6 Leadership Lessons from the Wakashio Disaster, Mauritius


By Barkha Mossae and Karuna Rana

Our country, Mauritius, is normally associated with images of pristine lagoons in sparkling shades of blue. Indeed, our seas and beaches are so beautiful that Mauritius is regularly said to be "paradise on Earth". Perhaps the most iconic beach is Blue Bay, where the waters are every bit as blue as you would think they are, and the 1000-year old corals are as beautiful as they get. Here is an unfiltered picture from a snorkeling session there - no gimmicks were needed to attract the fish, who photobombed us at will.


Photo courtesy of Barkha Mossae

Last week, however, the images circulating all over the world were painted a different colour: ribbons of black and murky brown were oozing out of a wrecked vessel, the MV Wakashio, which ran aground on the coral reef on 25 July and started falling apart, leaking out the 4,000 tonnes of low-sulphur, poisonous bunker fuel it was carrying. We watched with horror as the oil slick expanded, moving fast into our pristine lagoons. The contrast between the turquoise and the rapidly expanding black was chilling.


Photo courtesy of Gwendoline Defente—EMAE/AP

An oil spill of any scale anywhere is bad news, but in this case, it is the location rather than the scale of the spill that is of greater concern. The oil spill location happened to be in one of Mauritius's most ecologically sensitive and beautiful area: next to the marine park which aimed to protect millennia-old coral. The Ile aux Aigrettes islet houses and rehabilitates endemic and endangered plant, bird and reptile species, contains Ramsar biodiversity hotspots, turtle hatcheries, fishing grounds for the local fisherfolk, is the site of some of Mauritius's most iconic pre-independence naval battles, and is home to historic villages of the South East coast of Mauritius.

Being away from our country at this time did make us feel frustrated and helpless. But this distance also forced us to introspect, and reflect upon the several emotions and lessons which one can draw from this situation. Some of these lessons, especially on leadership, are highlighted below:

1. It's OK to be a follower

As Wakashio leaked its poison into the sea, something incredible happened. Mauritians from all quarters of the island and all walks of life mobilised to assemble makeshift booms, clean up the blackened beaches and mangrove sites, and sharing the calls for funds from the Eco-Sud NGO and the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, organisations which had (rubber) boots on the ground from the get-go.

Why is this significant?

The youth leadership space is rife with people who are competing with each other for what we call "leadership credentials". In the last decade, we have seen many initiatives and self-styled leaders and “gurus” mushroom all over the place. Sadly, the environmental movement is full of this: multiple initiatives for the same cause. While it is great that people wish to take action on environmental issues, the high level of fragmentation can be dangerous as it creates unnecessary competition for political space, funds and public attention, while eroding youth's capacity to collectively mobilise around certain issues. It dilutes resources as funders are no longer able to channel funds constructively or verify the credibility of each initiative. The elephant in the room is that many of these initiatives are ego-driven, seeking to "center" someone rather than a cause at its centre, because let's face it: it's more humbling to join someone else's initiative (and possibly be in the shadows doing the background work) than to set your own up. As a generation, we need to learn that visibility does not always equate impact.

The mobilisation of the Mauritian people showed that simply following can yield incredible results. Mauritians put ego aside and became part of a great machinery: a hive that worked 24/7 to tackle an emergency. Fundraising efforts which were set up channeled money to the above NGOs. What it means is that we let the "experts"/NGOs leading on this do what they do best and gave our full support. Nobody was looking for a slice of the cake or the spotlight, but as a collective, Mauritians managed to achieve the impossible: stemming the tide of the oil spill.


Photo courtesy of Joe Lodge

2. People power is real

We believe it is highly symbolical that the booms which stopped the flow of petrol into the lagoon, while awaiting foreign aid were comprised of human hair. Someone had the brilliant idea of using human hair to absorb the oil, and within hours, Mauritians were down by the hundreds to build kilometre-long booms made of hair and straw to contain the spread of the spill.

Old people, young people, people of every colour, creed and class rushed to cut their hair to donate to the cause. The mingling of human hair from all walks of life is a powerful reminder of the unity of the Mauritian people: the basis of our strength and resilience as a nation.

As a nation that has never really had to contend with a calamity in recent years, we tend to be complacent and peace loving. However, it was incredible that Mauritians poured out of their homes, banded together and rushed to protect the island Avengers-style. Working through the night without any form of guidance, they zeroed in with laser focus on the matter at hand: containing the spill.

You would think that from the various oil spills that we have seen in the media in the past (the Deepwater Horizon disaster pops up immediately), there was nothing we could do except pray in this situation and wait for heavy equipment and expertise to arrive. But not Mauritians! Against all odds, they set up the hand-made booms across the lagoon, and against all odds, the booms worked.

All this goes to show that when people rally behind a cause, you can make miracles happen.


Photo courtesy of CIEL Group

3. Collaboration is key

In the same vein, the disaster shows that nothing can be achieved without collaboration. While the hand-made booms held, the authorities reached out to our international partners and France and Japan responded promptly, followed by India and the UN. Within hours, France had despatched equipment and manpower to set up more booms and pump out the fuel remaining on the vessel.

At the same time, collaborations were also rapidly being created between and within the public and private sectors. Using social media and word-of-mouth connections, needs (for volunteers, for example), were being matched with resources. The environmental activism area has often operated in a silo. But here, collaborations were emerging between hairdressers, fishermen communities and NGOs.

Not only that, but this was perhaps the first time that we saw the Mauritian diaspora come together as quickly and in such large numbers. The oil spill triggered a fierce protectiveness from the diaspora, bringing them emotionally close to their island. As we write this, hundreds of Mauritians living abroad are organising themselves in various country groups to initiate rapid action in the form of fundraising and collecting protective gear and hair donations to be sent to Mauritius, while working on medium and long-term action plans for the oil spill. The Mauritian diaspora in France, for example, was able to get French NGO Coiffeurs Justes to donate 20 tonnes of hair for the cause.

The spill showed that no matter how self-sufficient you think you are, we live in a world where we need each other. We must invest in creating those collaborative partnerships all the way from an individual and grassroots level to an international level.


Photo courtesy of Beata Albert 

5. We shouldn’t wait for others to get started

What is holding back large-scale environmental activism is the psychology of “someone else will do it”.

Even before the Prime Minister of Mauritius declared a state of environmental emergency over the oil spill, thousands of Mauritians joined the immediate call for volunteers. The production of makeshift booms, fundraising, and resource mobilisation of hair, nylon stockings and marine ropes were initiated right away and continued around the clock. Nobody waited for “someone else” to do the work or for bureaucratic protocol. And, as satellite images show, these makeshift booms did work to contain the oil spill until international help and experts arrived, thereby preventing further damage to the coast.

This goes to show that true environmental action is disruptive, and should not wait for approval. We are the critical mass that must trigger environmental action.


Photo courtesy of Satellite Image ©2020 Maxar Technologies; and Nishan Degnarain

6. Self-care is important

Finally, it's important to know when to slow down and step back. Exposure to the oil spill and its toxic fumes is harmful. Several volunteers reported experiencing headaches, nausea, dizziness, and at least two of them have been admitted to hospital. As the immediate shock of the oil spill wanes, the psychological impact of seeing paradise lost is likely to manifest itself - particularly against the backdrop of the horror movie that 2020 has been. Millennials have been accustomed to equate "work till you wreck yourself" with success and leadership – and it’s wrong. Ultimately, the success of any movement, job or initiative can be linked with how healthy it is, and if its people aren’t themselves healthy and thriving, this will be reflected in the quality of the output.


Photo courtesy of Beata Albert

The Wakashio oil spill is going to be one of the darkest chapters in modern Mauritian history, and also a turning point. The impact of the oil spill will remain with us for years to come. These are the lessons which struck us as we watched the leak and the immediate response. As the situation unfolds, we will continue to learn more about ourselves, as Mauritians and islanders, about resilience, and about our relationship with nature.

About the Authors


Barkha Mossae

As a Mauritian diplomat, Barkha combines over ten years of experience in the public sector and civil society, using insights from each sector to accelerate inclusivity and youth-led sustainable development. As a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Scholar, Barkha is passionate about governance and development in Africa, especially at continental level. As such, in her current assignment, she is keenly following the evolution of African geopolitics from Addis Ababa, in particular issues relating to natural resource governance, Africa's role within the multilateral system, unlocking the blue economy, and the impact of the AfCFTA on the transformation on the African continent.


Karuna Rana

Karuna is a Fulbright Scholar and social entrepreneur who combines sustainability science, policy, and outreach to create tangible impact. She is the Co-Founder of SYAH, the only sustainability-focused regional organization to convene young people across 7 small island states in Africa and Asia. She currently works on blue carbon R&D, impact, and policy with LOLIWARE, the world’s leading seaweed-based material technology company replacing single-use plastics.


Collectively, Karuna and Barkha co-founded #SeeingBlue, a blue economy initiative aimed at empowering young people from Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to champion the ocean. Together with OYW Ambassador Angelique Pouponneau of Seychelles, they received the Mary Robinson Climate Justice Foundation Award for #SeeingBlue.

Published on 17/08/2020