Letter from Mauritius
The sun was already high in the sky, beating down hot that weekday. Four young men on bicycles arrived, one by one, outside a small hardware store in a sleepy residential area in Quatre Bornes. No-one noticed them as a team at the time. The events were only reconstructed in retrospect, and put together by all the people in the area going over what had happened.
‘Look at that suspicious man with a towel wrapped around his head! Look – standing across the road, leaning on his bicycle,’ the old lady in charge of the hardware store exclaimed to her only assistant, who happens to be a friend of mine. ‘Probably got toothache,’ Dojo replied, as he turned his back to dust the different-coloured oil paint tins, shining on the shelf in the store’s dimly lit interior. In a matter of seconds, a young man tore into the shop, grabbed Dojo by the shoulders and, at close range, sprayed some gas from a canister into his face, while another immobilized his elderly boss and gave her the same treatment. A fourth man then had just enough time to put his hand into the till, and grab a fistful of notes, then all four were off on their bicycles before the arrival of neighbours in response to the shouting.
Dojo laughs as he tells the story. This kind of thing has become so common in Mauritius as unemployment increases, that it has given rise to a brand new series of audacious robber jokes. Most often the robberies involve little or no serious injury. The serious injuries and murders, one cannot avoid mentioning, are left mainly to the realm of the family, which is imploding in senseless violence as the economic crisis puts increasing pressure on an institution with no access to land or income.
The taxi driver who drove Dojo and his employer to the hospital ended up needing treatment too. So strong was the gas still emanating from his passengers’ clothing and hair that his eyes were burning too much for him to contemplate driving them home. Dojo recounts this, shaking his head philosophically.
At the exact same time that all this was happening, when the sun was up high in the sky, I was in a social centre at a local women’s association meeting on the outskirts of Port Louis. The association had invited our women’s organization that day. So 3 of us joined 25 or so of their members and we all sat in four neatly prepared rows of chairs as their elected president formally opened their monthly meeting. Ironically, at the same time as the four young men on bicycles were addressing the economic crisis in their way, the ambitious theme of the meeting was the effects on women of the selfsame economic crisis, and the political need for addressing the issues in a collective way.
After a short interactive DVD focusing on how the sugar industry’s collapse is being handled, Marie-Antoinette explained, pushing back strands of hair, how she and her daughter both lost their jobs when a textile mill was closed. Her daughter then got a new job in a factory further away. ‘Maybe I’ll set up a small enterprise,’ she announced, her voice tinged with sarcasm.
‘Like me,’ another woman laughed. ‘I took one of those loans. Now I have to change what I make every few months. First, children’s clothes, but I could only sell the initial few batches, so I turned to sewing flowers. That only worked for a while. Now I cover cushions.’ An older woman in a sari solemnly predicted, from a lifetime of experience, ‘Things will get worse’. Everyone smiled.
But perhaps most evocative was what Manta said: ‘I finally got a permit to sell food inside a textile factory yard. So I took a loan and got a tricycle made, equipped with a big see-through box, handsome green parasol over it and all. My business was a success – until the factory closed.’ She has loan repayments and nowhere to work. ‘So you don’t even have to work at the factory to lose your job there,’ she smiled across to Marie-Antoinette.