“Why you in Comoros?” asked the security official inside Prince Said Ibrahim International Airport. I looked at the man, sweat already dribbling down my forehead due to the lack of air conditioning inside the poky terminal building. A small group of people had gathered to observe the hassle I was receiving.
But the simple fact of the matter was that the tiny African nation intrigued me. I didn’t know many people who had heard of the Comoros and knew no one who had actually been there. And that was like a magnet for me. Off the beaten track places were my favourite holiday destinations.
I looked at the man. “I am a tourist.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You come to Comoros as tourist?”
“The man studied my passport and colourful Comorian visa that had been issued in a side room only moments before. The people around me strained their necks to look too. Finally the man nodded and passed my passport. “Enjoy stay.”
Where is the Comoros?
Everyone has heard of Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles, but most people don’t realize that they have a little cousin too. The Comoros.
Located in the Indian Ocean between Tanzania and Madagascar, the Comoros was almost unknown to the world at large. But it was definitely part of the aforementioned Indian Ocean family. Except, unlike the others, it had no tourist industry to speak of. And that’s why nobody ever went there.
Thirty minutes before landing in the Comoros, the main island, my flight from Nairobi had taken a scheduled stopover in Mayotte, the French-dependency that had once been part of the Comoros. In 1975, Mayotte decided it wanted to remain under French control and while the other islands became a brand new country, Mayotte settled back and enjoyed the subsidies from France. Mayotte looked stunning, featuring an extensive marina, some glorious beaches and the most amazing set of ocean colours I’d ever seen. It looked like an idyllic island paradise.
The Comoros was a different matter. The deluge began as we began our descent into Grand Comoros, the main island. After we’d skirted the underside of the cloud base, rain lashed the windows and when I looked down at the beaches, they looked black and angry, mercilessly pounded by ferocious waves.
The airport road was a pot-holed black slither of tarmac flanked by deep green jungle. Every now and again I’d catch a glimpse of the ocean but then it would be gone, obscured by the thick greenery. In the distance, the volcano of Mount Karthala loomed, its top half hidden under dense cloud. The island was an active volcano, I’d found out on the flight over, last erupting six years previously. I peered nervously at it, expecting lava to erupt from deep within its bowels.
“Premiere fois en Comoros?” said the taxi driver in French. He was asking if it was my first time in his country.
“Oui,” I said, nodding but then the conversation soon stalled. My French was rudimentary at best. We passed dilapidated dwellings and people by the side of the road with goods balanced upon their heads. Women carrying babies and men ambling along were gone in a blur of color.
Twenty minutes later we hit the outskirts of Moroni, the tiny capital of the Comoros. The taxi driver clearly thought himself an impromptu tour guide and began pointing out the main sights as we passed them. The first was the rundown Comoros TV station building (station de television) and the second the walled Presidential Palace, a place I wouldn’t have even noticed had it not been for the solitary soldier posted outside and a large flag flapping in the wet breeze. The final sight on the extravaganza was an electrical substation; at least that’s what it looked like to me.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the Itsandra Beach Hotel, the best hotel on the island. The Itsandra was where visiting diplomats often stayed. As night fell, I sat in the hotel bar watching fruit bats fly overhead and listening to the ocean battering the shoreline.
We don’t get many tourists
The next morning, the rain had ceased and a beautiful sun was shining over the Comoros. I was up and ready for my tour around Moroni, led by an affable chap in his fifties called Omar. “We don’t get many British tourists,” he told me as we walked to the car. “In fact we don’t get many tourists at all. But they are usually French.”
Our first stop was a tiny settlement just south of the capital which had once been the capital of the island. Iconi consisted of a few dwellings, a large white mosque and some ruins dating from 16th century Omani rule. Goats ran free around them as indeed they did over the whole island, but my attention was drawn to the lava encrusted beach. A man and his two young sons had stripped completely naked and were wading into the ocean to bathe themselves. Towering above them was a tall black cliff face where hundreds of years previously, women had flung themselves to their deaths to escape slavery at the hands of Malagasy pirates.
As we drove away I asked Omar whether the Comoros had ever suffered at the hands of modern-day Somali pirates.
“Of course,” he answered. “Not long time ago pirates captured one of our fishing boats. The authorities in Moroni realised the boat had gone but didn’t know where. Meanwhile the pirates realized the boat was low on fuel and would never reach Mogadishu. They headed for Madagascar instead. But my country’s authorities had already alerted Madagascar. The pirates were all captured.”
A Matriarchal Society
Omar led me to a small pool of water which he told me contained large eels. It also looked like a breeding ground for mosquitoes I thought as we walked to the edge. I couldn’t see any eels but I could see some large fish swimming about in the depths.
“This is where witchcraft sometimes happens,” said Omar ominously. “People come here and kill chickens and throw them in the lake. Then they collect water and say it can cure people’s illness.” Either that or else give them dysentery, I silently hazarded.
As we drove away I noticed a woman with a grey painted face. It seemed a common look in the Comoros and looked quite scary to be honest, giving the woman a corpse-like appearance.
“It is a beauty mask,” Omar told me. “To keep their skin young and soft. It is made by mixing sandalwood and coral in water.”
We parked in downtown Moroni, a hive of colorful markets and even more colorful people. Older ladies wearing bright cloth wraps sat down amongst piles of fruit and vegetables. Men mainly manned the fabric stalls and everywhere people were rummaging for the best mango or feeling the best cut of cloth or else staring at me: I was the only white face in the whole place.
The Old Town
Omar led me down some steps and we found ourselves in the heart of the Medina, which dated from Arabic times. It was a shaded place full of people sitting in doorways, watching over noisy children playing happily together between the stone buildings.
“The Comoros is a matriarchal society,” said Omar as we strolled through it. “It is the women who own all the houses and land. After she dies, it will be passed onto the eldest daughter and so on. The only way a man can get a house is to get married. But it will never be his or his sons. That is why the birth of a first daughter is a momentous occasion for a family. There will be a special celebration for this. And then, when the girl is aged about two, the family will begin to build her house. Brick by brick, they will construct it over many years. When the daughter gets married the house will be hers.”
I asked what would happen if a family had no daughters. After all, that was bound to happen sometimes.
Omar nodded. “In that case, there might be a special circumstance where the house can be passed to the son. But this is very rare. Usually what happens is the family will adopt a daughter, perhaps from a sister or a cousin.”
The Friday Mosque and the Ruins
We came out of the medina into an open area by the sea. A large rusted red ship lay in the shallow water and a group of boys were playing about in a small boat near it. Behind us was the most photographed building in Moroni, the Ancient Friday Mosque, dating back to the early 15th century. It was large and white, with a myriad of arches and a fetching green-topped minaret, and I could see why people liked it.
“Nowadays,” Omar said. “Most people pray in a new mosque just a few streets away. It is bigger, but this one will always be my favorite.”
After a wander around another market known as Volo Volo, we headed away from Moroni by car. After a few kilometres, we stopped and began a walk through a jungle trail leading uphill to an old royal palace. Goats pecked away at leaves and large snails and colorful lizards littered the ground.
“It was the Omani Sultan who owned the palace,” explained Omar. “And you will see guard towers, sleeping chambers and the royal meeting hall.” He was right, though undergrowth had covered most of the ruins. But the views were stunning: a sea of green leading to the Indian Ocean, occasionally broken by a tall palm tree or shack-like dwelling.
Fishing for life
Fifteen minutes later we were back in the car heading northwards. Suddenly, there was a loud beep from behind and a cavalcade of three shiny vehicles passed us. The middle car had its windows blacked out and flags on the front, and for a fleeting moment I thought it might be the President of the Comoros trying to flee the latest coup. But it turned out to be the Sudanese ambassador trying to ramrod his way to the airport.
Our final stop was a white sandy beach. Out in the surf were about forty little boats, filled with men catching fish. I thought the scene before me looked incredible.
“The fish they are catching resemble sardines,” said Omar as we walked across the white sand. “When they are cooked with coconut milk and breadfruit, they are delicious.” Nearby, a group of women stood about with trays of fish balanced on their heads. Omar told me they were about to head to market with the fish they had bought from the fishermen.
The beach was picturesque, not in a holiday brochure-type way, but in a traditional way. Local people were doing what they had been doing for hundreds of years and small boys loitered by the shoreline, possibly watching their fathers’ at work in the sea. It was a good place to end my tour of Moroni, and I thanked Omar for showing it to me.
Why did I visit the Comoros?
For the remainder of the evening, I watched storm clouds gather, which soon turned into a torrential thunder storm and shook the walls of the hotel. As I packed my bags for my flight to Dar es Salaam the next day, I thought again of the question the security official had asked me on arrival.
Why you in Comoros? he’d asked. Well now I could answer him properly. Unlike its neighbors which catered for high-end tourists, the Comoros was as real as it got. Nowhere would you find a shop selling key rings and postcards. Nowhere would you find speedboats moored in its bays, and nowhere would you see overweight Europeans lounging on a beach with a cocktail. No, it was all much simpler than that on the Comoros. And surely that was a good thing.
(Photo via http://www.wall-online.net/wallpaper/comoros-island.html)
Jason Smart is a teacher, traveller and writer based in the United Kingdom. So far, he’s visited over one hundred countries, including many African and Asian nations, as well as every single republic of the former Soviet Union. When he’s not travelling, Jason plays bass guitar in a rock band. Visit his website: www.theredquest.com.