HISTORY
Beginning in the 14th century, the islands of Comoros attracted explorers from Indonesia, the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Madagascar. In 1505 Portuguese explorers, the first Europeans, landed on Njazidja. A flourishing trade developed with subsequent expeditions, and this group of islands played a vital role in the thriving economy of the western Indian Ocean. Domoni, situated on the island of Nzwani (Anjouan), was a major center for trade from the 15th century. Trade was in full swing even with nations as far away as Japan. Merchants, sailors, and pirates made frequent visits to these islands. The Nzwani (Anjouan) Island was the favorite place for refueling and obtaining provisions. When the Suez Canal opened, these islands lost their importance as the main trade route changed, and the islands are mostly referred to as “the forgotten islands.” Between 1841 and 1912 the French established their control over the islands of Grand Comore, Anjouan, Mayotte, and Moheli and handed over the administration of the region to the Governor General of Madagascar. Portuguese, French, and Arab traders established a plantation economy in the region. Even today Comoros uses one-third of its land to produce crops for export. Under French rule, the native population suffered brutal treatment. Protests and uprisings were crushed and dissent was silenced. In the mid-20th century, however, France began to soften its stand in the wake of World Wars I and II. By 1947 Comoros had become an independently administered French colony. In 1961 Comoros was granted greater internal political autonomy also Volumeby France, but the people of Comoros insisted on total independence. France was initially reluctant, which led to widespread protests and demonstrations against French rule. In 1973 an agreement was reached between France and the islands of Grand Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, according to which the islands of Comoros would be granted total independence by 1978. The island of Mayotte, preferring to remain a French protectorate, did not participate in these negotiations. In a sudden move on July 6, 1975, the Comoran parliament passed a resolution severing all ties with France and declaring unilateral independence. Once again the representatives of Mayotte did not participate in these proceedings and refused to join the independent state of Comoros. Referendums in Mayotte were held in 1974 and 1976, and the people of Mayotte voted in favor of French protection. Even today the Union of Comoros has administrative control over Grand Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan, while Mayotte remains under French administration. Since independence Comoros has witnessed 19 coups; many of them had the support of the French government, which continued to seek control over the region. All three islands have had their share of problems. Following growing economic instability and political unrest caused by the coups, the islands of Moheli and Anjouan declared independence from Comoros in 1997. The government of Comoros used force to try to reclaim the rebellious islands but failed. In Grand Comore after the death of the last democratically elected president, Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim (b. 1936), on November 6, 1998, a provisional government was placed in power under acting President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde (1933–2004). On August 2, 1999, a military coup led by Colonel Azali Assoumani (b. 1959) ousted the provisional government, and Assoumani declared himself the president of Comoros. He maintained a firm grip on the region, despite several attempted coups; as of the early years of the 21st century, he remained the president. On August 1, 1999, Anjouan also experienced political upheaval after the resignation of its first president Foundi Abdallah Ibrahim (?b. 1922). He handed over the reins to Said Abeid (b. 1941), a national coordinator. On August 9, 2001, however, a coup led by naval officers ousted his government, and a military junta led by Mohamed Bacar (b. 1962) assumed control of the island. Several coups were attempted against Bacar, most of which were led by Abeid; but each failed. Elections held in 2002 on the island of Anjouan legitimized Bacar’s claim to the presidency, when he was unanimously elected president of the island. The island of Moheli entered into negotiations with the government of Comoros, and elections held in 2002 placed Mohamed Said Fazul (b. 1960) at the helm when he won the presidential elections with an overwhelming majority. The new constitution adopted in 2002 by all three islands granted greater autonomy to the islands of Grand Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan and gave each island the right to elect its own president. Thus the Union of Comoros came into being. President Azali Assoumani was elected as the overall president of the union, but his powers are restricted to security and finance on the islands of Moheli and Anjouan.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Comoros is an island archipelago located off southern Africa at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. The oldest of these islands—Maore (Mayotte)— remains a French territory. The remaining three islands make up the Union of Comoros: Njazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), and Nzwani (Anjouan). These islands are sometimes referred to as The Union of Comoros Islands and Mayotte, or the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. All the islands are volcanic, and low hills and steep mountains are prominent features. Njazidja (Grand Comore), closer to the African mainland, has a huge active volcano and the residents live in constant fear that it will erupt. In the early 21st century, Mayotte is claimed by Comoros, but remains under French control, because the citizens of the island prefer this arrangement. The islands have a tropical marine climate. The annual average temperature in Comoros is 77°F. Cyclones pose a threat during the rainy season, which lasts from November until May. Crop cultivation on slopes without proper terracing techniques has resulted in soil erosion, and deforestation is a problem as well.
ECONOMY
The Union of Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world. It has poor transportation links; natural resources are limited; and widespread illiteracy stifles economic growth. Unemployment is high. Agriculture is the main sector of the economy, followed by fishing, hunting, and forestry. Most of the products are exported, but the country is not self-sufficient in food production. Without foreign aid, this group of islands would not be able to sustain itself. The main imported goods are petroleum products, cement, rice, foodstuffs, and transportation equipment. These are mostly imported from France, Thailand, Japan, and Kenya. Perfume oil, copra, cloves, vanilla, and ylang-ylang—the oil of a tropical tree used to make perfume—are exported mainly to France, Germany, and the United States. The islands are the world’s largest producer of the essence ylang-ylang and the second largest producer of vanilla.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Many settlements over the past 1,000 years have created the mixed population of Comoros. Today the Union of Comoros is a vibrant mix of Malagasy (Malay-Polynesians ), African mainlanders, Shirazi Persians, and Arab traders. There are Indians and French Creoles too. Though there are rarely ethnic clashes, inter-island rivalries run strong. Sunni Islam is the dominant religion of Comoros. The official languages are Arabic and French. Shikomoro, the dialect of the islands, is used in everyday communication. Children attend Islamic schools. State education is compulsory for seven- to sixteen-year-olds, and 76 percent of the children attend primary school. Only 25 percent of the country’s youth, however, receive a secondary education. In villages, people live in homes made of palm fronds. Only the rich build concrete houses. Chirumani is a colorful cotton garment worn by most women. As a cosmetic a yellowish paste made from sandalwood and coral that is applied to the face for a better complexion is popular among the women. The main celebrations are those related to weddings, but Islamic festivals are widely observed. The music of Comoros is colored by influences from Madagascar, East Africa, the Middle East, and southern India. There is a wide range of solo and choral musical styles in Comoros. Gongs, tambourines, oboes, zithers, five-stringed lutes, and drums are some of the instruments commonly used. Music accompanies all kinds of social occasions.
CUISINE
African, Indian, Arab, and French cooking influences are evident in the cuisine of Comoros. The recipes use a variety of spices widely grown in the islands: cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, pepper, coriander, cloves, and nutmeg. Rice and meat are the staple foods. Plantains, cassava (manioc), and couscous are other important foods. Spicy sauces generally accompany meals. Poulet au coco, chicken cooked with greens and rice, is a common dish. Langouste à la vanilla, or lobster cooked in vanilla sauce, is a delicacy. Kebabs are popular, and seafood is ubiquitous. On special occasions Comorans enjoy barbecued mutton. Fruits are also widely available on the islands. Trembo, a homemade brew of coconut milk and fruit juice, is a common drink. BIRTH
In Comoros, an expectant mother is taken to her parents’ house to give birth. A midwife takes care of the woman during labor and attends to the child when it is born. Immediately after birth Muslim prayers are uttered in the infant’s ears. The naming ceremony is held on the sixth day after birth. After the child is born the mother is restricted from saying prayers, touching the Koran, or entering a mosque for 40 days. The child is placed in a cradle on the 40th day. A rite called Ukikais is performed in some places. Two goats, which must be more than one year old, are sacrificed in the child’s name. Only the meat of the goat is taken, and its bones, skin, head, and feet are buried under the Earth. A prayer is offered to God when the meat is ready to be served. The child’s head is shaved. The hair is thrown into a river or buried. Sometimes wealthy parents weigh the hair and distribute silver or gold to poor people according to the weight of the hair.
COMING OF AGE
At the age of six or seven, male children are circumcised. Among some Muslims, however, they are circumcised soon after birth. The barber generally performs the task, and the child is usually given some opiate for the pain. For girls between the ages of nine and 13 coming of age is a big celebration. They are kept in seclusion for seven days. During this time a girl is allowed to eat only fish, bread, butter, and meat. She is given a warm bath in the evening. A grand feast is arranged, and close relatives and friends are invited to join the celebration. Gifts are given to the girl and everybody joins in this happy occasion.
MARRIAGE
In Comoros wedding festivities may continue for an entire week. The celebrations include music, dancing, feasting, and exchanging gifts. A lot of jewelry is given to the bride. Relatives and friends gather from all over to take part in the celebration. The dance of the bulls is an important part of these festivities. Men come together in one of the main squares, where two bulls are brought to fight with each other. The men try to touch the bulls without getting hurt. The majority of the villagers gather to watch. They shout encouragements and advice to their favorite dancers. The concerts that take place during weddings are called twarab. There are both private and public ceremonies. The whole community joins in these festivities, which end with gift-giving and feasts. The musicians and dancers invited to perform also receive gifts and money. Wealthy men may have more than one wife but must provide a house for each.
DEATH
Muslims in Comoros follow Islamic rites for death and burial. The Koran is read out loud when an individual is nearing his or her death, and a few drops of sarbat (flavored water) are also given to the person. After death the body is washed, dressed in new clothes, and wrapped in a shroud. The bier is carried to the mosque on the shoulders of the pallbearers. Relatives take turns carrying the bier, a highly prestigious job. Women do not attend funerals. At the mosque the priest or kazi recites verses from the Koran. The corpse is then laid in the grave and covered with earth. Two tree branches or saplings are planted near the grave, and the opening chapter of the Koran is read. On the third and 40th days after the death, relatives meet and share a meal remembering the dead person.