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Comoros

Officially known as the Union of the Comoros, Comoros is a multi-island nation off the coast of south-eastern Africa that has three official languages, Arabic among them. The other two are French and Comorian, which is a blend of Swahili and Arabic. Each language has its own specific use in the day-to-day life of the Comorans. Comorian is used the primary language of the people and Arabic is a secondary language for most. French is present, due to the colonization of the islands by the French, and is used mainly in educational circumstances.

Comoros is the third smallest country in Africa, based on landmass and consists of three definitive islands. A fourth island, Mayotte or Mahore, is disputed as belonging to either Comoros or France. Both countries have claimed the island as part of their own territories. However, France administers the commerce and other aspects of life there. In fact the names of all four of the islands are not even agreed upon. The Union of the Comoros prefers to call the islands by their Swahili names, while the French government refers to them by their French names. The Swahili names are Njazidja, Mwali, Nzwani, and Mahore. The French names are Grand Camore, Moheli, Anjouan, and Mayotte, respectively. Although the country has a relatively small size, with under one million people in the population, it also has one of the highest population densities in Africa.

The four islands create an archipelago that is located in the northernmost section of the Mozambique Channel, just between Madagascar and mainland Africa in the Indian Ocean. The country’s isolation from the rest of the continent has resulted in the presence of several species of interesting and unique animals that are found nowhere else on Earth. One of the animals is known as the coelacanth fish. The species is referred to as a Lazarus taxon. This term simply means that the animal was believed to have gone extinct, due to fossil records, only to be discovered still in existence. In the case of the coelacanths, this rediscovery occurred in 1938, just off the coast of the Comoros islands. Prior to this, the fish species was believed to have disappeared 65 million years earlier.

The geography of each of the Comoros islands is just as unique as the animals that can be found there. The islands themselves are considered relatively young on the geological timeline and were created by volcanoes that are still present today. On the main island, Njazidja (Grand Comore), there are two present volcanoes. The only active on is known as Karthala. It is located in the south of the island and also has on of the largest calderas to be found on a volcano in the world. The last time Karthala erupted was in November of 2005, an eruption that destroyed the lake in the center of the caldera. In the northern section of the island is a dead volcano, called La Grille, that is connected to Karthala by a long plateau. This island is also home to the country’s capital city of Moroni.

Nzwani (Anjouan) is home to three small mountain ranges. They are the Sima, Nioumakele, and the Jimilime. As one of the younger islands, there is a serious problem with erosion. This problem also exists on Njazidja (Grand Comore). However, the smallest island of Mwali (Moheli), is still home to most of the country’s rainforests. In the 1990’s, steps were taken in the country to minimize the destruction of the unique ecosystem and to preserve the rare wildlife there. This resulted in a rapid decrease of deforestation and many of the areas that have been affected by the problem are starting to recover.

The oldest island of Mahore (Mayotte) has the best soil. This is only one of the reasons as to why the two countries dispute ownership of it. The island is also home to natural barrier reefs that create safe harbors for ships and protection from the sometimes turbulent weather that is experienced in the region. The climate of the Comoros islands consists of two seasons. Classified as marine tropical, the conditions can range from one extreme to another in terms of water. In fact, although Comoros experiences a monsoon season, water is considered a precious commodity. This is also due to the soil conditions of the volcanic rock of which the islands were made.

The first season is the hot and humid season, which is usually brought on by the monsoons. The second season is the cooler and drier one. During the wet season, cyclones are a serious threat. Cyclones are responsible for the majority of the natural disasters there and can destroy homes and businesses relatively easy.

The people of Comoros are considered a very culturally rich population. This is mainly due to the positioning of the country between several unique cultural regions. It is believed that people inhabited the islands around the 6th Century CE. This is relatively late for most areas in this region. It is believed that the first visitors were Phoenician sailors, sometime in antiquity. The first actual settlers to migrate to the region were either Melanesians of Polynesians, and were there no later than the 6th Century CE, as evidenced by archaeological finds. However, most Comorans today claim that their ancestors and the first inhabitants of the island were Arab sailors.

It is known for certain in scholarly circles that the first major presence of Arabs on the archipelago was over the course of the 15th and 16th Centuries. The first of these visitors were the royals of the Shirazi clan. The Comoros Islands were on a convenient trade route that the Arabs used to obtain gold in Zimbabwe. During this time, both Islam and architecture seem to have become rooted and flourished in the area.

The next major group of people to explore the islands was the Portuguese. Although they were the first Europeans to discover the islands, they did not claim them for themselves. Rather, they used them as a sort of port for when travelling between other larger countries in the area. In fact, the foreign group with the most impact was the French, who arrived on the islands shortly after the Portuguese, in 1529. The French, like the Portuguese, did not initially intend to capture the islands for themselves. Several French explorers did provide the first Europeans accounts of exploration of the Comoros, which most likely influenced the later decisions to conquer them for their own.

After the first visits from the French and the Portuguese, a period of instability plagued the region, from the late 16th Century until the middle of the 19th Century. There is not very much known about this time, due to lack of written or archaeological evidence. However, it is known that it was a period of vast amounts of piracy and rule by sultan leaders. The governments during this time were unstable at best and involved much fighting between sultans over control of small amounts of territory.

France used this time of instability to its advantage, and through careful political maneuvering, was able to gain control over the islands without any bloodshed in a period that lasted from 1841 to 1909. The area was officially named French territory in 1912. The main benefit for the French in possessing the islands was due to the trade routes that were still in use. Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, many European vessels used the islands as stops on their voyages.

During WWII, the Comoros were occupied by British forces. Afterwards, the islands were granted autonomy in 1946 and were later granted internal self-governance in 1968. In 1974, the French held elections for the people who inhabited the islands to vote for whether or not they wanted to retain French rule on their home island. The only island in the present-day Union of Comoros to vote to retain the French overseers was Mayotte. The other three islands were granted independence in 1975. Since gaining independence, Comoros has experienced over 20 coups.

The period immediately following the liberation of the islands was marked by activity involving foreign missionaries. Perhaps the most well-known of these was Bob Denard, who would play a key role in shaping the government of the Comoros Islands for years to come. By 1978, a new constitution was set up, creating an Islamic state which allowed each of the three islands, except Mayotte, more autonomy. The coups continued with attempted ones in 1985 and 1987. Two years later, in 1989, an assassination attempt on then president Ahmed Abdallah was successful. Many believe that the assassination was ordered by the missionary Bob Denard, due to the facts that it was one of the president’s guards who conducted the murder and it was also well-known in the country that Abdallah was seeking help from the governments of France and South Africa to help expel Denard from the country.

Throughout the early 90’s there was much more infighting in Comoros, especially between the different branches of the governments during that time. In 1995 Denard, who had been exiled from the islands due to his persuasion and power in governmental affairs, was responsible for staging yet another coup attempt from his position in exile. This time, the French government responded by bringing in over 1,000 troops to the island and overthrowing the coup leaders.

In 1997, the islands of Nzwani and Mwali experienced stages of unrest over the citizen’s wishes to return to French rule. In fact, in an election on Nzwani, 99% of the population voted to return French sovereignty to the island. However, France repeatedly ignored requests. After yet another coup in 1999, the new president Azali Assoumani with help of the African Union is able to compromise with the rogue islands. In 2000 the Fomboni Accords are signed and the Union of the Comoros is officially formed. Under the accords, the country was set up as to allow each island to have its own president and local government.

The success of the Fomboni Accords lasted about seven years, until Nzwani or Anjouan succeeded once again from the union. Once again, the African Union stepped in to negotiate with the island and set up a naval blockade. However, in 2008 the island was reclaimed by Comoran soldiers in a bloodless overthrow of Anjouan’s government. This was welcomed by a majority of the island’s inhabitants.

Today the concepts set up in the Fomboni Accords are still in place. The islands each have their own constitution, president and parliament. The central government is considered a federal presidential republic and is a multi-party system. The president of Comoros is both the head of the government, as well as the head of state and the legislation lies in Islamic law.

Arabic plays a key role in the education of children, especially in their early years. Most parents send young children to Quranic schools, where they are taught to memorize the Qur’an and learn to speak fluent Arabic, usually as their second language. Many parents chose to do this, because later French schooling tends to be insufficient. This is mostly due to lack of resources and poorly trained instructors. Also, poor pay has driven most of the better teachers into other professions.

The economic state of the country has a lot to do with the substandard educational aspects of the country. Comoros is one of the poorest countries in the world. The majority of the country’s income is based on agriculture, fishing, and hunting. With few natural resources, the government of the Union of the Comoros has made attempts to increase economic growth and reduce the poverty in order to stabilize the future of the country.

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