Comoros Island's Home Pages. Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer.
Reviewed by Iain Walker
Published on H-SAfrica (May, 2000)
The Comoro Islands, situated between northern Madagascar and the coast of Mozambique, are of interest to the historian by virtue of their position, both physical and cultural, at the intersection of several worlds: African, Arab, Austronesian and South Asian. <p> Archaeological evidence is still lacking, but the evidence suggests that the islands were first inhabited early in the first millennium AD and would thus have formed an important link in the Indian Ocean trading networks which encompassed much of Southern Asia (from the Indonesian Archipelago to the Levant) and the East African coast, and which included Madagascar. <p> Early trade routes between insular South East Asia and East Africa, used by the first inhabitants of Madagascar, almost certainly included the Comoros, and the islands later developed into a southern centre of the Swahili cultural and economic zone. Arab, particularly Hadhrami, and Shirazi connections preserved the relationship between the Comoros and south west Asia and allowed for the extension of these networks to Madagascar. <p> The Comoros developed as a supply point on the European route to the east and were later pivotal in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Despite colonial neglect in the first half of the twentieth century, as recently as the 1980s the islands were again playing an important role, particularly in the apartheid regime's quest to maintain its influence in the region by serving as a stepping stone to Renamo rebels in Mozambique and, allegedly, by playing a role in the international arms and drugs trade. <p> Despite the seemingly exponential increase in the quantity of resources available online, the Comoros frequently miss out and if search engines return several thousand URLs, most of them are almost entirely empty of Comoros-related material. A real Comoros site is therefore particularly welcome. <p> <cite>'Comoro Islands' Home Page'</cite> <p> The Comoro Islands' Home Page is one of the oldest such sites. It is maintained by Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer, anthropologists whose involvement with the Comoros (specifically the island of Ndzwani-Anjouan) dates back to the 1960s and whose familiarity with the islands is evident in their site. <p> The entry point is a brief introductory page, whose text includes links to graphics and maps (the latter could be more informative) and is followed by a site table of contents and a list of links to other sites. <p> The table of contents is organised by themes (geography, language, economy, and so on) and leads to pages each with a concise treatment of the topic concerned. Not all the links are active, however: religion and art will be welcome additions as and when they appear. <p> The links section includes a dozen Comoros sites, mostly English-language, and with significant content. They include US government pages, sites concerned with bats and the coelacanth, and a few academic and public organisation pages which themselves contain both text and more links. <p> In terms of content, this site is a good general introduction to the islands for the English speaker. The various pages collectively present a concise but complete overview of the islands for the interested layman and are clearly distilled from several sources and backed up by personal knowledge. <p> However, the site is definitely aimed at the layman and not at the researcher: content is concerned with presenting an overview. The exception is the inclusion of a very complete and useful collection of bibliographical pages, classified by topic, which is also relatively up to date, including references from 1998. Shortcomings, from a researcher's point of view, concern the lack of references, which are not included in the body of the text, but which could make use of the capabilities of HTML, without disrupting the flow of the text. <p> Indeed, generally, better use of the medium would be welcome, in taking advantage both of the possibilities for interlinking documents and of the facility by which sites may be updated and changed. Despite being an internet site, there is a sense that it is little more than an electronic rendering of a static document. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is a personal page and as such there is no third party input in terms of content. However, given the number of English-speaking Comoros scholars in the world, this is a forgivable fault. <p> There are nevertheless a few curious errors. The etymology of the names Moroni (the national capital) and Comoro itself are both linked to the Bantu word <cite>moro</cite>, fire. This was a popular misconception in the colonial era, seeing the origins of the names in the presence of the volcano, but has since been quite effectively dismissed. The name Moroni is a French invention by insertion of an extra vowel into <cite>mroni</cite>, "at the river", while the etymology of Comoro is generally accepted to be found in the Arabic <cite>qamar</cite>, moon. Support for this latter etymology lies in the fact that not only does the name refer to all four islands (and only one has an active volcano), but that prior to European contact the name <cite>Qomr</cite> (in its various orthographies) referred to Madagascar and associated islands. <p> There is also some ambiguity in the statement that Domoni traded with Japan (presumably, in the context, referring to the fifteenth century): there is no evidence of direct contact between the Comoros and Japan prior to European contact in the early sixteenth century--indeed, there is not even direct evidence that the Ming fleets touched the islands, which would be a more real possibility; and, as far as I am aware there is no evidence either that Japanese exports reached the Comoros or Comorien exports reached Japan by way of intermediaries at this early date. <p> There is, finally, what would appear to be a typographical error, attributing the French annexation of Ndzwani to 1909: it in fact occurred in 1908 at the same time as the other islands. <p> One link from this site deserves special mention: <cite>Comoros: A Country Study</cite>, which is extracts from the Library of Congress Area Handbook Series (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/kmtoc.html) and is based in large part on the 1982 published volume <cite>Indian Ocean: Five Island Countries</cite>, edited by Frederica M. Bunge. This is effectively an online book, and as such is a valuable resource. It has been well researched, as indicated by the extensive bibliography, but although the work is a joint effort, and contains appropriate acknowledgments, I could find no clues as to the contributors' identities. This is unfortunate in a work that is both detailed and, to the newcomer to Comorien studies, apparently authoritative. <p> <cite>Comoros: A Country Study</cite> is authoritative, to a certain degree. There are very few published English-language texts dealing with the Comoros that are not specialised in one field or another--Malyn Newitt's <cite>The Comoro Islands: Struggle Against Dependency in the Indian Ocean</cite> is the only one that springs to mind, and so the appearance of this edition is very welcome. The errors and biases that have crept in are certainly a reflection of the sources rather than the editors' perspective(s) (which may explain their anonymity), but a corollary of this is the lack of analysis applied to the text. It appears as straightforwardly factual, but with a subject as scantily documented as the Comoros, this is a difficult position to maintain. <p> Certain misconceptions are repeated--the list of ethnic groups, which has been discarded after being a feature of the literature for many years, is still present; and the section on society generally is too brief to be a useful reflection of the reality. The text is, as befits a US government publication, essentially concerned with political and economic history, current affairs and strategic considerations. <p> It is clear that these are extracts from a book: all sections are headed "Comoros", despite some being concerned exclusively with other countries in the region (were they included by error?). This is, fortunately, quite clear from the context, but, generally speaking, the interface is rather unattractive (some colour and a few inline images would be welcome). It is particularly unfortunate that there is no easy facility for printing (pdf files, for example), since reading texts of this length on a screen is often an unappealing proposition. <p> <cite>'MweziNet'</cite> <p> MweziNet is a French language site devoted to all aspects of the Comoros. Run on a voluntary basis by a group of individuals with close Comorien connections, the site is both attractive and well organised (although the way some of the links on the first page are presented is not always conceptually clear). It has sections devoted to particular aspects of the islands including the media, culture, history, economy, politics, tourism, music and literature. Each section contains contributions from individuals with competencies in the relevant fields and many of the articles have been specifically written for MweziNet. In this sense, MweziNet is an online journal for the Comoros, and for Comoriens, as well as for foreigners. <p> Note that the English language version of the site is currently limited to little more than a translation of the entry page. Whether a full English translation of the site is necessary, desirable or even possible is a moot point: the majority of those interested would be likely to read French. <p> The press pages contain a list of current Comorien periodicals, published either in France or in the Comoros and include contact details. There is also an article giving an overview of the Comorien media. There are up to date news articles concerning the Comoros drawn from a number of sources, principally Comores-Infos, an online journal, but also from the Comorien and French press. Many of these are editorial-type articles devoted to topical issues, others are news items. In a separate category a calendar lists coming events organised by the Comorien diaspora in France. There is also a classified small ads section. <p> Other useful, general interest links include a collectors' corner, with sections devoted to numismatics, philately, postcards and telephone cards; music, largely dedicated to contemporary Comorien artists but with a well-written and informative article on the history of Comorien music; and, a new item, the online shop, selling a range of spices and essential oils at very competitive prices. <p> The strength of MweziNet, however, is its wealth of articles on issues of contemporary importance in the general field of the social sciences, particularly on issues related to economic and social development. The various headings-- politics, economics, cultural associations, society and tradition and history--lead to links that contain both factual details concerning these various aspects of Comorien society as well as documents of a more analytical nature. <p> Many of these articles are written by experts in their fields--among them Damir Ben Ali, Sophie Blanchy and Mohamed Ahmed-Chamanga--and if some are only summaries of the general state of knowledge in the relevant domain, others are valuable contributions to the study of the Comoros that are not, or are not easily, available elsewhere. This is particularly true of the sections on politics and economics, where a selection of primary sources can be found: the text of the recent "Tana Accords", propositions for a resolution of the current political crisis, is just one example. <p> Descriptions of community-based development efforts, often but not always written by those involved, give valuable insight into the dynamics of Comorien--and particular Grande Comorien--society. One notable characteristic of Grande Comore is the social cohesion attributable to customary practice and the age system. There is a large emigrant community in France, and links between members of the diaspora and their native village is strong. Development is a constant issue, and remittances make a significant contribution, both financially and socially, to national development. <p> Linked to MweziNet, and managed by the same group, is the Comorien mailing list <cite>Habari</cite>, which provides a forum for discussion of the Comoro Islands. If the discussions--frequently political in nature--are heated, this is no more than a reflection of contemporary Comorien issues and the list is very much an electronic version of the <cite>bangwe</cite>, or village square. <p> MweziNet is more than a website. It is an electronic focal point for Comorien cultural expression and a valuable repository for documents dealing with the islands. Its very strength lies in the diversity of its contributors and the quality of their contributions. Although there are the inevitable (minor) technical problems that creep into websites, overall the site is a valuable resource for the serious scholar and an informative site for the interested layperson. <p> An added bonus is that the site is well-designed, with a good use of colour, inline images where appropriate, and a well-judged balanced of short, general-interest documents and longer, in-depth articles. And, lest MweziNet be accused of isolationism, there are appropritate links to other online resources embedded in the text.
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