Celebrating Freedom at the Festival Liberté Métisse

  • 06 January 2015 | By Natalie Roos

I step out of Roland Garros International Airport and the humidity immediately creates a small halo of curls around my hairline. It’s not my first visit to Reunion Island, but it’s the first time I’m here in summer and despite the time (6pm) and the somewhat overcast skies, it’s 28 degrees celsius and around 90% humidity. I’m here just for the weekend, to experience the island’s Festival Liberté Métisse - a joint celebration initiated by Reunion Island, Comores, Maldives, Mauritius, Mayote, Madagascar and Seychelles - collectively known as the Vanilla Islands.

The festival is a celebration of diversity as these seven islands join together to share what makes them unique, but more so what they have in common. The cluster of Indian Ocean Islands is probably most famous for Mauritius & Seychelles (honeymooner’s paradise), Madagascar (thanks, Pixar) and the Maldives (room on stilts over crystal clear waters, anyone?), while the much under-promoted Mayotte and Reunion Island have an endless variety of activities and natural beauty still waiting to be discovered.

Vanilla Islands

The Vanilla Islands initiative aims to shine the spotlight on the cluster of islands as a group, promoting the unique aspects of each little piece of paradise, while facilitating easier transport options between the destinations and the creation of travel packages. (Currently, the flight between Reunion Island and Mauritius - roughly 200km’s apart - is one of the most expensive in the world, relative to distance, at an average cost of 250 Euro, so visitors don’t necessarily have the option to explore both islands, even if they want to.)

On the planning desk of the newly-appointed President of the Vanilla Islands (and Minister of Tourism of Madagascar) Ramarcel Benjamina Ramanantsoa, is a package offering, encompassing a visit to a number of the islands at a more affordable cost to the traveller. Speaking at his inauguration as President of the Vanilla Islands in Reunion Island on the 19th of December 2014, Mr Ramanantsoa said that the newly-implented visa rules for emerging markets China, South Africa and India were helping to build bridges with new visitors. He also said that he would be focusing on retaining the authenticity of each island, highlighting uniqueness and forgoing cliches.

Festival Liberte Metisse

Now in it’s fifth year, the festival takes place on the black volcanic beach of L'Etang-Sale on the West coast of the island. Exhibitors ranging from street artists to artisan coffee growers and roasters, geranium oil producers and hand-craft jewellers set up shop to share their products with visitors while musical acts take to the stage to entertain festival-goers with their irresistible Maloya beats. I arrive on Thursday evening just in time to catch the sunset.

On Friday morning I roam the stalls, marvelling at the simplicity and intricacy of local producers. At the coffee stand I meet Alexandre Dijoux of Noute Kafé - a true artisan in every sense of the word. His coffee beans are shelled by hand in an old fashioned pestle and mortar, roasted over an open flame in an ancient pot and ground in a table top hand grinder. I sip on the black gold as he tells me about his production and explains that Reunion Island's coffee sells for up to 600 Euro per kilogram in Japan. I sip a little slower and savour a little more.

At a small beach side art gallery I meet Florence Vitry, a raven haired mixed-medium artist who incorporates news paper clippings from all over the world into her portraits to illustrate the diversity of the people on the island. The sounds of the Trinidad and Tobago steel orchestra floating on the sea breeze and my feet take to tapping while my hips seem to sway to the beat on their own accord. I sit down with an ice cold bottle of the Dodo beer and a plate of bouchons - pork dumplings spiced with local flavours.

Celebrating Freedom

On the 20th of December, officially the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in 1848, the group takes to the skies for a helicopter flip over the island. From up high, the island's vast diversities come into focus. It's almost jarring to see such an array of different landscapes and even climates on such a small speck in the Indian Ocean. Turquoise waves and deep blue waters one moment and then you're high above the peak of the island’s volcano the next, where the landscape could easily pass for Mars on the silver screen. Within seconds the barren red sands give way to lush forests and plunging waterfalls. A tiny community of houses is scattered deep within the island. No roads lead in or out. A flight over Reunion Island truly is jaw-dropping.

Back in L' Etang-Sale, hundreds of cars line the streets as a steady stream of locals heads to the beach to watch some of their favourite artists perform on a huge stage that has been set up for the festival. It’s unusually rainy for this time of year and when we arrive at the Kabar of local musical icon Danyel Waro, I have to slip my shoes off as I stomp around in the mud with revelling islanders. A kabar is a small stage or outdoor music venue where traditional and local music is performed. The venue we are dancing in is at the home of Danyel Waro and anyone is welcome. Young and old stomp and sway and sometimes slip as Waro and his band perform the songs that tell the stories of the battle of slavery and the joy of freedom. The rain intensifies but no one stops dancing. Mud splatters our shins and bodies glisten with sweat and warm rain but everyone keeps dancing until eventually, Waro bids the group au revoir.

All too soon, our time on the island has come to an end. I’m once again reminded of why I so love this island as I mentally run through a list of the things I would have loved to see and do again before I had to leave. The hotel Floralys Excel, where we are staying, has a sparkling pool that I would have loved to spend more time lounging around and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean twinkle at me invitingly. Of course the sheer uniqueness of the opportunity to visit one of the world's most active volcanoes is another activity that never gets old. But more than anything, I feel sad to leave because this island and it’s people have felt like a second home since my very first visit. Perhaps it has to do with the eclectic mix of cultures and religions living together in absolute harmony under their Reunionese skies, or maybe it’s the island lifestyle, but I’ve always slipped right into the mix on this French island off the coast of Africa, as I suspect anyone would.

About Reunion Island

  • Reunion Island is a department of France, run by the French government. The currency is the Euro and everyone speaks French or Creol - a mixture of languages from Africa, Asia and Europe
  • It's just a four hour flight from Johannesburg and South Africans, Indian and Chinese nationals don't require a visa to visit
  • The climate is mild year-round with water temperatures rarely dropping belong 26 degrees celcius
  • The Festival Liberte Metisse is the ideal time to visit Reunion and experience the sense of community that the 850 000 inhabitants have managed to create. It's a very real depiction of the way in which nationalities and religions all blend together in a melting pot in harmony
  • Locals on the island all identify as Creol - regardless of cast, creed, or colour. If asked whether they are French or Reunionese they will likely repsond with "I am French. I am Reunionese"

Feature image credit: Dawn Jorgensen from The Incidental Tourist 

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