What do most people think of when they hear about La Réunion? As it turns out, a big amount of them don’t think of anything, simply because they ignore its existence. So let’s clear that up first: La Réunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean, East of Madagascar and next door to Mauritius Island.
Regarding those who have heard about it, my guess they would think of white beaches, tropical forests, nice weather all year long, and other usual tropical island stereotypes. These of course apply to La Réunion.
I spent almost all of my childhood there. So much that I simply won’t quit identifying myself as a Reunionese girl.
This has definitely shaped my affinity with the various fields of research that Geography covers. Here’s a few reasons why.
What a landscape.
Growing up on this island is — as I’ve gathered since my arrival in continental France — quite a different experience. The local climate is quite unique, and the way our life was structured just as much.
La Réunion is very mountainous. Mountains everywhere. Rivers everywhere. Tropical rainfall often comes with landslides of all sizes. I was used to this environment. I was used to it all.
I began writing mentioning the usual paradise aspects people might think of. La Réunion certainly qualifies for many of them. But practically no one on the continent has any idea how alarming the situation might be there. This landscape is the cause for many of the unique issues and challenges the island has to deal with.
Moving around the island.
Mountains everywhere means bridges everywhere. Unique expensive bridges are all over the island, as well as a tremendous amount of smaller bridges.
I grew up hearing about three gigantic projects on the local news — the third one is still underway as I’m writing this.
First was a brand new highway, La Route des Tamarins, cutting in half the travel time on the west coast, requiring some incredible architectural bridges and tunnels as the highway cuts trough the landscape.
Second was an ambitious train network to connect all the coastal cities together — that was canceled as soon as a right-wing party was elected to the local government.
Third simply looks like one of those crazy bridges the Chinese build, La Nouvelle Route du Littoral, a highway completely perched on a 12-kilometer long bridge over the ocean (seriously, look it up, it looks crazy).
What’s with the road craziness? La Réunion has over 320 000 households, but over 340 000 cars. More than a quarter of Reunionese households own at least 2 cars.
There you go. Cars everywhere. Public Transit virtually absent. Both parents need one each, and each of their child of age needs one too. Also, one parent might actually have a spare car as well, just for fun.
Building more roads — bigger roads — to accommodate more cars, even though more cars means we will need more roads. What a vicious circle.
Growing up in this never-ending and worsening mess will always have me wondering how to fix it for good.
The Reunionese wonder: who are we?
Just like any other French colonies (it frankly still is one for many reasons), La Réunion is struggling to allow its local culture and language to survive. French is of course the only language used for its institutions and education.
The Reunionese language (le créole réunionnais) had a comeback in schools a few years back, but only as an option, and not available everywhere nor for every pupil on the island. It is shameful that such a beautiful language is not even taught to most who are born with it.
National identity is quite the topic to tackle on this little island that we have learned to nickname « this little bit of France in the Ocean » (ce petit bout de France).
Asking a Reunionese person if they feel French or Reunionese results in many different scenarios : they might answer that they feel they are both — that they feel legitimately French — or of course that they are Reunionese first and foremost.
It will obviously depend on who you ask. But as surprising as it might sound, one single individual will probably answer differently depending on the time of the day, on what you were previously talking about, on what you might have been implying, or on the current political issues they are aware of.
Who the hell are we? There is no simple answer. And I want to understand. I of course have opinions and ideas — but I would love to lead my own research.
It’s all about Humans.
Growing up on this tiny volcano in the ocean has helped me realise that Geography is all about Humans. The way we move around. The way we shape our landscapes more than it shapes our societies. The importance of culture in space — physical and political.
I could have added many more factors regarding La Réunion, such as its unique ecosystem and the challenges to protect it. But I have tried here to mention the issues that have struck me the most as a Reunionese child, and now an aspiring geographer.