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Hommage to Chagossian Women by MLF and Nelson Mandela Centre


LALIT has pleasure in publishing the article below sent to us by the Muvman Liberasyon Fam, and written by three of their members on an event that was held recently. We are publishing it verbatim:

Saturday 17 March saw the coming together of the Nelson Mandela Centre for African Culture, the women in Muvman Liberasyon Fam, and the women of the Chagos Refugees Group, all packed into the beautiful little amphitheatre at La Tour Koenig for a vibrant commemoration. The commemoration was for the contribution made to both the Diego Garcia struggle and the women’s struggle by Lisette Talate, the tireless symbol of the Chagossian struggle, who died two months ago, and for the contribution of all the women from all the islands of Chagos who have contributed to these two struggles. The timing was around the coming together of Black History Month and International Women’s Day, and the idea was to celebrate the ongoing contribution from the beginning of Mauritian history until today of ordinary women, meaning women who are not in some “position of power”, to the movement of history, to pushing back oppression.

The event was informally presided by Danielle Turner of the Nelson Mandela Centre, who referred evocatively to Lisette Talate, though so tiny a woman as “enn gran madam”. It was co-presided also by Anne-Marie Joly and Lindsey Collen of the MLF, and the event put accent on the oral tradition, the way of telling the stories that will be transmitted to others who were not witnesses of some of the real events, events that have affected the course of history, and that will continue to affect it. It was a celebration of narrative. The event took place in the presence of an exhibition of 50 balck-and-white enlargements of the photographic record of history kept, in this case, mainly by doyen photographer, Vel Kadressen. And there was music on the theme of Diego Garcia and Chagos, and the truly beautiful dance of a young girl, Gaelle, from Lakaz Zenn, a dance that was part-African, part modern break-dancing.

There were mainly women present but also some men, including Filip Fanchette, Chair of the Centre, and Olivier Bancoult who spoke from the floor, paying tribute to the women of Chagos in a warm speech.
Eileen, the daughter of Lisette Talate, present amongst the Chagossians, paid tribute to her mother, and to the event.
After a brief introduction by Anne-Marie Joly and Lindsey Collen as to why they, themselves, were story-tellers of these tales, and after watching the beautiful film made by Peadar King for Irish TV, which set the scene with a sensitivity that perhaps only a colonized people like the Irish could capture, Rajni Lallah on digital piano and Joelle Husseiny vocalist gave a rendering of Rajni’s rivetting composition “Lamer “. She had hardly begun to sing this heart-rending song when Joelle herself broke down in tears, and only just managed to re-gather her control, as everyone in the audience went on wiping their eyes, as she sang on, in what must be one of the most moving moments in the history of music in the country.

All was not tears, as the stories of the struggles unfolded, everyone was soon laughing at the memory of the street battles of Riot Police against the women of Chagos and the MLF as Lindsey Collen and Anne-Marie Joly started narrating what they had lived through in this movement, in the vivid style that they have developed over the years of telling stories within the women's movement, both being skilled in a very special oral tradition. Very soon, Chaggosian women spontaneously joined in. “Mo tann enn polisye enn zur dir ar enn lot polisye kan li truv mwa ek enn kamarad pe pase: ‘Vomye aret 10 zom ki enn sel fam Sagosyen!’” as one Chagossian woman summed it up. The moral of the stories, as Anne-Marie Joly aptly put it, was that Chagossian women taught all women to laugh at patriarchy with a big belly-laugh, and to fight back, to be unafraid of symbols of patriarchy and of patriarchial hierarchies, themselves.

The contribution of the Chagossian women to the women’s struggle was precisely that: they changed the balance of forces between women, especially in Port Louis, and the patriarchal men leading the police stations of the capital. It was no longer possible to dominate women as it had been previously. Anne-Marie Joly referred to how a Chagossian woman Agnes Hevia-Moovima, nee Talate, her sister-in-law, was one of a team of five women who stood in a ward of five in the Municipal Elections in Port Louis as early as 1982, and how she, Agnes, had been a key strength in allowing us this audacious action, nearly 30 years before any mainstream parties would put up multiple women candidates in one constituency. Lindsey said how the Solidarite Fam public meeting in the Jardin Compagnie, with the presence of members like Roselee Pakion, married to a Chagossian, and other women from Chagos, was in a way of precursor. And later the same year there was the 1978 hunger strike of women Chagossians in Bain des Dames, when MLF and LALIT started to work in close unity with the Chagossian women. But she said, maybe even more key, in some ways, was the participation of Chagossians in the August 1979 general strike movement, when in a near-insurrection, there was a hunger strike, too, and how all this contributed to the big hunger strike of Chagossian women in 1981, the three days of lightning women’s demonstrations, and the women inflicting a defeat on the Riot Police, the only time in history that they have been defeated. This was a key moment, which forced the Mauritian government to act, and led to the first proper compensation that was paid by the British Government.

Jean-Claude Emilien gave a bold guitar rendering of his composition on Diego Garcia, and in doing so paid tribute in his amazing, strong voice to Charlesia Alexis, who he sang with for eight years, and who he says gave him that vocal power.
Other people spoke from the floor. These included Jeff Lingaya, from the “Lamars” who had just come from a Press Conference, he said, and who supported the call by Olivier Bancoult to sign the petition to Obama. [Editorial Note: LALIT has not signed this petition because its scruffy drafting implies ceding Mauritian sovereignty to the USA, and the petition avoids mention of the US military base on Diego Garcia that is the cause of the expulsions, the illegal military occupation, and of the annexation by Britain of this part of Mauritius.] Jocelyne Minerve, former Minister of Social Security, paid a tribute to the Chagossian women, and added an important mention of the Fron Komen Organizasyon Fam which in 1977 had united, amongst others, the MCPS (Mouvement Chretien pour le Socialisme) and the MLF in a street demonstration against the immigration laws.
Ragini Kistnasamy, from the floor, said in good spirits that she would not tell about Olivier when he was a child, as requested to by the Chair after Olivier paid tribute to her and the Lekol Koperativ, MLF and Lalit, because he was “tro gran asterla” but that she would like to say that all progress on the Chagossian issue is due to the holding together of four things in one united struggle:
- Getting the military base closed down.
- Getting the country re-united again.
- Getting full reparations as well as the right-of-return for all Chagossians.
- Completely decolonizing the country, so that we can really celebrate our country’s Independence, and not need to have the genuine sadness that Olivier Bancoult so aptly describes of Chagossians having been sacrificed.
And that it was important, Ragini said, that no one of these be sacrificed to any other. She said that Aurelie Talate (Lisette Talate) had always had the wisdom to say “Diego lakle”, or “the key is Diego”, not just because she is from this part of Chagos, but because it is because of the military base on Diego that all other problems exist, and that therefore to resolve all problems, we must use this “key”.

Written by three of the MLF women present, including comments from others present.