Emmaus on Reunion Island
Dialogue based on interviews held with William Caro, Bernard Grondin, Sandrine Techer and Nelly Calimoutou of Emmaus Reunion as well as with Emmanuel Cazeau and Wilfrid Bertille of Emmaus Grand Sud and with Bruno Pichon of Agame.
Reunion is a French island in the Indian Ocean. Nearby Madagascar stands between the island and continental Africa. When the French first came to the island it was uninhabited, which may explain why there isn’t much of an independence movement on Reunion Island today. The French did, however, bring across slaves from various African countries as well as from Madagascar and set up an economy on the island based on the single-crop farming of sugarcane. Slavery has marked the history of Reunion Island and is the cause of certain economic and social inequalities which still exist today.
One of the main problems on the island currently is unemployment, over 22% of the population were out of work in 2020, including 44% of the 15-24 age group. Reunion is also heavily affected by excessive consumption and is highly dependent on imports, especially for food.
What is the history behind the Emmaus groups on Reunion island?
The first group on the island was created following the closure of an open air landfill site near the town of Saint-Denis. The population of the nearby shantytown, an area full of temporary houses that was being renovated, called the landfill their “factory” until the 1970s because what they collected from the site helped them to make a living.
Back then the current director of the Emmaus Reunion group was a social worker in this neighbourhood. After meeting Abbé Pierre in 1994 and thanks to support from 5 French groups and from the Abbé Pierre Foundation he and a team of volunteers were able to launch the Emmaus Reunion Les Papillons group (“Papillon” was the name of the former shantytown). The new Emmaus group provided work to around 10 families of rag pickers who had been forced to leave the landfill site, helping them to keep their heads above water.
A second Emmaus group on the other side of the island, an association which led solidarity activities for the excluded and which was starting to create work thanks to reuse, became part of our movement in 2012. The group, Emmaus Grand Sud, now runs its income-generating activities at Saint-Pierre but its solidarity shop and its welcome centre are still based at Saint-Joseph.
A third group recently joined the Emmaus movement as a trial member. This association reuses IT and telephone equipment and provides IT training to the digitally excluded. The group, called Agame, is based in the town of Le Port where unemployment has reached 50% amongst the 15-24 age group. The name, Agame, is the name of a lizard which plays a key role in the ecosystem but which is currently endangered. The group’s objective is to overcome the current situation where there is, on the one hand, excessive consumption in the region, and, on the other hand, a lack of equipment amongst certain groups of people.
What is the main activity led by the groups on Reunion island?
The two full member groups reuse textiles and objects donated by the local residents. Their main source of income is the textile activity, representing 60% of Emmaus Reunion’s total income. On top of this income-generating activity Emmaus Grand Sud also leads a re-integration scheme whereby members of the group fix large electrical devices for poor families. Emmaus Grand Sud also operates a welcome centre in Saint-Joseph which provides support for around 300 regular beneficiaries.
Emmaus Reunion tried, for many years, to maintain a team of staff members from poor neighbourhoods and who had a low level of education, allowing these people to have greater stability and to learn key skills within Emmaus. But the state subsidies for this type of contract came to an end, forcing them to limit their team to just 30 staff members and leaving them unable to bring in new people. The group will soon be launching a re-integration scheme in order to support more people who are in difficulty.
What are the current challenges on the island?
The health situation with Covid is better on Reunion than in many other countries as it is located quite far away from its Indian Ocean neighbours, making it easier to track all those entering the island. All arrivals are asked to take a Covid test before setting off and must then take a second test upon arrival.
Apart from during the first lockdown in March-April, which led to them losing two months of income, the groups on Reunion island have been able to continue with their activities almost as normal (whilst using social distancing measures).
To bounce back from the lockdown the groups decided to widen their opening hours and have restructured. The two full member groups are also looking at how to expand in order to develop their income-generating activities and to maintain their financial independence.
The Agame group has been busier than ever during the health crisis, mobilising the entire team to provide computers to 500 young people in Le Port so that they can continue with their education remotely. The group has also provided IT training to these young people and their families as well as maintaining its other projects.
Emmaus Reunion would like to open a library in the future which would focus on works about creole culture, the history of the Indian Ocean and the struggles against slavery and against colonisation. The group has built up a huge collection of books over the years. Emmaus Reunion would like to have more political debates with the local people as well as continuing to organise debates on social and cultural matters.
The three groups are trying to work together more often: they will soon be launching a website to sell their items (M’i Emmaüs) and they came together to provide solidarity to Madagascar in 2020 with ‘Operation Kéré’. They are also considering further cooperation with other groups in the region.
Tips and Clever Ideas
- Emmaus Reunion Les Papillons is located close to the airport meaning that they receive all the objects that people are not allowed to take onto the plane and which are confiscated at customs. The group has thus become one of the best places to go to buy hiking poles, lava stone pestles or Swiss army knives – they’ve got loads of them!
- Emmaus Grand Sud has put up screens next to the queue for its tills showing videos about the history and values of our movement.
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