Category Archives: Features

Mauritius Adopts Summer Time

At 2.00 am on Sunday 26 October this year the clocks in Mauritius read 3.00 am. The country stepped into the summer time concept practiced in many countries. Government aims primarily to save on energy costs as it expects a reduction in the demand of electricity supply at peak hour in the evening. This measure will last until 2.00 am on 29 March 2009 and it is said to be on a pilot basis.

The introduction of this measure however didn’t go without controversial voices from various quarters. Will the electricity charges go down in real terms? What will happen to those religious beliefs that attach special importance on birth dates and specific prayer times? Will it not impact negatively on the health of people with a disturbance in the circadian rhythm? These and many other questions are still not clear in the minds of the common people for whom it means no more that getting up earlier in the morning.

Mauritius has its own specificity with a diversity of cultural heritage. In the absence of prior study on the real impacts of this new system we will have to wait for the answers at the end of summer time. Let’s hope the government comes up with a comprehensive feedback on the practical implications of this innovation to find out whether these are in consonance with the main objective. Only then can it come up with a definite stand on the implementation of such measure in the future.

It’s worth mentioning that such measure was implemented for the first time in the history of Mauritius in 1982 when the MMM-PSM alliance won all the seats at the national elections. A spokesman who was Minister of Energy at that time said in a radio broadcast last week that it did indeed bring about a decrease in the electricity demand by 5% which was quite conclusive in his opinion.

Solitary as the Solitaire

Time is running. Already three months and three weeks since I landed here in Rodrigues. Can you recall I wrote about this island of volcanic origin as a Hill in the Sea? My hitherto solitary status reminds me of the symbol of this island: The Solitaire or the Pezophaps solitaria.rodriguessolitaire.jpg

For many it might not mean anything. But for the people of Rodrigues it’s a symbol of their identity that’s present in the coat of arms of the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.

The Solitaire was described as a slightly plump flightless bird with a small head and strong wings, and weighing about 40 to 50 pounds. It was a descendant of the pigeon of Nicobar, South East Asia. It became extinct with the passage of man and wild cats in the hunt for food. It was dead for ever, as the Dodo of Mauritius.

The name Solitaire was coined by François Leguat, an orthodox protestant who stayed long in a solitary status on this isolated island between 1691 and 1693. In fact it’s through his memoirs that this bird’s existence was revealed when his book “A New Voyage to the East Indies” was published in 1708.

The real existence of the Solitaire was subject to controversy for quite some time. But the bones of this unique bird discovered in the south west of Rodrigues, namely in the limestone caves at Grande Caverne in 1866, speak for themselves. And it is from this discovery that a famous naturalist from Cambridge, Alfred Newton and his brother Edward presented a paper to the Royal Society, “On the Osteology of the Solitaire or Didine Birds of the Island of Rodrigues, Pezophaps solitarius”, giving a scientific description of the Solitaire.

rodriguessolitairebones.jpgBones of the Solitaire can be seen exposed at Grande Montagne Reserve Interpretation Centre and François Leguat Museum at the Giant Tortoise & Cave Reserve at Anse Quitor not far from the Sir Gaetan Duval Airport.

It is said that the name Solitaire could have been inspired by the solitary nesting behaviour of the bird and the long solitary stay of François Leguat on the island.

As for me the solitude won’t be too long. My son will be joining me around mid-June and my wife around the end of July. It’ll then be time to pack up as I’ll have to be back to my homeland during the first week of August. But that’s some other two and half months away.

That’s life.

Recent flooding: How relevant were my arguments?

In the last post in my series relating to the recent flood that hit Mauritius I referred to the event as a wake-up call. I highlighted a number of things which I considered as shortcomings and I came up with some suggestions about what needed to be done to mitigate the impacts of such catastrophe in future. “One fatality is too much,” had said the Prime Minister in the aftermath of the unprecedented flood, which took the lives of four of our citizens.

One of my concerns related to the responsibility of the authorities, namely the local authorities, regarding the drainage system with the ongoing property development in the country and the state of the canals, rivers and other prone areas.

I also raised the issue of enforcement during warnings to deter people from wandering without plausible reason when a warning is in force, as is the case in some countries.

These two issues were also prominently dealt with in the second post of the series.

And I proposed that the authorities need to take action to review the existing state of our drainage systems and exercise controls over property development such that they take adequate care of water evacuation. Then I suggested that some sort of policing needed to be done to track warning defaulters.

Well, I have to say it loud that my concerns were justified. Reports by Gibb consultants between 2001 and 2003, extracts of which were published in the weekly newspaper Le Defi Plus of last week (18 April), simply confirm what I mentioned in my “flood series of posts”. Absolutely convergent with the arguments presented in the posts. They show to what extent our system of water evacuation was deficient and the lack of adequate measures by the authorities to remedy the situation, especially in relation to property development and the state of drains and prone areas.

But what comforts me more is the decision of the Government last week to come up with a legislation to track and convict those who ignore warnings. I was a bit hesitant to come up with this proposal because I considered it as a very sensitive issue. But, as the PM mentioned, such enforcement measures exist in other countries. Reunion island is one example in the region.

I don’t want to boast myself in any way. But it’s indeed reinvigorating when your ideas meet with positive findings and outcomes of reports and political decisions. It gives another boost to probe yet further into issues, however sensitive and burning they may be. Provided you do in-depth research and come up with constructive ideas.

Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 4

Let’s recapitulate before going further. In the first post we looked into the event that hit the country. Then we probed into the existing torrential rain warning system after which, yesterday we addressed the issue in the context of global climate change and the summer floods that hit the UK.
This post, the last in the series, is dedicated to suggesting a way forward. It’ll highlight some aspects of flood preparedness that need to be addressed and provide simple safety tips that will go a long way in protecting people and preventing catastrophic outcomes from flood events.

Flood preparedness

Flood is not a new event here. Although it’s not a frequent occurrence, there’s ground for concern. The first severe flood occurred in 1959 and another flood event was noted in 1979 when a 15-day non-stop rainfall caused severe flooding throughout the country after a storm named Hiacynthe stayed in the region longer than expected.

The event of last week was in some sort a wake-up call. That is why people need to be in a constant state of preparedness. I won’t pretend to be a specialist in flood resilience mechanism. It’s basic knowledge that a flash flood does not announce ahead. It occurs when heavy rain falls in a prone area. People need to keep track of weather conditions and stay away from the hot spots like streams, canals and drains in order to protect themselves. Water can rush downstream heavily and cause havoc, like it did at Mon Gout.

Suggestions for an improved resilience strategy

Without pre-empting the findings and recommendations of the FFC here’s a list of issues which I consider important for an improved disaster management system, including flood.

  1. TRES – The scheme has been in place for more than two decades. The changing face of climate requires that it be revisited to make it responsive to the challenges of the day.
  2. Weather services – There’s a need to probe into the technical limitations of the forecasting system in relation to the TRES and find out whether the competencies are adequate and how capacity building is responding in the context of new hazards.
  3. Disaster Warning Management Board (DWMB) – The warning system has hitherto been in the sole hands of the Director of the Meteorological Services. Incoming challenges seem to add up to the pressure on that person. Extra brains will definitely add value to the decision-making process in crucial moments. I don’t think it’s a big deal if the authorities could consider setting up a board comprising three to five specialists from key areas, including the Director of the Meteorological Services and experts in hydrology, for that purpose. They can collectively decide on the type and timing of warning to be issued based on information from the weather services and issue directives, free from perceived political interference, for the management of the incident.
  4. Flood prone areas – It should be ensured that a properly monitored survey is done on the state of drains, canals, rivers, and all places prone to flooding and appropriate remedial measures are taken where necessary well before the approach of the heavy rain season. Although provided in the TRES this task seems to have been taken for granted. The authorities should be able to overcome the lethargic approach and look for the missing links.
  5. Drainage system and flood-resilient infrastructures – Strict control should be effected on building and property development plans to ensure proper drainage system and improved flood-resilience. Here also there were apparent signs of weaknesses.
  6. Schools – Clearer instructions and more straightforward guidelines should be worked out for the opening/closing of schools during extreme weather events or progressive deterioration of weather conditions capable of causing serious inconvenience to the safety, security and health of school children irrespective of the criterion of 100 mm of rainfall within a given period.
  7. Policing – This is a very sensitive issue. But experience is the best teacher. Isn’t it? Some sort of sanction need to be provided to control those who ignore warnings and venture irresponsibly without good and sufficient cause in visibly risky weather conditions, especially during a warning. People should know they have a duty (under the law) to act responsibly.
  8. Rapid Emergency Rescue and Evacuation Services – Rescue and evacuation services need to be prompt, effective and efficient. A better coordinated approach is essential to avoid ambiguity and waste of time, effort and energy.
  9. Communication – Alternative means of communication, e,g. sms or mail alerts, electronic bill boards, should be explored to ensure the public is adequately warned of imminent dangers.
  10. Awareness and sensitisation – A properly monitored ongoing campaign needs to be put in place to arouse people’s awareness to dangers of nature. Specific responsibility should be assigned to that effect.
  11. Accountability – The proposed DWMB could constantly monitor progress with regard to the responsibility entrusted upon stakeholders in order to ensure proper accountability for actions or omissions in their areas of concern. This would ensure proper preparedness to catastrophic events. The existing Cyclone and Other Disasters Committee meets only during a disaster period.
  12. Family disaster plan – The population should be encouraged to set up a family disaster plan indicating what they need to do and what provisions they need to make prior to the occurrence of the event.

Follow simple rules and protect yourself

You’ll do yourself good if you follow the tips below in case of a flood threat:

  1. Go to higher grounds immediately if you are outdoors.
  2. Stay away from the vulnerable areas, like rivers, streams, canals, ditches, river beds, open drains.
  3. Don’t attempt to cross running flood water.
  4. Don’t drive through flooded roadways. Take another route.
  5. In case of breakdown, leave your vehicle immediately and go to higher grounds.
  6. Understand the terms used by the weather services. For instance if you are told there’s river flooding, it means rivers are filling up and getting out of banks.
  7. Be especially careful at night.

Conclusion

To conclude this series of posts I’d be somewhat blunt: we cannot point fingers so long as we don’t know the A to Z of the situation. People tend to react in a blind fury at losses and inconveniences sustained by them or their dear ones. This is comprehensible. But what’s more important is putting our heads together to find solutions adapted to the changing circumstances. No system is set to remain permanently static. Periodic review is what makes it dynamic and responsive to ongoing changes.

Putting blames blindly leads to nowhere. At some point in time you’ll find that somebody somewhere failed. At another, you’ll see that nobody can be held responsible due to the complexity of the issue. Yet if you get into a thorough post-mortem analysis you’ll find the third culprit: everybody. If at all we have to blame it’s the system that didn’t seem to yield the expected result.

So let us not divert from the main issue. Let’s be inspired by Sir Michael Pitt while we wait patiently for the outcome of the Fact Finding Committee which will start its sitting soon. Have you anything to tell the Committee? Contact them.

There you are folks. That concludes my “flood” series. If you appreciated it share it with your friends or you might consider subscribing to my feed to keep yourself posted. If you have any ideas or suggestions I’ll see you in my comment box. Cheers.

Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 3

So far we have looked into the chronology of events and the adequacy or inadequacy of the system in place. You can already sense the complexity of the issue unfolding swiftly. There’s a lot more. We are a small country after all.

This post will look into the problem of flooding in the context of global climate change and the vulnerability of developed countries like the UK and cast a quick glance at lessons learnt from their experiences.

A worldwide issue in the wake of global climate change

Weather doesn’t behave the same way anymore. With the ongoing global changes in climatic conditions extreme events are becoming recurrent, hitting places where they rarely did previously, and with rare intensity. Heavy rains and flooding are not an issue only for small countries like Mauritius. Other well developed countries have become vulnerable too and experienced distressful moments despite all the technological advances.

The summer floods in June-July last year in the UK is a vivid example of the complexity of prediction of such events and the vulnerability of people to cope with them. They caused widespread chaos; school children were blocked after their coaches were trapped in flooded areas, several vehicles were stranded in parking areas and thousands of homes and businesses were affected, according to reports from the BBC.

The failings in the summer floods in the UK

The independent Reviewer into the summer floods in the UK, Sir Michael Pitt, in an interim report released recently highlighted several loopholes in the system in place in the UK to address such disaster. Among the failings it was noted that there was no national flood emergency plan; no clear responsibility for dealing with urban flooding; no systematic stockpiling of emergency equipment, such as boats. The drainage system was overloaded and there was ambiguity with regard to coordination of emergency and rescue. The complexity and technical limitations of flood prediction surfaced out.

Sir Michael Pitt’s report, which is due for final release next summer, contains several recommendations including the need to improve weather forecasting techniques; build more flood-resilient properties; and ensure greater leadership from the local authorities. However, Sir Michael did not pinpoint any blame. “The report does not point the finger of blame. Anyone looking for that will be disappointed,” said Sir Michael. “What we’ve tried to do is look forward and be positive about what can be done in the future.” (Source: BBC News)

Fact Finding Committee (FFC)

Back in Mauritius a three-member Fact Finding Committee has been set up under the head of a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court with one of the assessors being a former Director of the Mauritius Meteorological Services. No doubt this committee will come up with a positive way forward for enhanced flood-resilience (or general disaster-resilience to cover other disasters).

An overhaul of the existing procedures has become imperative with the emerging challenges. We witnessed unprecedented tidal waves in May last year when the government resolved to review measures to mitigate consequences. On 31 January this year the meteorological services was targeted for abrupt lifting of warning during tropical storm Gula. The recent flood event was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The assistance of the WMO has also been sought to find out about the forecasting techniques of the local weather services and how the warning systems can be improved.

Tomorrow in the final post of the series I’ll look into what could be done for a better flood preparedness strategy.

Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 2

From the previous post you should have some idea on the sequence of events that led to various (misleading so to say) interpretation of matters.

Today I’ll go into further details on some of the provisions of the Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme and analyse its adequacy or inadequacy with close reference to what obtains in other parts of the world.

Responsibilities under the Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme

With the severity of the events one can reasonably argue as to the adequacy of the scheme and the adherence to its provisions by the respective bodies. For instance the scheme provides that before the convening of a meeting of the Cyclone and Other Natural Disasters Committee, the Local Authorities should:

  1. undertake a survey of flood prone areas and the state of the drainage system and arrange for appropriate remedial action to be taken;
  2. carry out an audit of all drainage systems including the state of riverbeds in their respective areas of responsibility;
  3. arrange for the cleaning of all drains, canals, beds and banks of lakes, rivulets and streams systematically and specially during the rainy season;
  4. update the list of flood prone areas…..;
  5. review urban and rural development building plans taking into consideration the need for the provision of adequate drainage system; and
  6. compile appropriate documentation (audiovisual aids, photographs, handouts, etc) of flood events to promote public awareness.

While the Police with the assistance of the Fire Services and the Prisons Department have the responsibility to organise rescue or evacuation exercise.

Have these duties been discharged as indicated? People complained of lack or complete absence of assistance from the emergency and rescue services.

Awareness campaigns and the maintenance of drains, canals and other prone areas involve adequate resources in terms of labour and capital. Reports indicate that drains and canals at several places were clogged or simply rendered ineffective or inexistent by property development. And from press statements we gather that the authorities had to struggle through financial constraints in order to live up to their responsibilities.

No doubt heavy amount of accumulated water would gush once it finds a path. And that’s what happened at Mon Gout where the poor child was carried away along with a lady.

Then there’s one fundamental issue that needs attention: all too often people ignore warnings and they act irresponsibly when venturing in visibly risky weather conditions. And there are those for whom the sense of civic responsibility is a big deal. Just figure out the bus discharging its passengers in an over flooded area. Was there anyone to stop the child from crossing the bridge? It appears she was accompanied. Was there any public awareness campaign? If yes, how effective was it?

Those are the areas where the shoe pinches; and we should direct our effort in investigating into these aspects of the catastrophe in order to come up with mitigation measures for the future.

Is the Scheme adequate?

The cyclone emergency scheme has worked fairly well in Mauritius. With four stages of warning from Class I to Class IV the population is adequately informed of the imminent dangers of cyclones. But the torrential rain warning is not phased. A warning is issued only when the amount of rainfall has reached 100 mm and is likely to persist for several hours.

Emergency schemes and early warning systems vary from country to country. It all depends on the nature of the hazards. But the principle of these systems is the same. All are concerned with providing explicit and timely advice to the population so that they are prepared beforehand to face the events with minimal inconveniences and to protect themselves.

In some countries there’s a three-stage warning system for weather hazards including thunderstorms, floods, storms and tornadoes. A watch is issued when the weather services expect people to watch out for weather problems and when things might turn bad. An advisory is issued when minor street flooding starts to occur, meaning problems have started. While they’ll issue a warning when storms are actually causing considerable problems like flash flooding and things have become dangerous.

Can these systems be adopted or adapted to the local context? It’s up to the authorities to ponder upon them. The recent flood event has definitely given some food for thought. There’s widespread criticism with regard to the criteria of 100 mm. Some opinions indicate that when this has happened it’s already too late; it’s time for rescue and evacuation rather than to start taking precautionary measures.

Perhaps the authorities could also investigate into the enforcement side of warnings in an endeavour to situate the responsibility of each and every citizen. Are we responsible citizens of this country? It costs nothing for any Tom Dick and Harry to criticize; but it does cost some bucks in terms of man, money and materials when the rescue team has to set foot in gullies to save those who’ve been stuck out of their own imprudence by simply ignoring the safety instructions in disaster conditions. I won’t go into asking what people do around river banks at a moment when the weather is at its worst. Anyway.

My next post will focus on extreme events as standing challenges the world over. It will peek into the summer floods that hit the UK last year and the main lessons learnt. Stay tuned.

Last Week’s Flooding: A Post-mortem View 1

Four dead including one school child of 13 in the unprecedented flood that hit the country on Wednesday last. The child was returning home after early school dismissal due to torrential rain warning. No sooner had she alighted from the bus than she attempted to cross an over flooded bridge to reach her residence. But the water gushing outrageously from the river swept her away from the roadway. How could she gauge the strength of such sudden surge?

Passers by stood dumb, powerless. Several houses were inundated, cars wrecked and roads damaged, causing gross inconvenience. It’s been raining heavily since the preceding week but none expected such a catastrophic outcome like a flash flood that would sweep everything on its way.

I’ll be dealing with the recent flood event of 26 March 2008 in a series of four posts starting from this one. I’ll make a brief analysis of the sequence of events that caused widespread confusion and come up with some suggestions based on experiences here and there.

In such events we tend to look for a scapegoat. That’s typical political, and often communal, strategy. Can we find one? Should we venture to point fingers? Be wary. And don’t be shocked if you happen to unveil the culprits. And culprits there are definitely, three: somebody, nobody and everybody.

In this post I’ll look into what happened on the morning of Wednesday 26 March and what the existing emergency scheme says about torrential rain warnings.

The authorities criticised

The people are pointing at the Meteorological Services for not having warned the population in time. They criticised the Minister of Education for not having taken appropriate action to order school closure right from the morning on that day and for having dismissed school late at a time when, they say, the downpour had exceeded torrential stage. The people are angry with what they call an ineffective emergency response service. They had to organise their own rescue system to prevent those they could from drowning.

Could the torrential rain have been predicted? Was the flooding (over flooding or flash flood) foreseeable? Why did the Meteorological Services wait until 11.00 am (07.00 UT) to issue a torrential rain warning? Why did the Ministry of Education fail to declare a school holiday on that day? Were the authorities up to the level of their responsibility? These and many other questions are still haunting the minds of the people who are outraged and need reassurance.

To a question from the press during the weekend the Deputy Director of the Mauritius Meteorological Services was blunt: “I challenge any meteorological station in the world to be able to predict such torrential rain.” He further stated that, if we can calculate the percentage of humidity in the atmosphere, it’s impossible to know the amount of rainfall that the clouds will release at a given time.

Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme (TRES)

Yet there is a Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme which forms an integral part of the Cyclone and Other Natural Disasters Scheme. This scheme lays specific responsibilities on various bodies, like the Local Authorities, the Meteorological Services, the Road Development Authority, the Ministry of Education, the Police, and the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) among others with regard to the action to be taken in the event of torrential rain conditions. Let us see some of its salient features in order to understand whether what happened on Wednesday could have been prevented. The scheme provides as follows:

  1. The Meteorological Services is required to advise the Ministry of Education and Human Resources and issue warnings at regular intervals as soon as “climatic conditions prevailing over Mauritius or Rodrigues produced 100 mm of widespread rains in less than 12 hours and that this heavy rain is likely to continue for several hours”.
  2. Whenever torrential rain conditions have produced 100 mm of rains and heavy rains are likely to continue at the beginning of a school day, schools will not be opened for school children. If such a condition is observed during school hours the Meteorological Services will inform the Ministry of Education and Human Resources who will arrange through the MBC, private radio stations and the Police to warn the public accordingly.”
  3. As soon as such a warning is issued all classes will stop.” And the National Transport Authority has the responsibility “to arrange for bus facilities in all routes to be provided, as soon as possible, to school children who travel by bus.”

What really happened in that dreary morning?

At 5.00 am (01.00 UT) rainfall recorded hadn’t reached 100 mm, the weather services say. But the communiqué issued at that time did mention that people including school children should take precautions in view of heavy rainfall forecast. After having ascertained the criteria was reached, the Meteorological Services issued a torrential rain warning at around 11.00 am (07.00 UT). The Cyclone and other Disasters Committee met subsequently and it’s only then that the decision was taken to stop school. By that time it was nearly 2.00 pm (10.00 UT). We all know what followed.

It cannot be said with ease whether a decision could have been taken to close schools altogether on that day in the absence of clear and specific instructions to that effect in the scheme. People can draw their own conclusions based on existing procedures and knowledge of the prevailing situation.

In my next post I’ll probe deeper into the existing scheme and find out how the various parties responded in relation to the responsibilities entrusted on them.

From Hill in the Sea

Hey folks, here am I again. Oh, it’s been a while. Are you still around? Well. Sit back and relax as I write from Rodrigues some 600 kilometres to the east of my homeland. I’ll bring you to the “Hill in the Sea”, as it has been named in the text book Geomorphological Analysis of Mauritius. It’s from here that I’ll be blogging for the next six months.

OK. I arrived by a domestic flight on Monday 4 in the afternoon; and still getting settled. The wobbling of the tropical storm “Ivan” about 400 kilometres in the north created some inconvenience. It is now moving away westwards, although winds of 30 to 40 kilometres per hour are blowing from the east gusting at 70. This is the result of the combined influence of Ivan and an anticyclone to the south.

I got my personal effects and foodstuff (via maritime service) on Tuesday 12, when I enjoyed my first home-made food in the evening; lentils, preserved fish and fried potatoes, all with rice. I’m not a perfect cook; but solo cooking is not much of an issue. I had fresh lemon juice, pressed right from the fruit, as soft drink (beer you said? No thanks, not my thing) and local jack fruit as dessert. I expect my car on Friday with the arrival of the next boat.

Of volcanic origin Rodrigues offers a splendid view on the sea from its steep hilly lands. The highest point is about 400 metres above sea level and the land area is about 100 kilometre-square. Some 40 000 people live in this smallest Mascarenes Island where they grow maize, onions and other agricultural products; they rear cattle (not so much for the milk as for the meat), goats, poultry and pigs in open grounds; and they rely a lot on fishing for their living.

It’s not my first stay though. I was here five years ago and have been coming on mission often since 1976 when I first stopped over while proceeding to Agalega by boat. It’s not the same. The main road from Sir Gaetan Duval airport (brand new facility inaugurated few months ago) at Plaine Corail in the south to the seaport and capital Port Mathurin to the north has been improved to a great extent. Buildings have mushroomed in the capital and there’s every sign of growing business and commercial boost up.

I was reminiscing with one of the front office staff of Escales Vacances, a small hotel at Fond La Digue in the periphery of Port Mathurin where I stayed for four days before I was allocated my official quarters. The pace of infrastructural and socio-economic development seems phenomenal. From motor cycles to the ever-increasing four wheelers more adapted to the hilly and curvy terrain, I saw a number of brand new motor cars, strange in an island where people walk through long, narrow, bushy, hilly, rocky, soily and at times muddy paths to reach their homes on the hill tops or deep down the valleys.

From what I experienced on Friday last I can tell you it’s not a pleasure when the sun is on top of your head, literally roasting you. I walked 204 steps up (yes, I counted them patiently) and 204 down hill three times, in the morning, at mid-day and in the evening from hotel to office and back. But it’s a good physical exercise for those who want to drop some weight. I have resolved to throw at least 4 kilos by July (fat overgrowth in tummy) so I make it a point to do it as a daily chore when I set out footing for another 3 kilometres. En route there’s couple of 50 extra steps up and down. Is it a perfect test for a healthy heart?

Public transport (buses and taxis) is available the whole day; previously they closed at mid-day and the island stood still in the afternoon.

Way back people were excessively courteous and friendly; they used to greet everybody on the way. I’m not so sure whether this mannerism prevails nowadays. Things are changing and the situation may be different with the ever growing trading community. You could avail of du miel (honey – best from eucalyptus tree) and piments confits (preserved small – hot- chilly) free; today if you don’t pay heed you may end up buying these commodities (sometimes adulterated) at exorbitant prices. Market stalls have grown all along the main road in Port Mathurin.

Gone are the days when you could leave your doors open any time of the day or night, care free. With precarious employment opportunities and improper control of delinquency matters can worsen. I have no intention to scare the prospective visitor. Rodrigues is a beautiful island. It is safe, much safer than mainland. You can still wander around without being troubled, unlike mainland which is becoming very insecure. The relief of the island offers magnificent panoramic views for nature lovers. The economic activity is based mainly on agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries and lately tourism. I love the relatively stress free environment, far from the hurly-burly of the mainland life.

Rodrigues is an integral part of the Republic of Mauritius. It is often referred to as the 10th district. But it operates in a different manner. It might appear a bit complicated for the novice, but this small island is under the Ministry for Rodrigues which is at present under the umbrella of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Budgetary allocations are made from Mauritius and administered locally by the Rodrigues Regional Assembly headed by a Chief Commissioner. While districts and towns in mainland Mauritius have regional or municipal councils, this island has a unique system of government, quasi-autonomous, with its own executive, and commissioners who seem to have some sort of ministerial status.

Well, that was a glimpse of my first 10 days’ stay here. Exceptionally long post (sshhh… to cover my long absence…).

Cheers from Rodrigues.

Indians celebrate Divali

Today Hindus all over the world celebrate Divali or Deepavali as it is also called.

It’s a festival of lights, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil, the triumph of light over darkness, justice over injustice and intelligence over ignorance.

Various beliefs are associated with the celebration of this festival. The most common ones relate to:
(i) the return of King Rama to the capital city of Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years in the forest, according to the Epic Ramayana; and
(ii) Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon king Narakashura, if we refer to the Epic Mahabharata.
Anyway, this festival is celebrated on a no-moon day in October-November every year.

On this occasion people of hindu faith renovate their houses by cleaning, washing, painting where required and decorating with colouful lights. But in pure tradition they light what is called a diya, a small lamp made of clay fitted with cotton dipped in oil or vegetable ghee. They also cook sweet cakes and share them among their neighbours, relatives and friends. Here in Mauritius the most popular cake is “gateau batate”, made with flour, batate (sweet potato), coconut and sugar fried in oil or ghee.

Divali is a public holiday here although the festival is celebrated at the fall of the night when lighting of the lamp starts as a gesture to welcome Lakshmi Mata (Mother Lakshmi), the goddess of light, wealth and beauty. Lakshmi Mata is worshipped for prosperity, luck, abundance, generosity and financial well being.

The whole significance of divali resides in the lamp. Lighting the lamp symbolises lighting the Soul.

Muslims in purge

Muslims in Mauritius will start fasting on Thursday if the moon is visible on Wednesday night; otherwise it’ll be on Friday. This will mark the start of the holy month of Ramadhan, the ninth month in the Islamic (lunar) calendar.

Fasting (“Sawm” in arabic), which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is practised throughout this month. Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and engaging in sexual intercourse between husband and wife from dawn (“fajr” – the first prayer of the day) to sunset (“maghrib” – the fourth prayer).

It is a time when they make special effort into following the teachings of Islam and refraining from anger, envy, greed, lust, sarcastic remarks, backbiting, and gossip. They are encouraged to read the Holy Qur’an (which was revealed during this month) as much as they can and perform special prayers (“tarawih”) at night after the “Isha” prayer. It is said benefits multiply several-fold for those who devote in extra prayers and give alms (“zakat”) during this month.

Fasting is however exempted to those who are sick, nursing, traveling and pregnant women. Women are not allowed to fast during their (menstrual) period. Any number of days missed should be replaced before the next fasting month.

Those who observe fast get up early and take their meal (known as “sehri” or “suhoor”) before sunrise only to eat again (“iftar”) at sunset. At night they are free to eat, drink and do whatever they want provided it is within the limits permitted by Islam.

For the believer fasting inculcates a sense of brotherhood and solidarity among fellow muslims, especially when they share meals together to break their fast. It helps develop patience, tolerance, self-control of personal conduct and temper and strengthen one’s faith. It cleanses the inner soul. It is an act of obedience to the Almighty Allah and constitutes an atonement of faults and misdeeds.

The last ten days of the month is of special importance and retribution. Some believers (male) take a retreat in the mosque during this decade and they concentrate in intense prayers in quest of the blessed night of “Lailat-ul-Qadr”. This is the 27th night of the month when the Qur’an is said to have been descended in the earthly heavens in its entirety.

The end of the month of Ramadhan is marked by “Eid-ul-Fitr”. It is an Islamic holiday celebrated on the first day of the following month, “Shawwal” to commemorate the breaking of fast.

Let this month be a pious one for those who’d be observing the Ramadhan fast.

Father Laval’s Day

On 9 September 1864 the world lost a great man. Not a statesman. Not a politician. But man of God. An “apostle of every rank and class”. This is how he is remembered.

French-born he lived a pious life in our small island, as a devoted missionary curing the sick, lifting the spirit and morals of the poor and the despised, until his death. But it is said servants of God never die.

When he was ordained priest in 1838 he said having a strong desire “to be the servant of Jesus Christ amongst despised people”. He did it, with fervor, devotion and love. He is renowned for having cured people of leprosy. This miracle made of him a figure of reverence. That man was Father Jacques Désiré Laval (Père Laval as he is more commonly known).

The shrine of Père Laval is a centre of spiritual attraction every year during this time in Mauritius. Thousands of people of all faiths, Christians in particular, flock in pilgrimage to Ste Croix in the northern suburb of Port Louis. The march starts on the night of 7 through the 8th when old and young absorbed in prayer with candles in their hands proceed to the beatified Father’s tomb for a tribute to the one who devoted his life to the cause of the deprived.

Born on 18 September 1803 in France, Father Laval came to Mauritius in 1841 to further the moral and spiritual uplift of the emancipated slaves. Before he set himself to priesthood he studied at the Faculty of medicine in Paris and became doctor in 1830. He served the poor in Normandy for five years when geminated in his mind the seed of priesthood.

Father Laval was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 29 April 1979 in Rome.

9 September is a moment of intense prayer and remembrance for those who celebrate Father Laval’s day every year.

Holy festivals

Mauritius is a small island with a significant number of cultural and religious celebrations. A country where Hindus, Muslims and Christians live together has no other ways to show the richness of its cultural heritage. Some are celebrated as national events (as public holidays), others more sectoral and pertinent to the particular group (classified in the list of optional holidays). Many times they coincide. Like yesterday we had “Raksha Bandhan” and “Shab-e-Barat”, although not public holidays.

Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan” is celebrated by Hindus; but it’s becoming more “national” nowadays. It is an event where the sister ties what is called a “rakhi” (basically a piece of colorful thread, sometimes fitted with a synthetic flower) on her brother’s wrist.

The “rakhi” symbolizes eternal love, devotedness and friendship for each other. The brother commits himself to be always by the side of his sister and protect her. They exchange gifts on this occasion.

Women (sisters) in their best ‘saris” flock to their brothers’ place with “rakhis” in their hand either in the morning before going to work or in the afternoon after work (some even leave office earlier). The men (brothers) in turn display their “rakhis” with much pride.

All is done amidst prayers and “laddoo” (sweet cake) servings.

Shab-e-Barat

Shab-e-Barat” on the other hand is a religious activity celebrated by Muslims on the 15th night of the eighth month (month of Sha’abaan) in the Islamic calendar. It is essentially a night of repentance where it is said Allah grants all demands: “Ask and I’ll give”. All sins, sworn sincerely not to be committed again for good, are forgiven during that night. That’s why devout Muslims never miss such occasions.

Young and old male all together in their prayer gowns and caps rush to the cemeteries in the afternoon and at night to pay tribute to their lost ones and pray for their soul to rest in peace. Women say prayers from home. Special prayers begin after sunset just after the “maghrib salah or namaz” (the fourth prayer of the day) and continue at wish until the next morning.

Some people prepare “halwa” (sweet confection) and “roti” as offerings, although not essential. It is recommended to fast during three days from the eve to the day after, although most people observe only one day or two, as a prelude to the holy month of “Ramadhan” when they fast during a whole month from dawn to dusk.

Newly-born stabbed to death

Horrible! It’s the least that can be said when you discover a newly-born, innocent, less-than-a-day-old child, draped in a piece of cloth and inert in a school bag. And on further probe you end up with a lifeless being, hardly born enough. Deeply lacerated and perforated at various places, the baby’s corpse bore a serious head wound and several cuts around the neck.

Yes, that was the horrible scene police found when they reached a small house in the suburbs of Port Louis, after a phone call at 7.00 pm on Sunday.

The baby’s mother, a 17-year-old student, was there too. She had apparently had a clandestine delivery, far from the specialized health care facilities, during the day. She had kept her pregnancy secret and nobody, not even her close relatives, ever knew about her health condition.

Postmortem examination revealed the baby-girl died from “multiple stab wounds of the chest”. Some 30 spots of severe injury, with serious throat cuts, were found. As of now there are no solid clues as to the real circumstances of the crime. Police inquiry is on and will definitely target the baby’s mother as soon as she’s released from hospital where she’s been admitted just after the police raid.

The break is over

My brother-in-law left this morning with his wife. His son stayed back, against his will. He started crying as they left. But he has no choice. His parents have to resume duty tomorrow and they can’t leave him alone at home. They’ve postponed his ticket and there’s no way he can travel as the planes are fully booked during this period. He’ll have to wait for his grand-mother, expected back from the UK on 4 August after a three-month visit to her daughter in London, to fly back around the 12th.

On Sunday, in a partly cloudy sky with a light but cool breeze, we rallied the southern half of the island all the way from the centre where we live to the south-eastern coastal village of Mahebourg near the airport. We then linked to Le Morne in the south-west through the southern tips of Gris Gris, Riambel, Rivière des Galets, Baie du Cap, Macondé and La Prairie before looping back to the centre. The roads were unusually jammed, probably because of school holidays when people flock to the seaside, if not to the fairs, or both.

Delicious Chop Soy (Chinese cuisine), gratin with cauliflower and bread for lunch; some boiled manioc for the mid-afternoon tiffin; and we refreshed ourselves with sweet coconut water on our way back. It was a little more than a half-day 180-kilometre-drive. We reached home at around 7.00 pm, all exhausted.

* * *

I just got a phone call from Reunion. My guests have reached home in good shape despite a shuddering descent at Pierrefonds (Saint Pierre) airport due to bad weather. They are relieved that their son’s doing better now. I can gauge how terrible it is to part from your dear ones, albeit for a brief period. I’ve experienced it on two occasions. The first one when I had to rush back home to resume work (I wasn’t granted longer leave), leaving behind the whole family in the middle of a two-week holiday in Reunion island. And the second when my family had to leave me alone in Rodrigues island where I was on a tour of duty in 2003. This time they had to be back for school. On both occasions my younger son (then in his early teens, grown up anyway) burst in tears, catching the airport crowd’s attention. Well, that’s life.

Women empowerment

Women around the world face numerous challenges in their daily life. Victims of discrimination, injustice, rape and poverty, many have, against all odds, to strive for their rights and survival. And if they live in countries where women are treated like second-class citizens, it’s even more difficult to rise up.

I just want to share something I’ve read from Newswatch India. It tells us about how one newspaper in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh dedicates itself to the cause of women’s plight. The paper is called ‘Mahila Paksh’ and is run “by women, for women and to women”. It’s quite a different kind of paper. It’s concerned more with membership than readership. It aims at “creating awareness in the women not about the social issues but awareness for the self”.

It’s interesting to note how it contributes to the empowerment of women who otherwise would have had to content themselves to the so-called fate of injustice and oppression.

Quite a challenging task indeed, especially when the reporters are unskilled and hardly educated. You can also read more about it here at “Writing for their Rights“.