The Seychelles have done something right, for its people claim they lead the most perfect lives in the world
The white sand beaches, the turquoise seas and the high rocky cliffs of the magical Seychelles hide a more sinister secret. The waters around the archipelago made up of 115 islands, only 10 of which are inhabited, have for over a decade been a favourite hunting place for Somali pirates who hijack vessels captured at sea, holding those aboard them hostage and demanding high ransom. Westerners are a favourite target.
Tourists on yachts, Seychellois sailors and passengers aboard vessels flying the Seychelles flag have all been victims since 2003 when the problem began.
Recently, in an initiative led by the UK and the government in the Seychelles which began in 2013, the problem has been brought under control, mainly through tough patrolling measures and the arrest of pirates who are held in a special prison set up in the Seychelles.
The more complex political issues of why the Somalis have, since the mid-1990s and most dramatically a few years later, taken to piracy is rarely explored in the international media. These issues involve the trawling of Somali waters for fish by giant vessels from Western and Middle Eastern countries leaving impoverished Somali fishermen in their tiny boats with no catch to bring home. It was this that first created the menace of piracy, and though security measures have lessened the risks to those travelling the seas, they have not alleviated the plight of the Somalis.
The issue of piracy goes back a much longer way though, into the history of the Seychelles. The idyllic islands were a favourite haunt for pirates from ancient times, with memorabilia from those days still displayed at sites on the islands. The building of prisons is not unfamiliar either to the people of the Seychelles, with the islands used as a place by the British, who since the 1700s shared colonial rule over the Seychelles with the French, to bring in prisoners from many of the other territories they occupied and hold them on remote, virtually inaccessible spots located among the picturesque cliffs and beaches of the Seychelles.
The result has been a fascinating one. The national anthem of Malaysia contains music borrowed from a traditional Seychellian tunes since important Malaysian freedom fighters were held in the Seychelles by the British and took back some of what they loved from their place of captivity when they returned home to create a free country.
The music of the islands comes from many places. Set off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles has a British and French colonial past as well as one created by slaves from other African countries brought in by Western rulers. These slaves helped create the unique Seychelles Creole, the language used by many natives, with borrowed words from the languages of both the captors and the nations they were brought in from. The mixed heritage of the islands populated by under 90,000 people is visible everywhere; in the cuisine, in the languages spoken and in the culture of tolerance which accepts persons from many different ethnicities and beliefs.
The economy of the Seychelles, one of the strongest among the countries in Africa, with only 0.3 per cent of the population living in poverty according to international organisations, is built around tourism, fishing and limited agriculture. The distribution of wealth has however prevented the kind of poverty known across most of the continent the Seychelles belong to. In part, this is due to the government which took power after colonial rule ended in 1976 with the Seychelles turning into a one party socialist-run state.
This brought its share of problems, with single party rule continuing to 1993 and the fall of the Soviet Union. But it also benefited the people by setting in place safeguards to protect them against some of the worst effects of poverty. Attempts led by South Africa and its then apartheid regime to overthrow the Left-leaning set up based in Mahe, the capital island of the Seychelles, were defeated time after time. Oddly today, carved out on rocks close to luxury resorts, the hammer and sickle still appear and the vote still veers towards liberal forces.
The more even distribution of wealth is possibly one of the reasons why the Seychelles has an extremely low rate of crime and why it ranks among the 20 countries in the world where levels of satisfaction with life are at their highest. Most of the other countries on this list of 20 lie in the developed world and include New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden and other nations with strong welfare system and advanced levels of development.
Of course, it would be hard not to be satisfied if one lived among the postcard-perfect beauty of the islands which has enthralled people everywhere and brought in many artists, writers and others who have made the island their home. It also houses a significant population of Rastafarians, as has been the case since the 1930s when the religion first took firm root in Africa and other parts of the world.
The Rasta culture adds its own element of happiness given the music, the dance and the patois that goes with a lifestyle that has fascinated the world for generations. High levels of education and healthcare add to happiness that cannot come from music or a laid-back lifestyle, and smiles appear everywhere spontaneously. Even the giant Hawksbill turtles, which appear near beaches or can occasionally be spotted swimming through crystal clear water with a grace they cannot bring to land, seem content with life, and the protections they enjoy under tough anti-poaching laws.
The Seychelles are in so many ways a dream destination. But even with the curbs on piracy and a sharp reduction in incidents since 2013, sinister things lurk if one peers deep beyond the tropical forests and the ancient rock formations. Tough laws make homosexuality illegal and for a population so small, there is a high rate of rape. But for the most part, people claim they lead the most perfect lives in the world. More residents say this than those in most other places in the world. The Seychelles have done something right.
They have capitalised on their natural beauty immensely and turned their tiny country consisting of islands which in some cases are made up of simply a few large boulders into a place that many have come to love and cherish. The beaches may be perfect; but the beauty is a natural one and as yet has not been interfered with by humans in a way that could make it seem more artificial and less real. For this alone, the governments that have run the Seychelles over the decades need to be applauded as they do for being able to make their small number of people among the happiest citizens anywhere on our planet.