Magazine article New Internationalist

When a House Is Not a Home

Magazine article New Internationalist

When a House Is Not a Home

Article excerpt

A group of women living in a housing estate just outside Port Louis called on me - I was the last in a string of people - to help with their housing problem. Being in The House Movement, a fully »»registered association, I agreed.

It had rained the day before so, as I walked into the living room of the first of the 20 houses, I was met by this artwork of brightly coloured plastic basins on the floor, on the table, on chairs, on the television. Each was collecting drops of water from the ceiling, making xylophone music. Seeing my face all admiration for her resilience, Marie-Michelle burst into laughter. Then, with a grand flourish, she opened the door into a bedroom. A dank smell poured out. 'Look, we've cancelled this room! It's too wet!'

She led me into the other room, where she, her toddler and her mother sleep. The double bed was covered with pale-blue plastic sheeting. She pointed to two big, green plastic dustbins like those that municipalities supply, one on top of the other. 'I had jettisoned three generations of waterlogged wardrobes before I got this idea!' She then called her mother over, and gently parted her hair to show a recently sewn-up wound; concrete had fallen from the ceiling onto her head while she had been watching television.

Across the road, her neighbour greeted me: 'Is this a door?' she asked, tongue in cheek, and 'This, a window?' Her house having subsided, neither the door nor the window opens or closes any more.

Meanwhile, successive ministers of housing claim 90 per cent of Mauritians are 'home-owners'. But Statistics Mauritius, the official data-collecting agency, defines a homeowner for the census as someone who 'does not pay rent'. A fuzzy definition of ownership for a capitalist state! So, Marie-Michelle is a home-owner, responsible for repairs. But she, like tens of thousands of families, lives in a legal vacuum. People have coined a phrase for it: 'heirs' houses'. The quaint-seeming but socially lethal Code Napoleon holds that children inherit equal shares. This means families live in houses bought or built by now-dead fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers, now technically 'owned' by dozens of descendants. Those living in the house can neither sell it nor raise a loan against the land to rebuild; they hesitate to spend on repairs in case some heir, like a bullying cousin, returns from work abroad and takes over the house. …

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