I was born and raised in Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, once home to the now-extinct Dodo bird. That was the exact description I used all the way through O-week when I was asked where I came from. My friends learned it by heart and would mouth it at the same time I would blurt it out. Some variations described Mauritius as a “tiny, tiny” country; others would describe the population as made up of roughly 1.4 million people. That’s probably when “tiny, tiny” stopped. 1.4 million was a pretty big population, relatively speaking, for an island.
As my sophomore and junior year unfolded, I saw the way my Mauritian identity morphed and took on more meaning. It was not only about the food, festivals and other visible aspects of culture that came to mind when I was told to talk about my country. I get asked about what the biggest issues are. I pause, reflect and immediately think education. I get asked where my roots lie. And I say that Mauritius was a virgin island. We are all immigrants and the sole reason why the place and its people even stands as it does now is colonization. Massive uprooting of people from their homes. So in essence, we are a populace lost in translation. The sense of a coherent national identity struggles to emerge, in the midst of ethnic and religious diversity that tends to lend itself to political games of divide and rule. I keep reflecting and I get asked – are you religious? I say that I am a hybrid of sorts. Virgin Mary sits atop my desk next to Ganesha. It doesn’t bother me. I grew up going to the temple, celebrating Hindu festivals but I also went to church regularly. I loved the music and color of the former, the quiet and peace of the latter. That surely did teach me tolerance.
I am asked where I learned to speak English so well. I explain that we are trilingual but that English is mostly taught through writing; that we speak French to our teachers and Kreol to our friends; that yes, it is amazing that Kreol developed independently in so many parts of the world. My Haitian friend understands when I’m talking to my parents on the phone. She gets the French cultural references. She listened to Charles Aznavour too. I look Indian. I learned Tamil in school. Did you know that in primary school they asked you what your faith was and then placed you accordingly into a language class? There were Hindi, Arabic, Tamil, Telegu, Marathi. Catholic and Christian kids would take a class centered on religious practices. There was a lingual identity of sorts that was messily meshed with religion and loosely so with ethnicity.
I am asked where I am from. I come from a young nation that is ambitious and sometimes maybe too much so. We think about manufacturing workers for our industries. The sciences are elevated. The arts less so. I major in Human Cognitive Evolution and I explore behavioral phenotype through cognitive genomics. At home, I say that I am doing Neuroscience. To Dukies, I say I am interested in creative behavior and prehistoric art. Folks back home are status-driven. Aren’t they, here too? Thirsty for prestige. What I have is passion, and thirst for knowledge. Do I want to go back home after graduation? The answer remains yes. My only hope is that I don’t get tongue-tied, held down by hierarchy, pressured by status-driven strangers, made into a brick in the wall. I hope that I can urge the youth who are abroad to believe that they can go back and not feel that way, that they can quit keeping up with the Joneses if they so wish.
My name is Shanen and I was born and raised in Mauritius, a small island off the coast of Madagascar, once home to the now-extinct Dodo bird. That’s where I am from and I love my country.
Photo credit: Pictured is a thumbprint with the colors and design of the Mauritian flag, also known as Four Bands and Les Quatre Bandes via Pixabay.
For further information about this issue:
Shanen is a MasterCard Foundation scholar at Duke University who is passionate about science and the African continent. She also believe in the arts as a powerful tool for social change.Thus, she combines an eagerness for research in the Neurosciences and a deep affinity to Creative Writing, with a huge commitment to give back to the continent.