What do Arabs think of Mayotte

Mayotte Out and about on the "Seahorse Island"

Mahajanga, west coast of Madagascar. October.

Spring has already begun in the southern hemisphere and the rainy season is approaching every day. In a few hours a plane will take me to France. France in the Indian Ocean. My destination is the island of Mayotte, which is politically part of France, but geographically part of the Comoros.

For over 80 years the Comoros archipelago, which lies between Mozambique and Madagascar, was a French protectorate. In 1975, 95 percent of the Comoros voted for independence, but the counting of votes island by island showed that the majority of the Mahorais, residents of Mayotte, wanted to remain French.

That was the beginning of the "Affaire Mayotte", which brought Paris year after year the condemnation of the United Nations for disregarding international law.

But France is bound by its own constitution, which stipulates that no territory may be released from the French state system against the will of the affected population.

Mayotte must return to the Comoros, says a Comorian sailor whom I met in the port of Mahajanga on the evening before my departure. The referendums have been manipulated, he believes, but in reality there is also a majority in favor of independence among the residents of Mayotte.

I ask him about the separatists who a few years ago called for the reintegration of the island of Anjouan, only 70 km from Mayotte, into the French state. This rebellion was instigated by French mercenaries, says the seaman, who travels every month on the route between the various Comoros islands and Madagascar. He is too proud to admit that the uprising was more likely motivated by the catastrophic economic situation in the Comoros, which, on the other hand, makes Mayotte seem like paradise.

The transformation of the former colony of Mayotte into an overseas department cost France a lot of money, and there is no longer a politician in Paris who dreams of opening up new territories for the state. The time when gunboats were sent to Madagascar is definitely over.

The flight from Madagascar to the tropical island of Mayotte, which lies between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn in the Mozambique Strait, takes just under an hour. In 2011 Mayotte received the status of an overseas department, that is, legal equality with all departments in metropolitan France. As of January 1, 2014, Mayotte has been an integral part of the European Union as the "outermost region".

The rain sets in on the approach to landing. The passport control is quickly behind me, for members of the European Community it's like a trip to Strasbourg or Paris.

At every airport in Madagascar, the taxi drivers immediately pounce on the European traveler and offer their services, here it is completely different. It takes half an hour before I can finally squeeze myself into the back seat of an old Peugeot with a young man and two children. The journey doesn't take long. At the landing stage, where we wait for the ferry to the main island of Grande Terre, we start talking.

Said picked up his boss's children from Madagascar and is now bringing them home. He wants to help me find a hotel, he says. That is often difficult because many rooms are rented to members of the gendarmerie.

The rain is getting heavier and you can't see much of the lagoon during the crossing. A colleague from work is waiting for Said and the children at the Mamoudzou pier; he agrees that I can come with them.
Half an hour later I found a hotel - not very good, far too expensive and noisy. But at least I have a roof over my head.

The French overseas department of Mayotte (picture-alliance / dpa / Drolc Gerard)

Off to Grande Terre

The next day I'm back on the ferry - although most of the administrative buildings are in Mamoudzou on Grande Terre, the prefect still resides in Dzaoudzi on Petite Terre. Parts of the Foreign Legion from the former garrison town of Diego Suarez on the northern tip of Madagascar are also stationed here.

Petite Terre Island is located on the outer edge of the coral reef that surrounds the entire archipelago. At 1,500 square kilometers, the Mayotte lagoon is one of the largest and most beautiful in the world. On the east coast of Petite Terre, the volcanic base drops to a depth of three thousand meters.
At the pier, I take a taxi to the French international broadcaster RFO - Radio France d'Outre Mer, which has the programming monopoly in all overseas departments.

Already in Madagascar I am working on the Italian
Anthropologist and journalist Tiziana Marrone, who has done extensive research on the origins of the Comorian population.

This is a difficult topic, says the young scientist. Archaeological finds suggested that many immigrants from the Arab regions of East Africa came to the island in the 8th century AD. The finds also include Chinese pottery shards, probably from traders who worked for the Arab sultans.

The anthropologist believes that the various manufacturing techniques that Tiziana Marrone was able to prove in the clay pots show how great the intermingling of cultures must have been here. The proximity to the island continent of Madagascar has also influenced the history of Mayotte.

Madagascar does not have a purely African population, although it is only separated from Africa by the 400 kilometers wide strait of Mozambique. The majority of the Madagascans come from the Indonesian region, their language is an Indonesian language and Mayotte is the only island in the Indian Ocean where this language is still spoken outside of Madagascar.

So there are different influences, says the anthropologist, but it is not easy to say when exactly the individual ethnic groups appeared here.

The island's natives were certainly Bantu tribes from Africa. This Bantuerbe, expressed in the central position of women, can be found in the population of Mayotte to this day. Matrilocality - the man lives in the woman's house and matrilinearity - the line of succession goes through the female line of the family, are still basic features of society today, even if the role of the man was upgraded by Islam.

Everywhere on the island you can see the posters "Un, deux, trois - bess! - one, two, three - enough!", With which the locals are asked to leave it with three children. The population on Mayotte is growing rapidly, plus illegal immigration from the neighboring island of Anjouan, which is causing the authorities a headache. With over 200,000 people, the 374 square kilometer island is already quite densely populated.

Acoustic panorama on the road between Dapam and Mbouini - birds, wind and rustling leaves in the foreground, people and animals in the fields, far below

I'm standing on a pass road above the Mbouini valley. It's hot and humid, like every day, but the heat is more bearable here in the country than in the capital.

Mbouini is located in the far south, in the "tail of the seahorse" - l'île hippocampe "Mayotte, the seahorse island, is also called. Satellite photos clearly show the idiosyncratic shape that volcanic activity and erosion have given the archipelago.

In the northwest, only about 70 km away, is the neighboring island of Anjouan, which forms the Comoros archipelago with the islands of Mohéli and Grande Comore.

In the 1990s there was a rebellion in Anjouan against the central government in Moroni on Grande Comore. The population of Anjouan wanted to become French territory again, but this request met with a piquant silence in Paris.

The time of the colonies is over, and no politician wants to strain the difficult relationship with the Comoros even more.
In 2008 the rebellion was ended by a task force from the African Union.

The fact that the population of Mayotte always opted to remain with France in all referendums has not only economic but also historical and cultural reasons. In the 19th century, the influence of the African kingdoms on the west coast of Madagascar was very strong on Mayotte.

Today there are still 13 villages on the island where a Malagasy dialect, the shibushi, is spoken. The Mahorais were always afraid of losing their cultural and linguistic identity in a reunited Comorian state. Therefore, distant France is still the guarantor not only for relative prosperity, but also for the preservation of one's own culture.

Mayotter woman with a typical mask made of sandalwood (Burkhard Birke)

45 percent of the people are illiterate

Madagascar was also a French colony until 1960. In the first two decades after independence, the big island remained the country with the most developed infrastructure in the Indian Ocean. There is little left of it, La Réunion and Mauritius are the economic locomotives today, and maybe Mayotte too soon.

The evening after my excursion to the south of the island, I meet the writer David Jaomanoro, who left Madagascar a few years ago because he could no longer bear the poverty and corruption.

On Mayotte he develops in a state language institute
Literacy programs for the local population. Despite belonging to France, only a third of the Mahorais speak French. 45 percent of the people are illiterate.
"Perhaps we can develop instruments for social change here that will later also be used in Madagascar," hopes David Jaomanoro.

The challenge is to teach the alphabet to a population that does not have its own written language. One could object that the Mahorais use the Arabic characters to write their two languages, i.e. the shimaoré and the shibushi, but a uniform rule has never been found for this, everyone writes as he wants. As soon as you have sounds for which there is no equivalent in the Arabic alphabet, everyone has to rely on their ingenuity.

A classic literacy campaign consists of teaching people to write, read and also do arithmetic - these are the three pillars. In Mayotte, the population is now learning to read and write in a language that is not their mother tongue, namely French. That means that in addition to learning the alphabet, people also need to learn the basics of the French language, says David Jaomanoro. And that makes it very complex.

Despite the Arabic influences in the past and the Koran schools, where the Mahorais also learn the basic terms of the Arabic language through religion, Mayotte is not an arabophone society. Similar to Christianity in Madagascar, Islam in Mayotte is also heavily interspersed with animistic elements that betray the African influence.

In such a mixed culture, the temptation is always great to pick from the respective legal system and religion what brings the most advantages.

At the Mtsapéré Polyclinic, I have an appointment with the Mayotte Women's Representative. Nafisata Mouhoudhoir receives me in her office above the treatment rooms. The view goes to a bare slope, which is cut through by footpaths; Up on the hill there are a few poor corrugated iron huts.

She notices me looking outside and says: "This is Mayotte! The modern clinic, which is already too small - you saw how many people are waiting outside - and directly opposite, the lousy huts without water and sanitary facilities."

You will laugh, says the energetic doctor, but if an authentic Islam were practiced on Mayotte, we would have much fewer problems with abandoned or beaten women - the whole family situation would be much better. There is probably no other religion, she says, where women are as protected as in Islam. At least on paper ...

If you bring children into the world, then religion demands that you take care of them and educate them in such a way that they do not go wrong. That means that I feed my child, raise it, in short, that I am present. But that's not what happens on Mayotte, says Nafisata Mouhoudhoir. The instability of marriages is growing and monoparental families are increasing. A woman with children without the man, that is the classic situation.

Nafisata Mouhoudhoir does not see herself as an expert on Islam. I am not an arabophone, she says, but if you do your research and document a little, you quickly notice that everything is being done here, except what is prescribed by Islam. In the Muslim religion, for example, it says that you cannot just get divorced, but should first think for 40 days to find out whether you really want to separate from your wife.

Much of the troubles on Mayotte are due to the confusion between the Islamic religion and local customs. People have a tendency, says the women's representative, to mix culture and religion with one another, and it is then very difficult to determine what really belongs to Islam and what comes solely from the local culture.

As I sit at the breakfast table the morning after the interview with David Jaomanoro, the waiter tells me that my car, which is parked in front of the hotel entrance, is leaking gas. I go downstairs and see that a big pool has already formed. The owner of the car rental, whom I reach after a few unsuccessful attempts, wants to come by himself to see what is going on. "The usual," he says when we meet half an hour later, "they look, the hose is loose, someone tried to steal gasoline and was probably disturbed, otherwise the tank would be empty." We drive together his company in the industrial district north of Mamoudzou to repair the matter.

Monsieur Jivan is Indian, he used to work on Reunion Island, now the prospect of rapid economic development has drawn him to Mayotte. "There is a lot to do here," he tells me, "economically the island will look great, but it is not easy. You have just seen that yourself ...!"

A 160 kilometers long coral reef is the island's greatest wealth

Not much is left of the sugar cane plantations of the colonial era, only the banana trees can still be found all over the island. Bananas and cassava are staple foods for the local population.

There are only small fields, and farmers often have to travel long distances to cultivate their parcels in different forest areas.
On my trip across the island I always take people with me who have already covered several kilometers with their work tools on their backs and who are happy about the lift. Many only speak broken French.

Agriculture and fishing are self-sufficient on Mayotte, only vanilla and ylang-ylang are products that are also exported.
In the mountains near Combani, the Parisian perfumer Guerlain has his own plantations where the ylang-ylang trees are grown, the flower essence of which is a basic ingredient in almost all perfumes.

You can drive around the island in a few hours. Compared to Madagascar, the roads are excellent. But Mayotte's greatest wealth is not to be found in the interior, but in the lagoon, which is formed by a 160 kilometers long coral reef that surrounds the entire island.

A playground not only for the humpback whales, which use the shallow water as a nursery for their newborns in the southern winter from July to October. Scientists from all over the world study the effects of global warming on coral reefs and biodiversity.

Sea turtle hunting has been banned for several years, and the beaches where the animals come ashore to lay eggs have been closely monitored.

With diving goggles you can watch the turtles grazing in the submarine Poseidonis meadows. They know that they have nothing to fear from humans here. Even if you touch their armor, they do not let themselves be disturbed in their work.

Economically, Mayotte was never very important for France. But the huge natural harbor formed by the lagoon played an important role in maritime trade with India and China in the 19th century.
The fact that slavery was abolished as early as 1846, five years after the establishment of the Protectorate, is one of the explanations for MP Henry-Jean-Baptiste why his people always wanted to stay with France.

Economic advantages and the fear of not being able to maintain one's own culture in a regional context without help from distant Europe are certainly the stronger argument. Despite all the costs and political problems that the former colonies cause him, France is ultimately a winner. The overseas territories are not just a playground for high state officials, engineers and business people.

The Mauritian-born writer Jean-Marie Le Clézio speaks of social laboratories where models of coexistence are developed that can only arise under the special conditions of small island states. But they would certainly have an effect, not only on the mother country, but also on other, larger countries in the region.

Anyone who has lived in France will be able to confirm this: New Caledonia, La Réunion, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Martinique and Guadeloupe, the Kuergelen Islands, French Polynesia and ... Mayotte are exotic, but also an integral part of modern French culture. They influence people's thinking and dreams.