Once an important stop in the trade route, the Comoros Islands lie just north of the island of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Mozambique Channel (closest to the mainland country of Mozambique). Consisting of three main islands now – Grand Comore (or Ngazidja), Mohéli (or Mwali), and Anjouan (or Nzwani) – the country used to be four islands. When they were deliberating on declaring their independence from France, only the island of Mayotte abstained, which is why it’s still a dependent of France. Although I think Comoros still claims them.
The word Comoros is based on the Arabic word qamar, which means moon. The native peoples, probably from a larger extension of the Bantu expansion mixed with migrants from other Asian and Middle Eastern regions, highly valued the nature all around them. According to Comorian myth, a spirit dropped a jewel into the ocean, which created the Karthala volcano and subsequently the islands of Comoros. (Mt. Karthala was last active back in 2006.) Omani sailors once referred to this area as the Perfume Islands, which is one of the reasons why it was such an important stop in the trade route. Comoros is the leading producer of ylang-ylang, a flower whose essential oil goes into many perfumes to give it a flowery smell, like in Chanel No. 5. It’s also used as a remedy for high blood pressure, certain skin problems, and as part of aromatherapy, and as an aphrodisiac. (And as a popular ice cream flavor in nearby Madagascar. Would that make it a health food? I think it would in my book.) Besides ylang-ylang, Comoros is also known for its production of coconuts, vanilla (the second largest exporter in the world, behind Madagascar), coffee, and the cocoa bean. – All of my favorites. See, I knew I would like this country.
The capital city of Moroni lies on the largest island of Grande Comore. With a population of about 60,000, it’s one of the major ports in Comoros. It was founded by Arab settlers as a sister port for commercial trade with Zanzibar (Tanzania). A little known fact – how I could have forgotten this is beyond comprehension – is that Moroni is mentioned in the game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? That was my favorite game when I was in middle school.
Because of its proximity and influences from the Middle East, Comoros is a primarily Muslim nation, with the exception of Mayotte, which still has a large Roman Catholic following. While the entire country has less than a million people (about the population of my city, Indianapolis, IN), it is one of the most densely populated. Most Comorians speak Comorian (sometimes called Shikomor), which is a language that is based on Swahili that is heavily influenced by Arabic. The two languages share many common words anyway, so this would be similar to a sort of hybrid, I suppose. (My son’s name is Swahili: Jabari; and his middle name is Arabic: Malik.) The interesting thing about the Comorian language is that there isn’t any established written script. Comorian words are either written in Latin or Arabic script. French and Arabic are also official languages of Comoros because of its history: French being the primary language of educational instruction and Arabic being the primary language of religious instruction.
Since its independence from France in 1975, there have been roughly 20 coups. The government situation at any given time is relatively unstable. This is more or less one of the causes that most of its people live on less than $1.25 a day. Another reason is that the land isn’t very good at producing a variety of vegetables and other food products, so besides what can be grown and caught in the ocean locally, many products have to be imported in which directly impacts their economy. But despite their political and economic situation, Comorians have found through their food and music and arts – as diverse and regionally influenced as it is – that these are the things to help you move forward in life. And I completely agree. It all sounds amazing to me so far.
Up next: holidays and celebrations