Contested Roots

For his masters thesis Contested Roots, Norwegian student Steffen Johannessen examined how memories of the Chagos islands are shared and kept alive among the Chagossian community in Mauritius, as a response to the suffering they have endured, and continue to endure.

Johannessen spent five months in 2004 living among Chagossians in Port Louis, Mauritius. As well as spending time with the Chagossians themselves and supporting them in their struggle for justice, Johannessen met with legal representatives of Mauritius and the US, local academics, journalists and activists.

The memories the Chagossians share relate not only to the Chagos islands and the expulsion, but also to the problems they face now in Mauritius, like poverty, unemployment, illness and social stigma.

Johannessen discusses how “Chagos” has for many come to represent a longed for alternative – a place of freedom from these contemporary problems. Another central concept is the Chagossians’ ‘sadness’ (sagren in their own creole language). This term, he writes, is most often used by Chagossians trying to make sense of the many deaths of relatives and friends that occurred in the wake of the deportations. The Chagossians’ ‘sadness’ is understood as a mortal illness resulting from missing the prosperous paradise they were forced to leave, while subsisting in the slums of Port Louis.

Contested Roots also looks at the differences in the ways Chagossians and other Mauritian citizens interpret historical events, such as the granting of Mauritian independence. The Mauritian government emphasises the common destiny of all Mauritian citizens, an approach which has helped prevent tensions between ethnic groups in the country from igniting. The Chagossians in Mauritius, however, cannot easily align with the myths on which the multicultural Mauritian nation is based. Celebrating independence would mean celebrating the events that led to their expulsion, and contradicting their own cultural identity.

With their legal fight being continually thwarted by the British government, the Chagossians need to expose their sufferings publicly in order to improve their situation. Johannessen argues that their reluctance to embrace Mauritian national myths, and the fervence with which they express their own culture, provokes resentment among other Mauritians who question their loyalty to the community of Mauritian citizens, compounding the exclusion they already feel.

The Chagossians’ culture, supported and expressed through local organizations is, however, crucial to their struggle for justice, he says.

You can email Steffen Johannessen at steffej@student.sv.uio.no