Interaction of cultures in Mauritius offers paradigm for a globalized world

Interaction of cultures in Mauritius offers paradigm for a globalized world

The homeland of literary scholar Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François has long experience in negotiating identity among multiple ethnicities and religions.

"I think that the whole country of Mauritius offers an important original model of creolization — that the people, the country, the society itself are creolized."

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, June 24, 2014 — A winner of the UCLA Chancellor’s Award for Postdoctoral Research in 2014, Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François is a specialist in Francophone literature who has been in residence at UCLA since July 2013. He is only the fourth humanities specialist and the first literary scholar to win the award since its creation in 1998.

A native of Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean where the cultures of many continents have interacted for centuries, Jean-François was educated at the University Mauritius, where he received a Ph.D., M.Phil., and B.A.

Although a young scholar, he has already published widely in both French and in English and has many years of teaching experience under his belt. He is a winner of the University of Mauritius Independence Gold Medal and also the co-creator of his country’s first postsecondary program in the Mauritian Kreol language (at the Mauritius Institute of Education, where he taught from 2009 until 2013).

A Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA in the “Cultures in Transnational Perspective” Program, Jean-François has spent the last year doing research on a future book, presenting papers at academic conferences around the United States and teaching in the Department of French and Francophone Studies. He departs from UCLA later this month to travel home, and then takes up a tenure-track position at Pennsylvania State University as of January 2015.

An island nation where cultures meet, interchange and transform one another

An island of only 2,040 square kilometers off the southeastern coast of Africa (due east of Madagascar), the nation of Mauritius also includes the Agalega Islands, Cargados Carajos Shoals and Rodrigues. In addition, the country lays claim to Tromelin and the Chagos Archipelago. (Some 2,000 people were forcibly removed from the latter by the United States in the 1960s to build the Diego Garcia naval base.)

Mauritius was ruled by the French between 1715 and 1810, and by the British from 1810 until the country achieved its independence in 1968. It has a diverse and ethnically mixed population of roughly 1.3 million people, the largest number of whom (68 percent) are of Indian descent. (The British brought Indian indentured servants to work in the sugar cane fields after slavery was abolished in the British Empire.)

Despite or perhaps because of its diversity, Mauritius for many years did not recognize the maternal tongue of the vast majority (86.5 percent) of its residents: Mauritian Kreol. In fact, the country has no designated “official” language, largely for political reasons.

To make the picture more complicated, English is the medium of instruction in the education system (as well as for certain state functions), but schools teach some 12 “(ancestral) Oriental and Asian languages,” among them, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Mandarin, Urdu, and Arabic. Mauritian Kreol began to be taught at primary school level only in 2012, some 45 years after independence.

“Children come to school speaking Mauritian Kreol and are taught in a different language, namely English, so they simultaneously have to learn that language and learn content in that language,” he observes. The interaction of language, access to education, the construction of individual and community identity and, finally, citizenship, in his homeland has become the focus of his academic research.

In parallel with the linguistic confusion, says Jean-François, the initial constitution of 1968 recognized four population groups that do not share a common categorization: Hindus, Muslims, Sino-Mauritians, and “general population.” Curiously, the last group lumps together the descendants of colonizers and the descendants of slaves.

Kreol and creolization

And here we arrive at the key concept that frames this scholar’s research: creolization.

The word Creole (or Kreol) denotes both a people and a language, but the definition of Creole as a people has changed over time in Mauritius. Originally, says Jean-François, it referred to the children of white Europeans who were born in the colonies, a pejorative term that connoted lack of access to “higher” European culture. Over time, it came to mean a group of mixed descendants of slaves who no longer spoke their ancestral language. In Mauritius, this group still hardly has any constitutional recognition.

The pejorative sense also extended to the Kreol language, long considered to be a non-language because it lacked “complex grammar.” It is only recently that Mauritian Kreol has come to be recognized in Mauritius as a language just like any other, with as complex a grammar and syntax as English.

Given that people of Indian heritage make up the majority of Mauritians, “the whole idea of creolization itself in Mauritius is different from what it means in the Caribbean,” says Jean-François. And here he refers to the work of his mentor, Françoise Lionnet, professor of French and Comparative Literature and director of the UCLA Center for African Studies.

Lionnet’s work draws comparisons between creolization and cosmopolitanism, processes that go by different names but share many things in common, he explains. The argument, he continues, is “that creolization is the ‘cosmopolitanism of the subaltern and that cosmopolitanism is the creolization of the elite,’ as Lionnet puts it.”

“Somehow because the word ‘Creole’ was associated with a deficit-type of population,” he notes, “it took a long time to see the dynamics which give birth to the Creole subject, who is actually more prepared for globalization and the kind of intersections produced by globalization than any other subject — or at least as much as a cosmopolitan subject.”

“I think that the whole country of Mauritius offers an important original model of creolization — that the people, the country, the society itself are creolized. There is such a huge degree of exchange and communication between the groups in so many languages and throughout so many religious beliefs,” he continues. “It is a tiny little island where so many histories — big histories — intersect.”

In this talented scholar’s view, the island’s long and intimate experience of those dynamics is directly relevant to today’s world, a world in which travel, migration, media and communication technologies not only challenge, interact with and transform identities, but offer ways to transcend local notions of identity itself.

“Kreol as a language is born from the interaction between colonizers and slaves,” he comments. “But it was not made up only by slaves; there are a number of [ideological] debates about it. It’s a very complex issue and I am trying to understand how literature, as a discourse, can sometimes reproduce, but at other times challenge, everyday conceptions about identity.”

Note: All figures derive from The World Factbook, 2013–14 (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2013).