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Identity in Diaspora and Diaspora in Identity

Identity in Diaspora and Diaspora in Identity

Identity in Diaspora and Diaspora in Identity

Roots & Migration Themes in Mauritian Musical Traditions

Is it possible, or is it a fait accompli, that diasporic Mauritians forget, and maybe disown or lose, their roots altogether? It seems difficult for such a thing to happen, if not impossible; just as it is difficult for Mauritians at home to deny their roots. The sum of what a Mauritian considers his ancestral origins logically forms the basis of his identity. And it seems that in order to grasp the composition of one’s identity, an understanding of the criteria of construction and constitution of the same is necessary. An awareness and appreciation of what makes us who we are is conducive to working effectively towards the unification of our diverse nature into a coherent and cohesive national identity. The present article attempts to explore the correlation between the themes of identity and diaspora through the Mauritian musical heritage, and further proposes that this rich cultural fabric holds a valuable repository of positive markers capable of beneficially reinforcing the national identity.

Diaspora & Identity

Identity, in the context of this island history, and diaspora are evidently interrelated; and the relationship between these two concepts requires further investigation and elaboration. Our past and present are permeated with the “spirit” of diaspora. In the present context, diaspora stands for a migratory group of people, sharing a common space, with other group(s) of people, and also sharing a common experience. The shared experience as a result represents the essence, and the basis, of the diasporic community and identity. Immigration and out-migration are in themselves crucial components of the Mauritian identity: every Mauritian is descended from an immigrant and every Mauritian has family members who are migrants.

Positive & Negative Aspects of Identity

Migration has always been a kind of search – of relocation to greener pastures. For many, migration provided a means of forging a new identity – a new life. Diasporic Mauritians often value and respect their roots greatly; at the same time, they are frequently reminded – by citizens of their adopted homelands – of their exotic looks, cheerful nature, friendly disposition and of their “tropical paradise island” origin. Diasporic Mauritians are, irrespective of ethnicity, identified in a positive light and not stereotyped and disparagingly branded as: kreol mazanbik; malbar kouli; milat rouye; laskar; madras kalin; sinwa makaw, etc., unlike what many perceive to be prevailing discriminatory labels in use at home .

These positive markers in diaspora are one reason why Mauritians value the opportunity to migrate. They can escape local stereotypes.

Many Mauritians, tied by geography and economics to a small island, consciously or not, have an innate inquisitiveness concerning the wider world, and endeavour to form part of this adventure. In so doing, they can also leave behind the ethnic stigma and taboos that too often are seen to impinge on personal development goals and progress. In diaspora, migrants are confident that they will enjoy “free reign” over their life, as they adjust and adapt to their environments. For example, a light-skinned person can choose to blend in with the white community and assume a new identity; others use language, making a determined effort to master the (adopted country’s) language so fluently that it is difficult to differentiate that person from the natives.

Our Rich Folkloric Tapestry

Mauritian traditions of geographic mobility and dispersal naturally find an echo in local folklore. Marie Jose Clency employs a diaspora theme, in her song Anglais rann mo mari and its sequel Repran mo mari Anglais. These two sega songs are examples of our vast and rich cultural tapestry, which thus far has remained largely untapped. The songs echo an episode of Mauritian history, whereby economic constraint induced a large number of Mauritians to enlist with the British Army during WWII. Anglais rann mo mari has a superficial comical appeal, which people enjoy; however, these songs have painful and sorrowful undertones. (see Extract I). The wife bemoans the recruit/departed husband, but hints at the prospect of a [I]pwinter – galan – another man. Strains on family relationships are inevitable consequences of migration:

“Anglais rann mo mari
Misie Anglais rann mo bonom,
E ou la Anglais rann moi mo zom,
Sinon mo al rod galan deor.
Lager finn deklare
Misie Anglais pe pran pionye
Mo mari la finn al anbarke
Ziska zordi li pa retourne”

Changing Values

The family unit is put under considerable strain, when one person – or partner – migrates; the same is true for the migrant, who undergoes a process of change and adaptation. On the migrant’s return home, he or she is more often than not a different person. As in the follow-up song Repran mo mari Anglais, the wife notices the transformation in the husband and, as she cannot relate to him as before, finds consolation in mocking and ridiculing the husband and his new-found mannerisms and sense of superiority – in particular his choice of the dominant culture and codes to express himself and his new identity. Marie Jose Clency satirises therein the acquired veneer of sophistication – knowledge of the returned migrant – and suggests that the core values of the Mauritians are at least equal to the perceived cultural baggage acquired overseas.

“Apre troi’z’an troi moi,
Mo mari sorti pionye retourne
Apre troi’z’an troi moi,
Sipoze kreol li pa konn koze,
Le li rant dan bazar,
Li trouv krab li dir
‘Hey look at crab’,
La fode krab la mord li
Pou li kriye: ‘Ayo krab bez mo ledoi’
Repran mo mari Anglais, […]

Lontan kan nou ti al dormi
Li ti dir moi vini do mo gran lagel,
Aster ler mont lor lili li nek ar moi:
‘come here my love, my darling’, […]”

The lyrics, in the second extract, are a typical example of stereotypes generated about migrants. Whilst, as previously mentioned, the sega is dressed in a comical veneer that is entertaining and enjoyable, yet the underlying message is one of cynicism and derision. Such colourful experiences of Mauritians’ past and present are reflected solely through sega songs, which are often the only written clues we have to popular expressions of self and identity.

Roots and Rootlessness

There is, in contemporary Mauritian folklore, an interesting juxtaposition, of the search for roots on the one hand and the lament about rootlessness on the other, which merits further investigation. Both sega and seggae songs explore the notion of Rootlessness, as in Kayas’s song Rasinn pe brile:

Mo pep so rasinn pe brile
Morisien to rasinn pe brile

The sega, and seggae traditions provide an accurate reflection of Creole culture at a time when the interests of the common man found and continue to find scant expression in the printed media. Kaya’s Racinn pe brile expresses a perceived cultural lacuna among Creoles, whilst at the same time both Afro- and Indo-Mauritians are searching for roots of their cultural heritage in so-called “ancestral” and oral traditions.

Society As a Garden

Mauritian identity will, indubitably, always refer back to ancestral origins. However, to use a botanical analogy, if we compare our social development to the trees and plants of a garden, what is actually vital is to ensure not only that each plant is thriving but to ensure that all the trees and plants are able to adapt and grow healthily in their adopted collective environment. Visitors to the island, and people around the world know that Mauritius has one of the most important historical botanical gardens in the world – but they do not define the garden by citing the provenance of individual trees and plants, rather the flora is collectively designated by its present location and entity as Pamplemousses Botanical Garden. We learn and understand the flora’s origins, but we, crucially, do not identify the garden by the various origins of the contributing plants. Similarly, as a society, we must learn to define ourselves through experiences encompassing our collective evolution, to enable us to construct our identity as a sovereign nation, rather than as an agglomeration of groups defined by regional points of origin. The point of origin should not be the defining element of identity construction; rather the experiences gained from the processes of interaction at the point of arrival should provide our basic source material. Concentrating beyond “the inception” of our society entails going our separate ways – leading to ethnocentrism. Educating our children about what we have become as a society rather than where we came from will not impact on the undeniable and unchangeable fact that we are a multi-cultural and multi-faith society. As Voltaire so eloquently hinted, the important objective is to cultiver notre jardin (national).

Common Heritage and National Identity

It is hoped that this article puts forward a number of starting points for an elaboration of the notion of diaspora in the Mauritian cultural repertory. Since it is often only when a Mauritian migrates overseas and becomes a member of the diasporic community that he or she is made aware of the extent to which cultural traits, characteristics and idiosyncrasies are shared with other Mauritians of whatever ethnicity, it is incumbent upon diasporic Mauritians to share their insights as to what constitutes the common heritage and culture with their compatriots in the mother country as well as to transmit them to future generation. The aim of the present article is to suggest how these experiences, in past and contemporary Mauritian folklore, may collectively be incorporated into the elaboration of a common heritage and national identity.



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