The White Tent

Written for SableLit Magazine - November 2015

 La Réunion, a French speaking island near Madagascar, is relatively unknown. Along with islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is a French overseas ‘department’ meaning its currency, political, health and education system all mirror that of France, despite its tropical location. Though I didn't know it at the time, my decision to live in La Réunion was a rare gift. I went from 2008 to 2009 as an English teaching assistant and researcher for a women’s charity.  In my younger state of mind, I didn’t go with much intention, but rather saw it as an opportunity to escape somewhere new. And while I don’t think this decision was fuelled with new aged dreams of ‘finding myself’, there was something about going to a dot of an island that many people had never heard of that reeked of possibility and both terrified and appealed.

Living abroad is always an eye opening experience. But as the days pass and the ‘new foreigner’ fears wane (but never completely disappear), it's often surprising how soon you become acquainted with your new surroundings. It is, after all, part of the package of truly living somewhere else; new ways of living softly become your own. And so, it wasn’t long before I succumbed to the island’s rhythms, knew the best place to buy my Rougail saucisse, found grainy warmth from its lava sand beaches and became friends with its panoramic sea and mountain views.

Generally speaking, I found La Réunion to be an inspiring mirror of how different cultures and religions can co-exist respectfully. This multicultural island hosts a whole array of cultures from Chinese to Indian to Madagascan. And because of its diverse cultures, it felt like such a rare privilege to see the diverse ethnic DNA of its people and how I fitted in perfectly- an unexpected thrill for an ‘ethnic minority’ who grew up in northern England.

 But beyond these trappings of paradise lay an underlying tension that I increasingly could not ignore; the French – Creole divide. While the guide books will tell you that French is the official language, after living there I know that the Creole culture and language is very much the heartbeat of the island. And while the unique mix of French influences merged with the Creole culture is both beautiful and fascinating, there is a certain divide between the two cultures that becomes apparent when you scratch beneath the island’s idyllic surface.

 One particular example of this division came after about six months into my time in La Réunion. I was increasingly disappointed by how few people I knew on the island and the fact that most of my friends were foreign. I really didn't come half way across the world to be a closed off foreigner and I always consider a good sign of having lived well in a country is by how well you know its people. So bearing this in mind, I consciously pushed myself to make an effort to meet new people and do new things. This was how I found myself alone at the visual and interactive exhibition, La Théorie d’Antoine - Extension, where I was invited to leave my bag outside and step into what can only be described as a room, kind of like a white cloth rectangular tent.

Inside were four dancers, all dressed in white, and a chair in which they pushed me around and swung my legs. Through the course of this experimental session, the four of them proceeded to carry me sky high with each dancer taking a limb and turning me clockwise. Afterwards I was led to a makeshift door, again made of cloth, with just a hand sticking out. Feeling very Alice in Wonderland-esque, I took the hand and was led into a dark room where I was taken through the same procedure, only now in sheer darkness. As this finished, I was led back out into the terrace to view the rest of the exhibition. The whole concept focused on the role of choreography and how each new person who entered the tent played a role in this dance sequence without actually doing anything.

The exhibition, however interesting (and slightly strange), was overshadowed by something else; I was there, surrounded by seemingly interesting people, but had never felt so invisible. I had purposely come by myself with an open mind and intention to meet new people, but I didn’t talk to anyone. I’d like to think that I’m a fairly sociable creature and so all I was looking for was someone to throw me a bone; some eye contact or a smile so that I could reel myself into the start of a conversation. But I got absolutely nothing. What else could I do but obviously eat the free food?  I kept on waiting for the silver lining (free wine?) but soon realised there really wasn’t one. 

From my awkward point of view came a more difficult observation. Standing there in my isolated corner, stripped of friends to distract me, I saw a terrace full of white faces. The French-Creole divide that I'd only partially acknowledged before was staring me in the face.  I was forced to wonder why this kind of art seemed reserved for a small minority instead of belonging to everyone, especially on an island famed for its all encompassing acceptance of diversity. That night I felt so out of place and I was mindful of the fact that most people on the island probably would assumed that I was a 'Cafrine' (a name given to people from La Réunion of African ancestry). So it really knocked me off my feet as these people clinked their wine and nibbled on their cheese on sticks while looking straight through me.

Although I see La Réunion primarily as a home to this beautiful blend of ethnicities, this could have easily been in a rural town in Normandy. I was forced to truly acknowledge that, despite the paradise I had associated the island, hierarchies and divides still remain. There are certain places where ‘les 'Métros' and 'Z'Oreilles', terms given to those originally born in inland France, are more likely to live and socialise. My friend Lucy’s predominately white prestigious tennis club came swarming into my mind (black waiters work in the on site restaurant, I’ve noticed). Similarly, there are places where the 'les Creoles', a term also used for those from the island of mixed ethnic heritage, are also more likely to live and socialise. There are places of prestige and ‘highbrow’ culture, such as this exhibition, where French is spoken and Creole, much like my bag at the white tent, is left at the back door. I, as a foreigner, had obviously stumbled into a tent where I did not belong, that was seemingly not designed for my presence.

 I was forced to reconfigure my experiences in light of the island’s colonial history. La Réunion, an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is owned by France. And while I never fully dissected this, given the unique melange of treasures La Réunion holds as a consequence, this scene made me feel uncomfortable. Are the white elite playing at living on this tropical island while the rest of us watch? They have no profound right to call it home, except from the colonial power of the country that they happen to be born into. Furthermore, as a European citizen who has equally taken advantage of this status, does this make me just as bad? How do I reconcile my experiences here, with my own Nigerian heritage and its English colonial history?

I left early, somehow pushed out of this ‘white tent’ exhibition. Two minutes away from the gallery and I was back into city I recognised, once again reassured, albeit more sceptical, that diversity still does exist.

Looking back at my time in La Réunion, years later, I often wish I’d gone with the same critical awareness that I have now. I think I would have been more likely to give a name to my discomfort. Nevertheless, there are moments that punctuate through words and critical theory that just feel wrong, where the hairs on your arms tell you that something isn’t right. And while I would come across other instances that would further reveal the intricacies of La Réunion’s colonial baggage, it was this experience that was the most telling of my year in La Réunion