Photos courtesy of Caroline Chu Sang
When Portuguese sailors arrived ashore on the island in 1507, they found it both uninhabited and holding very little of interest. It was in 1598 with the settlement of the Dutch that the island obtained its current name in honour of Prince Maurice van Nassau. The island then became a French colony for almost a century, which was followed by rules under Great Britain until independence was gained in 1968. It is today a republic, part of the Commonwealth, and is highly ranked for its democratic, economic and political freedom.
As Mauritius’ history tells, the island has been a crossroads where people of many origins slowly paved the way to today’s Mauritian salad bowl. This month Far From Africa offers the special stories of three proud Mauritian women who each offers a glimpse into this hidden paradise in the Indian Ocean. These Mauritian women can tell the uniqueness of their home but their diverse origins bring a different perspective on what they most cherish about Mauritius.
A Mauritian Mosaic
Caroline, born in the capital Port Louis, has a family history that takes her roots back to China where her grandfather was born. She briefly describes Mauritius as “an African country near Madagascar, a small island of 1.2 million people where native people are called Creoles. The island is known for its beautiful white sandy beaches. Sugar cane used to be our primary source of income which has now been replaced by tourism”.
The vast cultural mosaic on this little island and how its inhabitants have managed to live peacefully and with expression of their diverse traditions makes Caroline very proud of her country. Since a very young age, Caroline celebrated multiculturalism in Mauritius, “at school we all celebrated Indian, Chinese and other festivals”, she recalls. Learning about these festivities are integrated in the curriculum of Mauritian schools and therefore customs and cultural differences aren’t only accepted but well understood.
Although Mauritius has vibrant and culturally-diverse people, she explains “we share the same values, a common language (Creole) and we can speak English and French”. What makes Mauritians united in diversity is the sense of solidarity that they all share in difficult circumstances.
Contrary to her Australian lifestyle, Caroline says “in Mauritius you know more your neighbours, you make cakes and celebrate festivals with them”. Caroline, a very proud Mauritian woman in Melbourne who can speak three languages, doesn’t necessarily appear as a typical Mauritian to others – although Chinese Mauritians represent 30% of the island’s population. “Today in Australia, people ask me if I’m Chinese or start speaking Cantonese to me, but I can’t, I’m Mauritian”, she says bursting into laughter.
Where Flavours Meet
At her end, Rachel, of French descent, fondly talks about Mauritius as “a very tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean close to the African continent and offers a clear blue sea in contrast to its majestic mountainous landscape. There are only 1.2 million people forming a melting pot of cultures, languages and food”. Among this rich diversity, it is hard to pick a national dish as everybody cooks differently in Mauritius. Rachel tells how much she misses the Sunday family meals “where we would be altogether to share rice, beans with curry and rougaille (a dish based on tomato mixed with sausage meat). We have our own chutneys and chillies, and we would be between 15 and 20 relatives lunching together”.
Interestingly, Rachel is part of a minority, with Mauritians of French background making up only 1% of the, “so all my friends are Indian, Chinese, Muslim and Creole”, she says. “In my family we speak ‘French with a twist’ or ‘an exotic French’ as I like to call it”, she jokes. Rachel feels very proud of her country of origin, “I feel unique because it’s such a small island with only 1.2 million inhabitants out of 7 billion people in the world. There is always a story behind Mauritius when I say where I come from; I tell about its location and what you can find there. People often don’t believe me as they think I should be black”. Being from the smallest African island, Rachel explains that they all feel united as they all originate from Mauritius and there is this feeling of being far away from main continents.
Place of Multiple Shades
Odile from the Mauritian city Rose Hill is today very much involved with Melbourne’s African community on multiple projects. She has been in Australia for 25 years and she kiddingly tells that Africans and Australians always guess that she is half black and half white. She continues by saying that she is more than that.
She explains that Mauritius was populated by Africans coming from Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique and even Senegal. The Dravidian people of South India settled down, the French arrived later on and the British facilitated the arrival of Desi Indians to Mauritius. She happily says “my roots are in all of these groups”.
To her, multiculturalism is really what best describes Mauritius and she adds “the Mauritian population represents 70% of the human genome”. Odile takes great pride in this Mauritian mosaic, “what I love is people coming together, the different cultures, the different food, people get on well. Okay, we knew someone had a different cultural background, but it didn’t matter. We supported each other”. She beautifully describes multiculturalism as a “forest where live a wide varieties of trees, the biggest protect the smallest with their branches and the plants nourish the soil and roots of the trees”. For Odile, it’s all about humanity and all groups as diverse as they are should live in harmony.
Young generations are more and more acknowledging their African identity which she believes will bring a better understanding of who they are and their roots. But no matter where their families came from, Mauritians are proud of their identity and country. The sega music undoubtedly brings Mauritians together at festivities to the beats of the ravanne drum.
A video of sega music and ravanne drums