Last Saturday, just days before this week’s final of the BBC’s amateur cooking competition, Masterchef, I was standing outside Hammersmith underground station in London, talking to a Mauritian Muslim friend. He was convinced that one of the competitors, Shelina Permalloo, born in Southampton of Mauritian Hindu Telugu parentage would win. He reckoned he had spotted how much the two judges, Australian-born restaurateur John Torode and his Cockney co-presenter, greengrocer Gregg Wallace, appreciate her Mauritian-inspired food as well as her personality.
Up until this point, I thought 29-year-old Shelina, a resident of Tooting in south London, had a very good chance of being crowned champion as she had made it through to the final three of more than 20 contestants. But my Mauritian friend convinced me that not only would it be good for Shelina, but it would also be good for the TV series as the former charity worker brought a point of differentiation to the food on display through her creative use of spices. And, as he pointed out, Wallace kept repeating that Shelina “brings sunshine to a plate.” Quite an endorsement.
And so it came to pass. Yesterday evening, Shelina Permalloo was duly crowned U.K. Masterchef 2012 champion. She very gracefully gave a great deal of credit to her widowed mother, claiming that she was really just her mother’s “sous chef.” Shelina added:
Like the populations of many African countries, Mauritians are football mad. The game played in stadiums and streets all over the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island is a legacy of 19th century British colonialism — administrators, missionaries, soldiers and sailors introduced the game to locals — whereas in other African nations it was popularized by the Portuguese and French.
Traditionally, Mauritius split into two more or less equal groups — those who supported Liverpool and those who supported Manchester United. Now, because of increased television coverage and the easy availability of football merchandise, especially branded t-shirts, other UK Premier League teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City are gaining support as younger people choose different football clubs as vehicles for sporting and other identities appropriate to their age sets.
But Mauritians from all of the country’s diverse ethnic groups — Hindu, Muslim, Creole, Chinese and French — know that a Frenchman of Mauritian descent — in fact, of Hindu Telugu heritage — Vikash Dhorasoo, a member of the French team at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, was one of the most gifted midfielders in modern times.
The former AC Milan, Lyon and Paris St Germain player is also the most prominent footballer of South Asian descent in the history of the game, and very well known for his views on the importance of combating racism, homophobia and gender discrimination in sport. The regret among Mauritian football fans is that Dhorasoo never played for a Premier League team before his retirement in January 2008. However, he did visit Mauritius in May 2009 to promote FIFA’s Grassroots programme, which was inaugurated on the island.
The Mauritius football team did not make it to the current African Cup of Nations, the finals of which are being co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. But the country is following the championship closely through local and international TV channels and local press coverage.
Significantly, Mauritius along with Zimbabwe, another former British colony, has been part of the FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre’s research into “11 for Health”, a football-based health education programme for young and teenage children. It had previously been piloted in a smaller study in Khayelitsha township in South Africa in 2009.
In Mauritius, 389 schoolchildren, boys and girls, aged 12-15 years, at 11 secondary schools took part in eleven 90 minute sessions which combined learning or refining a football skill with linked information about 10 health issues – for example, heading a football and avoiding HIV infection, defending well and washing one’s hands, shooting for goal and vaccination for self and family, building fitness and eating a varied diet, and good teamwork and fair play. The study was conducted between February and June 2010.
Mauritius is in the premier league of the world’s democracies, according to the newly released London-based Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The Index, which monitors 167 nations ranks the small Indian Ocean island, with a population of 1.3 million, 24th out of 25 “full democracies,” just ahead of Spain.
Norway is in first place followed by three other Scandinavian countries—Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. Canada is eighth, Ireland is 12th, Germany is 14th, the U.K. is 18th, while the U.S. is ranked 19th.The remaining 90 countries which make it into the “democratic” category are divided into 53 “flawed democracies,” which includes France and Italy at 29th and 31st respectively. The next category consists of 37 “hybrid regimes” and includes Hong Kong (80th), Singapore (81st), Turkey (88th), Tanzania (90th) and Kenya (103rd). The remaining countries in the Index, including Bahrain, Chad, Fiji, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, are described as “authoritarian.”
The Index is based on five criteria: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, and political culture. However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that almost all of the “full democracies” belong to a group of the world’s advanced economies, whose populations are well-practiced in placing marks on ballot papers and tossing out unpopular or incompetent governments.
Little wonder, then, that Mauritius’s inclusion has caught the eye of some commentators. “In some ways, of the 25 ‘full democracies,’ Mauritius is now the most notable,” writes Neil Reynolds, economics correspondent for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. Reynolds cities Mauritius’s endorsement by the World Bank as the best among African economies, and its top position in the Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim’s Index of African Governance.
Reynolds also goes on to note Mauritius’s ascent in the Index of Economic Freedom jointly produced by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal. In 2010, it was in 12th place of 179 countries. In 2012 it has moved up to eighth place. The piece finishes with a rousing cry: “Economic freedom is as much a prerequisite for democracy as voting. Let’s hear it for the prosperous little democracy with a dodo on its coat of arms.”
But free-marketeers are not the only members of the economic tribe to endorse Mauritius. Last year, for example, Joseph Stiglitz, after a brief visit, wrote an article for The Guardian, heaping praise on the country for the provision of free education, transport for schoolchildren and free healthcare, including heart surgery. The former chief economist at the World Bank, and a leading light in the neo-Keynesian “third way” movement, reckoned that North America and Europe could learn lessons from Mauritius in terms of how the country managed “social cohesion, welfare and economic growth.”
Despite the brevity of his stay, the Nobel prize-winning economist was observant enough to point to some of the island’s problems, especially the colonial legacy in inequality in ownership of land and other forms of capital which differentially affects the life chances of various segments of the polyethnic population.
Then there is the vexatious issue of the US base on Diego Garcia. The island, along with 54 other atolls that make up the Chagos Archipelago, was detached in breach of international law before Mauritius’s independence from the UK in 1968 to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. “The US should now do right by this peaceful and democratic country: recognise Mauritius’s rightful ownership of Diego Garcia, renegotiate the lease and redeem past sins by paying a fair amount for land that it has illegally occupied for decades,” argued Stiglitz. He should have added that those 1500 or so islanders, who were forcibly removed from the Chagos Archipelago in the late 60s and early 70s by the British authorities to make way for the military base and dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles, should be allowed to return to their homeland if they so wish.
Around 20 years ago, I paid a visit to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI) in Mauritius to consult the records of Indians who were brought from the subcontinent to work as indentured labourers in the sugar plantations after slavery was abolished in 1835.
Before examining any documents, I was invited to meet one of the island’s leading experts on Indo-Mauritian culture. During our conversation, I raised the subject of caste and its contemporary significance among different groups of Hindus in Mauritius. “It doesn’t exist any more,” the scholar said. “Even in the village where I come from caste is not important — people marry who they like.” The scholar paused before declaring: “The only people who use caste are the politicians at election time.”
I was doubly surprised at these remarks. First, because among my fellow academics there is an ethic of not hiding sensitive or embarrassing facts. Second, on the basis of having made several trips to the Indian Ocean island, I was convinced that caste among the Hindu population is an important principle of social and cultural organization. Indeed, the big questions from an anthropological perspective were: how important and what were the variations, say, between towns and villages?
The Chagos Regagne conference at the Royal Geographical Society in London on May 19 focused on the possibility of establishing an eco-village and research station on one of the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago, part of the disputed British Indian Ocean Territory. It turned out to be extremely interesting.
But this wasn’t just a “scientific” conference for marine and other scientists. Instead, there were conservationists, lawyers, development geographers, cultural anthropologists and a good number of former U.K. Foreign Office personnel, including David Snoxell, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, as well as John MacManus, the newly appointed administrator of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Mauritius High Commissioner Abhimanyu Kundasamy attended. Mauritius is host to the largest group of Chagossian exiles and their descendants, around 3,000 people, who live in the capital, Port Louis, and surrounding areas. Mauritius wants the return of the archipelago. In 1965, under international law, the archipelago was illegally excised from its territory by the U.K. in order to provide the U.S. with a military base on Diego Garcia.
Also in attendance were around 150 Chagossians. They had travelled from Crawley and Manchester where they have settled since leaving Mauritius and the Seychelles and becoming British passport holders in 2002.
I met David Vine, of American University in Washington, D.C., who gave an excellent and impassioned summary of his book, Island of Shame, as well as sharing his more recent thoughts on why the U.S. prefers isolated, unpopulated islands for its military bases. Put simply, it’s all a question of “no people, no problems.”
In 1980, a Mauritian sociologist friend confidently told me that a branded fast food culture as found in North America and Europe would never take off in his homeland. He reasoned that the population was already well served by street sellers, who produced classic Mauritian snacks like vegetable samosas, pakora and gateaux piment, the small marble sized balls of crushed yellow lentil, spring onions and herbs including a good amount of fresh, green chilli, which are deep fried and have a wonderful crunchy texture.
Two decades later the street sellers or “hawkers”, as they are called by government bureaucrats, are still around. Most of them are Hindu or Muslim men. Some have fixed spots by the roadside, where they used bottled gas canisters to heat vegetable oil and cook their products, while others use mopeds or motorbikes, with a box attached at the back to carry already cooked items, so that they can better locate customers at bus stations, especially at morning and evening rush hour, and coastal areas.
But the street sellers are no longer the only game in town. The idea that branded fast food would not take off in Mauritius was a highly plausible theory at one stage of the country’s development; however, it wasn’t long before it was disproved, undone by a growing middle class in pursuit of a marker of their steadily growing affluence. And what better way to celebrate rising status than by adopting the fast food culture of the world’s advanced economies? In 1983, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) opened its first outlet in Mauritius. The company, which now has 14 stores spread across the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island targets the local population rather than the near one million tourists, who visit each year and are largely catered for by the hotels in which they reside. Over the years, the steadily expanding KFC chain has been joined by Burger King, Nando’s and Pizza Hut, as well as a wide variety of local competitors.
Interestingly, McDonald’s was a relatively late entrant to the Mauritian fast food market. It opened its first store in the capital, Port Louis, in 2001 but it is only now that it has firm plans to open a second store in a shopping mall, Jumbo Phoenix, in the Vacoas-Phoenix conurbation, a predominantly Hindu area. Moreover, its choice of location near an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple (mandir) has stirred up a great deal of controversy not only in the neighbourhood but throughout the island.
European and North American-born Hare Krishnas, who had first arrived in Mauritius in 1974 to target local Hindus, the descendants of indentured labourers who make up just under half of the island’s near 1.3 million population, went on to establish a three-story settlement just off the main road in Phoenix in 1984, on a six-acre plot of former agricultural land. But while some ISKCON temples use locations in big cities – the building in London’s Soho is a good example – to illustrate to potential converts the stark contrast between a spiritual and a materialistic lifestyle, those in rural or semi-rural areas consciously use the tranquillity as an important element in creating a sacred space.
Moreover, given the significance of the ritual purity/pollution rule, which as Louis Dumont pointed out in his anthropological classic, Homo Hierachicus (1966), is central to traditional Hinduism, including its sannyasin-led sectarian movements, it is hardly surprising that ISKCON devotees in their semi-rural Mauritian location object to the sale and smell of cooked tabooed animal products near its premises.
ISKCON has now received the backing of most Hindu institutions on the island, including Arya Saba, Mauritius Marathi Mandali Federation, Ram Sena, the Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, and Hindu House. A crowd of several hundred people, some holding placards in either French or English, held a demonstration outside the proposed 150-seater McDonald’s on 9 February (see a video clip from the demonstration here.) The secretary of the ISCKON society, Srinjay Das, stated that his organisation was not against economic development “but we are only asking for respect of our culture. We venerate cows and a McDonald’s outlet selling beef burgers in front of our sacred land is not correct.” He went on to say ISKCON intended to go to court in an attempt to block the opening of the new store (an injunction was duly lodged at the Mauritius Supreme Court on 11 February). Perhaps more ominously, the President of Hindu House, Veerendra Ramdhun, said that it was important that both parties come to terms and agree a solution. He issued this warning: “We are living in a democratic country. We need to make sure that there is peace. We do not want to create disorder. We only want to agree on a solution.”