By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
About thirteen years ago, this paper carried an article entitled ‘The Advent of the Homo Mauricianus’. It dealt inter alia with the appropriation of history as an indispensable tool for emancipation as regards Creoles of African descent as well as the re-discovery of their African heritage. These, it was believed, would ease the process of coming to terms with the past despite the painful sentiment of abandonment by the mother country of its children to the appetite of European merchants and the tragedy that ensued.
A deep awareness of loss cultural heritage and a will to shed off the imposition of imported religious ideas and the adoption and mimicry of the former masters’ culture should help to re-define identity and bring about spiritual decolonization.
Creoles of African descent bear the double burden of slavery and colonization, the social, economic and psychological impacts of which are still visible decades after independence. First, the history of slavery and its implications in Mauritius should be taught to children in primary and secondary schools so that they would have an accurate knowledge of Mauritian history and the fight for freedom initiated by rebels in their resistance to an inhuman and tyrannical institution. Some voices have tried to trivialize the tragedy of slavery by presenting it as one of the numerous instances of oppression of people throughout the history of humanity. But the enslavement of Africans by Europeans, the scale of the slave trade and the religious and intellectual arguments to support it in 18th century Europe singles it out as the most inhuman and cruel domination of man by man.
At the end of the nineteenth century, one Black American leader reminded his people that however much they adopted the culture, language, names, dresses and religion of their former white masters, they were still not considered as equals. This was also true and still is in all places where displaced people have undergone de-culturalization, as for instance in the Caribbean islands, in Brazil, in the Indian Ocean islands. That applied even in Polynesia and the Pacific islands where an indigenous people existed. He foretold how the twentieth century was going to be a period of emancipation and civil rights for descendants of Africans.
What’s in a name? A lot. In the last decade of the last century, many African-Americans started to adopt African names in an attempt to redefine their identity. European names have been imposed on Mauritian Creoles, and most of them are certainly not aware of the extent of the damages done in the destruction of identity. It is up to the leaders and African-Creole elite to assess the implications of imposed identity. You do not have the power and freedom to dictate the policy of the IMF and the World Bank but you have the freedom to get rid of the cultural legacy of slavery and colonization provided you are aware of the importance and the necessity of undertaking such a venture. There are beautiful African and Madagascan names, and you are free to cut links with a colonial past and take the names that your original culture entitles you to have.
The damage done to language is beyond repair but there should be an interest and research work in the African languages which must have influenced the concepts underlying various aspects of Creole. African folk tales should also find its place in the local literature for schoolchildren. When you incidentally flip though a book on Zulu tales and customs in South Africa, you come upon the character of Lakasunga and you realize how the word has survived and used by all Mauritians to frighten children off committing mischiefs. Maybe, narakeswamsimulu is also African though its meaning has been lost. The transmission of culture and identity building start at an early age. Indo-Mauritians, Creoles as well as Sino-Mauritians cannot just go on reading Andersen or Grimm tales and such like while ignoring children stories from their own cultural heritage.
African influence on the culinary habits of Mauritians is undeniable. What we call ‘rougaille‘, consisting of frying onions in oil and adding tomatoes and other ingredients to it is basically African as well as cooking meat in a lot of sauce. Very simply, there should be an awareness of African influence in various spheres of local culture including arts and music.
Re-thinking and coming to terms with identity is important. Basically, there is nothing pejorative with the word ‘Creole’, but the stigma attached to it has led to an absurd use of ‘Chrétien’ instead of Creole! So, it is politically correct to refer to the Christian religion which has been transmitted by slave-owners rather than to ethnicity which smacks of an African origin and the negative connotation and clichés the word is tainted with.
African descendants also lost the animist beliefs and practices that shaped their identity. Adepts of Rastafarianism re-created their own religion.
Animist religion has its own concept of time, of man’s relation to the Divine and the spirits. African artists and intellectuals believe in the spiritual decolonization of Africa as a necessary step towards emancipation and progress. The idea is that Africa should get rid of imported religions. There are several religious customs, practices and festivals that can find their way to the displaced people in the islands, and it is desirable that such re-thinking and revalorization take place within the African-Creole context.
It is up to the Creole elite to assess the legacy of slavery and to devise ways and means to re-think their identity, shed the colonial garb and courageously propose the changes that would lead to self-respect. The promising economic development of Africa will certainly boost up self-image and help in the assertion of the African heritage.
* Published in print edition on 4 February 2011