in a pathological way. It is not about judgemental behaviour at its worse, it is about pigeon holing. Just like their ancestors were subject to by their colonial masters.
Thinking differently is discouraged, though. People around you will bring you back to what they know. Everything exists in this structure. In school you often get told – ‘you would not be asked that for the exam. Do not ask so many questions. It’s not useful, don’t waste your time, concentrate on what you will have to answer in the exams. It’s hard for people to think differently – so you are still a sheep. In a non sheep cattle rearing island. Yes, it sounds weird but once you live there, you won’t notice any different. if you are unconventional, you will end up as me. That is with less friends who can give me a genuine acquiesced nod.
“Opportunities are lacking in Mauritius, agriculture and sugarcane were our biggest industries. Slowly fading into tourism. We market ourselves as a luxury destination for honeymooners. We focus on sea, beaches and hotels. But the offering is not as good as it should be although we win so many awards. Luckily, the service industry is growing big and successful.
We should focus more on food, local music, culture and art. Although there’s no indigenous culture in Mauritius, we have a lot of food inspired by the cultures currently living here. Lots of spicy and fried stuff, which is nice. Dhal puri. All kinds of curries – both Indian and Creole. Rougaille, Fried noodles, etc.
Once you unravel the Mauritian food panoply, I wouldn’t call it cuisine because it is not, but you will never resist a meal that’s fun and spicy as this!
People remain semi conservative, albeit ready to embrace change once their friend or neighbour has done it. Slowly, this sleepy isolated nation is waking up to the new world. But it remains gossipy one. People watching is an art and a must here. Cannot really pinpoint where it originated from, could it be the French or the Indians? Anyway, I grew up in the capital city more precisely the old quarter planned and laid out by the French. A Sunday thing unique to the island and it happens only in Port Louis, is people watching. An afternoon activity when you have donned your day’s activities and concluding the afternoon by a shower, good clothes and take a very very leisurely walk across the streets, and stopping by for a chat who ever you know who happen to be parked at their house gate watching out … ‘les passants’ walkers-by. I find this absolutely genuine to be interested in humans, networking, catching up, relaxing in a chat without having to make anyone a drink but take a gentle stroll. These days, we still do so but probably with an App on our mobile phones, and no one has time for anyone. Sad.
Hey! but we still celebrate living in paradise island and we love our rhum and sega.
Funny facts you might like to know about Mauritius:
- Did you know that Mauritius is about the size of Luxemburg?
- Did you know that Mauritius has no official language? (But English and French are taught at school)
- Did you know that the tallest mountain on the island is about 800 meters high?
- Did you know that Charles Darwin has written not only about the Galapagos Islands (which I visited last year), but also about the flora and fauna of Mauritius?
- Did you know that there is actually a town called Pamplemousses (grapefruit) in Mauritius?