We Have Come a Long Way, But…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The other day I was watching an Indian movie about farmers in the State of Maharashtra – a part of which is going through a very severe drought these days – who were forced to sell their produce to a landlord, who himself was accountable to another person ‘higher up’. In the process, their own families were practically starving, with mothers feeding their children by turns on alternate days.

In fact this was the scene that was showing when I put on the TV, and the poor mother was trying hard to keep the fire going in the chulha by blowing vigorously and repeatedly through a phukni. It was a heart-rending scene, but at the same time it took me to my childhood days.

The phukni is known to all Mauritians, even those who were well off enough that it had no place in their kitchens. But that would be a comparatively small percentage of the population: the phukni and wooden belna were standard implements for the masses at large in those days. But of course, we know that they also had non-culinary uses, which is not the subject of this article. I leave this to the composers of our musical folklore.

We do remember our mothers, dadis and nanis struggling to keep the wood fire going by means of the phukni, and in order to ingratiate ourselves we children – families tended to be larger than today – used to vie with each other to blow the fire. And if it was faratas that were being made, we could be rewarded with an advance portion for our efforts, the bulk being kept for the main meal of course, because we had enough to eat but not abundantly so. And everyone needed to have his share at dinnertime, plus some leftovers were planned to be had at breakfast the next morning, coated with Blue Band margarine – or plume rouge butter on occasions – and dipped in sugary tea.

To use a cliché, those were happy but hard days indeed!

There must be some poor families who still today cook with firewood and who have to make use of the phukni. Hopefully the efforts being put in by the national authorities will relieve their burden in a foreseeable future measured in years and not decades, for we must not forget also the health hazards of the attendant smoke, not to speak of the overall unhygienic settings where this practice is current.

I had the opportunity to see this at firsthand when we were campaigning for the by-election at Riviere-du-Rempart in December 2003, in l’Esperance Poudre-d’Or. The family had a one-room tenement of wood and iron-sheets which the father, who was an alcoholic to boot, used to occupy with his wife and four young children of whom two were girls. I will not comment further about access to electricity, water, where they had their bath and so on. I pray that the promises that were made have improved the life of such people – but one knows what political promises at the micro level during a campaign mean… Dr Rihun Hawoldar, do you gel with me on that??

As the title of this article indicates, however, we have come a long way courtesy our welfare state, an oft-cited and prize-winning model in the region, and the subsequent industrialisation and development of different sectors such as textiles, tourism, and more recently financial services, IT and so on. We therefore trust that some day in the living memory of today’s generation the phukni will not figure, replaced as it has been by modern kitchens with all the appliances that go with them and equipped with either electric or gas-powered ovens and stoves.

Ditto for our bathrooms – because, like the English who were our masters then, we used to take a full bath once a week, at weekends. The reason was, again, very simple: water had to be heated for each member of the family in turn on a wooden fire, something that was clearly an impossibly enormous task to be undertaken on a daily basis.

Given this state of affairs, and the primitive toilet facilities – the toilet was either a bucket or a pit latrine situated away from the house in a far corner of the yard – it was no wonder that infectious diseases such as gastroenteritis with the killer diarrhoea/vomiting, respiratory infections, whooping cough, malaria, tuberculosis and rheumatic fever affecting the heart valves were frequent. Infantile and maternal mortality were high, and of course life expectancy was low.

However, we are now reaping the benefit of much improved socio-economic and health indicators as a result of a general increase in prosperity follow upon obtaining our Independence in 1968. As result, this has naturally allowed the parallel development of many social services, and most importantly health in all aspects so that we now, alas, have the profile of affluent countries. Besides, too, the myriad social ills that have become equally common and worrying as we contemplate the future of this country.

In fact, only yesterday a report was released in the UK that puts the blame of the unacceptably high levels and early mortality of heart diseases, cancer and dementia amongst others on ‘diets laden with pies, sausages, and ready meals can lead to an early death.’ The research involved half a million people – almost half the population of Mauritius – and highlighted the links between processed meat and heart disease and cancer, showing ‘that people who eat a lot of the meat products have a significantly greater chance of dying prematurely than those consuming low amounts.’

Unfortunately we are following this trend too, despite frequent, regular and repeated awareness campaigns by several worried stakeholders to take to saner eating and lifestyle habits, such as not to smoke, to do more physical activity, to consume more fruits and vegetables amongst other things.

So we are no doubt ‘developing’ – we are far from ‘progress’ as yet – but we still have to be vigilant for our own sake and that of our Mauritian generations to come – and the present ones must start NOW to self-correct, as it is literate, mostly highly educated, and I am sure quite aware too. It must now rise to the challenge of its own present and future, without the need to be spoon fed or coerced into assuming self-responsibility.

Thank you guys, for looking after yourselves – but do spare a little thought for us too!

* Published in print edition on 8 March 2013

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