CARIBOU TO MAYOTTE
Updated: Jan 28
I went through all stages - from complete rejection to enthusiasm - towards the idea of moving to Mayotte. Now that we are in place, I can't imagine it could be anyhow different. Most of my friends and family have no idea of what life on this tiny island lost in the Indian Ocean is about. And you, are you curious?
When the Chef first mentioned moving to Mayotte, I was ignorant of the existence of the island. Moreover, I was going through interviews for a job in Hamburg. As you see, we were not looking for the same kind of expatriation. We were joking that we were about to choose whether we wanted to be Hamburgers or Mayonnaises (the real name for the population of Mayotte is the Mahorans). Later, in order to prepare ourselves, we watched all existing documentaries about the island and most of them were giving such a bad image, only talking about illegal immigration and crime problems, that they were not tempting at all. I also read a novel about Mayotte (the only existing one, to my knowledge) and the life in its ghetto areas by Natacha Appanah "Tropic of Violence", and although the book is brilliant, I was quite scared by her description of poverty, crime, and desperation on this sea horse island. However, it was not even the crime that I apprehended the most, but the feeling of isolation in a small town and the life of a desperate housewife as a result. What finally convinced me was the testimonial of the fellow expat women living there. All of them said that despite evident security problems, they felt quite safe, that they all worked, gave birth to their children and in general continued living as they would elsewhere - just on a tropical island.
IS MAYOTTE DANGEROUS?
What are these security problems on a small island? Is it racism? Difficult past? To answer these questions, one needs to know a little bit about the history of this land.
Mayotte is a small island (official population: 260 000 approximately, dimension: 39 km long and 22 km wide), one of the Comoros Archipelago, located between Mozambique and Madagascar. Although since 2011 it is officially a French 101st department, the nearest French territory, Reunion, is at 1500 km away and the Metropole is at about 8000 km. The Mahorans are nonetheless very proud to be French. Three times during referenda - in 1974, 1976 and 2009 - they voted to be part of France. If Metropolitan France was so willing to gain Mayotte, you can guess that there is a pragmatic reason for that. The French bought Mayotte in 1841 from a local sultan to get a new port in the Indian Ocean after they had gotten hunted from Mauritius by the British. Moreover, Mayotte had a clear advantage of being just opposite the Nosy Bé port in Madagascar, also colonised by France.
The neighbouring state, from which Mayotte gained independence in 1976, the Union of the Comoros, never ceased to claim the island. The United Nations first condemned France's annexation of Mayotte, but considering France has the right of veto in the UN Security Council, the General Assembly stopped raising the issue. Russia, by the way, loves mentioning the case of Mayotte to justify its own annexation of Crimea. Sorry for these politico-historical parentheses (my International Relations background speaking), but without it, it is difficult to understand the problems Mayotte is facing today.
Who refers to France, means also the European Union, freedom of movement, middle class, and democracy. For many Comorans, Mayotte is, therefore, some kind of Eldorado with some promise of a better future whereas their own state is suffering from poverty and repeating coups d'etat. Besides, the four islands of the Comoros are linked historically and therefore it is rare to find a family in Mayotte that doesn't have relatives on other islands. As a result, the Comorans despite all the risks and legal consequences that their state takes against them in case of a failed escape attempt, try to migrate to Mayotte. Interestingly, Jus Soli (the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to nationality or citizenship), that normally applies in France, is greatly restricted in Mayotte - another attempt to restrain illegal immigration.
However, this any many other measures don't really work and the Comorans (along with the Malagasy) keep coming to Mayotte by light boats called Kwassa Kwassa. The population of Mayotte has tripled since 1991 and the rate of the population born abroad is 40%. About half of the population are below 15 years old and many have no other way to survive than stealing. These people live in bangas - small houses made of palm trees and corrugated sheet metal. Mayotte is the poorest French overseas territory and it has the largest population living in slum areas. The Mahorans are the first to suffer from the current situation although it is also true that this country (in this article I'll call Mayotte a "country", although politically it is not) needs additional cheap labour.
In my personal experience, now that we already live here, although it is true that one needs to take extra precautions when living on the island, there is no need to become paranoid either. For example, it is not recommended to use your mobile phone while walking in the street or if you do, you'd better use headphones; don't leave anything valuable in your car, including original documents; wear your bag only through the shoulder and when you can, avoid carrying it altogether. Houses are usually well protected with alarms, barbed wires, fences, and window grilles. Despite all that, burglaries are very common here. During our first week in Mayotte, we had a burglary attempt in the house we were living in. While we were absent, two boys entered the terrace, but scared by shots in the air from the fake pistol of our neighbour, ran away. Also, here you don't go to a wild beach or hiking alone. This kind of activity should also be practiced in large groups for safety reasons.
THE MAHORANS OR THE MAYONNAISES?
The local population, in general, is very kind and friendly. They don't seem to pay a lot of attention to the presence of the white people (the mzungu, as they call us) on their land and I haven't noticed any sign of racism.
The official religion in Mayotte is Islam brought here by the Arabo-Persian merchants in the 11th century. However, the local version of this religion is very tolerant and the Mahorans are open-minded. Local women dress-up in their colorful traditional dresses Salouvas, coquettishly covering their hair with a scarf, and men usually wear modern clothes except when going to the mosque.
My mother was born and raised in a Tatar Muslim family whereas my father is Christian and I only got baptised in Orthodox Christianity after a careful reflection. I selected the religion that I thought closer to my heart and education, but I respect both of them a lot and am happy to live in a country where Islam is not demonised and people are proud to be Muslims.
The language spoken in everyday life local population is Shimaore and French is not native for them. Logically, those who have not attended school do not read or write French. The word "Welcome" in Shimaore is "Caribou".
THE THREE NAMES OF MAYOTTE
Mayotte has three nicknames: the first one is the sea horse island due to its shape. The second one is the island of perfume because of a great variety of flourishing trees that smell heavenly, especially in the evening with the sunset. Among others, Mayotte is famous for ylang-ylang, a tree introduced here by the Europeans in the 18th century. Guerlain for example has its own plantations of this tree in Mayotte. This island is also one of the very few countries, natural habitats of baobabs and the second country after Madagascar in terms of biodiversity of this rare tree. Finally, Mayotte is called the island in the lagoon. Indeed, this island of a volcanic origin is surrounded by a double barrier reef, which makes its waters really unique. This barrier is almost continuous throughout the perimeter of the island and defines one of the largest coral lagoons in the world, with an area of 1500 km2. Here, just while snorkeling you can see all sorts of fish and corals, let alone when you dive. Big turtles, manta rays, dolphins, "kind" inoffensive sharks - you name it, they have it. Also, the lagoon of Mayotte is known to be attractive for whales and their newborn babies from July to October. I can't wait to go for a boat trip in a couple of weeks to see these sea animals!
IS THERE TOURISM IN MAYOTTE?
Despite all this natural wealth, tourism in Mayotte is not developed at all. There is little infrastructure and the communication about the island is quite poor. If the French at least know about the existence of Mayotte (usually in a very bad light), other nationalities have never heard about it. Although the security situation is the plague of the island, it is not worse than in other already developed tourist destinations like Brazil, Columbia or neighbouring Madagascar. Another problem is definitely the exorbetant price of plane tickets (about 1000 euros for a direct return flight from Paris with Air Austral). This is, on the other hand, good news - this pearl of the Indian Ocean is not spoilt by massive tourism and one can still enjoy the untouched beauty of its beaches and rain forests. I do believe though that the potential of this island is enormous and that time and good governance can turn this place into a big attraction for eco-tourism lovers. One of the purposes of my blogging is the promotion of tourism in Mayotte, depicting in all honesty what this island is like (don't worry, I'm completely unbiased here and don't benefit financially from any advertising).
As for me, I'm on this tropical island for a few years and have time to explore and discover all the secrets of this beautiful country. So far, one month after my arrival, I'm enchanted by it, attracted by its people, their Islamo-African culture, their way of life and cuisine. I have left Paris, my friends, my comfort, the luxury market and the potential job I had been dreaming of - all that to come back to basics, to enjoy my family, nature, and adventure. This is my new story, this is My Mayotte.
If you wish to know how to prepare your trip to Mayotte as en expat, read my poste What to Pack When You Leave to Live in Mayotte.