15 eye-poppers about Mauritius; and what its PM shares with Kenya's Uhuru and Botswana's Khama

Money and the people who have it are taken seriously. A person who invests more than $500,000 can become a citizen.

THIS week a news item that was mostly a short story in India, and largely ignored in Africa, said the world’s second most populous country was to make its first defence equipment export. It will be the sale of a warship to the coast guard of one of Africa’s island nations, Mauritius. The deal is worth $50m.

It was a good week for Indian business in Mauritius. In another deal, it was announced that India will sell maritime Dornier survellaince aircraft built by local firm HAL to Mauritius. That one is worth $16m.

It is the “Mauritius Way”, notching big deals and Africa-leading records without noise. On December 10, 2014, Mauritius will have parliamentary polls – the 17th election of the year in Africa, and the last.

What are the other gems and secrets the island is hiding? We look at 15 of them:

Mauritius has no population of indigenous inhabitants like most of the rest of Africa. The island first encountered by the Portuguese, then inhabited by the Dutch. The French followed then the British. Today Mauritius is an eclectic mix of Hindu, Caucasian, Creoles and Chinese with Hindus forming about 40% of the population, Christian 30%, Muslim 30%, Chinese 5%.

It is the most densely populated country in Africa with over 1.2 million inhabitants living on 2,040 square kilometres of land. It is the 52nd smallest country by area in the continent.

The uniquely shaped Mauritius Commercial Bank (MCB) building in Ebene, Port Louis, was the first building to receive the prestigious BREEAM rating in sub-Sahara Africa. The building, easily the most eco-friendly office block on the continent, makes use of free cooling and uses a solar farm on the edge of its lawn to meet 60% of its energy needs. Rainwater is harvested for use, and the orientation of the building allows for maximisation of solar lighting.

The current Prime Minister of Mauritius, Navin Ramgoolam, is the son of the founding Prime Minister Sir Seewosur Ramgoolam. That puts him in what might loosely be described as the “Club of Three” of current African leaders who are children of founding fathers of their nations – presidents Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya and Ian Khama in Botswana.

Before Guy Scott became acting President of Zambia, Paul Berenger was actually the first African of white descent to lead an African government in post-apartheid Africa, serving as Prime Minister of Mauritius from September 2003 to July 2005. Berenger is of French descent.

The coral reef that surrounds the island of Mauritius and keeps out sharks and protects its sandy beaches and lagoons is the third largest in the world.

Because Mauritius was formed from volcanic activity, it has a unique geography consisting of a series of broken mountains that encircle the island.

Le Morne (little story) Cultural Landscape, a rugged mountain on the southwest of Mauritius was used as a shelter by runaway slaves and maroons through the 18th and early years of the 19th centuries. Protected by the mountain’s isolated, wooded and almost inaccessible cliffs, the escaped slaves formed small settlements in the caves and on the summit of Le Morne.

The history associated with the maroons, have made Le Morne a symbol of the slaves’ fight for freedom, their suffering, and their sacrifice, all of which have relevance to the countries from which the slaves came - the African mainland, Madagascar, India, and Southeast Asia.

You can swim with dolphins in the early morning at Tamarin Bay Beach on the West of the island. Paid motorboat trips are available to take swimmers out to the emerald green waters where a wild school of dolphins swims freely amongst people.

The Catholic church in Sainte-Croixe, Mauiritius, is the burial place of Saint Jacque-Desire Laval, a French Roman Catholic missionary to the island who in his 23 years there up to his death in 1864 made an astonishing 67,000 converts in his parish. The church is a pilgrimage site for many Catholics.

As other African countries work on building their digital cities, they might do well to visit the Ebene Cybercity, 15Km out of the Mauritius Port Louis. It has become the financial district of the island with all the major banks operating on the island putting up premises here. The cyber city was built as an IT hub as the island raced to wean itself off sugar and textile exports and embrace a more services-oriented economy.

Mauritius takes money and the people who have it seriously. A person who invests more than US$500,000 in Mauritius can become a citizen of the country under its Citizenship Act.

Most of the country’s landscape if covered in sugar cane plantations; 90% of cultivated land is sugar cane and most of it is owned by four major companies; Terra, Alteo, Omnicane, and Medine.  

 However, increasingly more and more land is being sold in to real estate development as the country shifts to more tertiary industries. In the 60’s there were about 25 sugar factories. Today only four are fully operating.

In something you don’t encounter often in Africa, Mauritius has several play circuits, where people go to learn how to drive. They are replica of a city with tarmac roads, signage, and roundabouts (one senses a similar approach would dramatically reduce deaths on Africas’ roads elsewhere).

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese have discovered and fallen in love with Mauritius. It is seeing a dramatic increase in visitor arrivals from China. Though it receives one million tourists a year, far lower than South Africa, for example, they tend to hang around longer.

Total number of nights spent by tourists during a year is estimated at about 7.5 million. The average length of stay works out to around 10 nights.

Being a small island state, you’d not think that Mauritius would have much room for golf courses. However, currently it has six and is developing eight more to become a major golfing destination.

-James Mbugua is a contributing writer for Mail & Guardian Africa. Email: jgmbugua@gmail.com

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