Let’s Honestly Face It!
What is Mauritius? An exotic tourist destination? Yes, but much more.
A small island state which is thriving in the midst of general economic downturn? Yes, but much more. What is it then? A Creole island? Little France? Little India? A rainbow island? Or a combination of all these attributes?
The Star and Key
Mauritius is also known as the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean because before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, ships from Europe had to round the Cape of Good Hope on their way to India and upon entering the Indian Ocean needed a port of call for fresh water, food and repairs. The island could offer that. Is it still the star and key?
After a short period of hard times due to high birth rate and dependence on one cash crop (sugar), the economy was diversified and some prosperity was experienced through tourism and manufacturing. Further innovations and the development of new fields of activities such as the seafood hub, financial services, freeport and offshore activities, and ICT have helped Mauritius to move from a low-income economy to a middle-income one. Its ambition now is to move further up and it will succeed because it is still the star and key. A suitable time zone has enabled the development of new ICT businesses. While western capitalism is facing serious difficulties, BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) are offering Mauritius new development possibilities. Three of these countries are ‘neighbours’. They are South Africa, India and China with whom we have more than just business ties. As a consequence, that little dot on the Indian Ocean map has become the hyphen that connects Africa and Asia making of Mauritius the Africa-Asia connection.
The New Culture
But geography is only one side of the picture. We need to understand the place of nurture as opposed to nature to get the full picture. A mixed economy blended with social-democratic policies, the firm belief that market forces should not be allowed to dictate everything, an unswerving faith in a welfare state have also helped to chart a course where prosperity and general happiness are not at loggerheads. When Kovils, Shivalas, Mosques, Churches, Pagodas and Temples stand side by side in mutual respect, some kind of tolerance is generated because the foundation of cultural dialogue has been laid.
Most interesting in the culture field is the language situation. A dozen languages from different lands have survived and a new one has developed and now has its roots deep into the heart of the Republic. It is our National Language, Mauritian, also known as Mauritian Creole. The official language of the Republic of Mauritius is English and English is also a Creole language. What a strange coincidence! Our Republic has a Creole language as national language and another Creole language, English, as official language and this language is in turn a quasi-universal language. This quasi-universal language is now an important communication and development tool for all countries mentioned above (i.e. South Africa, India and China). Experimentation has shown that the right pedagogy known as grammar-translation can facilitate acquisition of English if basic literacy skills are carried out in the native language. Little Mauritius has something to teach the world. We are slowly developing a natural and dynamic bilingualism which consists of two Creole languages (Mauritian and English).
But there are problems. There are hiccups in the inter-ethnic relationship and that is normal for life is a contradiction. The literacy rate leaves much to be desired for history has bequeathed us a complex linguistic reality which prevents us from having a coherent language policy which could yield better results. Democratic changes are slow to work. NOW Global warming and climate change will eventually play havoc if we are not careful. With rising sea level, tourism will be the hardest hit; with the economic downturn in the west both tourism and the textile and garment industry will suffer. And we need the income from these activities to import food. This is our Achilles’ heel.
We depend on foreign markets for almost 80% of foods consumed and yet a high degree of food security can be achieved if judicious and bold decisions are taken. The country’s government has a good plan to help us attain sustainable development but unfortunately it is perceived as government’s business when it should be everybody’s business. It is called MID (Maurice Ile Durable). It should become our survival kit, not a way to greater wealth for a few. The Republic of Mauritius can become the lighthouse in rough sea and bad weather if the right policies are adopted.
The Way Ahead
Long-term development should be planned along different lines. A small island state has become a vast maritime republic. Mauritius has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world. It now has a total area of 2.3 million square kilometres over which it can exercise various economic rights. This is more than one thousand and one hundred times larger than our landmass – an area bigger than that of the combined land area of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK. This will transform our sense of our own geography and constraints. What does this mean for our future development? A lot if we do not, out of sheer mental lethargy, smother our imaginative and creative powers. A change in outlook and mindset will open up new horizons and offer rewards unimagined before.
The development of a seafaring and maritime culture is the order of the day. As a first major step, the sea is not to be perceived as the dumping ground of human and industrial waste. Policy makers and the people of the Republic will have to go back to the drawing board to chart a new course. Besides universal literacy in at least two languages (Morisien and English), marine sciences and technology must become top priorities. To successfully explore, judiciously exploit and effectively protect our maritime resources, we will have to strengthen ties of friendship and cooperation with South Africa, India and China. It’s a win-win partnership. The future is in our hands.
* Published in print edition on 30 January 2014