No matter how much we try to ignore it, the undeniable truth is that the vast majority of us in Mauritius are the descendants of slaves and servants. Some were sold into slavery by pirates, others were convinced to sell themselves into servitude by deception. French colonialists were largely responsible for the former and British colonialists for the latter. We are now an independent nation but do we ever reflect on the degree to which this cultural legacy lives on? Download audio
A very brief history of Mauritius
Being robbed from their homes and families and transported to a strange land as cargo in the hold of a merchant ship must have been an incomprehensibly traumatic experience. The long journey in a dark, seemingly bottomless pit may well have triggered the vestigial memory of being in a mother's womb.
It was a shock doctrine that prepared them for the imprinting of a parent-child relationship with their owners. Coming from diverse countries, the slaves, like new-born babies, were unable to communicate with each other; naturally they tried to imitate the language of their new “parents”. However, because of the aloofness of their masters, this nascent Creole language rapidly diverged from its French origins.
The French clearly used language to reinforce their patriarchal system, to maintain a black and white distinction between “parent” and “child”. Little effort, if any, was made to educate the slaves in the language of their owners. French was the language of the masters and they used Creole only to address their slaves. Emancipation was a too distant dream, escape was punished with torture and redemption existed only in song.
When the British took control of Mauritius, they generously left the French to control most of the land and commerce on the island. Only within the administrative functions was English widely used. They also allowed the French to continue to import slaves.
Too many years later, slavery was finally ended and the Creole speaking slaves were set free to join their half-caste brothers and sisters and poor whites to form the Creole population. Determined to forget their harsh treatment on the sugar plantations, they refused to return and so were replaced by a new generation of indentured servants.
These temporary slaves-of-debt were brought mostly from the Indian state of Bihar, impoverished by British misrule, complete with their own language. However, their French masters had no intention of learning this language nor teaching French to the labourers. So Bhojpuri was spoken only between Indians.
After their period of indenture was complete, many Indians chose to stay in Mauritius. However, more debt-slaves were imported to flood the labour market and keep wages low. This unbelievably short-sighted, profit-minded practice would have precipitated a Malthusian disaster but for the timely introduction of family planning to the island a century later. The parallels with fossil fuel burning and global warming are obvious.
While some ex-coolies broke with their traditions and married into the Creole community, in general, Indians found that many Creoles, even the previously emancipated slaves, looked down on them. Like their old masters, they refused to learn the Indian languages. So inter-communal traders had no choice but to learn Creole.
More affluent Creoles, especially the coloureds, aspired to be like their old French masters, learning their language and adopting their customs. To gain acceptance and progress socially, many Creoles converted to Catholicism, whose structures actively reinforced the patriarchal culture, including apartheid-style racial segregation.
On the other hand, the Indians generally felt more affinity with the British and favoured learning English in order to obtain jobs in the civil service. The result was a split within the population with only a minority fluent in French and English. The only common language was Creole and so it became the de facto lingua franca of the island.
Today the popularity of French television on the one hand and Indian films with English subtitles on the other reflects and reinforces this language dichotomy. English and French may be widely spoken on the island, but what percentage of people can honestly state that they are eloquent in both? The claim that we are bilingual is somewhat misleading.
Without doubt, Mauritians struggle for a sense of identity. Given our relatively short time on the island, our origins from three different continents and an intensely patriarchal society, this is not at all surprising. But what is strange is the suggestion by some that language determines identity and the claims from different camps that the language they promote is the “mother tongue”.
Although the Germans speak German and the French speak French, what about the Brazilians who speak Portuguese and other South Americans who speak Spanish? Are not Catholics found in every nation, speaking every tongue? Taking an historical perspective, the inhabitants of Britain have successively spoken Celtic, Latin, English and, for a time, the ruling and business classes spoke French. This linguistically schizophrenic nation went on to lead the industrial revolution and command a great portion of the world.
A little thought makes one realise that language is fundamentally a means of communication and the language that a nation speaks is based primarily on utility. When slaves were first brought to Mauritius, a complex language was not required to command them to cut sugar cane. This situation did not change until we invited our old masters to return by offering them our best beaches. Then the value of other languages became apparent.
Today we are part of a global economy where the dominant language of commerce is English. This has not always been the case. In earlier epochs, other languages have been more important: Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and French as empires have waxed and waned. If Germany had won World War Two there is no doubt that we would be speaking German today. Perhaps Mandarin will become a global language of the future.
We are told that Creole is fundamental to the cultural identity of Mauritius. But if this is true then how can the ancient Greek culture still have an enormous influence on the philosophy and politics of most of the world? Culture is composed of beliefs and traditions that are not constrained by the language with which they were originally communicated. Sadly, the vivid images and folklore from Africa that were translated into Creole by the early slaves have been largely lost, along with the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs.
Our forefathers came from nations with vast cultural heritages. It is a sign of maturity to value differences rather than form gangs on the basis of some common characteristic, trampling on others to get ahead. We would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the culture of our motherlands and then learn those of our neighbours. Who knows how much our lives will be enriched in the process? Environmentalists constantly tell us of the value of biodiversity; where are the sociologists who say the same about cultural diversity?
Perhaps it is the descendants of the African slaves who have had the greatest struggle in reconnecting with their roots. However, many resonate with their kinsmen in the heart of the Caribbean. In terms of recognising and drawing attention to many of the residual problems in our society today, they may have much to teach us.
However, even in Mauritius we persecute them. Blind to the possibility that they are the reincarnation of our once revered saddhus, we despise their dreadlocks. We hypocritically uproot their plants with one hand, while handing out disease-spreading needles with the other. It is in their nature to share. Worst of all, we kill their prophets. Are not respect and restitution long overdue?
The lingua franca has evolved into modern Kreol. Even the altered spelling mirrors the vulgarisation of its vocabulary; it is quite different from the language spoken by our forefathers. Why do we give the top honour to the lowest common denominator? Are our aspirations really so subdued? Why not encourage each other to attain joint highs rather than be dragged down to a regressive low? Perhaps our longing for identity and the desire to recognise a maternal language are expressions of something else entirely.
Hierarchical institutions are artefacts of patriarchal societies and there are none more prominent than multinational corporations and the ubiquitous military of the only global super power. It would not be inappropriate to say that Anglo-Saxon imperialism is currently our collective paternal tongue. If this is the case, what then is our maternal one? Unlike patriarchal languages, it reigns everywhere, unchanged for all time: it is the language of mother nature.
Our ancient forebears all understood this language, but with the rise of patriarchal societies its memory was slowly eradicated. Today it is being rediscovered all over the world. However, in Mauritius patriarchy remains strong. We value masculine far more than feminine. We abuse our wives and daughters and tolerate others who do the same. We have relatively few women leading business, politics and religion. But most shockingly, we exploit our natural environment with little thought of her capacity to renew herself.
The principles of nature are interdependence and interconnection, that cooperation is superior to competition and that absolutely everything can be reused and recycled. All of our societies need to relearn our mother tongue to preserve our environment, but the ecosystems of Mauritius are particularly fragile. They are also some of the most beautiful in the world. Mauritius was a land where the dodo flourished because there were no predators. Perhaps then our island is particularly feminine.
The most persistent patriarchal institution, the church of Rome, long ago replaced our living mother with a dead saint. In contrast to their selfless workers in the field, the Vatican's hypocritical preachers of peace, charity and forgiveness have historically done more to promote war than prevent it and spent nothing of their vast capital to alleviate famine. Today they oppose barriers to the spread of HIV, while abstaining from the support of retrovirals to reduce AIDS related deaths. What greater pestilence is there than the belief that a world-ending apocalypse is how we have got to fulfil the book?
For our societies to mature, we must leave behind childish ways. Our explorations have shown us that there is no hell below us, above us only sky. Heaven is what we make for ourselves, here and now. As we become reacquainted with our universal mother tongue, we can glimpse the possibility that there really is just one love and that we will finally get together and feel all right. What on earth could stop us?
Benefits and costs
While the descendants of the original French landowners have slipped into the political background, they maintain tight control of the Mauritian economy. Partial economic emancipation of the rest of the us has occurred but only as a result of trade preferences and aid offered by our old colonial masters. Although the nation of Mauritius was born politically in 1968, the economic umbilical chord has yet to be severed.
Because of these benefits, our standard of living has increased but our work ethic has largely declined. How many generations ago did we routinely labour in the fields after work or after school? How many of us today would, even begrudgingly, stay at the office beyond home time to finish an important project? We certainly need to work more responsibly, giving value for money to those who employ us, especially in public service. But is there a risk that the pendulum will swing too far the other way?
The time is finally arriving when Mauritius will be cut loose and we will have to stand independently on our own financial feet. However, without the patronage of our old rulers, we are not competitive on a level global playing field. As this crisis looms, a solution is being promoted: the 24/7 economy. But what does this really mean?
Implementing a 24/7 economy will surely help us to rediscover our work ethic. If we can achieve it quickly, we will have an advantage over our rivals. The driver of the 24/7 economy will be services, taking over the processes and functions of foreign businesses that can be conducted more cheaply here than in their home countries. But it will only be open to those who speak global languages. The only possibilities for those who cannot will be to provide goods and services to the servers, 24/7.
Global competition will continue to erode workers rights and force down wages, until the ruthless search for an ever lower cost base has embraced every underdeveloped country. If we cannot reduce our costs and improve our skills faster than an increasing number of competitors, we will be side-lined. As pay declines, our lower skilled workers will be forced to work extra hours. The 24/7 economy will provide them, but the lowest on the ladder will have to labour as hard as slaves, just to survive.
Even the well-trained middle classes will be vulnerable. They will be enticed to take on too much debt to buy property, vehicles and acquire the consumer goods that adverts brainwash them into believing will bring happiness. Is this not reminiscent of the deception of indentured servitude? If what they earn falls below their repayments, they will need to work double shifts in the 24/7 economy to avoid personal bankruptcy.
Increased consumption is the only way to maintain the healthy growth of the international money-go-round. This is the system of British-American capitalism, designed by global oligarchs to make the rich richer, regardless of whether the economic roller-coaster goes up or down. The problem is that it is based on the assumptions of a world of infinite sources of raw materials and infinite sinks for all our wastes. Both are self-evidently false.
Our patriarchal economic system has dramatically improved our standards of living. It has enabled global travel and communications. It has given us the tools to investigate and re-engineer life. But it is also responsible for raping and polluting our planet. Obviously, it is not sustainable. However, our patriarchs find it difficult to admit their mistakes. And we have put too much faith in their claim of infallibility.
We are faced with a global problem. And we will need genius to solve it. In the words of last century's greatest: no problem can be solved from the level of consciousness that created it. That consciousness is selfishness, competition and greed. But how do we transcend our own nature?
Thinking the unthinkable
We are told that perception is reality. But the reality is that perception is reflection. The way be see the world is a mirror of how we see ourselves. Darwin taught us about the survival of the fittest and Dawkins about the selfish gene. Although both may be true from a certain perspective, looking from an alternative angle leads to radically different conclusions.
This tale of evolution starts with one amongst a soup of proteins that, by chance, made copies of itself. Over time this proto-DNA mutated and fused with others in its environment. Somehow it managed to make the quantum leap of enclosing its immediate environment by acquiring a self-replicating membrane. The proto-cell was born and it reproduced and diversified profusely.
These selfishly self-replicating creatures contended with each other for nutrients. The more ambitious invaded others by penetrating their boundaries. In most cases, the invaders consumed their hosts to clone themselves. In other cases, the DNA's married – the two became one – resulting in more complexity. And a parasitic minority remained discrete, creating a fifth column of cells within cells, profiting from but exhausting their hosts before moving on.
Some hosts agreed a compromise with the invaders. A good example are mitochondria whose demand for food was balanced by a supply of energy. The trade turned out to be so mutually beneficial that the partnership dominated wherever there was free competition for resources.
The next evolutionary leap was when these super-cells joined together into cooperative communities of mutual service. Somehow they managed how to share their DNA in common while keeping their functions separate. Hence, the multi-creature cells became multi-celled creatures.
Some cells, with responsibility for reproduction, ejected embryonic stem cells into the environment. As these mathematical masters divided and multiplied, they somehow knew how to differentiate into the integral functions required by the fully grown community. At some point these communities decided that sexual reproduction was more fun than making clones. This basic template would evolve into the incredible diversity of animal life that has come and gone on the planet, including humanity.
Each one of us is, in reality, an ultra-complex, self-organising community of cooperating cells. And every cell contributes to the functioning of the whole. There is unity in diversity. The foot does not say “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body”. The eye does not say to the hand “I do not need you”. There is a head, yes, but its function is to be sensitive to and co-ordinate the body, not dominate it. Our choices are made by consciousness, which is something else entirely. This truth is conveniently ignored or declared heretical by the patriarchal paradigm. It is both fundamental to our personal identity and the plan for our future society. And the sooner we realise it the better!
So it turns out that the book of life, intuitively perceived by our mystics, was written within us all the time. Only now do we have the ability to actually read and interpret it. History repeats itself, not in cycles, but in an ever ascending spiral of increasing complexity and emergent capability. And once our society has evolved into a cooperative community of human cells, who knows what we will be able to achieve? So how do we attain this new level of consciousness?
The first step is to change how we see ourselves, to accept and revere the feminine as well as the masculine within each of us. Only then, with 20/20 vision, we can understand and start to re-create the world outside us. Masters of both our paternal and maternal tongues, we will be truly bilingual. We will marry the strength of our father with the wisdom and compassion of our mother and grow up into responsible adults. Restoring yin to yang, we will mature from the love of power to the power of love.
However, we resist change. Even Einstein, after pioneering relativity, struggled to accept quantum mechanics. We can only travel a certain distance. Then we must pass the baton on to the next generation. And here we come across another problem.
Learning to learn
The school system we inherited from our colonial masters is utterly inadequate to equip our children for the future. Mindless repetition may work for a language, but self-directed learning is necessary to develop a critically reasoning mind. Our children can outpace us in terms of inquiry and thinking for themselves. However, teachers interpret questions as a lack of respect, to which their only response, like the slave drivers before them, is a stick.
It is time to end the fear-driven private tuition racket by applying the same techniques we use in commerce. We must inspect teaching in schools for quality and return those who do not make the grade for retraining. We surely have enough graduates, whom we are otherwise unable to employ, waiting in the wings.
The best way to learn is to teach, so why not encourage our more able students to help their struggling classmates? These are the very same skills required by effective managers. Of course, teachers can do the same for their colleagues. Let us eliminate the individualisation and stress of competitive examinations and introduce more fun and adventure into lessons, which need not be limited to classrooms.
We must teach children to monitor their own performance, to discover and improve their learning strategies, to recognise and manage their feelings. Positive emotions lead to improved performance, better memory retention and more productive relationships. The skills of reflection and reflexivity and not examination grades will be the distinguishing marks of the pioneers of tomorrow's world.
Some propose that we expand the use of Kreol in schools. But this is only expedient as means to help our children master global languages and not an end in itself. Promoting Kreol may increase a sense of national unity, but those who use it predominantly will isolate themselves from the global community.
Ever more frequently, children are asking questions to which parents and teachers have no answers. Yet the world's collective knowledge is increasingly available through open sources on the internet. If some cannot access it directly, they will have to rely on information intermediaries. Why would we want to prevent our children from finding answers for themselves?
The church of Rome dominated the medieval world by keeping the Holy Scriptures in Latin – the language of the exclusive elite. Congregations were spoon-fed genetically modified baby food: selections and interpretations that suited the patriarchs. The translation of the Bible into contemporary languages led to religious emancipation. If we have still not rendered the ancient book in Kreol, what hope is there of translating the first global experiment in collaboration: the ever increasing wikipedia of human knowledge?
Bacon was right: knowledge is power. Patriarchal rulers have always tried to limit access to it. When the common people have information and the self-confidence to think for themselves, they start to question their leaders' decisions. But that hardly serves the interests the elite. When their nepotistic dynasties are challenged, they reveal their true nature: resorting to threats and violence. Of course, the more astute gracefully retire.
I have a dream
Perhaps “Maurice Ile Durable” is just a political sound bite, window dressing to business as usual, or refuelling the juggernaut of the consumer economy. The observant note it is the recycling of Vision 2020, the National Long Term Perspective Study, written some ten years ago and then buried in a landfill. Cynics will say that this poor imitation is destined to go up in smoke.
However, as Dawkins perceived, when the circumstances are right, a meme can spread faster through a culture than a retrovirus through a gene pool. During an age of revolution, Victor Hugo observed: nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. And now we are facing an inconvenient truth: this may well be the the eleventh hour.
Below the superficiality of the slogan, a profound truth is catalysing an alchemical reaction, more precious than turning lead into gold: the transformation of an exploitative society into one living in harmony with our beautiful land. We all have a part to play and we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. If we do not uplift the poor and bring them with us, then they will drag us back. Like the insatiability of greed, the drive to survive propels the desperate to theft and destruction.
Our poorest are the descendants of those slaves who were most deeply scarred by their encounter with naked, unbridled capitalism. No wonder they stepped aside while we collaborated with it, until we joined them in the inevitable conclusion: it has no future. We might be wise to ask them what else they can teach us and help them translate their songs for a global audience. Perhaps one day, the beneficiaries of exploitation will seek forgiveness and offer redistribution. Gandhi once proved Jesus' enigmatic words: it is the meek and not the mighty who will inherit the earth.
By looking for the hidden treasure in everyone and everything, we will learn to value and protect diversity in culture and nature. Rediscovering the language of our mother and the insights of the mystics, we will see that we are part of a vast, interconnected ecosystem, that our lives are entangled at the most fundamental level, that continually trying to distinguish cause from effect leaves our old theories in chaos. Moving beyond competition to realise the synergies of cooperation, eliminating greed and hunger, we can achieve a down-to-earth utopia, equitably sharing all the world.
We will speed the transition into adulthood by mentoring those sisters and brothers less privileged than ourselves. Commencing with our islands, we must then consider the bottom billion or so people in the failing states around us. Those who have not enjoyed preferential treatment from their old colonial masters. If it is our collective responsibility to ensure that no-one is left behind, then what more appropriate place for us to start than Madagascar? Of course, those of us from Bihar can practise their native language to their hearts' delight, by partnering with their impoverished kinsman who stayed at home.
Just two generations ago, a nation, profoundly segregated by colour, dared to imagine landing on the moon and achieved it within a decade. At the same time, one man declared what seemed an impossible dream. Today that nation is led by a person of colour, with an Arabic name, born to a white mother and a black African father on an island much like our own. If such dreams can come true then why do we not heed the call to imagine?
When we look inside ourselves with open eyes, we can recognise that we already are the change we want to see in the world. The keys to paradise are within us. So let us take our blueprint and start co-creating heaven on earth today. History teaches that we can turn any dream into reality. The only thing detaining us is our subservience to the redundant paradigms of the patriarchal world view. So let us emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds...