Guest post by Sean Carey
In 1980, a Mauritian sociologist friend confidently told me that a branded fast food culture as found in North America and Europe would never take off in his homeland. He reasoned that the population was already well served by street sellers, who produced classic Mauritian snacks like vegetable samosas, pakora and gateaux piment, the small marble sized balls of crushed yellow lentil, spring onions and herbs including a good amount of fresh, green chilli, which are deep fried and have a wonderful crunchy texture.
Two decades later the street sellers or “hawkers”, as they are called by government bureaucrats, are still around. Most of them are Hindu or Muslim men. Some have fixed spots by the roadside, where they used bottled gas canisters to heat vegetable oil and cook their products, while others use mopeds or motorbikes, with a box attached at the back to carry already cooked items, so that they can better locate customers at bus stations, especially at morning and evening rush hour, and coastal areas.
But the street sellers are no longer the only game in town. The idea that branded fast food would not take off in Mauritius was a highly plausible theory at one stage of the country’s development; however, it wasn’t long before it was disproved, undone by a growing middle class in pursuit of a marker of their steadily growing affluence. And what better way to celebrate rising status than by adopting the fast food culture of the world’s advanced economies? In 1983, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) opened its first outlet in Mauritius. The company, which now has 14 stores spread across the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island targets the local population rather than the near one million tourists, who visit each year and are largely catered for by the hotels in which they reside. Over the years, the steadily expanding KFC chain has been joined by Burger King, Nando’s and Pizza Hut, as well as a wide variety of local competitors.
Interestingly, McDonald’s was a relatively late entrant to the Mauritian fast food market. It opened its first store in the capital, Port Louis, in 2001 but it is only now that it has firm plans to open a second store in a shopping mall, Jumbo Phoenix, in the Vacoas-Phoenix conurbation, a predominantly Hindu area. Moreover, its choice of location near an International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple (mandir) has stirred up a great deal of controversy not only in the neighbourhood but throughout the island.
European and North American-born Hare Krishnas, who had first arrived in Mauritius in 1974 to target local Hindus, the descendants of indentured labourers who make up just under half of the island’s near 1.3 million population, went on to establish a three-story settlement just off the main road in Phoenix in 1984, on a six-acre plot of former agricultural land. But while some ISKCON temples use locations in big cities – the building in London’s Soho is a good example – to illustrate to potential converts the stark contrast between a spiritual and a materialistic lifestyle, those in rural or semi-rural areas consciously use the tranquillity as an important element in creating a sacred space.
Moreover, given the significance of the ritual purity/pollution rule, which as Louis Dumont pointed out in his anthropological classic, Homo Hierachicus (1966), is central to traditional Hinduism, including its sannyasin-led sectarian movements, it is hardly surprising that ISKCON devotees in their semi-rural Mauritian location object to the sale and smell of cooked tabooed animal products near its premises.
ISKCON has now received the backing of most Hindu institutions on the island, including Arya Saba, Mauritius Marathi Mandali Federation, Ram Sena, the Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, and Hindu House. A crowd of several hundred people, some holding placards in either French or English, held a demonstration outside the proposed 150-seater McDonald’s on 9 February (see a video clip from the demonstration here.) The secretary of the ISCKON society, Srinjay Das, stated that his organisation was not against economic development “but we are only asking for respect of our culture. We venerate cows and a McDonald’s outlet selling beef burgers in front of our sacred land is not correct.” He went on to say ISKCON intended to go to court in an attempt to block the opening of the new store (an injunction was duly lodged at the Mauritius Supreme Court on 11 February). Perhaps more ominously, the President of Hindu House, Veerendra Ramdhun, said that it was important that both parties come to terms and agree a solution. He issued this warning: “We are living in a democratic country. We need to make sure that there is peace. We do not want to create disorder. We only want to agree on a solution.”
Hindu sectarian movements like ISKCON have not established the same sort of constituency amongst Mauritian Hindus as they have amongst, say, Hindus who migrated from East Africa to Britain in the 1970s. In countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Hindus (as well as Jains and Sikhs) had a strong tradition of visiting temples as a significant aspect of their religious commitment. This pattern of religious engagement has also been reproduced in the UK.
In Mauritius, this has never been the case. Although temples dot the landscape, as in rural India, religion is normally more home rather than temple-based for large sections of the population (although this is changing to some extent, especially among young, educated middle-class Hindus). Nevertheless, in a poly-ethnic society like Mauritius, Hindus are certainly aware of their religious identity (as well as their Indian regional and caste heritage). The question is whether they will be mobilised in sufficient numbers to see off this latest example of global expansion by McDonald’s.
Sean Carey obtained his Ph.D. in social/cultural anthropology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is currently research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem) at Roehampton University. He writes for the Guardian, Mauritius Times, New African and New Statesman.