Back in the day, I happened to chance a trip just off the coast of mainland Africa which saw me place my feet on Île de la Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. Close to Madagascar and Mauritius, Réunion, puzzlingly, is an overseas department of France, and as such, much as it is closest to African islands, it is part of the Eurozone from which it is much farther. Hence I first had to get a French visa to be able to travel to the island, even though I was not travelling to Europe.
Being young and somewhat naïve, while touring the Island, I ventured to ask why the country did not seek its independence from France if it had its own parliament. Our guide patiently explained that Réunion is a melting pot of cultures! With a population of less than one million people, the major race groups on the island are of ethnic Indian origins, European, Chinese and Africans. It was revealed to me that the Indians on the Island are mostly descendants of indentured labourers; while the Europeans come mostly from the line of explorers and colonisers, Indians from indentured labours and the Chinese from traders, and; while the Africans, well, are of course descendants of servants and slaves.
I could not help wonder if there is a place on the face of the earth off the continent of Africa where one would find majority of the Africans that have settled there over a number of generations that are not descendants of slaves…. The mixing of the above races, together with those from Malagasy, Comoros and Indo-Portuguese ancestry, has resulted into the majority of the population being mixed race that embrace the Creole language and culture. I was further enlightened that since nobody could claim to be an indigenous Réunionnais, nobody was looking for ‘independence’ from France as they were all quite happy with things the way they were.
In addition, I discovered, the welfare side of society at the time I visited (sometime in the early 1990s), seemed to be going well for those Réunionnais who could not manage to fend for themselves. Some relatively new blocks of flats were pointed out to me as housing for those on welfare. I could only gape at them as the flats seemed to me to be of such a standard that ‘back home’ in Africa the average middleclass and even those well-off would aspire to live in – whether on welfare or not.
During my visit on the island, I drowned myself in Sega music, which somehow resonated with the few African musical genes that I carry in my body. This I discovered, after trying out a few local dance moves with some Creole friends I had made.
An excursion saw me climbing up to the Piton de la Fournaise, a volcano that is still much active. A few hours of climbing saw me reaching the summit and looking down onto the crater, while I celebrated my victory in the mountain’s humid air, sweating profusely as I collected a few small rocks to keep as souvenirs from my ascent on la Fournaise. About two weeks after I left Réunion, I felt pretty much stunned as I watched the news and saw images of la Fournaise erupting. Had I seen those images before I went to Réunion, I am sure I would not have been very eager to go the Piton de la Fournaise.
While on the Island, I recall seeing a number of locals residing in shacks – some made out of iron sheets, on the outskirts of town. High up on the mountains one spotted a number of these homes where the owners dwelled with access to television and parked their motorbikes (some of them really expensive looking) right outside their small homes. Once again my African mind struggled to fully grasp how a person who say, owned a Harely-Davidson, could live in a one roomed shack made out of tin sheets. This indeed was not something that one came across every day. Instead of trying to figure out why this was so, I shrugged it all off, saying to myself that Réunion was not in Africa after all, but in France.