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Mauritian identity should not be exclusive

– The victory of Mauritius at the JIOI is also the victory of a marginalised group in our unique Indian Ocean rainbow nation. And this needs to be acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.

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If there was a competition for the buzzword of the year, we would likely all agree that ‘patriotic’ (or ‘patriotism’) would be a very strong contender. The word has proved so popular and attractive during the recent Jeux des Îles de l’océan Indien (JIOI) in Mauritius, that even the Prime Minister thought he might as well make good use of it for party political purposes. I’m not sure how successful he was, but it goes to show how many of us want to hold on to what has been labelled the ‘wave of patriotism’ brought about by the Games. Nothing wrong with that, of course. On the contrary, it’s hard not to empathise with the enthusiasm experienced by so many during the JIOI and the fervent wish in the games’ aftermath that we should now all self-identify exclusively as ‘Mauritian’, so that the country will live happily ever after. Yet, let us not fool ourselves and pretend that, because of the Games, similar to a magician waving a wand, we will suddenly stop feeling ‘malbar’, ‘sinwa’, ‘kreol’, ‘blan’, and replace those identities by one unchangeable, static sense of belonging – that of being Mauritian.

Yes, the JIOI 2019 made Mauritius and its people happy; made them cry; made them wave the Mauritian flag with pride; made them discover (or in some cases rediscover) a sense of truly belonging to their country. But then, this is what any major sporting event worth its salt in a multi-ethnic society should do; put simply, it reinforces a national sense of belonging at the same time as weakens ethnic particularity. That said, the JIOI experience was beautiful, emotional and authentic.    

The big question: will this special feeling of people identifying as Mauritian last? I think in our heart of hearts we all know the answer – it won’t. Sorry! In fact, what Mauritius has recently experienced with the JIOI can be compared to what the British social anthropologist Victor Turner called ‘communitas’ – that is, a population’s deep pleasure in sharing a powerful common social and cultural experience. For Turner, ‘communitas’ enables a whole community to be on an equal level at a particular point in time and space. Alas, this deep feeling of solidarity is normally only temporary.

That does not mean we, Mauritians, should stop rejoicing. Nor does it mean we should just wait for the next JIOI or something similar to experience that ‘wave of patriotism’ again.  However, now that the immediate euphoria is fading, I think we should aim for a more pragmatic and realistic goal. Because wishing that everyone in Mauritius starts to paint their faces ‘rouz’, ‘ble’, ‘zon’, ‘ver’ everyday and feeling exclusively Mauritian, is naïve.

In truth, asserting a sense of belonging to one or more ethnic groups does not make one less patriotic. Indeed, it’s okay to be aware of one’s ethnic identity and at the same time still be a proud Mauritian. I would go further and say that promoting a single national identity in a plural society like Mauritius is neither practical nor desirable. We need to be honest with each other – and perhaps a little more imaginative in how we define ourselves and each other. So, let’s allow ourselves to express our identity in the plural as we wish. With his dialogical self-theory, the Dutch psychologist Hubert Hermans conceptualises the dialogical self in terms of a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I-positions. In this conception, the I is able to move from one position to another depending on changes in situation and time. The I can also fluctuate among different and opposed positions and has the capacity to give a voice to each position, which enables dialogical relations between positions. The notion that one person can occupy many I-positions is a prerequisite for the dialogical self. After all, you know from everyday experience that you can be simultaneously son or daughter, father or mother, sister or brother, sister-in-law or brother-in-law and so on. To think that Mauritians can only occupy one position is obsolete and disregards the different colours of the rainbow nation. We should keep in mind that our everyday multiple family identities are fluid, not set in stone. So it is with our national and ethnic identities.

Furthermore, let’s not be afraid of our origins; in fact, let’s name them. When we rejoice in the success of the athletes in the JIOI, when we celebrate their national identity – their ‘Mauritian-ness’ – let’s also celebrate their ethnicities; let’s praise and encourage ethnic diversity together with patriotism. If we start from here, we will proudly recognise that Mauritius won the JIOI 2019 thanks to the efforts of its fantastically talented athletes, the majority of whom are Kreol; a fact which Gaetan Siew has rightly interpreted as a ‘revanche sur l’histoire’. Also, we all might care to reflect on how historically this group has been oppressed in Mauritius. As a result, the victory of Mauritius at the JIOI is also the victory of a marginalised group in our unique Indian Ocean rainbow nation. And this needs to be acknowledged and celebrated by all of us.

There is something else. Identity and belonging are important for everyone, but essentially for young people who need to feel they are valued and respected. The JIOI has given us a wonderful opportunity to address and reflect on issues of patriotism, identity and belonging. In a society where drug use and violence in schools and neighbourhoods have escalated alarmingly in recent years, fostering a sense of belonging through participation in sport could play a vital role in finding a solution to those pernicious problems.

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