NOVEMBER 6, 2020
“Seriously, go back to bed,” I read on Twitter. “It’s not your election.”
Many Americans are sympathetic to yet baffled by the notion that the world is so totally engrossed in their country at the moment. We non-Americans sleep poorly, we pick at our cuticles, our eyes hurt from our phone screen’s glare. We are so invested in this election, thousands of miles away.
I’m not going to face violence or a possible fascist coup in Mauritius. No shops and homes have been boarded up, and I have my country’s own disasters to think about: the Wakashio oil spill, the drought that’s endangered our critical water supplies.
And yet the next American president will determine so much of my island’s future.
By the time I’ve finished this piece, Joe Biden may very well be the President-elect. There are many good pieces that speak of his empathy, speak of the solemn humanity of a man who has faced so much death and who will now lead a country that has lost over 235,000 people this year to a pandemic.
If Biden wins there will be speeches and essays on the necessity of rebuilding America, of reckoning with the country’s staunch, indefatigable racism, its post-truth climate, its myth of can-do greatness, its bizarre, bigoted electoral system. I wonder how much of this discourse will extend to America’s actions overseas.
It is unclear, for instance, whether Joe Biden will extend his trademark empathy towards the Chagossian people and allow them to return to the Archipelago. For those who still don’t know, the Chagos Archipelago used to belong to Mauritius. The United States and the United Kingdom forced the soon-to-be Mauritian prime minister to accept the excision of Chagos as the price that needed to be paid for Mauritius’s independence in the mid-1960s. Two thousand or so Chagossians were forcibly uprooted from their homes. One of the Archipelago’s islands, Diego Garcia, now houses one of America’s most infamous military bases. In May 2019, the UN passed a resolution demanding the UK return control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Control has not been handed over.
On the day of this year’s US election, the Prime Minister revealed that, after the UN ruling, the Mauritian government had planned to visit to the Archipelago but the American government told them they wouldn’t be allowed to enter. The Prime Minister claims American officials insinuated that they’d sink the ship.
Then there’s AGOA, or the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a US trade act enacted in 2000. It basically allows Mauritius exports access to the US market at a preferential price. Without AGOA our textile industry would be dead, or comatose, at any rate — and this was before COVID-19. I assume that AGOA has become even more of a lifeline this year to the 31,000 or so people who work in the textile industry. Though we don’t know what Biden’s African policy plans are (at least he’ll have them), we do know that the US has a history of preventing African countries from benefitting from AGOA unless they implement policies that are favorable to American interests. Some commentators here are afraid that our Prime Minister’s fight for the Chagossians’ right to return will kick us out of the trade agreement. That remains to be seen. AGOA was renewed to 2025 under Obama; the next American president will choose whether to renew it again in the last year of his term.
There’s a memory that’s come up again as I write. It’s of an American woman who was briefly interviewed by our local television station in the early 2000s, when I was about 11 or 12. It must have been a launch of some sort, an American-Mauritian initiative. She said, “We wanna see Mauritius grow and thrive,” and made wide circles with her arms as she spoke. I remember feeling infuriated, thinking surely we can take care of ourselves and not be condescended to like that. Her sentence and its tone sounded so suspicious, like she’d said it countless times before, a fossilized phrase for developing countries. Here was a supposedly benevolent world power, ready to help with a big thumbs-up sign. I didn’t need Trump’s election to know that this is a farce, but I am still surprised at some of my American friends who really truly believe that their country will help us out in the event that our volcano awakens and blows, or that a cyclone batters us past recovery.
Biden, if elected, would at least gesture towards imperial benevolence by re-entering the Paris Agreement. The only way to truly help us “grow and thrive” now is by cutting America’s emissions. We’ve contributed 0.01% to global emissions, and as is fate’s sadistic wont, we’re on the frontline for global heating. Our water reserves are in peril and rain is now falling in places that don’t have reservoirs. The sea’s gnawing away at the coastline and our beaches. A frightening amount of our corals are bone-white. Our charged, warmer seas breed merciless cyclones.
I look at Biden again now — poised, elegant, intense. I wonder if he knows of Mauritius. I guess he probably does. On CNN, Chris Cuomo is saying, “Americans, you should be proud that your democracy is working 24/7.” I think about America’s 800 military bases across the world; that fact alone means that America’s election is the world’s election. I think about all the foreign memos and correspondences that I have on my laptop. Many Mauritians, like me, diligently read these documents — leaked or released — which detail how dominant countries perceive us and how they plan to exert control. We are tiny in size, but possess an Exclusive Economic Zone of around 2.3 million km2 of the Indian Ocean, which is of crucial importance for trade and international security. There is no doubt that the American government closely watches over our politics and economic growth, perhaps seeking ways to support parties and individuals favorable to American interests, steer the country in the “right” direction. There’s Russia’s growing interest in Africa to contend with, too; Russia is the major supplier of arms exports to Africa and has increasingly deployed mercenaries and political advisers across the continent. What a Biden presidency does to America–Russian (and –Chinese, and –Indian) relations within Mauritius remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that my island is both a chessboard and a vital piece to win. Your democracy is working 24/7.
“Seriously, go back to bed.” I am also sure that, for every American irritated by the world’s furious attention, there’s an American who takes our attention as their due. America is earth’s premier superpower, after all. Supercelebrity.
Two years ago, on a trip to Paris, my husband and I met an American man in the lobby of our hotel. We had trouble with the lifts. In our five seconds of small talk he said his name was Michael and he was from Denver, Colorado. Later, my husband wondered why Americans never say that they’re from America, and give the name of their city and/or state, as if everyone in the world is supposed to have heard of these. “Next time, I’m introducing myself as Antoine from Curepipe, Plaines Wilhems,” he told me.
Today I know exactly where Georgia is on the US map. I’ve learned of the existence of Maricopa County. An American person probably won’t ever have to tell me that they are from the US, because I’ll probably recognize the name of the place they’re from, or even recognize their accent. I’m fed so much of America.
Also, I’d be lying if I said that I was watching the elections purely because of their socio-political implications.
I feel concerned about America. My America. For isn’t American culture also, in part, my culture? I grew up with posters of Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah and Britney Spears on my bedroom wall, Nickelodeon and MTV on satellite television. My tongue is cut American, an accent given to me by my international primary school. When I tried to understand who I was, what Creoleness is, I first turned to African-American scholars and writers. When I learned about the Indian Ocean slave trade I had the Atlantic slave trade as a base and comparison. And don’t we use American social justice movements to create or propel our own? The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements in Mauritius could not have happened if they hadn’t first occurred in America. America’s art, music, scholarship, and history are also mine, whether as a foundation or as a touchstone to establish difference.
America sets a standard for world behavior, for what’s possible and permissible. Already, Trump has empowered white supremacists and racists around the world, who in turn create social media content swallowed by millions. Last year I wrote on the Mauritian alt-right movement. It is still incredible to me that a group of mostly non-white men are so entranced by ultra-conservatism, even though they’d face racism by the same white supremacists they watch on YouTube, even when Trump has labelled parts of our continent as “shithole countries.”
We look to America as a benchmark for democracy and progress even when that benchmark is a sham. We recognize that America’s corruption and malignancy rival those of any of our so-called African “banana republics.” We are reassured that even our Prime Minister isn’t, by a long shot, as outrageous and dangerous as Trump. And still we look up to America, no matter who’s in power.
I was born in the early 1990s. One of the first things I learned about America is that everyone supposedly wants to live there, so much so that the country had even invented a citizenship lottery. Everyone could become American. That illusion hasn’t faded. “Just apply, get all your papers right,” said a Ghanaian taxi driver to Antoine and me in New York, February 2019. He pointed to several areas of interest as he drove from the airport to the city. We looked up at skyscrapers until our necks ached, pointed to the larger-than-life cars. “It’s a much nicer life here. You’ve got to work hard, but you’re used to that in Africa anyway. Both my daughters study medicine,” he said. “The opportunities here, you won’t get anywhere else.” “But what about Trump?” I asked him. I wondered if he was frightened of the police, ICE, white Americans. “Eh, he’s a clown. There are problems, but he won’t last,” he said.
Later that day, Antoine and I watched the sunset at Battery Park. It was freezing. I saw the skyscrapers turn gold in the sun’s glare. I felt like I was in the glittering, gritty heart of power, the heart of darkness. Briefly, I felt terrified.
Ariel Saramandi is a Mauritian writer and essayist. She is a nonfiction editor of the Bare Life Review, and her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Boulevard, LitHub, Electric Lit, and other places.
Photograph by Gage Skidmore.