Villages: The Irreversible March of Modernity

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

“In the villages of course, houses didn’t have running water, and many a time I had accompanied my cousins during their visits to their grandparents’ place with their mother, in Midlands which is only a few kilometers from Curepipe…”

We are said to be living in a ‘global village’, a term coined by the Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, who envisioned the world interconnected via electronic communications.

Moving on, the definition of a global village now is the idea that people are connected by easy travel, mass media and electronic communications, and have become a single community. An extension of this idea is the ‘Concept of Global Villages’, which refers to the ‘vision of a new human habitat which offers virtually all of the services and amenities of cities while still preserving the rural quality of life and care for healing and human dimension’.

The assumption here is that somehow the rural quality of life is better, but it is contradicted by the reality that the trend of humanity continues to be increasing urbanization, and rural to urban migration takes place continuously all over the world – suggesting that city life is preferable?

Scaling down to our little island, there is no doubt that both rural and urban areas now avail of practically all services and amenities. I asked myself what remains of village life – or of ‘village type life’ that many of us have experienced as children growing up when the village-town divide was still quite stark, probably until the 1980s at least. I think that most of the candidates who have stood for the village elections on Sunday last have not experienced anything like true village life because from the beginning they have had access to amenities and services that are no longer confined to the towns and cities only.

But change came only very slowly and gradually, and what we take for granted today – clean water, electricity, tarred roads – were not the norm until but a few decades ago. Thus, while they were absent in the villages, even in towns like Curepipe and its outlying areas where I live, as regards water for example many houses would have a single outside tap for all purposes, and one in the simple bathroom that would be situated outside.

In the yard there would a stone slab mounted on a stand for washing clothes, but it was also a common practice for womenfolk to carry bundles of clothes on their heads and walk towards the rivers in the locality where they would do the washing. I, my siblings and cousins would accompany our mother, aunty, grandma, and while they were busy, we children would gambol from rock to rock and splash in the clear unpolluted waters of the river. And we would carry tin cans in which we would put the tiny fishes we caught, the millions which we would delight in catching using makeshift handkerchiefs.

Nowadays for children it’s the TV or smartphone screens that keep them glued. What a far cry from the simpler pleasures of yesteryear! But then, alas, it is also a fact that rivers have become dry streams for most of the time as I have had numerous occasions to witness at first hand, and there’s no choice but to wash clothes at home – and most households nowadays would have washing machines.

In the villages of course, houses didn’t have running water, and many a time I had accompanied my cousins during their visits to their grandparents’ place with their mother, in Midlands which is only a few kilometers from Curepipe, and had also stayed overnight on occasions. There was not even a public fountain, like the one we had down the road from our house in Curepipe, so water had to be collected from the river and brought back in buckets, and strained before drinking and cooking. And of course, it was great fun for us to play in the river and to help fill the buckets, why even stretching out our tiny hands to help ‘carry’ the buckets!

For lighting there was only the old-style conical metal lamp and wick, with kerosene as fuel. All houses were thatched, and cow dung served as covering for the floor. But in Curepipe too I had a few friends living not far from our house (which was of the ‘colonial’ type) who lived in thatched houses with the cowdung flooring which I recall having a pleasant, faint aromatic smell.

Fast forward 40 years later to the early 1990s and we are a group of friends, mostly doctors, who have been doing Sunday treks regularly. One of our favourite trails was in the Midlands area past Bananes village towards Eau Bleue and the surrounding hills. And as often happens in our profession, we develop long-lasting friendships with some patients.

One of us had such a friend who lived in Midlands. He not only offered us the facility of parking our cars at his place, but this was topped by the hospitality of refreshments prepared and lovingly laid out by his wife when we would come back tired and thirsty from our forays into the woods. That, perhaps, could be considered as one of the enduring traits of village folks who willingly share whatever little they have, for the joy of it. And this friend’s place was a mandatory stopover so many times – and despite the treks having stopped, he still keeps in touch.

But this aside, it was literal shock to encounter the modernity in the village. It was unrecognizable from what I recalled of its layout and visuals – as I searched my memory for landmarks that I vaguely remembered. Similarly, for some other villages that I had known in the 1960s, like Barlow in Riviere du Rempart, surrounded by sugarcane fields, where my sister had married. And which made her say one day, not long after she had tied the knot, that ‘zone jette moi dans caro cane!’ (‘you have dumped me in the sugarcane fields!’) – practically eons before the expression ‘dans caro cane’ gained popularity in our electoral campaign jargon…

We have indeed moved on very far in almost all the villages, in the name of progress and modernity. Along the way to the cities, we have lost many of the fundamentals of humane and community living that despite everything else, used to be part of village and rural life. So, while we cannot not frown on or reign in modernity in our villages, we must ensure that the cachet of village is maintained so that we do not forget their inestimable value in the provision of much of the food that we consume for both survival and enjoyment. As also for the infinite supply of fresh air and a clean atmosphere which the presence of green fields and forest lands contribute to, and which are also a soothing sight when we are driving past them.

* Published in print edition on 24 November 2020

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