What Mauritians Can Teach Us

Marceline has a large, but very old stone in her kitchen. It’s from her grandmother, who got it from her mother – so it has been passed down through many generations. With this stone and its accompanying stone roller she can quickly grind spices, grains, even make tomato sauce as you can see in the picture. What you can’t see is that this stone is right next to the microwave! It’s an interesting accommodation of old and new.

Mauritians know well the strategy of accommodation. With four main population groups – none more than 50% of the population – they have learned to accommodate each other in order to exist peacefully on their small island.

How do they do this you might ask? To begin with, many Mauritians speak most of the languages of each of these four ethnic groups (Hindi with Tamil, Creole, French and English). Our hosts spoke all four languages at home and we observed this was true of neighbors, teachers, store employees, bus drivers and others. To know the language of another is to have some understanding of their worldview and perspective. It takes effort to learn another’s language which says that they are important and worth understanding. But learning four languages? This is normal for many Mauritians and says something about the importance of being able to understand and engage with those from different cultural backgrounds.

Their governmental system also works to accommodate. When candidates are voted into office – if one minority group has no candidates who gain enough votes for office a designated number of “best losers” from that group are automatically given seats. In this way each group is assured of representation in their parliament. It was also interesting to watch on TV as legislators in the parliament spoke English if they wanted to be efficient and concise. They switched to French if they were making and emotional or impassioned plea, but then used Creole to be emphatic. Everyone understood.

Mauritius is geographically about the size of Hennepin County with about the same population – yet Mauritius provides free health care and education for all of its citizens – something we have yet to accomplish in the U.S. Mauritius insists on accommodating each and every citizen with the basic human rights of health care and education.

Even navigating narrow neighborhood streets, Mauritians rarely use their horns, except with a light tap on the horn to say “I’m right behind you.” Drivers allow other drivers the right of way. Accommodation.

Where we stayed, in the area of Rose Hill, we noticed something wonderful – within our immediate neighborhood we heard the large bells from St. Anne’s Church on the corner, the ringing of many small bells from the Hindu Temple on the next street and the call to prayer from the Mosque down the way. In Rose Hill, people of different cultural backgrounds share the same neighborhood, they don’t live in separate neighborhoods or enclaves. While they speak their own languages and maintain their own cultural and religious traditions, at the same time they also share a neighborhood together and know each other as neighbors and friends.

Relationships are not perfect. Racism and discrimination exist, but Mauritians have learned to embrace diversity in ways that the rest of the world has yet to learn.

Below is a picture of our friend Chris. He is a dedicated science teacher, an inventor, great cook and a musician. He and his family extended wonderful hospitality to us throughout our trip – welcoming visitors who were different and embracing diversity. Yet one more way accommodating.

Going forward, it is not enough to simply tolerate differences or to merely coexist. Our survival as a species and as a planet depends upon our ability to embrace and seek out diversity. Mauritians offer this critical skill to the world.

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How to Break Into a Cemetery

One of the places we wanted to visit was the Jewish Cemetery in Mauritius. Raj took us there – but it was later in the day. It was almost sunset – the beginning of a new day in Jewish tradition.

As we arrived we noticed the name of the cemetery – St. Martin’s Jewish Cemetery. But wait – “St. Martin’s” and “Jewish” Cemetery? It turns out that the adjacent village is actually named St. Martin!

Unfortunately the gate was already locked when we arrived. We had driven a long way and couldn’t come back another day. Not to worry – we decided to break in!

Yes, ahem, this is me (in white pants) after jumping the wall of the cemetery.

Between 1940 and 1945, the British Government held 1584 WWII Jewish refugees in Mauritius instead of letting them settle in Palestine. Many of them are buried in this cemetery.

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Eureka Plantation

In Mauritius we had an opportunity to spend a day with friend, journalist and editor Gilbert learning about the history of Mauritius. We visited both Aapravasi Ghat Memorial and Eureka Plantation.

Mauritius was originally uninhabited. Humans arrived when the Dutch established a small colony in 1638. Mauritius was later controlled by the French and then the British who created their wealth by trafficking slaves (and later indentured servants) to the island exploiting them for free labor on sugar plantations, much like in the United States. Many of the current citizens are descendants of these original slaves and indentured servants (another form of slavery) from India and countries in Africa.

Aapravasi Ghat Memorial is a national monument and memorial site for the travesty of slavery and indentured servitude and its impact on the historical and cultural identity of Mauritius.

Similarly, through its lavish decor, Eureka Plantation highlights the looting of human labor, violence and theft of resources necessary to maintain the opulent plantation house lifestyle. Of course this was no less true in the U.S. Twelve generations of slavery and genocide left its mark of vast poverty, inequality and systemic injustice on both nations.

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Hindu Wedding!

IMG_20170411_170137The religions of Mauritius are primarily Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In the neighborhood where we stayed on our recent visit we notice the Hindu temple, a mosque and St. Anne’s Church all in close proximity. We could hear the call to prayer from the mosque, the bells from the temple and the tolling bell of St. Anne’s throughout the course of any given day.

People of all three religions share a neighborhood, live next door to each other, share in each other’s life events. That is how it happened that we were invited to attend a nearby Hindu wedding by friends of our hosts.

Thanks to the generosity of another friend, Maria, we were gifted with traditional clothes and I also received a beautiful gold and red sari. It has 5 1/2 yards of fabric – but it’s silk – so it was very light and comfortable to wear. I’m not sure I could wrap it up myself – although, Maria did it quickly and easily.

The saris at the wedding were magnificent, with each sari more beautiful and ornate than the previous one. Women wore flowers and jewels in their hair, necklaces that draped down the back as well as in the front. Colors that were spectacular – eye popping – think bright turquoise silk bordered with fuchsia or emerald green rimmed in rich purple! Each woman there looked like a queen. Now imagine hundreds of guests. Live music.

Sit-down tables allowed dozens of guests to be served dinner at one time. As guests arrived throughout the evening they were seated at the tables. Seven different curries were served placed around on mound of rice on a place mat that looked like a banana leaf. Originally they used banana leaves. We used naan bread and our fingers to eat the rice dipped in curry. So different – but yum!

After dinner guests mingled, talked, greeted friends and family. A Hindu wedding is an impressive experience. I’m so glad we that the chance to attend.

Beach Town of Flic en Flac

One of the most well known vacation spots in Mauritius is the beach town of Flic en Flac. The pastel bungalows in the photos are its calling card.

Our hosts (Marcel and Marceline) rented a bungalow for two nights so that we could spend some time at the beach on the Indian Ocean. Chris, Champa and Rita, friends we met in Mauritius, also had a place at Flic en Flac. They provided an impromptu picnic on the beach for us while we were there! It was an afternoon of fun, delicious food and great conversation.

The beach is great, the water is warm enough that you don’t have to get used to it – you can go right in! We really enjoyed our time at Flic en Flac.

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