“When I hauled the net in…I saw the strange fish and realised it was different from anything I had ever seen before…It lifted its lip and snapped its mouth shut…I told the crew to put it on the wharf and not to damage it… then I went home for my annual holiday. On my return I was told the fish was a coelacanth … a living fossil believed extinct for millions of years…” Captain Hendrik P.Goosen describing how he caught the first ever coelacanth off the Comores on 15th December 1938.
Early Arab sea-farers called the volcanic archipelago kamar ‘islands of the moon’ as the great silver orb suspended over the Indian Ocean guided their dhows to landfall.
The Islamic Republic of the Comores consists of four islands — Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli—anchored in the Mozambique Channel, 180 miles off the African mainland. The fourth, Mayotte, is geographically part of the group, but administered by France.
With a population of nearly 1 million, Comorians are descended from mixed migrations of Arabs, Africans and Malays. 99 per cent follow Islam and reserved, like many islanders, they are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen.
Moroni, the Comorian capital, is located on the largest island of Grande Comore. An old ‘Indian Ocean Coast’ style town, its flat-roofed coral stone houses line narrow lanes descending to a harbour packed with wooden pirogues.
A second coelacanth caught in 1985 is exhibited in the National Museum and to protect any remaining fish, an area off the south of coast of Grande Comore has been gazetted a coelacanth reserve.
Inland from Iconi, the Karthala Volcano rises 2361 metres above lush rainforest counting exotic species such as thousand year old cycad palms. The coastal belt is cultivated with extensive coconut plantations, cassava, maize, bananas and ylang-ylang holdings.
Grande Comore is one of the world’s biggest producers of ylang-ylang an essential element in many perfumes, but it takes nearly a ton of the flowers to extract just a litre of the precious oil.
Local life is generally low-key except on the occasion of a Grand Mariage when custom dictates the first-born daughter gets a big send off to married life.
As soon as she is born, her family begins building her future home which may take them twenty years and their life savings to complete.
The groom reciprocates with money, jewelry and livestock. He also pays for the wedding feast lasting several days when not only relatives, but the entire village of 3-400 people are invited to the festivities.
After recitations from the Qur’an and the signing of the marriage contract everyone joins in traditional dancing which grows ever wilder, but is always performed precisely in step.
Their faces painted with sandalwood paste (considered to be alluring) women perform the energetic wadaha which mimes the chores —— milling grain, sweeping, fetching water —in store for the bride.
Men dance the mougodro which has origins in Afro-Malagasy culture and not to be left out, leaning on canes elders or ‘notables’ dance with great dignity.
Most grand marriages are held during the May- October dry season which is also the best time to visit the Comores.