Mauritius and hidden inequality

The logo for the Pope's visit to three African countries as a Pilgrim of Peace

On the morning of September 9 the Pope will fly to Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, for an eight-hour visit before returning to Rome. Also an island country, it’s some 1,200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa.

With a much smaller population -1.2 million, half of whom are Hindu, a third Christian and 17 percent Muslim – Mauritius is highly ranked in terms of economic and political freedom.

“Mauritius is a beautiful island, with very warm and friendly people, even if we’re lacking natural resources … we are rich through the diversity of our people,” Patricia Adèle Félicité, an official of Caritas Mauritius told Crux. “As a small island we have the opportunity to take care of each other.”

Slavery

This multiculturalism is rooted in centuries of occupation, with the island nation being possessed at one time or another by the Dutch, the French, and the British. The Hindu presence in the islands dates from the British era, when the English brought hundreds of thousands of people from India as cheap, slave-like labor. Until abolition in 1835, slaves came from Mozambique, which saw an estimated one million people sold during the slave-trading years.

The island is so small, Félicité noted, that “sometimes it’s not even on the map.” This makes the population “even more grateful,” she said, for the Pope’s  decision  to come as a “Pilgrim of Peace.”

In an interview with Vatican media ahead of the trip, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the island’s “multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural composition” offers a prime example of what Francis calls the culture of encounter, and will be something the pontiff will emphasize.

The main pillars of the economy are manufacturing, financial services, tourism, and information and communications technology. Mauritius provides free universal health care, free education up to the high school level and free public transportation for students, senior citizens, and the disabled.

Officially, per-capita income averages $20,000, but most estimates put the real number closer to $5,000. The difference reflects the fact that the island’s main business, in all honesty, is acting as a tax haven for wealthy depositors from abroad.

Illiteracy and drop-outs

However, Mauritius hardly qualifies as rich. It’s a teardrop in the Indian Ocean, with its share of tin-roofed hovels and illiteracy. According to Félicité, ten percent of the population lives in poverty and 30 percent of primary-level students drop out every year.

In addition, she said, the country is officially bi-lingual, with people learning English and French. However, there are many who only speak the local language, Creole, spoken by the descendants of African slaves.

The Catholic Church has made a “very rich contribution” in the development of the country, Félicité said, particularly in education and social development.

Francis is expected to say Mass, meet civil authorities and visit the shrine of Père Bienheureux Laval, a French missionary 150 years ago. Known as the “Apostle of Mauritius” due to his tireless work in aiding the poor and ill and educating former slaves, he remains a very popular figure today.

Regardless of the pope’s official focus, some believe merely attending the papal events will be life-altering.