New Internationalist

Comoros Islands

January 1985

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Comoros Islands

Map of the Comoros Islands

Leader: President Ahmed Abdullah.

Economy: GNP per capita US S267 per year.

Monetary Unit: CFA Franc.

People: 347,000 (1980). Twenty’ per cent live in 8 ‘towns’ of 5,000 people or more.

Health: Infant mortality 280 per 1,000 live births.

Culture: Arab. Swahili coast and Indian Ocean peoples.

Religion: Sunni Islam.

Languages: Official language — French. Arabic widely understood and taught in Koranic schools. Islanders speak a Comorian dialect of Kiswahili.

Photo: Michael Griffin

TILTING dhows, bleached minarets and red-robed women … days in the ‘archipelago of perfumes’ drift lazily by, cushioned from political currents by the Indian Ocean and more than 300 years of Sunni Islam.

But the palm-fringed beaches, so soothing to the tourist, conceal another country with far more desperate laws of survival. With 200 people trying to scratch a living from every kilometer, the Comoros Islands is the most densely populated nation on earth.

The bobbing dhows are filled with imported rice, which the mountain poor cannot afford to buy. Despite abundant fishing grounds, most of the countrys supply is imported from Madagascar and onions are so expensive they are sold singly in the market of Moroni, the capital. Since the peasants cannot eat the perfumes which cover a third of the land, nearly half their children suffer from malnutrition. In 1983, there were only 17 doctors for the entire 365,000 population.

Destitute and in thrall to the Mosque, the Comorian continues to sharecrop for the relics of an old aristocracy. Chief among these is President Ahmed Abdullah. the ‘father of Independence’, who made his fortune on rice imports. He was installed in 1978 by French mercenaries. His predecessor, Ali Soilih, was shot, allegedly while trying to escape. Soilih’s programme of land reform, economic independence and links with China worried France. which maintains a naval base on Mayotte island.

The Comoros Islands remain a chattel of French policy and a short-term business investment for their current ruler. Their strategic position between the left-aligned states of Mozambique and Madagascar has now outstripped vanilla as the islands’ most bankable commodity.

The islands’ other overt backers are the Gulf States, who are generous with soft loans. The islands are littered with prestigious projects, such as the Mutsmudu deep-water port on Anjouan or new hotels to cater to the South African tourist trade. These costly trinkets have diverted attention away from more serious matters. Soil erosion and deforestation are so well-advanced that lower agricultural yields and a firewood crisis are unavoidable. Health services are rudimentary and children continue to die at a rate of one in four.

With no press and no opposition party, the Mosque remains unchallenged as the most important influence on Comorian thought and values. Although entirely responsible for food production, women have no place in the village committees.

Irony remains the last resort of the embittered. ‘Just imagine’ marvelled one Comorian, indicating the largest plantation on Anjouan. ‘This used to be called the Societe Coloniale de Bambao but, at Independence. that was no longer acceptable so it became the Societe Comorienne de Bambao. The same initials. They didn’t even need to change the notepaper’.

Michael Griffin

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Poor – 40 % of land in hands of former aristocracy
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Appalling: nearly all food imported
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‘Poor: food producers but no access to cash.
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[image, unknown] Conservative Islamic society. Good relations with South Africa
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Estimated at 41% Koranic schools teach children Arabic.
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One party state, detention of political opponents, no press.
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Poor: 48 years minimal health services

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This feature was published in the January 1985 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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