- The Triumphant Return of the Dodo: Emergent Children’s Literature in Mauritius
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Mauritius is a small tropical island east of Madagascar with a population of 1.2 million. Significantly, before colonization it had no indigenous population and, apart from the occasional visits by Arab traders, was largely left alone until 1510. The first settlers were Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the French and finally the British, who took control in 1810. The people of contemporary Mauritius are mostly the descendents of those who arrived as slaves from Africa, indentured laborers from India, or small traders from China. Independence from Britain was attained in 1968. The lingua franca is French Creole, which is largely oral, and a number of Indian languages are also spoken. French is widely used due to an agreement to protect French culture, made between the French and the British during the handover. English is the official language for education, government, and business, but for many children, English is virtually a foreign language. Consequently, children who do not speak English outside of school are severely disadvantaged. There are current plans to use Creole in school as the language of instruction for younger children.
Mauritius’s literacy rate is 85%, and teachers mainly rely on English textbooks. If Mauritian children are to enjoy literature and become literate in English, local books which reflect their lives are necessary. Unfortunately, while books from France and the UK can be found in bookshops, there are few that are local. Botelho and Rudman use metaphors of mirrors and doors to explore the influence of literature on identity formation: [End Page 80]
These are powerful metaphors because they presuppose that literature can authentically mirror or reflect one’s life; look through a window to view someone else’s world; and open doors offering access both into and out of one’s everyday condition. The mirror invites self-contemplation and affirmation of identity. The window permits a view of other people’s lives. The door invites interaction.(xiii)
Children must be able to read about themselves and their lives in order to develop their own cultural identity, and this development is not easy for Mauritian children.
For this review, texts were identified from three key sources: those held in the library at the Mauritius Institute of Education, titles published by the Federation of Playgroups, and those found in book shops in Mauritius. They have been written by a variety of authors and illustrators, some self-published, and produced by a range of local publishers with a few titles from large international groups. The Federation of Playgroups has produced an excellent series of books for young readers. Originally developed co-operatively, they have been edited by Pushpa Lallah and published as dual language texts in English and Creole. International publishers have been involved with secondary school readers, the most successful being Macmillan’s two volumes of short stories by Ramdoyal, and a few ex-pat writers have also made contributions.
There are a number of challenges when considering writing stories that bind the multicultural population together, offering a cultural landscape that is universally recognizable. First of all, there is the question of which language to select. Although children are educated in English, the mother tongue for most is Creole, with French as the other ambient language. Currently, the majority of texts are either in French or English with some dual Creole/English publications. There is also a question of how to create texts that will encompass each Mauritian culture. There are no common indigenous oral traditions of myth, legend, or folk tale, which often form the bedrock of emergent children’s literature. Those who came as slaves lost much of their culture on arrival as language groups were deliberately separated, and all were converted to Christianity, making it difficult to preserve cultural tradition. Indentured laborers were able to retain their language, religion, and oral tradition, but they operated in a different geographical and cultural setting. The question also arises as to how the history of slavery and colonization can be dealt with in local children’s books. Lastly, as children’s literature currently does not play...