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Sunday, 1 October, 2000, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Disharmony behind Mauritian veneer
On the surface, all is calm
On the surface, all is calm in the Mauritian paradise
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.

It's promoted as the perfect place for a holiday of a lifetime.

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.

Creoles marginalised

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.

Mauritius' unique flora includes this rare hibiscus
Picture postcard: Mauritius' unique flora includes this rare hibiscus
Bernardo smiled in welcome. I stepped into the yard of his family's tin-shack home, and he held aside the washing hanging on the line so that I could pass through and sit down on a chair hurriedly brought out for me.

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.

Race riot

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

The Indians replaced the Creoles cutting the cane, did well in business, and as their numbers increased, they became the majority of the population, and their influence grew.

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.

The big hotels hide the Creole slums from view
The big hotels hide the Creole slums from view
And also pointed out to me was the burnt-out Roche Bois police station, and the monument to the musicians by the side of the road - two simple, intertwined guitars.

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.

More often than they should, Creoles fail at school, or turn to alcohol, drugs and prostitution

And there is. Under their breath people are nervously muttering, "Fiji".

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.

Astonishingly... the first - very short - Creole news bulletins have only just appeared on the airwaves

More often than they should, Creoles fail at school, or turn to alcohol, drugs and prostitution.

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.

There's a new sense of pride and peaceful determination

At the Roman Catholic church in Roche Bois, the congregation is singing the most famous song of the murdered musician Kaya.

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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