The Small Island to the East of Madagascar

By Akhil Sud

A Vicarious Globetrotter Interview with Houriiyah Tegally, BR ’16

“Almost every day I come across someone who doesn’t know what Mauritius is. I say I’m from Mauritius, and they look at me, and pretend to know, until I ask them if they know where it is. I’ve learnt the phrase ‘small island to the East of Madagascar’ by heart now,” lamented Houriiyah Tegally, a sophomore from Mauritius. I remember that when I had first met Houriiyah, at OIS 2012, she was pleasantly surprised when I claimed (truthfully) to know where Mauritius was. I’m not sure she believed me entirely, and I can hardly blame her. I must have felt the need to prove myself, for I remember saying that it was an island. More than a year later, having successfully navigated a treacherous mound of slippery ice, coffee in hand, we sat comfortably in the warm embrace of the Branford common room.

Part I – Small Talk:

“It’s really important for me to find what can make me happy in every situation. For example, I value my family a lot, and so I wouldn’t mind just going back in the summer and spending time with my family.” Intent on finding the silver lining, she is always in the pursuit of happiness.

So would you say you’re an optimist?

“Well, I try to be!”

Courtesy of Houriiyah Tegally
Courtesy of Houriiyah Tegally

Passionate about the human brain, Houriiyah plans on exploring the field of Neuroscience, and is majoring in Cognitive Science (and possibly MCDB as well). She loves travelling. “My best friend from home also loves travelling. Last semester she was in Mexico, and so, over fall break, I just went to Mexico.” She saves all the money she can for this passion of hers.

Well then you should totally join the Globalist!

“I love travelling, but I don’t write,” she said, modestly. “I miss home, but I just love travelling.” She explained that the thrill of experiencing new places compensates for her longing for home. A talented photographer, she has been involved with the photography club at Yale. “The secret is a good camera,” she said, consolingly, when I told her that I too loved photography but expressed doubts about my skill.

“I love being with my family, or just going out to the beach with my friends – the little pleasures in life – like sleeping well, and having good food. I don’t really care about the big stuff,” she said, revealing the Mauritian in her. She feels that it is important for her, at Yale, to remember what makes her happy, so that she can survive in a new culture without losing all sense of belonging. “People’s schedules here are so packed, that no one values time to do nothing.”

Part II – Houriiyah’s Mauritius:

If you had to create a picture of life in your country for an outsider, what would you say?

“People are very chill. I guess it’s because of the sun.” There’s no stress, and, therefore, life crawls on at a restful pace. Contentment is, in Houriiyah’s opinion, the aspect of Mauritian life that most sets it apart from American culture, where people are driven by ambition and the desire to achieve more. Education is very important, and elementary education is compulsory (until sixteen years of age). “Everyone goes to school, and finishes high school at least.” As a result, people in Mauritius tend to have a good standard of life. They are also extremely close to nature. “I love the beach. That’s why sometimes I ask myself why I’m in this cold climate.”

Religion plays a central role – one that surprisingly inclusive given the religious diversity, since the interaction of religions in close proximity elsewhere in the world is typically charged with conflict, and tends to be divisive. “There are about five different religions, and it’s rare to find someone who doesn’t believe in God.” She described how her Hindu friends look forward to Id, just as she, as a Muslim, enjoys Diwali.

Courtesy of Houriiyah Tegally
Courtesy of Houriiyah Tegally

Ethnic diversity, too, manifests itself favorably on the island. In the eighteenth century, the French established a colony in Mauritius, which had already been a Dutch colony before, and a Portuguese base before that. About a hundred years later, it passed into the hands of the British. When the British abolished slavery in Mauritius, they brought in workers from India. Around this time, the Chinese arrived as traders. Eventually, Mauritius became independent, with a rich ethnic diversity to bear testimony to its colorful past. As a result, as Houriiyah explained, the concept of ethnic diversity and inclusion is the norm in Mauritius, whereas in the West it is more labored, and is, consequently, often fraught with difficulty. “Mauritians don’t feel resentment towards their colonization like most other colonies do, because we wouldn’t have been there without the French and the British bringing people.” She added that the value people attach to celebrating differences exceeds their patriotism. As coherent as the Mauritian identity is, it is one that is centered on diversity. Her intimate connection to multiple religious and ethnic groups compels her to be involved with a variety of student groups on campus, including MSA, YASA, and YMUN.

With regard to politics, Houriiyah said that a certain staleness has begun to creep its way into the Mauritian democracy. “It’s getting old. The young people don’t feel heard. For example, the young people care about the environment, whereas the government doesn’t really care about that much.” While there is tension between the government and the people, it isn’t very palpable, and only rarely results in aggressive protest. Interestingly, the religious and ethnic differences in Mauritius, marked by harmonious co-existence and mutual celebration in the socio-cultural sphere, become tense divisions in the political sphere. Houriiyah explained that the Mauritian Prime Minister was invariably a Hindu. “Once there was someone of European descent who wanted to be Prime Minister, and he was really good, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to, unless he conceded two years of his five year mandate to his Hindu colleague.” After a pause, she added, “Maybe people are just used to it.”

Part III – Houriiyah’s Yale:

What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about Yale?   

“My favorite thing about Yale is all the different things you get to learn on an informal basis, just by talking to people from different cultures and backgrounds. You get to learn a lot about different people and countries, over dinner or coffee.” After some thinking, she said, “My least favorite thing about Yale is how busy and competitive it is. My life has always been very chill and relaxed. I guess there is value in challenging yourself – but only to an extent,” adding that it becomes undesirable when it starts making one unhappy. “You need to apply to everything, even classes. It’s always in curves. It’s always comparing yourself to others. You’re never good enough – you’re just better than someone else.”

Why did you choose to leave your country and come to Yale?  

Houriiyah explained that Mauritius has only one major university, which doesn’t offer much prospect in certain fields like scientific research. “Most people who can afford it, try to go study abroad.” Do you think you’ll go back? “I definitely want to go back at some point, but with what I’m doing, I don’t have any immediate opportunity back home.”

What one thing about American culture would you say is the strangest?

“How people try to be so politically correct. I guess it’s because of America’s history. Americans often try too hard to be politically correct. For example, a lot of people would be uneasy saying ‘black’ instead of ‘African American’. I don’t think it’s a big deal to say ‘black’.” She added that it depends on the context, which determines the connotation borne by the term being used, saying that, given their history, Americans are probably justified in being as politically correct as they are.

Part IV – Some Random Questions:

So this last part is just a bit of fun – a couple of interesting questions, that I’m sure you’ll enjoy thinking about. So here goes. If you had a time machine, would you go into the future and return with scientific knowledge that can enable you to help the world in some way – and what would that be – or would you go into the past with the ability to prevent a single historical event from occurring – and what would that be?

“I think going into the past and fixing one thing would be an unsuccessful endeavor, because there is so much to fix! So I would go into the future, and see how people travel, because I can’t believe that I still have to sit in two airplanes for twenty-four hours to go back home! There has to be a better way to do this.” I concurred wholeheartedly. Someone (who didn’t know me well) once asked if I went home for the weekends. Home for me happens to be New Delhi, India. They wouldn’t have asked if they had known that it takes the weekend to get there.

If you could live a parallel fantasy – with no real world consequences – what would that be?

“When I thought about that in high school, I thought I would not take any Science classes. I would take cooking lessons and art classes. I would probably get married early, and not work, and just go to the beach every day. And travel.”

Houriiyah’s last two answers lived up to her character:  a positive, forward looking optimist, who values home but loves exploring the world, and who loves the good life – one spent on beaches across the globe.

Akhil Sud ’16 is in Silliman College. He writes regularly for the Vicarious Globetrotter blog. Contact him at