"We are not just any old French region" (english)

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Interview with Ghislaine Bessière

Reunion Island was occupied for the first time in 1663 by French colonialists and Malgash slaves, followed by continental Africans. [2] There they cultivated coffee and sugar cane. After the abolition of slavery on the 20th of December 1848, intendured workers, known as the engagés who were for the most part Indian, replaced the slaves working in the plantations. In 1946 Reunion Island became a French overseas territory, officially signalling the start of decolonization. Today, it is an "ultraperipherical" region of the European Union. We often hear about the peaceful co-habitation of people of different religions, cultures, ethnic origins and skin colour on the Island working well, despite differences. Is there any truth in this? What do you think about this?

Ghislaine Bessière: I think there are very idyllic images attached to Reunion Island, although this is its postcard image, it holds some truth. We are indeed a multicultural island, because of our history. This multiculturalism has a history; we have learned to live together. There's a real religious tolerance among us, which we cherish; It's lovely to hear the call for prayer from Mosques at six in the morning or midday; when there are Chinese festivities the whole population is invited to watch the lion dance; and when Malabar [3] parades are on, everyone comes along. It's a real mix of people. This is our cultural, exotic side. There are, however, real economic difficulties.

Are you referring to the riots that took place here on Reunion Island in February? [4]

Yes, the neighbourhoods that were set on fire. It only took a demand for a drop in the price of petrol, for motorists to mobilize, and for the entire island to come to a complete halt. Riots have always started this way: it takes just one spark to ignite a fire because of the real social problems we have here. 60 percent of young people are unemployed – this is what we refer to as a lost generation. These kids leave school at 16 without any direction. They are promised refresher courses and training, but when all's said and done, they complete course after course and meanwhile have the time to become parents, watch their children grow up, all whilst remaining in a precarious situation.

Family and neighbourhood solidarity have always worked. No-one is without food, the poor do not die of hunger but they are severely undernourished. The poor say that from the 15th of each month they have nothing left to eat. Social unease comes from the fact that there are some who are extremely rich and others who are extremely poor. In the middle you've got the middle class who exist because of a correction index [5] allowing them to compensate for the price of living, as things are very expensive here. And apart from all this, we window shop in France ...

You window shop in France? What do you mean by this?

I mean to say that all imported goods from France are very expensive. They're sold in shops, so they still have an appeal. Due to the correction index, civil servants are able to do more than window shopping. But I think this correction index actually serves to increase the cost of living on the Island as well as Reunion's dependence on France.

So what can be done to reduce Reunion's dependence on France?

We need to diversify our agriculture, rediscover our drive to produce and reach a minimum level of agricultural self-sufficiency. We also need to re-discover a sense of dignity. But we still have a long way to go. Whenever someone has tried to promote a Reunion product, take oranges for example, dumping has occurred. This dependence is suffocating and weighs us down. Even strict regulations cause problems. The way in which they are written means they are not always adaptable, as they must adhere to French and EU norms. It should be up to us to adapt them to our needs.

Could you cite a concrete example?

A concrete example is "Le parc national des Hauts". [6] This national park comes with a certain number of principles to adhere to, resulting in a ban of all traditional practices considered dangerous. The custom of chopping wood to make a fire at home is not allowed. And yet, for people living in Mafate [7] chopping wood actually means cleaning the forest. In terms of rearing, letting cows graze renews the soil. This is also banned. So you see: This is how we actually impoverish people who have a job, people who have customs.

Are there any other aspects to the Reunion-France relationship?

France takes it upon itself to label us as "any old French region". This is not true; we are not just any old French region. Reunion Island shares a history with its neighbouring islands. We have a French administration system; however, geographically-speaking we are not in France.

Furthermore, we already have a history of slavery, engagisme [8], colonialism, departmentalization, and now decentralization. It's true that slavery was abolished in 1848, but we had to wait until 1946 and for departmentalization to access certain social rights, and up until the 1970s extremely poor neighbourhoods known as camps existed. In all of the poor areas the relationship between land owners, the "masters" and – well, as we've called them "masters" – let's say "workers", remained very much engraved in the era of slavery, in engagisme.

A society of castes with hierarchical relationships still remains to this day, between White and Black as well as between the zoreilles [9] and kafs [10]. Kafs [11] have always had a status apart from anyone else; they have always been placed in the lowest social classes. On the other side, the gros blancs are now importers still holding the reins of the country's economy. In fact, White people always fill our qualified posts, be they zoreilles or Whites born on Reunion Island, you will not find a single Black person in these types of posts. You see! You are bound to encounter animosity. Personally I don't like that word. I'd rather talk about symbolic violence.

Isabelle and I both work as Foreign Language Assistants in state schools here. We can safely say that the vast majority of our colleagues come from métropole France [12] ...

The problem is that we are teaching Reunion Islanders cultural norms from métropole France. But how can you expect pupils to learn anything at school with that as a basis?

Does your association also work in schools?

Yes. Teachers can opt to teach Reunion's history as an option course. There are some who touch on the history of slavery but it is never taught in great detail. There is still strong resistance.

In terms of Rasine Kaf, since 2004 we have been providing educational workshops to pupils form Nursery level upwards. It's a pedagogic programme divided into four workshops; culinary, traditional music and sport, traditional folk tales and a history workshop. We're re-creating an alternative route, which allows pupils to re-visit their history. We tell them: "Here you are: This heritage was brought to you by your ancestors who came from Africa, Madagascar, India, and from everywhere". And straight away the classroom becomes animated – the pupils get excited because they have a need to find their roots.

Let's talk a bit more about Reunion Island's history. How is the history of colonialization, slavery and indentured labour experienced today on the Island?

In the 1980s French president Mitterand, or let's say the left-wing, declared the 20th of December [13] a public holiday – but not a national holiday. When we founded Rasine Kaf on the 20th of December 1998, we decided that this day should be a moment of recollection and not merely a folkloric occasion – and so we developed along this line of thinking. Rasine Kaf believed that Sarda Garriga [14] was a messenger; he had an administrative role but the slaves took part in their own liberation, through revolts and protests which they led. But at this point in time, the story of slavery was still taboo. As soon as we spoke about it, we were dwelling on the past, bringing up old stories, we were labelled as rriéristes [play on words, approximately: fixated on the past]. In calling the 20th of December a day of remembrance, we were stating the need for debates about our understanding of history, about those who are still suffering from this system today and about the idea of reparations.

We at Rasine Kaf have begun to denounce the fact that the 15th/16th of September [15], being a day to celebrate our heritage, always shows the same thing, like colonial buildings, but without ever mentioning that these buildings were built by slaves and intendured workers. History was never shown to be linked to slavery. And yet, this history will not just disappear! All this heritage would benefit from being transformed into cultural resources in slavery museums, in museums of engagisme and marronage [escape from slavery]. But on the streets have you seen the names of slaves? It's completely unbalanced. There are many names linked to the history of the slaveholders, but there are barely any that are linked to the stories of the marrons [16], to the stories of slaves and engagés.

So, we are asking for our heritage to be valued and safeguarded. In reality, all heritage here was French heritage. We have remained in this unbelievable mimicry. Society was founded on assimilation. However this denial of history prevents Reunion society from obtaining its rightful share of emancipation towards its own de-alienation – because, despite everything, we are still a society experiencing a certain type of alienation. A type of slavery mentality has stuck, and it relates back to continuing modes of thought.

In what way do you feel that having a feminist perspective has impacted your work?

At an association level, we are not going to re-invent women's lives and their role in history. For example, during the slaves' revolt in St. Leu in 1811, many women were present. Women had always been present throughout the resistance; not forgetting the marronnes. From a historical perspective, it's necessary to know that ‘le code noir' [17] clearly stated that a child followed his or her mother's status, illustrating the fact that slavery did not recognize the father nor family structure. If the mother was a slave, her child was a slave, if the mother was free, the child was free. But if the mother was a slave and the father was free, the child was not free. Despite there being huge difficulties in forming a family, Reunion historian Gilles Gerard described how familial strategy has always functioned, during times of resistance. All that they were prevented from doing they managed to do – and women played a big role in this. For example, if a woman was freed, often the first thing she did was to free her family; first free her children and then her partner.

Personally, for me as a feminist, from the moment I returned to Reunion Island after my stay in France, when feminism was in full swing, up until today, I am not at all considered to be a true Reunion Islander. People say, "you're West Indian or (an) African". Because I am not like the average female Islander, the way I act and present myself is not particularly Reunionnaise, not particularly how Reunion women present themselves.

It has been said that the level of domestic violence is very high in Reunion ...

Yes, there is a very high level, and here as well you can link it back to our history. All the types of violence; domestic violence, violence within society, the position of children and of the family are linked because there are ignored trauma. We have identified the trauma from the Shoah but not the trauma linked to slavery. We have even spoken about remuneration for victims of the Shoah, but did you know that slaves have never been compensated. It is the slave holders who were compensated. It's not about asking for financial compensation, but rather about identifying the trauma linked to this period in time and the way it is reproduced in modern day society.

What is the current state of Creole [18], in terms of being recognized as a language in its own right?

There is still a taboo surrounding this language, which is considered to be a patois. When a child expresses his/herself in Creole, he/she is told off with "no, that's not how we speak". When you tell a child that we don't speak like that, a child of three years old, you destroy them! There is something really inhumane about that. That's why slavery was declared a crime against humanity. But elsewhere the crime continues, because when you stop children from expressing themselves, it's like denying them access to their own identity. They will speak French, but what we here call a "mascot French".

At the other end of the spectrum, children who choose to study Creole as an option course learn French much quicker and tend to be more open-minded. When they were previously stuck in one subject, even when learning something for the first time, they were able to overcome difficulties because they could relate back to their well-rooted mother tongue.

And finally: Can you imagine a situation where all of Rasine Kaf's aims and objectives are met?

Well, it won't happen overnight! The fight has just begun, but there has been some progress. The fact that Maloya [19] has been recognized as a world heritage by UNESCO is very significant. Recognizing Reunion Island as world heritage by UNESCO is very important – but you see, that's only one side, at the other end of the spectrum you've got forests burning down. [20] Part of our heritage is going up in smoke. And there is our youth, who should be seen as a valuable resource, but they are completely at a loose-end...they are setting their neighbourhoods, their cars, and their shops alight ... they are burning everything.

Our fight is advancing the Reunion population, because it is addressing our structural identity, which I think is a long-term battle. It may still be in its early stages, but the possibility to lead this battle out in the open dates back thirty years. Before this it was systematically repressed. You may not be aware that during the 1970s and 80s, if a Maloya group played in the area, the police were deployed, and the musicians were forced to pack away their instruments and leave. You see, thirty years minus 1664, that amounts to how many years? That's three centuries to take into consideration. Our ancestors fought for us, and they gave us their strength. Personally, I feel ready to continue this fight for the whole of my life, because I'm doing it for future generations.

Interview: Eva Posch, Isabelle Fathimani


[1] Rasine Kaf is an association, which aims to promote the history, presence and voice of kafs on Reunion Island, primarily by raising awareness of the history of slavery and looking at its origins. The association's motto "Fièr léritaz nout zansèt, nou vé fé sort ali dann fénoir" can be translated as: "Be proud of our ancestors' heritage, we are here to re-discover it."

[2] Slaves were brought from Africa, most notably from Guinea, Senegal, Madagascar and the whole eastern coast of Africa.

[3] The malbars or malabars: a Creole expression on Reunion island for the offspring of the engages of which the majority was deported from India.

[4] Around mid-February 2012 there were riots in various areas around Reunion Island (Le Chaudron, Le Port, St Pierre etc.)

[5] Since the 1950s the "correction index" has raised civil servants' salaries by close to 50 percent, proportional to those in continental France.

[6] This national park ("Parc national des hauts") was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

[7] The "Cirque de Mafate" is one of the island's three volcanic calderas. There are neither roads nor any motorized transport inside Mafate. Its residents are delivered food via helicopter. Using dead wood to make fires at home means avoiding the high price of gas.

[8] From the start of the 19th century, during the time of engagisme (indentured servants), and in particular after the abolition of slavery, workers were brought to the island to work on plantations. They were for the most part Indian, living in slave conditions with few rights.

[9] Zoreille or zorey is a Creole expression on Reunion Island for people from continental France living on the island or coming to the island as tourists.

[10] The word kaf on Reunion Island carries the same meaning as Black does in the West Indies and the United States. It's a community, a cultural unit as is zoreille/zorey or malbar on the island. The term kaf has negative connotations in that it is the kafs who are consistently placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but it is often used to address one's baby ("mon petit kaf"; my little kaf) even when the baby is white; when addressing one's partner ("my kafrine"/"my kaf"). It's an ambivalent term employed in the same way as ‘Black' is by Rasine Kaf.

[11] Les gros blancs (literally: "big Whites") is a Creole expression on Reunion Island for big land owners from continental France, during the time of colonialization.

[12] La métropole is the official and familiar term used to talk about continental France.

[13] Sarda Garriga was deployed from France as a spokesperson on Reunion Island to announce the abolition of slavery on 20th December 1848. 60.000 slaves became free citizens.

[14] One part of folklorisation addressed by Rasine Kaf is that the celebration of the abolition of slavery was becoming more and more personalised and overly focused on Garriga as a "freer" of slaves.

[15] On the 15th/16th of September, la journée du patrimoine, in the whole of France a lot of historical buildings and museums can be visited without charge.

[16] Slaves who escaped from plantations were called marrons (men) or marronnes (women).

[17] Le code noir (literally: "Black code"): the founding text for the system of slavery was institutionalized on Reunion Island in 1724.

[18] Reunion Creole is the mother tongue of most of the population of Reunion and is based on the French language. In 2000 it was given the official title of a "regional language". Some schools provide Creole as an option course.

[19] Maloya is a type of music, a song and a dance originating from Reunion Island. Mixed in origin, Maloya was created by slaves of Malgash and African origin in sugar cane plantations, before spreading out to the whole of the island. It was recognized as world heritage by UNESCO in 2009.

[20] In 2011 at the end of October there were huge fires in the National Park (in Maido and La Grande Chaloupe). There were also similar fires in 2010.

Literature (in German)

Carsten Wergin: Kréol Blouz. Musikalische Inszenierungen von Identität und Kultur. Böhlau, Köln/Weimar/Wien 2010.

Ghislaine Bessièrea fait ses études en sociologie, l'économie et la biologie, et a travaillé comme infirmière psychologue. Elle a participé à la création de l'association Rasine Kaf et est maintenant la vice-présidente de l'association. studied Sociology, Economics and Biology, and previously worked as a psychiatric nurse and counsellor. She was involved in the establishment of the association Rasine Kaf and is currently its vice-president. studierte Soziologie, Wirtschaft und Biologie und arbeitete als psychiatrische Krankenschwester und Beraterin. Sie war beteiligt an der Gründung des Vereins Rasine Kaf und ist heute dessen Vizepräsidentin.