COCONUTS, COELACANTHS AND MOONSHINE

“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.

Local house built from woven coconut palm fronds

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.

View of the Friday Mosque  in Moroni, Grande Comore

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.

The Karthala Volcano on Grande Comore last erupted in 2007 sending lava down to the sea

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.

Ylang-ylang a star-shaped flower grows on the Cananga tree (Cananga odorata)

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.

A market in Moroni, capital of the Comoros Islands

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.

Comorian women dancing the wadaha

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.

Postage stamp featuring the coelacanth found off Grande Comore in 1938

About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: www.worldreligions.co.uk. Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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2 Responses to COCONUTS, COELACANTHS AND MOONSHINE

  1. Colleen O'Brien says:

    As always an interesting article written with verve and beautifully illustrated with Christine’s excellent photos. Her expanse of informed articles show an active and thorough knowledge of her subject increase the enjoyment taken from following her blog.

  2. Thanks Colleen. Due to their remote location, the islands are not spoiled by hordes of tourists.

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