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Mauritius: The Multicultural Island of the Indian Ocean

When I first told people I was travelling to Mauritius, the most common responses were blank faces, followed by an “ah yes… In the Caribbean… Right?” or occasionally an honest “Great! But where is that!?”. It might be a popular tourist destination in my home country of France, but in the Netherlands, it doesn’t seem to be as much of a hotspot. The tiny island of 1,3 million inhabitants is situated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa and Madagascar, and has all of the characteristics of a volcanic tropical island. White sandy beaches, turquoise ocean, palm trees and dense jungles: check, check double check! I could go on for days about the beauty of the island, but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and honestly, this isn’t what struck me most about the island. It wasn’t the stunning nature, the splendour and beauty found on every corner… No, what I found most fascinating and unique about the little African island were the people.

 

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Mauritius has a long history of colonialism. The island was discovered by the Dutch (who killed all the Dodos, then left), colonised by the French, then by the British, and finally gained independence in 1968. However, even though the British did officially colonise Mauritius, the island’s culture and language unofficially stayed French, since the British only used the island’s capital city, Port Louis, as a strategic military base. Furthermore, most Mauritians are from Indian descent (68%), African descent (27%), Chinese descent (3%) or French descent (2%). This has lead to four main religions on the island: Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The three main languages are Creole (a mix of French, Asian and African languages), French and English (the ‘official’ language). It may seem like a weird mix, but basically, once slavery was abolished in 1848, the French still wanted cheap labour in Mauritius, so they exported workers from India and China. Consequently, the entire island is covered in sugar cane, and the reason I could get great rum for very cheap!

 

It is precisely this multiculturalism that struck me the most, as I hadn’t researched much about it before my arrival (I mostly Googled pictures of Mauritian beaches and dreamed about what my tan will look like). Getting off the plane, my dad rented a car and we made our way towards the hotel. We paid for the car in Rupees, spoke to the car rental employee in French, listened to BBC on the radio, drove on the left side of the road and passed by an array of Hindu temples, mosques, and Catholic churches. I had never experienced so many different languages, cultures and religions in one country before, or at least not in such close proximity and in such a small amount of time. It took a while before I could acclimate to my surroundings.

 

The prominent culture in Mauritius is Indian, and we saw this increasingly throughout the duration of the trip. However, this made me wonder, were there any frictions between the various societies? If growing up in Northern Europe has taught me anything, it’s that too many different cultures living in close proximity might cause many issues.

 

A week after landing on the island, my family and I were on our way back from the beach, when my dad had a craving for oysters. We asked around and were directed to a rundown fisherman’s hut by the shore. The man who greeted us was in his 60s, claiming to be the best fisherman on the island. He introduced himself as Pierre, and refused to let us sit without giving us rum, and a tour of his shark jaws collection, which fuelled my dad’s paranoia of swimming in the ocean for the rest of the trip.

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Once we had dutifully finished off our glass (or two) of rum and the negotiations regarding the oysters had finally been settled, I decided to ask Pierre a few questions about the atmosphere amongst the different cultural groups in Mauritius. He explained that there is peace and harmony amongst all religions, as they are all taken seriously and respected equally. However, he claims there is segregation amongst social classes, that Indo-Mauritians had the better work opportunities than Creole (African-Mauritian) people, and that the few French-Mauritians (whites) on the island do not mingle with the rest of the population. He said that himself, as a Creole man, is a fisherman due to his background. When I probed further as to whether this causes friction amongst the different communities on the island, his answer surprised me. He looked thoughtful for a second and replied “No. Nobody from the island is from Mauritius; everyone has come from abroad, bringing their heritage with them. We must respect that.”

 

Walking home that evening, the burn of the rum still hot in my throat, I became more observant of my surroundings. I started to look around for clues, to see if what Pierre had said made sense. Throughout the two weeks that followed, we made plenty more trips all around the island. We saw the huge villas with mass security and high walls that belonged to the French across the street of the slums inhabited by Creole or Indo-Mauritians. Contrasting this, however, was a radio announcement we heard by the Indo-Mauritian president during the Islam Eid al-Fitr festival, stating and reinforcing the importance of respecting and honouring all religions and traditions.

 

The multiculturalism I experienced in Mauritius will stick with me a long time, as will the way in which tradition and religion is so deeply respected amongst communities. The island, uninhabited until the first French settlers, was built on these different cultures, and each new culture brought with it new religions and traditions. I would recommend to anyone struggling to see the possibility of harmonious living amongst different cultures, to visit this small African island in the Indian Ocean.

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