People of Reunion IslandsPeople of Reunion IslandsPeople of Reunion Islands© IRT
© IRT

1 face, 1 story, 1 island 

We know how beautiful the scenery is on Reunion, the ultimate island. But we’re less familiar with the people at the heart of the wealth of this French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Previously known by the names of Dina Morgabine, Santa Apolonia or the Bourbon Island, Reunion has become a symbol to the world of peoples living together in harmony.

Reunion Island is a melting pot of civilisations from Europe, Madagascar, India, Asia and Africa. The current population is one of a kind, the result of centuries of migrations and ethnic mingling. Today, the islanders form a multiethnic, multicultural model of harmonious co-existence. Together, they are the heart and soul of Reunion, the ultimate island, whose very identity lies in its cultural particularities and its unique history.

So let’s meet the women and men who make Reunion Island.

Every week, we bring you stories of the people of Reunion.

Maureen ATANARY

East coast

 

Dipavali is an important event for me. This Tamil festival is a celebration of light and colour. It unites families and friends to share moments of togetherness. For us, the highlight of this festival is the parade organised by the town of Saint André. Every year, my family and I can’t wait to be there watching the colourful floats. With dance shows, traditional Indian music and dazzlingly bright costumes, this wonderful festival of light and colour really lives up to its name! When I was younger I was lucky enough to take part in the parade on several occasions, with an Indian dance association. But more recently, I have participated through the Kovil children’s association. Those were intense, magical moments! I have great memories of them.

Maureen ATANARY, Saint André, east coast of Reunion Island

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Pierre VIDOT

west coast

I’ve always had a passion for pirate stories! Many pirates have sailed the Indian Ocean and left their mark on the island. The Dutch, the British, and numerous bandits of various nationalities stopped near the island and eventually settled here. Many of the people of Reunion descend from pirates. I myself found out while tracing my family tree that the pirate John Grayell was one of my ancestors! In the 18th century, trade was prohibited even between the islanders, let alone with pirates. To stock up on supplies and water, before setting foot on dry land, the pirates had to seek permission from the governor, who referred their request to the islanders’ council. Once allowed to disembark, they stayed much longer than planned and spent 2 or 3 months having a feast!

Pierre VIDOT, storyteller, Saint Paul, west coast of Reunion Island

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Juliette MASSON

East coast

It’s been 10 years since I took over my father’s farm which has existed since 1972. It was a combination of factors: my father was approaching retirement age and I was a student. I wanted to take over the family farm, it’s my inheritance. At the time, we only grew sugarcane. Since then I’ve diversified and now produce sugarcane, chilli peppers, vanilla and potatoes.

When I was 6 years old, since my father was a cane farmer, during the sugarcane harvest his driver would deliver the canes to the refinery. There they used to give him a small bottle of “sirop la cuite” (virgin sugarcane syrup), which my father would bring home. To me it was a treat as good as barley sugar! With my brothers and sisters, we used to eat it with bread and butter. It was our answer to salted caramel!

Juliette MASSON, farmer in Bras-Panon – east coast of Reunion Island

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Laurent BÉRIOU

cirques

When I was little, about 5 years old, I went to the village school in Ilet à Malheur. In the Cirque of Mafate, children get used to walking at the age of 3 when they start school. I walked 30 or 40 minutes to get to school every morning. Often, the older children would have races and speed ahead all the way to school. I think that’s how I got a taste for trail running. I love running wherever I please along the forest and mountain paths. It’s an adventure that gives me the sense of freedom that I need!

I was a postman in Mafate. The helicopter used to drop me at Roche Plate to start my round. It takes 4 days to distribute the mail, all on foot, carrying a backpack full of letters and parcels. It’s not the same job as in town. You have to know the name of every resident, because there are no letterboxes and no house numbers! Some of the older generation can’t read or write, so they ask you to read their mail to them. You soon feel close to the people of Mafate.

Laurent BÉRIOU, Aurère – Mafate, the cirques of Reunion Island

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Lauriane LEICHNIG

south coast

My passion for vacoa (screwpine) weaving comes from my mother. I used to watch her doing it and I was proud of the items she made. I also remember my grandmother taking her daughters to le Puits Arabe to sell the vacoa products they had made. We used to spend the day there with my cousins, aunts and grandmother. We played games and had a family picnic. I was 6 or 7 years old at the time.

I started weaving vacoa (screwpine) for fun and to help my mother. It’s an occupation that requires creativity, patience and, above all, mindfulness of nature and trees. The tree needs to be allowed time to regenerate and develop. Now I’m the one passing this family tradition on to my daughter, along with the fundamental principle of respect for the environment.

Lauriane LEICHNIG, Saint Philippe, south coast of Reunion Island

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Guibert HOAREAU

The Highlands

I’ve always lived in Plaine des Grègues. We’ve been growing turmeric for generations. It runs in the family! Before, we mostly grew sugarcane and only a small amount of turmeric. But now it’s our main activity.

I produce 3 to 5 tonnes every year with the help of my children. I use turmeric myself every day, I add it to lots of dishes. People have become aware of this spice’s fabulous properties and the local inhabitants consume more and more of it.

Guibert HOAREAU, Plaine des Grègues, the Highlands of Reunion Island.

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Audrey AH-SANE

North coast

I am of Chinese origin, born in Reunion where my parents settled. I started doing Chinese dance at the age of 7. My father had taken me to see the Guan Di festivities at the temple in Saint Denis, near the small market. When I saw the dancers that day, I wanted to be like them. I went back the three following years, as I was too young to start dancing myself. I signed up a few years later. Everything is intensified when you go on stage.

Our costumes are very colourful. That really appealed to me when I was a little girl. Later, I was allowed to wear makeup when I was performing! The most important thing to me is that, when I’m dancing, I feel like my true self. I enjoy flaunting my culture and sharing it through dance.

Audrey AH-SANE – Saint Denis, north coast of Reunion Island.

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Mohammad BHAGATTE

north coast

I’ve always lived in Saint Denis. I grew up on Rue Maréchal Leclerc, a street near the small market not far from the Hindu temple. It’s an area with a traditional atmosphere of togetherness, where my parents, both retailers, had their shop. That’s where I discovered the typical Reunion spirit of living together. When the shops closed, the traders and their families would sometimes get together to share pleasant moments in Le Barachois. We all lived together in harmony. I remember, as a child, going to play in the upstairs storeroom above my parents’ shop. They hadn’t noticed me climbing the stairs and began to worry when they didn’t see me arrive at the end of the day. They went round all the nearby shops and ended up fearing the worst. All the district residents were out looking for me… Until I finally appeared, looking a little puzzled after my afternoon nap! Even today, I regularly bump into all those people who saw me grow up for over twenty years and become the imam of the great mosque of Saint Denis, then managing director of the UNIR OI association.

Mohammad BHAGATTE, Saint Denis, north coast of Reunion Island.

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Lyna BOYER

west coast

To me, the lagoon is the ultimate place to unwind! I can do all sorts of activities there, like paddleboarding, snorkelling to see the fish in the lagoon, playing beach tennis with my friends… But I also like going there to just relax and gaze out at the Indian Ocean. My favourite is a massage on the lagoon! It’s an unbeatable experience that stimulates all the senses in an amazing way. I find the movement of the water and the sound of the waves very soothing. A great way to switch off!

At lunchtime, I make the most of the “rondavelle” snack bars and restaurants. I sometimes have a cocktail on the beach at sunset, in the hope of spotting a green ray of light on the horizon. They say it brings good luck.

Lyna BOYER, La Possession, west coast of Reunion Island.

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Philippe RAMIN

south coast

I go fishing nearly every day, often at Ti Sable beach in Saint Joseph, but also at Le Grand Brûlé, Sainte Rose or Saint Philippe. When I fish from the shore, I often come home with maccabi, cardinal or ti jaune. Fishing has helped me regain my footing in life. Gazing out at the Indian Ocean helps me escape and forget about everything else. A colleague introduced me to fishing 10 years ago, after I’d had a difficult year with health issues. I had refused his offers for a long time, but one day we met up for my very first fishing experience. He brought a fishing rod, set it up, cast out, and handed me the rod when there was a fish to reel in. It was incredible! As if pulling the fish out of the water was the reflection of my own circumstances. It felt like I was getting out of my own problems. It made me feel good.

Philippe RAMIN, Ti Sable beach in Saint Joseph, south coast of Reunion Island.

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Josiane SAUTRON

cirques

In 2005, I took part in the “Cirques in bloom” competition for the most beautifully flower-festooned houses and gardens in Salazie. That same year, I ran in the “Diagonale des Fous” race for the very first time! I was about fifty. I trained with a friend and her husband. We started at Hell-Bourg at 3 o’clock in the morning and ran to Cilaos. We went via the Rivière des Galets and Dos d’Âne to reach Colorado.

During the Grand Raid, my husband was one of the assistants at the refreshment stops. Whenever I was behind, he phoned me to ask where I was! (laughter) Good physical fitness isn’t enough, you also need to be mentally tough. You always meet lots of people along the way and run with them for a while. To me, the most important thing is to enjoy yourself and make it to the finish line.

Josiane SAUTRON, Hell-Bourg – Salazie, the cirques of Reunion Island.

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Clément PERIANIN

east coast

 

I love bathing in whitewater pools. It makes me feel purified. I particularly enjoy sitting under a waterfall to rid myself of the negative energies of day-to-day life. These pools are very energising. The energy comes from the water. Water is life! I remember a hike I once did in La Nouvelle and Marla, in the Cirque de Mafate. That day, I had walked for hours when I spotted a pool and stopped to bathe in it. When I came out of the water, I felt really relaxed.

The next day I woke up without any aches or pains whatsoever! It was as if I hadn’t walked anywhere the day before. I wanted to share the experience with my wife, but we’ve never been able to find that pool again. It’s as if I’d connected with that place. It was an incredible energy source that purified and transformed me.

Clément PERIANIN, Takamaka, east coast of Reunion Island.

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Aurélie LALLEMAND

west coast

Although I love the twisted relief and luxuriant nature of Les Hauts, the island’s highlands, I still prefer the coast, especially the west coast which I find energising and particularly pleasant. To celebrate and unwind at the end of the week, my friends and I used to meet for drinks on the beach at sunset and gaze out at the horizon. Sipping at fresh fruit-juice cocktails, we would spend hours setting the world to rights!

I remember one winter evening, about 2 years ago, just before the last rays of the sun, we were lucky enough to see a magical ballet of whales. It was unreal! There were two of them and they never stopped doing these amazing leaps. They were really close to us! At that moment time stood still.

Aurélie LALLEMAND, Saint Gilles, west coast of Reunion Island.

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Sabine PAYET

The Highlands

I learned to cook with a wood-fired oven thanks to my friend, Josiane. I watched her a lot when she was cooking, to learn the right gestures and the correct quantities of spices to use in curry. At the age of 20, I made my first curry cooked on a wood fire: a bichique curry. I had never asked anyone how to cook them. So I prepared the spices, fried them and added the bichique fish. Then I poured a litre of water into the pan! The end result was a curry that tasted good but looked more like a purée! You couldn’t taste the bichique very well but there was plenty of sauce! (laughter)  Nowadays, I cook for my family, my children, but also when my mother, brothers and sisters come for meals.

I love the smoky taste that brings out the curry flavours with wood-fired cooking. When I cook over a wood fire, I hang a piece of pork and fresh sausages above the cooking pot to smoke them. It makes them taste better.

Sabine Payet, Le Tampon – The Highlands of Reunion Island.

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Mathieu HOARAU

The cirques

It was 12 years ago when my father and I took over the lentil farm and vineyard. We harvest 3 to 4 tonnes of lentils per year, and 5 tonnes of Couderc 13 grapes. During our fourth year here, we harvested 10 tonnes of grapes! It’s a family affair. I’ve always followed my father in the fields and from the age of 12 I spent my weekends learning from him, before attending the school in Saint Joseph. Since then, I’ve been here every day. What I like about Cilaos is being close to nature, surrounded by mountains. I’m very lucky!

When I was 15 or 16 years old, we made our own wine on the farm when the Cilaos winery was closed. We harvested the grapes and did our own hand-made wine! Instead of treading the grapes with our feet we made a kind of wine press. We put the grapes in a vat, then in large containers and waited for 21 days. The wine we made was good, but not as good as wine from the shop! (laughter) It had to be done!

Mathieu Hoarau, locality L’Écho – Cilaos, the cirques of Reunion Island

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Miza GOURDIAL

The volcano

I arrived at Piton Sainte-Rose in 1962. It was the year I discovered the famous church of Notre Dame des Laves, before the Piton de La Fournaise erupted in 1977. On Good Friday, the first lava flow made its way to Bois Blanc. Then the next day, another lava flow partly destroyed the village of Piton Sainte-Rose. That day as I left work, I saw a plume of smoke on the mountain, then the lava flowing down like a river of fire.

My family and I were evacuated very quickly in an army truck. A few days after Easter, the lava surrounded the church and some of it got inside, but it didn’t reach the altar. Many people speak of benediction. The lava was still smoking when we celebrated my granddaughter’s First Communion at the church in 1979. Despite the eruption, I wanted to return to live in Piton Sainte-Rose. People often ask me why. I reply that volcanos are everywhere, we all live on a volcano! And I feel at home here!

Miza GOURDIAL, Piton Sainte-Rose, the volcano of Reunion Island

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René-Paul ELLÉLIARA

The South coast

Maloya music is a blend of colours and an original, traditional sound that reflects our cultural heritage. When I was little, it used to be played at the end of the day when work was finished. Someone would start drumming on a “roulèr” out in the sun, barefoot in the dusty courtyard, and others would grab a tinplate and a “bobre”. The whole family would sing as my mother cooked over a wood fire. The meal would cook to the sound of maloya.

At the time, we lived in sheet-metal or straw huts called “calbanons”. The neighbours were close by and at the first beat of the drum they would come running to gather round the musician and play along. The music and singing was spontaneous and improvised. It came from the heart.

What I like most about maloya is the “lontan” tradition. On stage, there are the lights, the sound and so on, but what I enjoy most of all is playing acoustically, on the ground. That’s where I get the real maloya experience. I’m closer to the audience, we’re at one, together. This music represents our values, our roots, our identity and our heritage.

René-Paul ELLÉLIARA, Saint Pierre, the south of Reunion Island

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Anne-Gaëlle FONTAINE

the Highlands

I work on my parents’ rose geranium farm which was established in 1988. We have a 4-hectare farm on which we also produce seasonal fruit and vegetables. They taught me how to cultivate geraniums. When I was very young, they used to take me to the fields when it was time to cut them. They would leave me to sleep in my basket under the shade of a geranium! At the age of 2, I would pick up the strawberry punnets and place them in trays. That was when I learned to count. At that age, I was already saying I wanted to become a farmer (laughter).

Growing geraniums is very demanding work. It takes about 600 kilos of plants to make 2 litres of essential oil. It’s like green gold! My greatest reward is the satisfaction of the customers who buy our products at the market.

Anne-Gaëlle FONTAINE, Grand-Tampon, the Highlands of Reunion Island

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Nicolas VILLENEUVE

The volcano

I was preparing my thesis at the Piton de la Fournaise Volcano Observatory when the volcano erupted on the 9th March 1998, after lying dormant for 6 years. At the time, I had decided I was not suited to the PhD programme and wanted to give up on writing my thesis. This spectacular episode quickly made me change my mind!

A few minutes after the beginning of the eruption, Patrick Bachèlery, a geologist and researcher at the university, said to me, while stroking his moustache: “Go with a team now to take some samples, it won’t last long”. As it turned out, the lava flow carried on for 196 days! We worked 24/7 at the observatory. I even stayed for seven days at the very site, near the Piton Kapor which was formed during this eruption. That was when I fell in love with the volcano. I had a front row seat to this phenomenon, and I spent my nights watching the lava flow and taking notes. It would become the most documented and most visited eruption by the locals of Reunion Island. 

Nicolas Villeneuve, Piton de la Fournaise, Reunion Island’s volcano

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