Mauritius: when a house is not a home
When a house is not a home: in Mauritius
The government doesn’t listen to poorer people, but they do anything to help the rich, by Lindsey Collen.
Sarah John ©
A group of women living in a housing estate near Port Louis asked me to help with their housing problem. I am in The House Movement – not a registered association - so I agreed.
It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I saw many coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs and on the television. Water was dripping into the basins from the ceiling, making music. Marie-Michelle laughed and then opened the door to a bedroom. It smelt bad. ‘Look, we can’t use this room at all! It’s too wet!’
She took me to the other room, where she, her little child and her mother sleep. There were plastic sheets over the double bed. She told me they hang their clothes in big plastic dustbins now – wardrobes get too wet. She then showed me a wound on her mother’s head; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she was watching television.
Across the road, her neighbour said hello: ‘Is this a door?’ she asked, ironically, and ‘Is this a window?’ The door and the window did not open or close any more because of subsidence (the earth moving).
Many ministers of housing in Mauritius have said that 90 per cent of the people are ‘home-owners’. But ‘Statistics Mauritius’ (the organisation that gets the information), says a home-owner is someone who ‘does not pay rent’. This is not a clear definition – and in a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner and she is responsible for paying for repairs. But she (and tens of thousands of other families) does not get any help. People call these houses ‘heirs’ houses’. The Code Napoleon says that children get equal shares of the houses of the parents when they die. So families live in houses bought or built by fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, who are now dead. And the houses are now the property of many descendants. The families living in the house cannot sell it nor get a loan to rebuild it; they do not want to spend money on repairs because often another family member, comes and takes it, for example a cousin can come back from working in another country and take over the house.
Marie-Michelle and her neighbours’ council houses were built and sold to their fathers and grandfather without the correct steel supports. So, repairs don’t work.
We had some long meetings and we decided on a plan to force the Housing Minister to organise a solution: to pull down and rebuild these houses, paid for by the government, because the houses were not built correctly. We are still trying to make them do this.
The government agreed to replace asbestos housing. But we cannot contact the Housing Minister. He doesn’t reply to letters or petitions.
Then he says ‘I am the Minister responsible for Smart Cities.’ That’s the government’s economic plan: creating Smart Cities. So The House Movement finds out why we can never talk to the Minister: he is too busy with housing for the rich.
The people who got rich from sugar were not happy when the European Market for sugar ended. But they are now earning a lot of money from land. Ministers give them permits and big tax cuts. Then they divide up the agricultural land and build rich, protected housing areas around golf courses. Then they sell these to millionaires from other countries. For over 10 years, the State has helped pay for the construction of millionaires’ holiday and retirement villas. Now, with Smart Cities, it will help pay for houses for settlers – now giving them citizenship, not just ‘permanent residence’.
‘So, the Minister in charge of housing for workers,’ Marie-Michelle said at a meeting, ‘is now giving money to millionaires from other countries?’
We tell more stories and understand more about it. The ‘gated communities’ – there were many before Smart Cities began – are like the Israeli settler colonies in Palestine: areas of rich houses connected by motorways. The people who lived on the land before now have nothing.
So, Marie-Michelle’s group meets people from other areas. We want to stop this colonization. We want food production not land speculation, proper jobs not redundancy, and immediate housing for all.
Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian political activist. She has won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize twice.
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/columns/letters-from/2016/11/01/letter-from-mauritius/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).