Saved: January 25th 2013April 14th 2012
In the Comoros, I reached the lowest ebb of my trip around East Africa. Perhaps it was do with the lack of sleep or maybe the simple fact I was sick and tired of the heat and humidity of Africa. Certainly the hassle I encountered at Prince Said Ibrahim Airport hadn’t helped and neither had the rain. Thick clouds had covered the entire country on our approach, and when we’d descended below them the beaches had looked black and angry, pounded mercilessly by ferocious waves.
Thirty minutes before landing on Grand Comoros, the flight had taken a scheduled stopover in Mayotte, the French-dependency that had once been part of the four island group making up the Comoros. In 1974 when independence was being mooted, Mayotte had decided it wanted to stay under French control much to the distaste of the other islands who quickly declared themselves independent. Mayotte had looked stunning, featuring an extensive marina, some glorious beaches and the most amazing set of ocean colours I’d ever seen. Forty minutes later we took off, bound for one of the poorest nations on Earth.
Everyone has heard of Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles, but what most people don’t
realise is they have a little cousin too. It is called the Comoros, located in the Indian Ocean between Tanzania and Madagascar, and hardly anyone ever goes there.
The airport was to be expected: a confusing place full of form filling together with a side room where I had to sit and wait to get a visa issued. Then, just as I was about to leave the airport I was stopped by an official. He barked at me in rapid fire French.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked, sweat already dribbling down my forehead. I had no idea what he’d said and was already beginning to regret my decision to visit the Comoros. He shook his head. So we were at a stalemate. He spoke no English and I spoke only the barest smattering of French. I shrugged and offered him my passport instead. He took it and flicked through it until he came across the colourful Comoros visa sticker. He then said: “Why you in Comoros?”
So you can speak English. I told him I was a tourist (which caused a raised eyebrow) and he finally nodded and passed me my passport back. Outside I faced the usual
taxi madness but was soon in one organised by a man who seemed on the verge of bursting a blood vessel every time one of his cars pulled up.
The airport road was a pot-holed black line flanked by deep green jungle. Every now and again I would 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 basically an active volcano, last erupting six years previously. Through weary eyes, I stared blankly ahead, wishing the car had been installed with air-conditioning.
“This your first time in Comoros?” asked the driver using fairly good English which surprised me. I nodded but then conversation stalled. We passed dilapidated dwellings and my mood darkened further. I just hoped the hotel I’d booked would be okay. After three African countries already done in my trip, I was looking forward to a bit of rest and recuperation.
Twenty minutes later we hit the outskirts of Moroni, the tiny capital of the Comoros. The taxi driver clearly thought of 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 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. Ten minutes later we arrived at the hotel and my spirits fell even further.
There was no fridge, no safety deposit box, but it did have a dirty brown towel hung in the dank bathroom and a prison-issue single bed in the main room. There was also a wardrobe which was locked and had no key to open it. Perhaps the safe was inside that I thought miserably and so went down to reception to find out. As long as there was somewhere to store my passport and laptop then I could put up with the room for the two nights I told myself.
The hotel’s reception was basically a TV room with two lounging men staring vacantly at the screen. When I explained to the woman behind the small desk about the locked wardrobe, she summoned
a slack-jawed thin man who looked like a character from a Scooby Doo cartoon. Sighing I followed him back to my room.
Instead of talking about pesky kids, he immediately went to the wardrobe and tried to pull it open by brute force. When that didn’t work he had a bit of a poke around with a key he’d produced from his pocket but when that didn’t work either he stepped back and regarded the wardrobe with consternation. After rubbing his chin he finally nodded and smiled at me, revealing a toothless grin. After digging around in his pockets again he produced a small rod of metal which he then placed in the gap of the cupboard. Wondering what this new tool would do, I watched as the galoot simply forced the lock. It gave way and the door swung open to reveal its empty contents. That was it, I decided, I was not staying in a place where my belongings could be pilfered at any time by handyman Joe and his special rod of metal. I packed my things and left. Half an hour later I was safely ensconced inside the best hotel in the Comoros,
the Itsandra Beach Hotel. The contrast could not have been any starker. The Itsandra was where visiting diplomats often stayed. As night fell I was sat in the hotel bar watching fruit bats fly overhead and listening to the ocean battering the shoreline.
Since independence, the Comoros has endured at least twenty-four coups, earning itself the comical nickname Cloud Coup Coup Land. The story of these coups reads like a comedy film about a banana republic.
The first coup occurred less than a month after independence. An armed group led by a French mercenary called Bob Denard removed President Abdallah from office and replaced him with Prince Jaffar, possibly under secret orders from the French Government. Six months later it had its second coup. This time the prince was ousted and replaced by one of his deputies, a mysterious man known as Mr Soilih.
Mr Soilih clung onto power but had to endure seven coup attempts on his presidency. But then Bob Denard returned to the Comoros with 43 men. He successfully removed Mr Soilih (who was killed in strange circumstances) and replaced him with to President Abdallah, the man he’d helped oust in the very first
coup. Abdallah then ruled then for the next eleven years, a miraculous amount of time considering, but this was perhaps due to a shrewd move he had made upon accepting his presidency - he had made Bob Denard the chief of his Presidential Guard. And so during these years of relative stability, Denard converted to Islam and became a citizen of the Comoros. He also began to build his own private empire of hotels and land on the islands. He still found time to enjoy a bit of freelance mercenary work in Angola and Mozambique though in order to bank some extra cash.
In a by now well overdue coup, Abdallah was overthrown and killed in 1989. His assassination coincided with his decision to disarm the Presidential Guard. The man with the finger on the trigger had not been Bob Denard, but most probably a solider under his command. In the ensuing battle, Denard was injured and ended up being evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers.
Mr Soilih’s brother now decided to step into the limelight. With Denard out of the way for the time being he staged his very own coup and became the new President.
Surprisingly he lasted until 1995 until Bob Denard decided to have a nice holiday in the Comoros again. Instead of arriving with sun cream and a good book, he came with guns and staged another coup. This time the French stepped in and finally put a stop to the madness. They took him back to France telling him that his coup-taking days were finally over. A Paris-backed man became the new president lasting until 1998 when he died. An interim president was put in power but then it was time for the 18th coup.
In 1999 the colonel in charge of the Comoros army took control of the nation, but in a strange act of goodwill he promised democratic elections which unsurprisingly he ended up winning. Five years later though he willingly stepped down to make way for another man who had once studied Islam in Iran. He was nicknamed the Ayatollah. This was the first time that power had been transferred peacefully. With the Ayatollah holed up in the Presidential Palace, another coup occurred, this time on the neighbouring island of Anjounan. A different colonel there seized power and installed himself as president. Troops were sent in and
the imposter fled to Mayotte by speedboat. In 2010 the Ayatollah stepped down peacefully and was replaced by his deputy. And since then there have been no more coups. So far.
The next morning I was up and ready for my tour around Moroni, led by an affable chap 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 those that do come are usually French.”
Our first stop was a tiny settlement just south of the capital called Iconi, and had once been the old capital of the island. It consisted of a few dwellings, a large white Mosque and some old ruins dating from 16th
century Omani rule. Goats ran free around the ruins as indeed they did over the whole island but my attention was drawn to the lava encrusted beach. There a man and his two young sons had stripped completely naked and then waded 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. “Yes,” he answered. “Some time ago pirates captured one of our boats. As well as the crew there were about thirty passengers on board. The authorities on Grand Comoros realised the boat had gone but didn’t know where. Meanwhile the pirates realised the boat was very low on fuel and would never reach Mogadishu. They headed for Madagascar instead.”
Omar smiled as he recounted the rest of the tale. This bunch of pirates were not heroic or brave, they were just plain stupid. “As they neared the coast of Madagascar the pirates hid below deck, instructing the Comoros crew to say they were lost and needed fuel. Under no circumstances were they to tell the Madagascan authorities that their ship had been commandeered by pirates. But they did not realise that the ship had already been reported missing by the Comoros owners. Soldiers were sent aboard and captured them.”
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 a chicken and throw it in the lake. Then they collect some of the water and say that it can cure people’s illness.”
As we drove away I noticed another woman with a grey painted face. I asked Omar about her. It seemed a common look in the Comoros and looked quite scary, giving the women almost corpse-like appearances. “It is a beauty mask,” he 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 colourful markets and even more colourful 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 but I still didn’t feel threatened by the
stares, mostly they were just curious looks.
Omar led my down some steps and we found ourselves in the heart of the Medina. Dating from Arabic times, it was a shaded place full of people sat about in doorways with noisy children playing happily together. “The Comoros is a matriarchal society,” said Omar as we continued our stroll through the old town. “And it is the women who own all the houses and land. 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 first birth of a daughter is a momentous occasion for a family. There will be a special celebration and when the girl is aged about two, the family will begin to build her a house. Brick by brick it will be constructed and will take many may years. Then when the daughter is big, maybe twenty-five she will be married and the house will be hers.
I asked what would happen if a family had no daughters. After all, that was bound to happen sometimes. “Then there
might be a special circumstance where the house can be passed to the son. But this is very rare. Usually what happens is that the family will adopt a daughter, perhaps from a sister.”
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 their small boat near it. A couple of them were fishing but most were happy to dive in and swim boisterously. 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 and with its myriad of arches together with a fetching green-topped minaret 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 favourite.”
After a wander around another market known as Volo Volo, we headed away from Moroni. After a few kilometres we we stopped and began a walk through a jungle pathway leading uphill to the old royal palace. Goats pecked away at
leaves ahead of us and large snails and colourful lizards littered the ground.
“I didn’t know the Comoros had a royal family?” I said as we clambered up the slippery rocks. Sweat was beginning to dribble down my forehead and back. The humidity was hellish, possibly the worst I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to pass out with the heat.
“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, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as all that though, consisting mainly of a few ruins that were almost covered up by the undergrowth. But the views were amazing, with tropical jungle on all sides and the ocean in front.
Fifteen minutes later we were back in the car heading northwards. Suddenly there was a loud beep from behind and pulled over to allow a cavalcade of three shiny vehicles to pass. 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 attempt. But
it turned out to be the Sudanese ambassador trying to ramroad his way to the airport.
Our final stop was a white sandy beach. Out in the surf were about forty little boats, all filled with men catching fish. “The fish they are catching resemble sardines,” said Omar as we walked across the sand. “When they are cooked with coconut milk and some breadfruit, they are delicious.” One woman was about to head to market with some fish she’d already bought from the fishermen. A tray of them were balanced on her head. Each fish cost 100 francs, about 17p. The beach was picturesque, but not in a holiday brochure-type way, 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.
Back at the hotel, I began to feel guilty about staying in such opulence compared to almost everybody else on the island. Thinking back to my tantrum the day before now made me cringe.
For the remainder of the evening I watched storm clouds gather which soon turned into torrential rain with thunder that shook the walls of the hotel. In the end I had enjoyed the Comoros. I just hoped they could lay off the coups for a while.
-A great way of seeing traditional life on a tropical island not touched by tourism
-Itsandra Beach Hotel
-The hassle in getting there
-Heat and humidity
-Hardly anyone speaks English
-Pot holed roads
-The confusing airport
There are more photos below