Holy Myrrhbearers Antiochian Orthodox Church
By Fr. Gregory Horton
Mission to Mauritius
This is a brief account of the journey that I took with my dear wife, Khouria Cindy (Elizabeth) Horton, to the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean from August 23rd to September 1st, 2004. We had already been away from home for nearly a month, having participated in an Orthodox Christian Mission trip to East Africa. Home was very far away and growing farther with each passing airline mile from Nairobi, Kenya into the southern Indian Ocean. Our four children had not seen us since July 29th and we were now beginning yet another adventure!
Fr. Gregory & Fr. Markos... Brotherhood Across Cultures
I had wanted to visit the Island ever since reading about it four years before in a magazine published by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in St. Augustine, Florida. I had read that a new Orthodox Christian community had been formed by Bishop NEKTARIOS of Madagascar and that the new community was seeking a priest to serve there. So it was a dream realized for me when I discovered that we could travel to the exotic island following our service on the team in Tanzania. I wondered what surprises awaited us after having experienced the intense life of the dear people of East Africa.
We were greeted in the early morning hours at the airport by the president of the Orthodox Christian Society of Mauritius, Elena, a Russian émigré who had married a Mauritian man studying to become a doctor in the Soviet Union many years before. She was accompanied by her husband, Dr. Vasile Badry, and another gentleman, Alex, who had also married a Mauritian native and moved from his native Austria (he is Serbian Orthodox). We had arrived on �Paradise Island� and were taken directly to our new quarters�a rented house near the northwest corner of the island, just north of the capitol city, Port Louis. The airport is located at the southeast corner of the island, so this initial drive gave us a pretty good idea of how far it is across the island on the main highway that crosses it diagonally. The island is only about 50 miles by forty miles at its widest point, yet the population numbers about 1.2 million people. So, needless to say, there is some congestion, traffic and always lots of people throughout the island.
Our itinerary was a splendid surprise arranged by our Orthodox Christian hosts. It consisted of daily excursions to all of the far flung sections of the island with a different family from the Orthodox community each day. We saw everything from gorgeous beaches filled with tourists from Europe and Australia to volcanic craters at the center of the island. These were hidden in the highest mountains where one could gaze out and see great distances in all directions, beholding the sea far beyond the edge of the island�glorious! We experienced the hustle bustle of the large city of Port Louis, with its tourist attractions as well as the humble city market that stretches up and down the streets at the city center. We also drove almost the entire perimeter of the island on consecutive days, taking in a bit more territory each day. We passed through many villages with exotic French names such as Flic-en-Flac and Curepipe. The most interesting aspect of our trip was, however, (at least for me), the people and their unique culture. Bits and pieces of this were shared by our many hosts until we could see the entire picture.
The map from here
The history of Mauritius is not very old because there were no people living on the island before the Europeans arrived. First came the Dutch and the Portuguese�but both left in short order. Next came the French and they remained and colonized the island. They brought slaves from Madagascar and East Africa to work as laborers on the sugar plantations and elsewhere. The slaves learned French in order to speak to their masters, but they also altered the language a bit in order to be able to speak among themselves without the French overlords understanding. This was because they had been taken from so many different tribes and places and would not have been able to communicate otherwise. This is the origin of the Creole language as spoken on Mauritius. Together with French, it is spoken by the people on the island even today.
The next to come were the British, who took control from the French and abolished slavery. They also brought the English language to Mauritius. English remains the official (but not preferred) language on the island today. When slavery was abolished, the British imported many hired servants from their Indian colony. This explains why 50% of the present population is Indian. The majority of these people practice Hinduism and Hindu shrines and temples dot the countryside everywhere. As for the rest of the population, about 30% are Roman Catholic Creoles, about 15% (and growing) practice Islam and the remaining 5% are primarily Buddhists from China. There is a small percentage of Christians who are not Roman Catholic. There is a tense balance between the various religious and ethnic groups and the government strives very hard to maintain this balance.
We next come to the peculiar caste systems on the island. First, there is a similar caste system among the Hindu population as exists in India. There are the Brahmans at the top and the untouchables at the bottom. It is amazing that the system has been transplanted almost entirely wholesale from the Indian motherland. The other type of caste system extends beyond the Indian community and was explained to us in terms of �color�. Simply stated, the lighter a person�s skin, the higher up on the social ladder they are placed. White Mauritians are the elite, both financially and politically. There is a small group of white families that controls the majority of wealth on the island. Foreigners are generally excluded from this caste system and disregarded as mere tourists, but for Mauritians, this color caste is very serious business. One is strongly encouraged to marry a lighter or similar colored person. However, there also seems to be a high level of intermarriage between races and religions. Many people that I spoke with about this consider this practice normal and desirable for Mauritian society.
The food on Mauritius is strongly influenced by Indian cuisine, although it has a local twist. North American fast food (McDonald�s, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc. is also present on the island alongside street vendors of all sorts and Islamic cuisine (very hot�it made my wife pretty ill).
Another noticeable feature of life on Mauritius is the presence of dogs absolutely everywhere. They bark all night and the residents consider this to be normal and acceptable. In fact, one night we were celebrating my wife�s birthday on the beach with several of our hosts, when all of a sudden an enormous canine fight broke out among two of their four dogs on the beach. Our host proceeded to jump up, grabbed his son�s guitar (after the young man had just played an exquisite concert of varied works with the instrument), and smashed the guitar over the most aggressive dog�s back. We were wondering if he had ever attended a Jimmy Hendrix concert! Well, I for one was pretty excited about the festivities, but Khouria Cindy was simply in shock.
Divine Liturgy on the Island of Mauritius
Orthodox church in Mauritius (from here)
Finally, Sunday arrived and it was time for the Divine Liturgy. The Orthodox Christians do not gather for services because there is no one to lead them or to sing the services. In fact, I was the first priest to ever serve in the church (Bishop NEKTARIOS had served several times but never before did a priest serve there). The church building is a beautiful Byzantine structure financed from abroad through the efforts of Bishop NEKTARIOS. The community consists of about 40-50 people of all national backgrounds, including several indigenous Mauritians. We were told that there are several hundred Orthodox Christians (mostly Russians) who would come if a permanent priest is assigned to the island. Khouria Cindy led several singers in the responses during the Liturgy. The Gospel was read in French and English and the Liturgy was celebrated in these and several other languages. The atmosphere was festive and enthusiastic. There is a sense of hope and looking forward to a bright future as the Orthodox community completes the building, matures and acquires a resident priest. After refreshments, it was time to retire and begin planning for the journey home.
I told the people of the Orthodox Association that I would be submitting a full report to Bishop NEKTARIOS upon arriving home. Little did any of us know that both the Patriarch (PETROS of Alexandria) and the Bishop (NEKTARIOS of Madagascar) that I commemorated on that Sunday in Mauritius would both leave this life in a helicopter crash a few short weeks later. The faithful are now devastated and have asked me to recommend a prayer service for them to offer in honor and memory of their beloved founding Bishop. Khouria and I are still processing the entire trip and seeking to discern how the many varied experiences will affect our lives. One cannot simply �go for a visit� to these places�the images live within us and will be part of us for many years to come..
Please, see also
Orthodox Church in Mauritius (official website)
Mauritius: the so called “paradises” and Paradise
L'Église orthodoxe de Maurice
Orthodox Mission of Madagascar | Facebook
The Orthodox Christian Church in Madagascar
L'Eglise Orthodoxe à Madagascar
Orthodox Mission in Tropical Africa (& the Decolonization of Africa)
How “White” is the Orthodox Church?
Ancient Christian faith (Orthodox Church) in Africa
African Initiated Churches in Search of Orthodoxy...