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Africa » Comoros » Grande Comore
May 9th 2015
Published: May 9th 2015
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The Comoros


In the Comoros, I reached the lowest ebb of my trip around East Africa. Perhaps it was to do with the lack of sleep or maybe the fact I’d had enough of the heat and humidity of Africa. Or perhaps I simply missed home. The rain didn’t help much either. Thick, dark clouds had covered the entire country on our approach and, as the Kenya Airways jet descended below them, the beaches looked black and angry, pounded mercilessly by ferocious waves

Thirty minutes before landing on Grand Comoros, it had been a different story. My flight had taken a scheduled stopover in Mayotte, the French dependency that had once been part of the Comoros. The ocean surrounding it was a mesmerizing palette of tropical blues. But then we’d taken off and flown into the rain clouds.

“Why you here?” asked the security official inside Prince Said Ibrahim International, the main airport of the Comoros. I looked at the man, sweat dribbling down my forehead due to the lack of air conditioning inside the poky terminal building. People gathered around to listen.

It was a good question.

The Comoros was one of the poorest nations on Earth, despite its enviable location in the Indian Ocean, nestled between the coast of Africa and the island of Madagascar. And it wasn’t exactly politically stable either. Since independence from France in 1975, the Comoros had endured a stupefying twenty-four coups, earning itself the nickname Cloud Coup Coup Land.

The tiny African nation intrigued me, though. Everyone knew about Mauritius or the Seychelles, but most people didn’t know about their little cousin: the Comoros. Nobody I knew had ever been there. And that was like a magnet for me. Off-the-beaten-track places were my favourite holiday destinations. But my mood was not good. I was dog-tired and wanted to go to sleep.

“I am a tourist,” I replied to the official.

He raised an eyebrow. “You come to Comoros as tourist?”

“Yes.”

The man studied my colourful Comorian visa, issued in a side room only moments before. The people around me strained their necks to look too. Finally the man nodded, and returned my passport. “Enjoy stay.”

Taxi journey

The airport road was a thin, pot-holed slither of black tarmac flanked by dense green jungle, offering only brief glimpses of the ocean. The traffic was light, which was a blessing considering the large cracks at the edge, and the goats munching on the undergrowth. The windscreen wipers were working overtime to keep the rain at bay, but in the distance, Mount Karthala loomed, its top half hidden under an opaque layer of cloud. Mount Karthala was one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. It had last erupted in 2006. I peered nervously at it, wondering whether magma was brewing 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 affirmed. We passed dwellings made of corrugated metal and dirty grey breezeblocks. Women walked along the roadside edge, with wrapped bundles on their heads, adding splashes of colour: a purple sarong with a zigzag pattern here, a bright orange veil there, all were in direct contrast to their men folk, who favoured simple T-shirts and white skull caps.

Nearing Moroni, the tiny capital of the Comoros, the houses added paintwork and sometimes small porches. Men gathered under corrugated verandas to enjoy conversations while women hurried past them. The sand beneath their feet was black and dirty-looking, though highly fertile. It was everywhere, a gift from the volcano.

As we hit the outskirts of Moroni, my driver pointed out the main sights as we passed them: the rundown Comoros TV station building, the walled Presidential Palace, and an electrical substation. “Votre hotel,” he said, turning off into a side road. I strained my neck to see. It didn't look good.

No Fridge!

There was no fridge, no air-conditioning, but it did have a dirty brown towel hung in the dank bathroom, and a toilet that had no flush. Instead it utilised a bottle of brown water. The worst thing though was the lack of a safety deposit box.

I placed my suitcase next to the prison-issue bed, and sat down, holding my head in my hands. It was no good; I couldn’t go to sleep knowing my belongings were not safe. If my passport was stolen, what would I do then?

I pulled at the cupboard doors again, which remained stubbornly closed despite my best efforts. The only saving grace I could think of was the safe might be inside it. I decided to go down to reception to find out. As long as there was somewhere to store my valuables, then I could put up with the hot and sticky room for the two nights I was in the Comoros.

The hotel’s reception was 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 man who looked like a character from a Scooby Doo cartoon.

Inside my room, the caretaker immediately went to the wardrobe and tried to pull it open by brute force. When this didn’t work, he had a bit of a poke around with a key he’d found in his pocket, but when that didn’t work either, he stepped back and regarded the cupboard with consternation.

After rubbing his chin, he finally nodded and smiled at me, revealing a toothless and inane grin. After digging around in his pockets again, he produced a small metal rod that he placed in the gap between the cupboard doors. I watched incredulously as the galoot simply forced the lock. It gave way, and the door swung open to reveal its empty contents, similar to the man’s skull I felt.

When a mosquito buzzed past my ear, I decided enough was enough. I was not staying in a place where Handyman Joe could pilfer my belongings. 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. Hell had turned into Heaven.

The contrast was astounding. The Itsandra was where visiting diplomats often stayed. As night fell and the rain stopped, I sat in the outdoor bar watching fruit bats overhead, and listening to the ocean battering the shoreline below. Even the obligatory power failure could not dampen my new-found sense of adventure.

Cloud Coup-Coup Land

Since independence, the Comoros has endured at least twenty-four coups.

The first coup occurred in 1975, less than a month after independence. An armed group, led by a French mercenary called Bob Denard, removed President Abdallah, and replaced him with Prince Jaffar. Six months later, the Comoros had its second coup. The prince was ousted, and replaced by one of his deputies, a mysterious man known as Mr Solih.

Mr Solih had no experience at leading a nation, and one of the first things he did was to appoint a fifteen-year-old boy to be his chief-of-police. When a soothsayer told him that a white man with a black dog was going to kill him, he ordered the mass shooting of every black dog on the island. Despite these signs of instability, Solih managed to cling onto power for two years, enduring seven coup attempts in the process. But then Bob Denard returned to the Comoros with 43 men.

The French mercenary successfully removed Mr Solih (who was killed in the coup) and replaced him with a President Abdallah (the same man he’d helped oust in the first coup.) Denard paraded Solih’s body through the streets of Moroni with a black Alsatian by his side. The soothsayer’s prophecy had come true.

President Abdallah ruled for the next eleven years, a miraculous amount of time considering, but this was due to a shrewd move he had made upon accepting his presidency – he made Bob Denard the chief of his Presidential Guard. During these years of relative stability, Denard converted to Islam and became a citizen of the Comoros.

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. Naturally, Bob Denard was blamed for the death, and, in the ensuing battle, he was injured. French paratroopers had to evacuate him to South Africa.

Mr Solih (president number 2) had a brother, who now decided to step into the limelight. With Denard out of the way, for the time being at least, the second Mr Solih staged his very own coup, and became the new president. Surprisingly he lasted until 1995, until Bob Denard decided to holiday in the Comoros again. Instead of arriving with sun cream and a good book, the Frenchman came with guns and coup-staging equipment.

This time the French government stepped in, finally putting a stop to the madness. They took Denard back to France, telling him that his coup-taking days were over. A Paris-backed man became the new president and lasted until 1998. When he died, it was time for another coup.

Surprisingly, it didn't involve Denard. It was down to the colonel in charge of the army this time. After taking control of the nation, he promised democratic elections. They were not very democratic though, because he rigged the election and won. But then something odd happened. Five years later, the colonel willingly stepped down to make way for another man. The new president’s nickname was the Ayatollah, because he had once studied in Iran. This was a momentous occasion for the Comoros, because it 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 Anjouan. A different colonel tried to seize power. 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 has been no more coups. And as for Bob Denard, he died in 2007, aged 78.

Credit Card Woes

The next morning I got a phone call asking me to go down to reception. When I got there, the pleasant lady behind the desk informed me that the credit card payment I’d made the previous evening had failed.

“Do you have another card we can try?” she asked.

I wondered why my card had failed. In Mombasa, it had worked just fine, and I knew there was plenty of credit available on it. I looked at the lady and shook my head. “No, sorry, I don’t.”

“I see. Then maybe you can pay by cash?”

“I don’t have enough.” I felt the first stirrings of alarm.

“Well there is a machine over there. Perhaps you will try it?”

According to the invoice the woman passed me, I owed the hotel 150,000 Comorian francs (£250). In my wallet, I had about 50,000 francs that I’d managed to change at the airport on the way in. Upstairs in the safe I had a hundred-dollar bill, a twenty euro note, and some assorted Kenyan and Ugandan shillings, all of which was still not enough. Besides, I needed some money for my tour of the city later that morning, as well as for the taxi back to the airport. If push came to shove, I decided, I could probably cobble together enough cash for the night I’d already stayed, but then would have to find somewhere else for the night. That thought made me shudder. Even the hotel without the safe was out of my price range now. The thought of staying somewhere worse was beyond comprehension.

I walked over to the machine with a terrible feeling of dread, but at the same time marvelling that the Itsandra Beach Hotel had its own ATM. As far as I could tell, it was the only one on the island. I popped my card in the slot, hoping for acceptance, but it ejected it with a message telling me the transaction could not be completed.

I felt sick.

I wondered if I should beg for mercy, and tell the woman I would pay as soon as I returned to England. I could even offer to pay double! To stall for time, I pushed the card in for another go. But like before, it spat it back out. And it was at that moment that I remembered my money belt. A wave of euphoria washed over me. I was saved!

Not caring that the woman was watching me, I removed my belt and unzipped the secret compartment. And there they were, four crisp, hundred-dollar bills! I could’ve kissed each one in turn.

I walked back to the desk and placed them on the desk. The woman smiled and picked the slightly warm notes up. After working out the exchange rate, she told me I now only owed 3000 francs. I got them out of my wallet and settled up. I was staying at the Itsandra.

Seeing the sights

Half an hour later, I met Omar, an affableguide in his mid-forties. Unlike many of his countrymen, he wasn’t wearing a kofia a round, brimless hat. Instead he preferred a smart cotton shirt with a pen poking from the top pocket.

“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 who do come are usually French.”

Our first stop was a tiny settlement just south of Moroni called Iconi, which 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 they did over the whole island, but my attention was drawn to the lava-encrusted beach. A naked man was wading into the ocean to bathe. Towering above him was a tall black cliff face. Hundreds of years previously, women had flung themselves to their deaths to escape slavery at the hands of Malagasy pirates.

I asked Omar whether the Comoros had ever suffered at the hands of modern-day Somali pirates.

“Yes,” he answered. “Not long ago, pirates captured one of our fishing boats. The pirates realised the boat was low on fuel and headed for Madagascar. As they neared the coast, the pirates hid below deck, instructing the Comorian crew to say they were lost and needed fuel. But they did not realise that the ship had already been reported missing by the authorities. Soldiers were sent aboard and captured the Somalis.”

A kilometre south of Iconi, Omar led me to the edge of a small lake. “This is where witchcraft sometimes happens,” said Omar ominously. “People kill chickens and throw them in. Then they collect the water; they say it can cure illness.”

As we drove away from the lake, I noticed another young woman with a grey painted face. Ladies such as her were a common sight in the Comoros. She was walking along the side of the road with an older woman, presumably her mother. She looked like a corpse.

“The beauty mask,” Omar told me, “is to keep their skin young and soft. It is made by mixing sandalwood and coral in water.”

Downtown Moroni

We parked in downtown Moroni, a hive of bustling market stalls set under large bright parasols. The capital’s architecture was a mixture of Islamic and Swahili, endless arches with the occasional minaret. Flecks of litter by the edge of the road spoiled the look somewhat, as did the faded and cracked paintwork, but the ladies of Moroni countered this. Seated among piles of bananas, papayas, mangoes and jackfruit, in their colourful cloth wraps, their shrill laughter drew the eye. Whenever anyone noticed me, they stared and sometimes pointed. No one seemed hostile though, merely inquisitive why a white man was visiting their market. A stranger from far away.

Omar led me down some steps and into the heart of the medina. It dated from Arabic times. It was a shaded place full of mothers watching over playful children. Grey stone walls curved around the myriad of passageways, with white paving stones leading the way. The shade came from corrugated metal overhangs, and the colour came from the doorways, often painted in vivid blues and reds.

“The Comoros is a matriarchal society,” said Omar as we strolled through a winding alley. “The women own the houses and land. After she dies, it is passed to the eldest daughter, and so on. That is why the birth of a first daughter is a momentous occasion for a family.”

I asked what would happen if a family had no daughters.

Omar nodded. “In that case, the family will normally adopt a girl, perhaps from a sister or cousin.”

We came out of the medina into an open area by the sea. A large rusted red ship lay in the shallows, and a group of boys played in a small boat near it. Behind us was the most photographed building in Moroni, the Friday Mosque, dating back to the early 15th century. It was large and white, with an arched arcade running across the first two floors. I could see why people liked it.

“There is a new, bigger mosque now,” Omar said. “But this will always be my favorite.”

We drove northwards. After a few kilometres, we stopped and began a climb through a jungle trail that led to the Ruins of Itsandra. Goats ran ahead of us, and large snails and shimmering bronze lizards littered the ground. Fingers of bananas hung from nearby trees.

“An Omani sultan owned the palace,” explained Omar as we trudged our way uphill. “But there is not much left – a few guard towers, a sleeping chamber and a royal meeting hall.”

Undergrowth covered most of the ruins, with leaves and branches poking through gaps in the walls or feeding their way into what had once been doors. But the views from the ruins were stunning: a sea of vegetation spreading to the aquamarine of the Indian Ocean.

“Come,” said Omar. “We go see the fishermen now.”

On the road, a cavalcade of three shiny vehicles passed us, beeping loudly. The middle car had its windows blacked out, and for a fleeting moment I thought it might be the President of the Comoros fleeing the latest coup. But it turned out to be the Sudanese ambassador trying to ramrod his way to the airport.

The fishermen were only a few minutes away, out in the surf, clumped together in a tight jumble of wooden boats. About forty of them, I estimated. Omar and I walked onto the beach to see them closer.

“The fish resemble sardines,” said Omar as we walked across the yellow sand. “When cooked with coconut milk and breadfruit, they are delicious.”

A group of women stood with trays of fish balanced on their heads, about to go to market according to Omar. Out in the ocean, the fishermen toiled with hand lines, like they had done for hundreds of years. Young boys congregated at the edge of the water, while women sat on upturned boats waiting for more fish to come in. All around, exotic conversation carried over the sound of the waves.

Storm Clouds

For the remainder of my final evening in the Comoros, I watched brooding storm clouds gather, which soon turned into torrential thunderstorms that shook the walls of the hotel. As I packed my bags for my flight to Dar es Salaam the next morning, I thought again of the question the security official had asked me.

Why you here?

Well now I could answer him properly. It was simple really: the Comoros offered a slice of traditional Indian Ocean life. It offered the intrepid traveller the chance to see an old town that could rival the ones in Zanzibar and Mombasa. It offered tranquillity, natural beauty, and it offered the real threat of volcanic eruption. But even more than that, the Comoros offered exclusivity. How many people could say they had visited the Comoros? Well, I could.

I cringed at my outburst when I’d first arrived on the island. I’d been a spoilt tourist having a tantrum about a dirty towel when most of the island lived in poverty. But at least I’d changed my initial impression of the Comoros, and seen the island for what it was worth.

One more stop, I thought. One more stop and then I would be leaving Africa.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about my little adventure in the Comoros, then maybe you’ll like to read about my other adventures in Africa. Head on over to website for more details: www.theredquest.com


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24th April 2017

😊
Sad that when I type Comoros I see all these bad things you have to say and the shitty image u have left about Ngazidja truly sad I hope people come check for themselves
27th February 2019

A fellow Comoros travelled!
We are currently visiting Comoros and I was looking for ideas on what to do/see and stumbled across your post. Great pics!

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