Credit: SEO Mauritius
Questions about my origins have been filling up my mind lately. Blame it on the number of nationalities I have been attributed (From Moroccan, Fijian, Hispanic, South-African, Portuguese…You name it!) Or maybe it is also because of that stranger who stopped me abruptly on King street while I was walking to meet my friends. “What are you?” He asked upfront. I think I must have looked puzzled cause he proceeded to say: “Cause I can tell from your looks that you are mixed”. I get that remark a lot lately. Especially since I moved to Canada. I guess my ambiguous look is to be blamed. After all, my features do not quite fit anywhere (olive skin, brown slanting eyes, and black curly hair).
Well, I guess that in the Mauritian ethnic classification which compromises of white Mauritians (of English or French origin), Indo-Mauritians, Muslim Mauritians, and Sino-Mauritians (of Chinese origin), I am a créole. Creoles are the most mixed ethnic group of the island. We come in different shades and hair type. Ranging from black, caramel skin, olive skin, and nearly white…Kinky hair, coily hair, curly, wavy, and straight. You name it! Blame it on the fact that creoles are often a mix of two or several ethnic groups of the island. To sum up, we are products of slave trade and colonization. We are descendants of Europeans, indentured laborers, slaves and Chinese. As a result, we can be mistaken for a Muslim, Hindu, African, Chinese depending on our facial feature and skin color.
Regardless of our differences, we are homogenized and tossed under the “general population” group. I like to think of us as residues of people who could not be fully categorized as Sino-Mauritians, Indo-Mauritians, white Mauritians, and Muslim Mauritian. Despite being regrouped under a category, we have come to create sub-groups: nasyon (black), créole claire (clarified créoles) and mulâtre (mulattoes). As you can tell, colorism has played a significant role in creating a division. In the Mauritian context, a mulatto does not mean to be a person of mixed white and black ancestry. It means to “appear nearly white”. Surnames give away the “true lineage” of mulattos. On a quick note, last names are very important in Mauritius. Your surname can give away your race and parentage. Especially if you are a direct descendant of slaves.
In the past, masters would give their slaves a name that they thought depicted them. Their female slaves normally had sexual connotation names while the male slaves got names that were in relation to animals or the way their masters perceived them. For instance, female slaves would get names like “Prude” (prudish) or Bellejambe (beautiful leg). While the male slaves got names like “Bourrique” (donkey) or “Résidu” (residue). Though this belongs to the past, our colonial legacy is still ever present. Creoles with lighter skin like me have the privilege to access higher social and economic status compared to creoles with darker skin. It is no secret that specific mix of races is also more valued over others. This is blatant when you see that creoles who are direct descendants of French colonizers still occupy a dominant position in Mauritian society.
Though these divisions are flagrant and known to Mauritian Creoles, we continue to be perceived as one homogenized group by non-creoles who fail to understand our complexity or our malaise. So, we are lumped together as rootless people who are still struggling to define their identity while other ethnic groups frantically trace their origin back to India, China or Europe. Creoles have little to no remembrance of the land of their ancestors. We are deprived of historical context and homeland. The birthplaces of our ancestors are only transmitted through word of mouth and assumptions. Our culture is a mix of Northern India, Eastern Africa, Madagascar, Southeastern China, and France.
I think most creoles go through an identity crisis at some point in their life. Especially when you are abroad and you are perceived differently. Finding a community that represents you is difficult. I have tried to understand the so-called “Creole culture” but even today, I fail to explain or understand it. I was just led to believe throughout my life that we are good sega dancers, the party animals of the island, we are “more open” compared to other groups, we speak French better than English, we are all Christians, and we prefer to make merry instead of working hard, and investing in our education.
I refuse to accept or believe that stereotypes are our culture. Nor do I want to embrace one of the communities of my ancestors over the other. Instead, I am embracing the features that I got from my Malagasy heritage, African heritage, European, and Indian heritage. I have come to acknowledge my multi-racial, multi-cultural, and the legacy that comes along with it. This reminds me of the famous Mauritian singer Kaya’s song “Ki to Ete” (What are you?) which says, “mo content ki mwa mo fin ne melanze, pas la honte ki mo ape dire mo ene batard mwa” ( I am happy to say that I was born mixed. I have no shame in saying that I am a bastard). I acknowledge the trauma that my ancestors got from being uprooted and relocated to colonies. But this belongs to the past now. We have to move forward and try to set aside our post-colonial mindset. Instead, let us embrace our country’s rich history and culture. The question we should ask ourselves is this: how do we reinvent ourselves? What do you think? Do we really have a “malaise creole”? If so, how do we overcome this?