LOCATION: Comoros Islands
ALTERNATE NAMES: Mauri or the Mahorais
LANGUAGE: Arabic, French, Comorian (Shikomori)
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni), Catholicism
The Comoros Archipelago—comprising Grande Comore (Njazídja), Anjouan (Nzwani), Mayotte (Mahore), and Mohéli (Mwali)—was originally named by Arab sailors who visited the islands in the late 6th century. They called them Juzu el Kumar (“islands of the moon” in Arabic) because of their brightness during the full moon. Before the arrival of the Arabs, Africans of the Wamakuwa and Bantu tribes had been living on the islands, organized in clans, and had originated the Comorian language, which is still spoken today. The Comoros was also visited by sailors from East Asia, Persia, and Israel. More Arabs arrived on the islands between the 12th and 17th centuries, transforming their social structures and introducing sultanates. The Comorians are a blend of settlers from the past: Iranian traders, mainland Africans, Arabs, and Malagasy.
In the early 15th century, Portuguese visited the region. (In 1527, the Comoros islands appeared on a world map designed by Portuguese cartographer Diego Roberso.) Sailors from the Netherlands, France, and other European countries, all attracted by the islands' geographically strategic position eventually followed them. In the early 17th century, pirates used the Comoros as a base from which to attack and rob merchant vessels. In 1841, King Andreanantsuli of Madagascar, having previously declared himself sultan of Mayotte, sold the island to the French. Later in the 19th century, Ramanetaka, another Malagasy king, formed a relationship with the local authorities on Mohéli, modifying its system of local rule and establishing another sultanate. The Comoros became a French protectorate in 1886. They were placed under the authority of the French governor general of Madagascar in 1908 and given their own internal administration in 1912.
In 1958, the political status of the islands was modified by a referendum, which gave them the status of a self-governing French overseas territory. Said Mohammed Cheik became the president of the Council of Government. In a December 1974 referendum, a majority of the Comorians of the four islands voted for independence from France. Dissatisfied with the prospect of losing all four islands, the French scheduled another election in July 1975 that permitted each island to choose its own political status.
Opposing this French move to divide the islands, Ahmed Abdallah, president of the Council of Government, unilaterally declared independence for all the islands on 6 July 1975 and was installed as the nation's first president. Less than a month after the Comoros' independence, France established a military presence on Mayotte, and while the former colonial power was affirming its control of Mayotte, European mercenaries, led by the notorious French soldier of fortune Bob Denard, destabilized the other three independent islands by overthrowing the governments and killing the presidents. Since its independence, Comorians have requested the reintegration of the island of Mayotte through a United Nations resolution.
A state-owned newspaper, Al Watwany, began operations in July 1985, first as a monthly and soon afterward as a weekly. An independent weekly, L'Archipel, began publishing in 1988. A news agency, Agence Comores Presse, is now based in Moroni, and France has provided funds for establishing a national television service. In 1989 Comoros had an estimated 61,000 radios and 200 television sets.
In addition to national broadcasts on FM in Comoran Swahili and French, Radio Comoros in 1993 broadcast internationally on the shortwave band in Swahili, Arabic, and French. An independent commercial FM radio station, Radio Tropique FM, began broadcasting in 1991, although it and its director, political activist Ali Bakar Cassim, were both the object of government ire over the station's readiness to criticize the Djohar regime.
On 3 August 1975 Ali Soilihi, assisted by French mercenaries, overthrew Abdallah's government, implementing a socialist-inspired self-sufficiency policy that boosted the Comorian economy. On 12 November 1975 the Comoros was admitted to the United Nations as a nation composed of four islands—Grande Comore, Anjouan, Mohéli, and Mayotte. In May 1978 European mercenaries once again led by Denard, who had placed Soilihi in power, overthrew the government and assassinated him. Denard took control of the Comoros and restored Ahmed Abdallah to power. For more than a decade Abdallah ruled the country, backed by Denard and his mercenaries. He changed the name of the country to the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros.
In November 1989, when President Abdallah anticipated negotiating with France on the question of the Comorian island of Mayotte and planned to expel the mercenaries, they assassinated him and seized control of the country for several weeks. France and South Africa arranged their surrender and subsequent departure. Five months later, Said Mohammed Djohar the former head of the supreme court, was elected president. A few months before the end of President Djohar's five-year term, history repeated itself when Bob Denard, supposedly on parole in France, seized President Djohar and forced him into exile to Réunion, a French Overseas Department island. Once again Denard took control of the country for several weeks. Pressured by the Comorian government and the international community, France sent its marines to withdraw Denard and his mercenaries.
In March 1996 Mohammed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected president. A year later, because of the incomplete independence of the Comoros and chronic political instabilities conceived by some Europeans, on 3 August 1997 the residents of Anjouan and Mohéli declared an unrecognized independence and requested to return under French administration, which France denied.
In 1997, the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their independence from the Union of Comoros. However, the islands were reunified as the Comoros again in 2002, a new constitution mandated the election of a president of Anjouan along with presidents for the other two islands and a federal president. Mohamed Bacar, who had led the separatist government since 2001, was elected for a five-year term as President of Anjouan. His term expired on 14 April 2007, and the President of the Assembly, Houmadi Caambi, became acting president from April 2007 to 10 May 2007.
Comorian federal troops tried unsuccessfully to take control of buildings in Anjouan and install a replacement president as mandated by a court in May 2007. The Union government delayed the holding of an election on Anjouan due to alleged irregularities and intimidation, but Bacar nevertheless printed ballots and held a sham election in June, claiming a landslide victory of 90%.
In October 2007, the African Union (AU) imposed travel sanctions on Anjouan's President Mohamed Bacar and other government officials and froze their foreign assets while calling for fresh elections. In February 2008 the Comoros rejected the AU's extended sanctions against Anjouan and instead opted for a military solution.
In March 2008 hundreds of Union government troops began assembling on Moheli, which is closer to Anjouan than the larger island, Grande Comore. Foreign troops from Sudan, Senegal, Libya, Tanzania, and France arrived to offer support for the operation to invade and secure the Comoros. Anjouan promised to hold new elections in May 2008, which the South African president supported as a way to resolve the crisis. The proposal and the invasion went ahead.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Comoros Islands, located between Madagascar and the east coast of Africa, cover 2,170 sq km (838 sq mi). The national capital, Moroni, located on Grande Comore, has over 30,000 inhabitants. The climate of the Comoros is tropical, with a warm rainy season from November to April and a mild dry season from April to October. The total population is approximately 530,000 people, of whom more than 30% live in urban areas. The population increases about 3.5% per year, with an annual birthrate of 50 births per 1,000 population and an annual death rate of more than 10 per 1,000 population. The age structure of the population of Comoros is similar to that of many developing countries, in that the republic has a very large proportion of young people.
Grande Comore (Njazídja) covers a total area of 1,145 sq km (442 sq mi). Geologically speaking, it is the youngest island in the archipelago and is dominated by an active volcano, Mt. Khartala (7,900 ft/2,408 m), with the world's largest crater. Its last eruption was in 1977. The island of Anjouan (Nzwani) is triangular, roughly 97 km (60 mi) on each side, and a total area of 424 sq km (164 sq mi). It is the most densely populated island in the archipelago, with 210,000 people. Mayotte (Mahore) is the westernmost island in the archipelago, with an area of 374 sq km (144 sq mi). As the first island to be settled by Europeans, Mayotte was the most resistant to the establishment of a strong Islamic culture by Arab inhabitants. Mohéli (Mwali) is the smallest of the four islands, with an area of 290 sq km (112 sq mi).
Arabic, French, and Comorian are the official languages of Comoros. The Comorian language, Shikomori, is derived from the Bantu culture and related to Swahili and Arabic. A different dialect of Shikomori is spoken on each of the four islands of the Comoros: Shinjazídja on Grande Comore, Shindzuani on Anjouan, Shimwali on Mwali, and Shimaore on Mayotte. Despite some phonetic and semantic differences among the dialects, its speakers understand each other.
Comorians do not have surnames in the Western sense. Instead their proper names are followed by those of their fathers, as in Sofia Muhammad-Sofia, the daughter of Muhammad. Most Comorian proper names have specific meanings. For example, the name Mdahoma means “long life,” Karihila means “fearless,” and Shujai means “hero.” Departing from the traditional Comorian names, some Comorians today use Arabic or Christian names. The Comoran people are a blend of African, Arab, and MalayoIndonesian elements. A few small communities, primarily in Mahoré, speak Kibushi, a Malagasy dialect. The principal Comoran Swahili dialect, written in Arabic script, is related to the Swahili spoken in East Africa but is not easily intelligible to East African Swahili speakers. Classical Arabic is significant for religious reasons, and French remains the principal language with which the Republic of the Comoros communicates with the rest of the world.
Comorian, or Shikomor is a descendant of Swahili with Arabic influences. About 57% of the population is literate in the Latin alphabet, more with the Arabic alphabet; total literacy is estimated at 62.5%. Comorian has no native script, but both Arabic and Latin scripts have been used.
Comorian folklore is dominated by both African and Islamic traditions. Like some other Muslims, there is a widespread belief among Comorians that events occur according to Allah's will, and that human beings cannot control their destinies. Certain local myths are related to Islam. In the north of Grande Comore, for example, it is believed that at the present site of Lac Salé (“salted lake”), a village was flooded because its inhabitants refused to give water to a sharif (supposedly a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad).
Some widespread beliefs are related to African divinities, such as the belief that a diviner (mwalim) or jinn (spirits) should be consulted before any social activity or ceremony. Such consultations may require special rites, financial outlays, and animal sacrifices.
Mt. Khartala on Grande Comore is said to have been created by the shock that occurred when King Solomon's ring fell on the island while he was being chased by jinns from Saba (present-day Ethiopia). It is said that when the ring sank in the Indian Ocean, it was eaten by a fish.
Islam is the state religion; some 98% of Comorians are Sunni Muslims. About 2% are Catholic, and evangelical believers represent only 0.1% of the population. There is at least one Catholic church in the capital of each island. Surprisingly, however, mosque attendance is very low. Mixed with their Islamic practices, there is a strong involvement in occultism and spirit possession.
The Comoros have two types of holidays: religious and national holidays, the latter include New Year's Day (January 1); a holiday commemorating the death of President Said Mohammed Cheik, the first president of the self-governing Council government (March 16); Labor Day (May 1); and Independence Day (July 6). Religious holidays include the celebration of the prophet Mohammed's birth; Miraj, the day when the latter went to visit paradise; Idd el Fitri, which marks the end of Ramadan; and Idd el Adha, primarily a day to remember one's ancestors. Religious holidays conform to a lunar calendar.
RITES OF PASSAGE
In the Comoros, each stage of human life is celebrated by a specific ceremony. Newborn babies and their mothers are kept secluded to avoid the “evil eye” of possible enemies for the first seven days after birth. During this period several religious rituals take place, and only very close relatives are permitted to visit them. After the seven days, friends can see them. Some bring gifts, which may range from a ring to a cow to a tree.
At the age of six, children are sent to a Quranic school, where they learn the Islamic code of conduct, and later to a Western-style primary school. Four to five years later, when they are able to read the entire Quran, a special ceremony called the Hitimiya is organized. This ritual is simultaneously a ceremony of a personal recognition and a rite of passage to adolescence. At this time, boys are circumcised.
Traditionally, the eldest daughter in a family does not leave her house after the Hitimiya unless she is escorted by a member of her family and covered with a shiromani or lesso (colorful local shawls). At present, this tradition is only practiced in some rural areas.
At the age of 15, boys traditionally leave their families and build huts where they sleep and socialize with their friends. Yet they still participate in family activities and play a role in public events in their villages. When this phase is over, they are ready to marry, once they have the approval of their families. They can celebrate with either a simple marriage or the anda (grand marriage).
For Grand Comorians, the anda is not only a wedding festivity; it is also a social, economic, and cultural rite. Several stages and ceremonies should be accomplished before a man becomes a “respectful man.” The grand marriage is cost prohibitive and associates the whole community. On the other islands, the structure is similar but less expensive.
Anda promotes a man to a personal social achievement and hierarchy and/or validates his political status. It also provides prestigious status to a woman and her family. In order to access the highest social hierarchy grade and personal prestige, one should celebrate one's own anda and also have one for a daughter or niece. Thus, it is not uncommon for someone to marry at the age of 20 and celebrate a grand marriage 30 years later.
Depending upon the family (either rich or socially well-integrated), the grand marriage can begin at the day of someone's birth, reach its peak during the marriage celebration, and continue even after the person's death. However, a simple marriage is reserved for marginal families and those who choose not to celebrate a grand marriage.
Birthday parties are celebrated only in urban areas, yet those born during the month of Maulid (the month corresponding to the Prophet Mohammad's birth) celebrate with a religious ceremony.
Comorians are known for their politeness, humor, hospitality, and harmony. Sharing and helping others are considered mandatory in all circumstances, to the point where the very notion of thanking someone is considered odd, because help is always expected and even taken for granted.
The Comorian greeting is very lengthy and may even include inquiries about one's neighbors, pets, or cattle. In public, men shake hands, and some young people slap each others' hands. Older women greet each other verbally or grasp each others' hands. Kwezi, either preceding or succeeding a sentence, is a common term of respect used when addressing a person older than oneself. It is considered impolite to address people by their family names. When addressing an older person with whom one is not familiar, proper forms of address are mjomba (uncle), mbaba (father), or mdzade (mother). If one knows the person's child, niece, or nephew, these appellations are followed by the name of the younger relative (e.g. mbaba Ali if the son's name is Ali, or mjomba Nema if the nephew's name is Nema).
It is considered rude to lose contact with close family or friends, and regular visits are the norm. When someone intends to travel abroad, everyone in the community is informed, and gifts are given by friends and close family members before a trip. The traveler is also expected to bring gifts for those at home upon returning.
Officially, dating is forbidden, as Islam forbids relationships between unmarried couples.
Comoros is among the world's least developed countries, with high birth and death rates, and a population growth rate that is roughly twice the world average. In the 1980s, a large proportion of all housing still consisted of the traditional straw huts with roofs made from cocoa leaves, although there were also dwellings made from brick, stone, or concrete.
About 60% of the Comorians live in cities; but whether in rural or urban areas, housing on the island is generally poor. The average life expectancy was 56 years in 1992, when it was estimated that nearly one-third of all children died before the age of five. Leading health problems include malaria, tuberculosis, and leprosy. By 2005, life expectancy was 62.2 years.
There is a ring road on each island. Many of the smaller roads are usable only for part of the year. Grande Comore has an international airport at Hahaia, and there are airfields on the other islands.
Despite the intrusion of foreign customs, Comorian culture retains a strong traditional concept of the family, whose members are linked by blood, marriage, or adoption. Friends may also be considered family. The coherence provided by this tradition has played a tremendous role in social and daily life, fostering solidarity and preventing delinquency and crime. Polygamy is an acceptable practice among the Comorians. Among men who can afford it, the preferred form of marriage appears to be polygyny with matrilocal residence. The first marriage is formally initiated with the grand marriage when possible, subsequent unions involve much simpler ceremonies. The result is that a man will establish two or even more households and will alternate residence between them, a reflection, most likely, of the trading origins of the Shirazi elite who maintained wives at different trading posts. Said Mohamed Djohar, elected president in 1990, had two wives, one in Njazidja and the other in Nzwani, an arrangement said to have broadened his appeal to voters. For men, divorce is easy, although by custom a divorced wife retains the family home. Children are expected to help with family duties such as farming, fishing, and caring for the animals. Each family is affiliated with a political party, a bond based on personal relationships rather than on the party's policies or actions.
French colonization modified the Comorian mode of dress. Although young people wear Western style clothing, traditional clothing is still common among the adults. Traditional clothing, still worn by older women, is very colorful. They either wear a long dress and cover themselves with a lesso or shiromani (traditional shawls), or they wear a chador, a combination head covering, veil, and shawl worn by women in many Muslim countries. Younger women wear Western clothes but still cover themselves with a lesso. Only women in cities wear pants. While in town, a Comorian man will typically wear a white cotton garment and a knee-length shirt, sometimes with a white jacket and white skull cap. Out of town, a long cloth sarong (colorful skirt) is worn. Most women wear long, colorful cotton dresses with bright shawls as face coverings. Others prefer wearing black robes that cover their heads. Older men wear a traditional cloth called an ikoi covering their lower body, a long white robe called a kandu, and a kofia, an embroidered hat.
Comorian food reflects a combination of influences, mostly African but also Arab and Indian. The main fare in the Comorian diet consists of products cultivated on the islands, except rice, which is imported from Asia. Most Comorian cuisine is spicy. The basic diet of the Comorians consists of rice, potatoes, corn, fish, coconuts, and bananas. Other crops that are grown are sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, and pineapples.
Breakfast varies from one island to the next. On Grande Comore, people drink hot tea with bread, grilled breadfruit, or leftovers. On Anjouan and Mayotte they drink a hot soup made from leftover rice. The residents of Mohéli drink hot tea and eat grilled cassava or breadfruit with fish. Lunch is similar on all four islands and may include cassava, tarot, green bananas, potatoes, breadfruit (grilled, fried, or boiled) or rice with madaba (cassava leaves), fish, and imported meat. Rice is the main dish for dinner. The most common beverages are fresh water and fruit juice. Alcohol and pork are forbidden by the Muslim religion. On Anjouan and Mayotte, a local beer, trembo, made from coconut juice is tolerated. The Comoros islands have an abundance of fruit, including mangoes, papayas, oranges, coconuts, and pineapples, varying with the specific season and region.
Before exposure to Western influences, Comorians ate on a mat placed on the floor using their right hands, a practice still followed in rural areas. In urban areas, people eat at tables with Western utensils.
The Comorian educational system is based on both Islamic teachings and the French model. All education is free. Each village has several Quranic schools and at least one French primary school. However, due to economic problems, the majority of students find it hard to finish primary school.
There is a collège (junior primary) and three to five lycées (secondary schools) on each island, as well as a couple of technical training schools and a teacher training college. For higher education, since the 1990s many private primary and secondary schools have emerged.
Comorian music and dance are based on African, Arabic, Malagasy, European, and southern Indian traditions. Comoran society and culture reflect the influences of Islam and the traditions of East Africa. The former provides the basis for religion and law; the East African influence is evident in the language, a Swahili dialect, and in a number of pre-Islamic customs. Western, primarily French, influences are also prevalent, particularly in the modern educational sector, the civil service, and cultural affairs. Lavish wedding ceremonies are common and highly regarded. This wedding ceremony, which can cost as much as the equivalent of $20,000 to $30,000, involves an exchange of expensive gifts between the couple's families and feasts for an entire village. The gift giving and dancing that accompany the grand marriage have helped perpetuate indigenous arts in silversmithing, goldsmithing, folk song, and folk dance.
Subsistence agriculture and fishing are the Comorians' chief sources of income, employing roughly 80% of the labor force, with a smaller number engaged in trade. In families engaged in farming or fishing, children generally work alongside their parents, although the legal minimum age for employment is 15. In the 1990s, teachers and other government employees, as well as dock workers, began to unionize. Most of the islanders work as farmers or fishermen, while a few breed cattle, sheep, goats, and donkeys. A small number work in industry or in jobs relating to tourism. The island of Mayotte is very poor and undeveloped. Due to the shortage of good farmland, much of the food must be imported.
Soccer (known as football) is a popular male sport in the Comoros. Each village has at least two football teams. Women only participate as spectators. Volleyball and basketball are also common in urban areas, where some women are involved in sports. Comoros participated in its first Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Public conversation is a very common form of male entertainment in the Comoros. Each village has several public places called bangwe where men of the same generation or social and cultural background meet every day, particularly from 4 to 6 pm and from 8 pm until midnight. All social games and activities take place at the bangwe. Mrenge, a mixture of boxing and wrestling, was once a popular game on the islands and is still occasionally played on Anjouan and Mayotte. The influence of Western culture has dominated Comorian society, and some Comorian games are unfortunately now disappearing or are considered uncivilized, such as mbio za ngalawa (boat racing) and ngome za ngombe (cattle wrestling). For recreation they enjoy dancing, singing, and playing instruments, especially horns and drums.
Older men enjoy playing dominoes, cards, and mraha, a seed-and-board game well known in Africa and the Pacific Islands. Movie theaters have declined since the introduction of the VCR. On weekends, young people organize picnics or barbecues on the beach. In each major city there are a couple of nightclubs. Young people also commonly surf the Internet.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Comoros, especially Anjouan, are known for their wood-carvings and dolls. Other traditional crafts include the brightly colored red and orange cloth worn by Comorian women, as well as jewelry and embroidered Muslim hats.
Comorians have no real ethnic or racial divisions. Nevertheless, there are traditional hostilities between urban and rural dwellers and between fishermen and peasants. Yet since the illegal occupation of Mayotte by France in 1975, divisions have emerged between residents of Mayotte and other Comorians of the independent three islands. Political instability is a major problem facing the Comorians. More than a dozen coups d'état conducted by Western mercenaries in the years since 1975 have led to political instability on the islands.
The physical needs of the Comorians are numerous. Major problems in Mayotte include poverty, disease, and hunger. Educational levels are low and only 68% of the population is literate. The economy is struggling and unemployment levels are very high. There is a shortage of hospitals and doctors, and many suffer from illnesses and chronic malnutrition. Hygiene is poor due to the fact that the Comorians have a poor water supply. Such problems contribute to a high death rate, especially among young children.
Among the men who can afford it, the preferred form of marriage appears to be polygyny with matrilocal residence. The result is that a man will establish two or even more households and will alternate residence between them, a reflection, most likely, of the trading origins of the Shirazi elite who maintained wives at different trading posts. Women have to contend with an alternating husband. For men, divorce is easy, although by custom a divorced wife retains the family home.
Although women play a limited role in Comorian culture, in which polygamy is legal, their matriarchal tradition gives Comorian women the last word on important issues pertaining to household affairs. Also, atypically for an Islamic society, they may leave their husbands without any official notice or legal decision.
Despite their lower economic status, women married to farmers or laborers often move about more freely than their counterparts among the social elite, managing market stands or working in the fields. On Mwali, where traditional Islamic values are less dominant, women generally are not as strictly secluded.
Islamic law recognizes only male ownership and inheritance of land. In Comoros, however, certain landholdings called magnahouli are controlled by women and inherited through the female line, apparently in observance of a surviving matriarchal African tradition.
Girls are somewhat less likely than boys to attend school in Comoros.
Although the 1992 constitution recognizes their right to suffrage, as did the 1978 constitution, women otherwise play a limited role in politics in Comoros. By contrast, in Mahoré female merchants sparked the movement for continued association with France, and later, for continued separation from the Republic of the Comoros.
Due to restricted religious and political beliefs, women cannot plan their own families. The use of contraceptives is irreligious in the largely Islamic community.
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—revised by M. Njoroge.