Let’s celebrate all those simple, hardworking, honest Mauritian men of the past 50 years… They toiled and kept improving their fate by gradual and definite changes
Starting his adult life in the business world, my dad saw himself passing from one stage of activity into a more complex one. Starting with selling vegetables in a basket on his head, he had the idea of buying a cycle to convey his goods. And one good day he decided to concentrate his trade on watercress only. Coming from Beau Bassin, via Palma or Bassin towards Flic-en-Flac, he would go to the litchi orchard just before the turning to Beaux Songes. Turning right into that orchard, and then left, he would inevitably land near a water cress marshland, which the people in the vicinity had come to call “Cressonville”; for decades it would play a major role in dad’s life.
About 500 square metres large, the watercress plot, lying about a foot below land level, enjoyed plenty of crystal clear water from a Medine sugar Estate canal running from east to west. The marshy land had been divided into basins, perhaps according to its relief and volume of water flowing through various parts. On this would depend the quality of the cress, whether it grew to be short with small leaves and thin stems or tall, with thick, pale green, tender stems and large leaves; some species, having less water, would turn slightly ‘mauve and flower at an early stage – the one that buyers would shun from.
The inner boundaries of each basin were made of some boulders on which years of muddy clay had piled up; so it was not surprising that some of them would support islets of ‘songe’ plants. On its extreme western side, the marsh had a low lying stone wall that would prevent the water from running off too quickly – hence giving it a deeper ebb, where rarely anyone ventured. Beyond that were some tall isolated bamboo plants. And if one did look closer he might have spotted some yellowish fruits hanging from some trees in the periphery of the marsh – those would be the unforgettable ‘janbourjeois’ fruits, with such a typical, fruity rose fragrance.
Savez-vous planter le cresson ?
How to plant it? One has just to get the plant with a few roots, lay it at the bottom of the marsh on the ground and place a few small stones on it in case the land was still hard; should it be muddy it could be pushed inside the soil, hoping that it would stay put. The running water had to be a gentle one; turbulence could wash the plants away. Once the roots had propagated and started matting the floor of the marsh, with plenty of fresh shoots pointing skyward, one could harvest, before the plants flowered.
I had seen dad holding the plants by the upper leafy part and lift them gently out of the marsh as much as possible, and in a single slash with a sharp knife he would slit the lower part. And as one becomes experienced one would gather enough of the plants in the left hand to tie them with a ‘voon’ string, prepared and dried on the days before. This would constitute a bundle – or “botte’ in French.
Watercress is a very tender vegetable. Placing them in a big Vacoas bag could only cause some damage, especially if you want to cycle a long way to the market place. So, in those days, an ingenious way was to get an empty rice jute sack from the shop, slit its sides to end with a small carpet model. On top of it one places the packets of watercress in an orderly fashion into 3 to 4 files; and when you have put in some 50 to 100 of same you have to roll the whole jute ‘gouni’… on itself. This would constitute what the market folks would call a “ballot”, which you could load and carry on your head and place at the back of a cycle.
Dad’s job was to cycle from Cressonville to Rose Hill Market through Quatre Bornes, or go via Petite Riviere to Port Louis Central market to deliver his goods. Years later his friend Mr Boodhoo would tell me how on their way back from Port Louis they would park the cycle in a train after paying 5 to 10 cents, and make the uphill journey back home to Beau Bassin.
After years of cycling, my old man had the idea that renting a van to carry his watercress was less tiring and a more elegant way of doing business. So came the opportunity for me to accompany him on some Sundays. Getting a free ride in a vehicle in the 1950s was the height of adventure for any child – though, now, I have the feeling that dad wanted to teach me that life was a hard trip and not all play. I would be part of that early morning excursion, listening to the talk of the elders: Dad, the driver and other “enfle” helpers. Still years later he improved on this set-up by buying his own second-hand van. When did he learn to drive, I would not know, but we children were proud to have a vehicle parked in the compound at home. The first was memorable – the van (matriculation number 2752), resembling one of those French police vehicles of the 50s – slender, grey looking without any window panes on the sides. Later still would come the Bedford (F 755) pale blue van which proved to be our favourite, for it was more modern and comfortable.
After enjoying trips across many villages and towns in the cool early Sunday morning air, my sisters and I would run out of the van, parked some 100 metres from the marsh, and make our way by foot through the dew laden ‘chiendent’ grass. There we would always cast a long curious side glance at that mysterious, queer looking, single specimen of a tree never seen by a child: a Baobab, with its a single roundish, pock-marked huge trunk, with a few dwarf branches and leaves at the top. We would carry the jute canvas, which had been washed and dried on previous days. We children had lot of fun walking in the cold running water of the marsh waterways and using a fine empty onion jute sack to scoop out some minute ‘million’ fish or shrimps from the water. It was always the perfect beginning to a Sunday morning.
I remember once dad asking me to fetch the dry ‘gouni jute canvas’ lying under the big tree. Soon, I realized that that was a heavy tiring job; putting them in the water and pulling them along to the site of work was the job of a minute, much to the embarrassment, frustration and anger of the men, who had expected dried lighter canvas for their work. Carrying a waterlogged jute canvas loaded with cress on one’s head was no joke for them.
Years later dad would go on improving on his assets and would even air the view that one must give work to other people; he bought a 1.5 ton secondhand ‘camionnette’ lorry while keeping the van for private use. That would help him to carry more ‘ballots’ of watercress, and more workers. And why not diversify one’s business – especially to have more clients at different markets and shops? And why not employ the lorries to carry other cargos? Becoming wiser, he opted not to waste money on breakdowns and spare parts; so he sold the old one and bought a new lorry, and later still a second one.
Let’s celebrate all those simple, hardworking, half-literate, honest Mauritian men of the past 50 years or so – as typified by dad. They toiled the land, managed the shops of the corner or at the marketplace, worked as drivers, sold all sorts of goods on their cycles or went by foot with their bundles of woollen cloth under their arms from house to house. And they kept improving their lot by gradual and definite changes to create their own small private empires. These workers had contributed in their own way to the economic freedom of their families and the country. We owe them a tribute.
* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018