Rediscovering 'The Islands of the Moon.' (Comoros Archipelago)

By Libioulle, Andre | UNESCO Courier, March 1989 | Go to article overview

Rediscovering 'The Islands of the Moon.' (Comoros Archipelago)


Libioulle, Andre, UNESCO Courier


BECAUSE of a paradox inherent in the history of the islands on which they live, the people of the Comoros archipelago have only had access to their age-old cultural heritage since 1979, when the first public library containing a collection of historical and contemporary sources relating to their identity was opened at Moroni, the capital.

This tropical archipelago of four islands-Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali Moheli), Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mahore (Mayotte)-has cast a spell on travellers ever since the first voyages of Arabs and Persians to what they called the "Islands of the Moon" (al-Kamar) because of the moonlit radiance of their rugged shores. Sixteenth-century Portuguese explorers opening up the Spice Route first made the islands' existence known to the West.

Navigators must have been attracted to this volcanic archipelago at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean by its mild climate. But they were surely also drawn by the singularity of the population, a mixture of Bantu, Arab and Persian peoples living in closely-knit communities, whose tempestuous history was marked by rivalry between local chiefs and forays by pirates. Epic folk tales chronicled the myths and legends of a culture left astonishingly intact between its two great neighbours-the African mainland (Dar es-Salaam is some 700 kilometres away), and Madagascar, whose northern coast lies 300 kilometres from the Comoros.

Why should the Comoros be isolated? During the colonial period, from 1912 to 1946, when the islands were administered from Madagascar as a French colony, they were considered of negligible importance because they were so small. This archipelago which neither forms part of Madagascar nor of the Creole-speaking world was overlooked by researchers. The little that was known about the Comoros was filtered through Madagascar, as in the "Comoros room" established half a century ago in the Tananarive Museum.

The isolation of the Comoros was further intensified by the dispersal of ancient writings and legal, historical and ethnographic documents into east Africa, where the Swahili civilization (of which the Comoros constituted a kind of ocean outpost) had become an Anglo-Saxon sphere of influence.

The Comorians-like the people in the outside world-thus did not know their own country. In order to discover their cultural identity, they had to take matters into their own hands, a task which was all the more urgent since ecocnomic instability, dependence on foreign aid and imports of essential commodities had made their country vulnerable.

In October 1978 the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros was constituted, including all the islands except Mayotte, which remained a French dependency. …

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