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When a house is not a home

Mauritius
letter-from.jpg

Sarah John ©

A group of women living in a housing estate just outside Port Louis called on me – I was the last in a string of people – to help with their housing problem. Being in The House Movement, a fully unregistered association, I agreed.

It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I was met by this artwork of brightly coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs, on the television. Each was collecting drops of water from the ceiling, making xylophone music. Seeing my face all admiration for her resilience, Marie-Michelle burst into laughter. Then, with a grand flourish, she opened the door into a bedroom. A dank smell poured out. ‘Look, we’ve cancelled this room! It’s too wet!’

She led me into the other room, where she, her toddler and her mother sleep. The double bed was covered with pale-blue plastic sheeting. She pointed to two big, green plastic dustbins like those that municipalities supply, one on top of the other. ‘I had jettisoned three generations of waterlogged wardrobes before I got this idea!’ She then called her mother over, and gently parted her hair to show a recently sewn-up wound; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she had been watching television.

Across the road, her neighbour greeted me: ‘Is this a door?’ she asked, tongue in cheek, and ‘This, a window?’ Her house having subsided, neither the door nor the window opens or closes any more.

Meanwhile, successive ministers of housing claim 90 per cent of Mauritians are ‘home-owners’. But Statistics Mauritius, the official data-collecting agency, defines a home-owner for the census as someone who ‘does not pay rent’. A fuzzy definition of ownership for a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner, responsible for repairs. But she, like tens of thousands of families, lives in a legal vacuum. People have coined a phrase for it: ‘heirs’ houses’. The quaint-seeming but socially lethal Code Napoleon holds that children inherit equal shares. This means families live in houses bought or built by now-dead fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, now technically ‘owned’ by dozens of descendants. Those living in the house can neither sell it nor raise a loan against the land to rebuild; they hesitate to spend on repairs in case some heir, like a bullying cousin, returns from work abroad and takes over the house.

Marie-Michelle and her neighbours’ council houses were constructed and sold off to their forefathers without proper steel in the uprights. So, repairs don’t work.

After some nice long meetings, we came up with a plan to force the Housing Minister to take charge of pulling down and rebuilding at state expense as the properties were defective to begin with. We are still at it.

We find a precedent: the government has agreed to replace asbestos housing. But the Housing Minister, we find, is hard to get hold of. He doesn’t reply to letters, or to petitions either.

‘I am the Minister,’ he then announces, ‘responsible for Smart Cities.’ That’s the government’s economic strategy: creating Smart Cities.

Thus The House Movement finds out why the Minister is never available: he is too busy with housing for the rich.

The sugar barons, still reeling from the termination, under WTO rules, of the protected European Market for sugar, are now making windfall gains from land speculation. Ministers grant permits and massive tax cuts. The oligarchs then parcel up agricultural land, set up gated communities, and sell off villas around golf courses to millionaires from abroad. For over 10 years, the State has subsidized the construction of millionaires’ holiday and retirement villas. Now, with Smart Cities, it will subsidize settler mansions, too – no longer giving just ‘permanent residence’, but outright citizenship.

‘So, the Minister in charge of housing for workers,’ Marie-Michelle exclaimed at a meeting, ‘is now doling out money to millionaires from abroad?’

As we share stories, the broader picture emerges. The gated communities – scores existed even before Smart Cities began – are modelled on Israeli settler colonies in Palestine: walled-off settlements connected by motorways. The people already on the land are made, somehow, redundant.

So, Marie-Michelle’s group meets people from other areas. They broaden their demands. I’m with them, too. Our aim: to stop this colonization. Our demands: food production not land speculation, proper jobs not redundancy, and immediate housing for all.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian political activist and twice-winner of the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.