Mauritius: Flash flood hits Lalit de Klas’s offices and archives
By Lindsay Collen
[Please contact Lalit de Klas at firstname.lastname@example.org to offer solidarity or assistance.]
April 5, 2013 -- Lalit -- Mauritius' revolutionary socialists, organised in the Lalit de Klas party (Lalit), have been in total crisis mode after the terrible flash floods in and around the capital Port Louis, floods in which people lost their lives in the centre of town, caught in underpasses and underground parking garages. Others were stranded on top of their houses or left hanging on to mango tree branches in the flood waters. Others still were trapped inside vehicles carried away like Dinky toys, all ending up jumbled up in a mess. There was 153 mm of rain in two hours in Port Louis.
The Lalit offices, in the area hit by 179 mm of rain in less than two hours, were under 107 centimetres of water. This means all the computers, printers the duplicators, the scanners and other tools for organising, and most dear of all, most mourned, over half our documentation, of our living archives, if not more, mostly primary source stuff, were all under water. The water, full of thick mud, was over 30 centimetres above all the tables, and three out of five of the bookshelves with files on them were under water, under this thick muddy water, which as the flood subsided left from 7 to 15 centimteres of pure mud sludge. The next day we found a dead 21-centimetre tilapia fish inside the building!
The tragedy of the timing for Lalit is that exactly three weeks ago we had already begun the swift five-month process of digitising our entire documentation centre, an estimated 400,000 items. This was something we have been planning and working on for over five years. The process was just set up and running. It means, however, that we have an off-site back-up of this first 5% or so of the work (small mercies). A team of 10 people were at it all day long in the front section of our building. All that is now in total ruin. The sheer irony of the timing.
The kitchen we use, slightly lower than the ground floor of the Grand River North West Building where Lalit rents space from Workers’ Education (LPT) and shares the documentation centre with LPT, was 152 centimetres under water. The fridge was floating around on its side, still plugged into the wall. Tupi, the lovely, affectionate stray dog that moved in with Lalit in about 2007, was sheltering on the kiosk on top of the kitchen and half way up to the upstairs hall.
Fortunately, and quite by chance, no one was in the building at the time of the flash flood.
That first day, some seven or eight Lalit members who had managed to get there, came home after a few hours of wading around in the debris in the building, picking computers up out of the water on to tables, putting chairs upright so that there was space to circulate inside the building, and not being able to do anything else much at all, once night began to fall.
As the flood waters receded that first day, water was trapped 30 centimetres in the building and we had to break down one of the holding walls in a doorway, with a hammer, a big iron lever and an axe. The water inside the building then poured out like rapids, back outside. Before leaving, we gave Tupi a whole can of sardines for supper up on the kiosk on top of the kitchen, and some water from the tap upstairs, and left. The building was left that first night under inches of thick mud and debris. The kitchen stayed under about two foot of water that first night.
Supporters pitch in
Since then, every day from 7am to 7pm members and supporters have been helping -- with an unbelievable energy and devotion -- every minute of the day. Some 73 people in all. Getting the mud out of the building first with spades and wheelbarrows, and then washing down inside the building with a Karscher (an electrician got the upstairs sockets up and running for us, the very next day) and a team pushing the mud made liquid by the Karscher, with squeegies all the way to the front door in waves and out of the building.
Then later, in a second phase, another team mopping the muddy water left with bales of old dry cloth, meanwhile moving all the documentation files we could save, up into the hall upstairs, and getting the computers, etc into someone’s van and out of the area altogether for drying, and then seeing what can be done with them later. (We still don’t know the state of our hard disks and things, but will start to get an idea).
All the tables and chairs that had been upside down and shifted around by the water, and afterwards left impregnated with the most vile, stinky mud, were hosed down and put up to dry. Outside a team of members then dug the entrance and the driveway free of mud, heavy back-breaking work. They moved two huge truckloads of mud and documents, taken away for us by at cost price by drivers helping out. A Bobcat driver the volunteered to remove another load of mud on to a lorry parked in the driveway.
The task had seemed insurmountable, those first three days.
Some members burst into tears when they arrived. Others refused, seeing the ruination outside, to set foot inside for a few hours, preferring to help sort out things outside first, while building up the courage to go inside and take a look.
But so many members and supporters have chipped in hours and hours of the most back-breaking work and also the most finicky -- separating one sheet of sodden document from another, to place one dry sheet inbetween -- that we have gained in courage and spirit. This hard labour accompanied by meticulous work means we may just have been able to save (if we can continue drying them out) some 20,000 primary-source documents that were part of the half of our archives. Everyone has been using those strange words “catastrophe” and “cataclysm” and “disaster”. It is after all the loss of the history of our collective thinking. The loss also of part of the unique repository of the development from scratch of the written form of our language, Mauritian Kreol.
And yet, we are up and running, big teams continuing the process of hardening our hearts to chuck out the documents that have become pure mud, and meticulously saving what are saveable. Reams and reams of dry paper have been put between the leaves of books, and between pages of documents, leaflets, posters, invitations, analyses, internal documents. We have also lost many books, and what hurts most is of course, the precious and much read and re-read copies of the great socialist thinkers, activists and writers like Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Victor Serge, Rosa Luxembourg, Gramsci, and more recent favourites of different members, like Raymond Williams, Franz Fanon, Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, Neville Alexander and John Bellamy Foster.
And, meanwhile, leading members have had to register with the authorities as “people in the disaster area”, hold press conferences together with neighbours (the rare sight of Lalit members together with a factory manager, the Assembly of God preacher and the secretary of the National Car Centre), bringing up all the letters and petitions we have organised about the drains and the stupid walls built against nature’s floodwater paths in our area in the past. We even managed to get four muddied pages, of petitions and letters, from 2002, 2007, 2008 and 2012 addressed to all the various authorities to blame for the severity of the effects of the flood. After the press conference, the minister of gender equality, whose prison-style wall built around a not-yet-opened women’s shelter exacerbated the flooding in our area, announced on April 3 in writing that she had no objection to the offending wall being partly demolished in order to respect the route flood water usually takes to the nearby sea.
And, in all this, Lalit members are all having to keep our “political minds” together, picking up on branch meetings and central meetings and actions as best we can. But it has been and still is an excellent experience in working together in crisis.
All this to say our humour and our tenacity is so far holding out well. All those helping are so dead beat at night that we fall into bed, into deep but fitful sleep, with those images of desolation in our dreams and waking.
Just a week before the disaster, the LPT was awarded the Linguapax International Prize for 2013 for everyone in LPT’s courage, persistence and love of humanity over all those years of fighting for the mother-tongues. The announcement of this honour now seems a long time ago. Ante-deluvian, to be exact. And yet somehow, the internationalism in the spirit of the linguists who set up such a prize gave me an added courage, as it was juxtaposed against the flooding of the richest archive of written Mauritian Kreol that exists, or is in the process of being partly rescued, being brought back to life. Because it is a growing creature. Alive.
Even as we are, two weeks later, reminded of “big nature, little humans” and “careless ruling class, trampling everyone else”.
But, we ordinary humans have our resilience, I suppose, and our sheer lively love of life. I see it before my eyes every day. And we all have each other. We remember this, as we rebuild our party documentation, which is what we call our collective memory, including 36 years of minutes of Lalit and LPT (all in written Kreol) and as we continue our political struggle against capitalism and for the building of a better life for working people everywhere, and for everyone on the globe.
We remember it as we mourn with the families of the 11 people who lost their lives. And as we share solidarity with those who lost everything in their homes.
[This article is abridged. See HERE for the full text.]
153 Main Road,
Grand River North West,
Republic of Mauritius
Phone (Mauritius) 230 - 208 2132