Last week, half a dozen Ugandan journalists including myself flew hundreds of miles of the Indian Ocean to the island nation of Mauritius. This is located about 2000 Kilometers off the south eastern coast of Africa.
There we were hosted by Pay Tv giants Mutichoice Africa, at their second annual content showcase appropriately dubbed “Only the Best.”
My first encounter with Mauritius in the news was in a story I wrote back in June this year about a deal reached between their government and ours, to release some five Ugandan prisoners who were serving long jail terms on the island. The prisoners were to serve the rest of their sentences in Luzira Prison.
Days later, a random weekend chat with a good friend of mine who works in the sugar industry, took me through his experience in Mauritius, having been there once for a sugar technology seminar.
In his insight, my friend said while the island nation appeared more advanced, Uganda excelled it in several other aspects. We are the Pearl of Africa, he reminded me.
Intrigued by his tale and analysis, I went to dig up some personal experiences on the island and landed on one from a Zimbabwean, who said Mauritius only matched his motherland’s beauty by about 70%.
Then I went to Mauritius. Through the six days of work and relaxation, my patriotism got really tested. Every one of the days I was at my wits end, figuring out how a country so young and tiny, could be so organized, incredibly advanced and spacious.
Usually people who come to Uganda from the first world countries, besides the good weather and natural beauty, give it to us as very hospitable a people. I was therefore seriously on the lookout for that in Mauritius. At least we should beat them in this, I hoped.
I cannot say I was entirely successful because we spent the whole week in a 5 star hotel around people trained in school to be hospitable.
As we made our way to the Outrigger Mauritius Resort Beach on the south eastern coast, you could notice that the roads were ornamented on both sides by vast plantations of sugarcane.
40% of Mauritian land is covered with sugarcane. That’s more like having all the land in 45 districts in Uganda planted with coffee.
Yet in Mauritius, sugar production is now the fourth largest Industry, having over years been leapfrogged by tourism, finance, and textiles.
“We are now trying to clear up the plantations,” said Priya, our tour guide who took us through the south western part of island on our last day of the trip on Sunday. “We are replacing them with residential houses and hotels.”
At the resort, we fed on lots of sea food which you should excuse me if I don’t mention here because they were mostly in French and Creole.
But the Mauritian staple foods include rice and chicken, vegetables and fish. The first two are majorly imports from India, Pakistan and South Africa.
Mauritians import most their stable food…well, because they can. Only 8 percent of their population is unemployed. 8 percent! The tour guide told us that 80% of the residents own their own houses.
Nearly every path there, every feeder road is tarmac. That could have been easy for a country that is only 2,000 square kilometers – just over the size of Wakiso district — but again their taxes are being shouldered by a population of only 1.2 million people which is 30 times smaller than Uganda’s.
As we cruised down the smooth roads through the countryside plains of Bel Ombré, our van bumped into a couple of policemen who waylaid us in the bushes and halted us for overspending.
The officer wore no smiley face as he strutted toward us and summoned the driver out to the front (and not the back) of the van.
The few minutes that followed of inaudible deliberations did not bear much fruit and the driver was ultimately handed his ticket — which most likely had several zeros on it.
Driving north through the Black River district we encountered a village of makeshift structures by the shores which got some of us ‘exited’ that we were finally entering the impoverished side of the island.
But then, peering closer we noticed that nearly each one of them carried a satellite dish on it!
“Now, make no mistake that those fishermen and poor people,” warned our guide Priya, a somehow stout but very jolly lady. “These are some of the richest people we have here. They erect these structures near the sea because most of them have their homes at a distance and they don’t want to move up down every day.”
A few more miles, we came across some really posh villas, some of which we were told are owned by English football legend David Beckham. These were built overlooking the ocean and one of the many conditions of acquiring yourself one, is that you much own a yacht!
“Most of these are owned by prominent people from abroad. They kind of like it here because we don’t have a lot of paparazzi, and so they can jet in and out without being noticed,” expounded Priya.
A minutes’ drive in the same Black River area, there laid at the foothill or a very steep gorge, a village of more posh pads, which are owned by Franco-Mauritians. These are white Frenchmen who stuck around when the British colonial masters came and took over the island from France 1810.
The Franco- Mauritians have their specialty in salt making. They are very affluent but they dislike mingling with the locals, which is why they isolated themselves on the hillside.
The trip wound at a restaurant built on the pinnacle of a 3000 foot hill where we were served with local dishes, one of them named the Millionaire’s salad.
Though it tastes like nothing, this dish is actually prepared with a lot of dedication from fully grown palm trees and it’s a big delicacy there –which explains its loud name. Palm trees grow for about seven years and then are cut down to extract the ‘heart’ – an arm-sized inner tube of the tree, which feeds around three people as a starter. This is then sliced finely and eaten raw in a salad mostly with smoked marlin.
Mauritius doesn’t boost of vast Gorilla inhabited forests, or thousands of square kilometers of game parks or crocodile-flanked Nile waters, or multitudes of elephant herds of Queen Elizabeth National Park or the mighty Murchison Falls.
But somehow, with its luxurious spas and beaches, and a few man made attractions complemented by its diverse culture, they manage to draw some 1 million visitors a year and earn about $1.1 billion from tourism, compared to Uganda’s annual $1.2billion.
The people there we observed are aggressive workaholics; both male and female. Indolence here is a no-no.
“If you are lucky to get yourself a Mauritian woman,” explained Pria, “and you happen to be a fisherman, you are certain that she will be helping you with the fishing in the morning. Then she’ll come home and prepare the kids for school and then embark on other chores. If there isn’t, she will go do house chores at another house as a maid for an extra income.”
Our stay in there was getting more and more intriguing by the time we flew out of the island.
And as we dragged in the Namasuba traffic from Entebbe airport on Monday evening, peering through the window at a small whirl that swept a cloud of dust up a ramshackle kazigo on the main road, I couldn’t help thinking out loud if that Englishman Winston Churchill came back to Uganda, whether he would not want to rename this nation to something else more befitting.