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Sunday, 1 October, 2000, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Disharmony behind Mauritian veneer
By Africa correspondent Jane Standley
The small Indian Ocean island of Mauritius is a travel agent's dream.
Warm, brilliant blue seas lapping up onto golden white sandy beaches, fringed with palm trees.
And the multi-cultural harmony which the island is famous for adds to the charm - it's heavily marketed as the island of love where everyone gets on well, whatever their racial origins.
There are Hindu, Muslim, Tamil, Chinese, Franco- and Anglo-Mauritians and the Creole community.
To a large extent that's the case - but behind the veneer of paradise there is more disharmony and marginalisation than might at first appear.
From the main road, you can't see the alleyway of tin shacks.
But it was down the alleyway with its piles of rubbish and scavenging mongrels that I was introduced to Bernardo Agathe - a young black man with plaited hair and the beautifully warm brown features which come from the mixing of the blood in the Indian Ocean islands.
Two toddlers - swaying rather uncertainly on their feet - came over to be introduced - little Olivier and even smaller Marie-Helene - Bernardo's daughter.
He grinned proudly - my welcome here was certainly very warm.
But this is a family still grieving.
Bernardo's brother Berger was shot dead last year - in the chest, at point-blank range - by the police. He was 35.
This violence conjures up a very different image from the typical picture postcard, relaxed and happy Mauritius.
The Agathe family is from the marginalised Creole community - the descendants of slaves brought to the island from the African mainland by first the Dutch and then the French in the 1600s and 1700s.
The slaves were freed when Britain took over in the 19th century - but as the market for Mauritian sugar grew, tens of thousands of indentured labourers were brought in from British India.
Since independence in 1968 the prime minister has always been a Mauritian of Indian Hindu origin, and never a Creole.
The policeman who shot Berger Agathe was a Hindu-Mauritian.
Berger - a well-known local guitarist - was at the front of an angry and upset crowd, demonstrating at the death in police custody of the Creole community's favourite singer, Kaya.
An inquest found that Kaya had been grabbed by his dreadlocks and his head smashed against a wall.
In the slum Creole neighbourhood where the two musicians lived - Roche Bois - Creoles poured out into the tin-shack alleyways and faced the Hindu-dominated police.
Mauritius had the unthinkable on its hands - a race riot.
Echoes of Fiji
Berger was lean and handsome in the photographs his younger brother, Bernardo, showed me.
If you just happened to drive past the memorial you wouldn't have any real idea what it meant - there are no wreaths of flowers.
It's like this island society as a whole - if you stick to the main routes, never look behind the beautiful hotels surrounded by brilliant fresh green sugar cane fields into the Creole slums, you would never know there was a problem.
In that Pacific island paradise, indigenous black Fijians have reacted violently to their domination by another ethnic group which arrived later than they did, and prospered more - the Indians.
It's a highly dangerous, highly inflammable situation.
Discrimination and reform
Mauritian Creoles not only live in poverty in the slums, they suffer severe discrimination - trying to get into the civil service, or for example, the police force.
But some steps are now being taken to try to sort things out.
Astonishingly, although Creole is the language spoken across this most ethnically diverse of countries, the first - very short - Creole news bulletins have only just appeared on the airwaves.
And now there's to be a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
A new government has been elected - it's pledged to put the first non-Hindu prime minister in office.
The civil service and the police force will be reformed.
It's standing room only at the back as the Creole Father Phillipe Fanchette leads them into the next hymn.
He tells me that it's been written by the community for the painting of the black virgin they've just put up in the church.
It's called "Our Lady of Roche Bois" - the words - "we are black and we are beautiful."
There's a new sense of pride and peaceful determination - a feeling of optimism that a people who have always lost out in what's been a false paradise for them, may now be about to come into their own.
Father Fanchette's almost playfully asks his flock: "What is the difference between charcoal and diamonds?"
"Nothing," the people roar back.
"One is black, the other is white, but they're both made of carbon, and that's just the same."
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