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Enchanting Rodrigues Island

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A stone raft off the coast of Africa. Fallen into oblivion long ago, its isolation is what has made it so rich, preserving the fragile bond between man and nature. But what of the future?

Summer is coming to an end. The parched earth soaks up the heavy rains that fall intermittently from the sky. The damp air diffuses the mingled scents of eucalyptus and frangipani trees. Rodrigues hardly more than 110 square kilometres and its little unspoiled islets have the forceful charm of forgotten places. Everything seems to have been placed there forever. The tightly knit hills with their clinging huts and corrals, the bouquets of screw pines with their tentacular roots, the flat coral plain where the trade winds play, the deserted bays deep down in the ravines. And everywhere, the immense calm presence of the lagoon.

Fishing for octopus is now regulated, and forbidden at certain periods, to protect the natural reserve.

The heirs of history

Most of the 40,000 inhabitants descend from the African and Madagascan slaves, imported on the slave ships in colonial times. They have inherited their visceral attachment to the Creole language, and to Sega-drum music born in the refuges of the “maroon slaves” and now part of the world heritage.

Few of them are bothered about their family tree. But the land does not forget. For example, the village of L’Union, perched high up in the island’s hills, is home to a slave cemetery. In the shade of ancient trees, lava stones are placed here and there, with only geometric shapes inscribed on them.

“Rodriguans are fisherman in the morning, then farmers and breeders in the afternoon.”
Women wait to buy their batch of mullet freshly unloaded on the shores in Anse La Baie.

The Sea, a land of refuge

On this first of March, they are celebrating the opening of the seine net fishing season. Before daybreak, in Anse La Baie, dozens of pirogues glide out into the lagoon, where the nets are set. With the flow of the big fullmoon tide, the mullet swim up to the traps, “helped” by the beaters who play with the nets on the water’s surface and hit the hulls. There is shouting, the men hold on tight to the nets despite the frenzied leaping of the fish until the nets are folded over. This is all repeated, alternating long and short periods, waiting and lifting the nets. One of the pirogues takes the mullet cargoes back to the shore as they are caught.

Off the southern coast of Rodrigues, Hermitage Island, one of the eighteen islets to be seen in the immense lagoon (240km2).

Meanwhile, since dawn, the women from the neighbouring villages - Pistache, Pointe au Diable, Soupir… – wait patiently playing bingo under the leaves of the Indian beech trees. When day breaks, the sun becomes brighter and shortens the shadows. With each arrival, they hurry to the hut where the fish is sold. Under a waving banner proclaiming Nou la mer, nou tresor, nou lavenir, anou protez li (Our sea, our treasure, our future, let’s protect it), a podium proudly bears the Sega-drum groups whose beat matches that of your heart. This evening in the huts everyone will share the same sup-per of mullet soup and fish curry.

A little food shop in Mont Chéri, at the foot of the 167m hill of the same name.

 

Survive

“Rodriguans are fisherman in the morning, then farmers and breeders in the afternoon. The men at the nets, the women fishing for octopus,” says Mouk, one of the “kings” of the island in his capacity of bus driver which for a long time were the only means of transport on Rodrigues. “Most of them own a little acre of sweet corn and beans and a few animals – cows, goats, pigs or chickens… Rodriguans have to be versatile to survive.”

At Rivière Banane, in the northeast, a (rare) fresh water spring makes possible the island’s biggest orchard. Coconut palms, banana trees, flowers, tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce – an organic Garden of Eden, “free of pesticides”, Chantal hastens to add. For generations, some sixty farmers work their acres relentlessly. They also make honey, with the very singular flavour of the flowers of piquant loulou, the extremely thorny acacia Loup. Chantal and her husband harvest the shoots in the orchard. At night they will deliver their cargo to the weekly market in the capital, Port Mathurin.

The end of Sunday mass in Saint Gabriel, the biggest church in the Indian Ocean. The devoutly religious island welcomed Pope Jean-Paul II in 1989.

“if the landscape is changing, the people are still courageous and united.”

At the gates of the global village

The government’s challenge is to turn Rodrigues into “an eco-friendly island” and to place the emphasis on education (54% of the population is under 25) to ensure “a carefully-controlled development”. Although the tenth district of Mauritius did not want the independence granted by the English in 1968, it has expanded to the point where it claimed and obtained its autonomy to manage home affairs in 2002. Proof of the desire to “take charge of their destiny,” explains Serge Clair, chief commissioner in the Rodrigues Parliament.

Infrastructure has since been developing fast. The road network has been partially renovated. The landing strip is being widened to be able to handle large aircraft. On the market stalls, the “artisanal” products are made in China. Young people are now connected on Facebook, and at the same time, they are deserting the pews of the supreme church of Saint Gabriel (the biggest in the Indian Ocean) and moving away from the fields. Inevitably, dreams and aspirations are changing colour.

The screw pines with their tentacular roots watch over the village of Songe.

Nou lavenir (our future)

“The danger is not the development, nor is it the tourists who help to develop the local economy. The real scourge is poverty. It is possible to invite progress and modern ways without also opening the way to alcohol, drugs or prostitution.” Sister Marie Naikene is persistent. Born in 1976, she travelled from Mauritius to India to help the poor and destitute. Now back in her village, Rivière Coco, she has spent ten years building the Rodrigues Student Needs Association (RSNA) centre, which dispenses language, music and computer science lessons to over two hundred young people in difficulty, and helps them to achieve their hopes and dreams. The nun proudly talks of “her” young people. Those who have revived their ties with the land and breeding. Those who have gone to university, in Mauritius and “even” in South Africa. Those who have become police officers, nurses and “even” teachers. “They must travel, they have to learn what is happening in the world and then come back and give the island the benefit of their experience. It is possible to return to Rodrigues for, even if the landscape is changing, the people are still courageous and united.”

This evening the sea has disappeared, the waves are now just a memory furrowing the sand. Yet, betwixt ocean and history, the promise of an island endures.

Betwixt ocean and history, the promise of an island endures.

By Virginie Luc

Photographs Patrick Laverdant