More countries nobody’s heard of: Island edition

Jill Harclerode, Education , Comoros – Group 1

One paper, four countries, seven days to decide which one would become my home – my new Peace Corps country of service.  Guinea, Gambia, Benin all made sense. After our December evacuation from Mali, transferring to another West African country seemed logical- linguistic and cultural similarities in the region might make re-starting the integration process just a little less burdensome.But the fourth option was a country I had to Google (I was surrounded by Peace Corps Volunteers and staff for goodness sake- we’re supposed to be worldly! I was not going to admit that I didn’t even know which continent this country was on).

Through the luxury of America-fast internet I was able to cover up my own lapse in geographical knowledge by locating The Comoros, a country comprised of 3 small islands in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar and off the coast of Tanzania. A month later, I was stepping off the plane into my new live-in sauna thinking, “Toto, We’re not in Mali anymore”.

After six months spent barely south of the Sahara, the heat was familiar, the bright fabrics walking around us were familiar, catching bits of French enrobed in unintelligible (to me) local language was familiar, but that’s just about it. The next two weeks of “mini PST” became a crash course in adapting to a totally new blend of cultures that make up The Comoros.

America claims to be the worlds “melting pot”, but next to Comoros I’d call my own country more of a chicken soup. Many different cultures, like the different ingredients in this comfort food, manage to complement each other- all existing in the same bowl, but the different parts still remain distinct. You can tell a piece of chicken from a carrot. Here in Comoros each island has absorbed linguistic, cultural, and religious practices from its various outside influences, and melded them with local custom- creating a culture that is more homogeneous than my own, but undoubtedly unique in the world.

For example, my female students walk into class with a traditional Arab-inspired shiromani wrapped around Western fashion staples such as jeans and a tee shirt. Usually, their heads are covered as called for by Islam.  More than 98 percent of Comorians are Muslims (and I’ve yet to find anyone in the 2 percent), and each morning at 5am sharp, a call-to-prayer in Arabic follows a benediction delivered in the local Shinjouni – a language heavily influenced by Swahili and Arabic – but in it you can catch bits of French, English, and even Spanish!

Even everyday life here blends cultures. Modern-looking concrete homes (with plumbing and electricity) stand next to huts with roofs and walls of woven palm fronds. Many adults in my village catch morning buses to their jobs in the city, return in the early afternoon, change from their western-style business suits, and head to the fields to gather mangoes, coconuts, or breadfruit for their family.

Sometimes, the homogeny of this place makes it difficult to integrate. Despite adopting local-style garments and becoming obsessed with Comorian food staples, I’ll always be a “Muzungu” –foreigner- around here.  But in general my community accepts my differences, even if they are confused by them. I might never quite fit into this “Great Comorian Melting Pot”, but so far my community has given me the chance to stir things up a bit!


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