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Customs of Comoros

Marriage and Family

The most conspicuous social statement in Comoros is the Grand Marriage. Any man who wishes to be a full-fledged member of the community’s group of elders, or Notables, must marry off at least his eldest daughter in a Grand Marriage. Maternal uncles can also give a Grand Marriage for nieces. This highly expensive, multi-ceremony event lasts more than a week. Families save for it for years and can spend their life savings on providing meals and other celebrations for the entire village. Guests bring expensive gifts, the details of which are carefully noted so that the recipients can properly reciprocate in the future. A Grand Marriage that involves much local purchasing benefits the community and so brings greater status to the host. The groom and both families also gain greater status for their roles in the wedding. The bride’s father builds the newlyweds a house. If any problems occur in the marriage, the husband must leave and the woman keeps the house.

The Grand Marriage began simply as a celebratory event, but it has taken on great social importance. On Grande Comore, increasing competition between families to host grander and grander ceremonies has serious implications. Families spend so much on the event that they have less to spend on basic needs. Some go into debt, which may then be passed on to future generations. Couples can marry without a Grand Marriage, and many do, but the respective families will not join the highest social class until a Grand Marriage is held.

In Comoros the extended family is typically large, especially in villages where polygamy is common. Men are in charge of family finances and property, while women take control of the household. Men do little domestic work; they farm or fish for the family’s subsistence. Women seldom leave home except to do chores or for holidays, although some women in urban areas do work outside the house.

Children use their father’s given name as their surname. At about age 18, sons might build themselves a paillotte (thatched hut) near the family home. They still eat at home and take part in family activities, but sleep and entertain guests at their own dwelling. Daughters live at home until they marry. Small children are cared for by older sisters, and elders live with their adult children when they can no longer live alone.

Individual needs are subordinate to those of the family in Comoros. People expect to share in both the successes and failures of family members. Within the larger community, sharing wealth is a way to increase one’s social standing and influence.

Eating

Comorians eat mostly imported rice, usually with a fish or meat sauce. Plentiful local fish (tuna, barracuda, wahoo, and red snapper) are the main source of protein. Cassava is eaten fried, boiled, or grilled. Taro, green bananas, breadfruit, and potatoes (both white and sweet) are often served. Chicken, goat, and imported beef are popular meats. Pork is forbidden by Islam. Comorians spice their foods with putu, a hot pepper sauce. Bread is common, and fruits such as oranges, bananas, pineapples, papayas, mangoes, passion fruit, and litchi are plentiful in season. Coconut is used in some sauces. Urban markets sell tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and green beans. Indigenous spices include cloves, cinnamon, saffron, and cardamom. Water, tea, and fruit juice are drunk with meals.

Most Comorians who eat breakfast usually have cold leftovers along with hot, sweet tea. The afternoon meal includes a sauce-covered starchy food such as cassava or green bananas, and some meat. Dinner, which usually includes a rice dish, is the main meal.

Affluent families in urban areas eat at a table. Otherwise, families eat sitting cross-legged on a mat around several communal plates of food. In rural areas, women usually eat separately from men, especially if guests are present. Only guests who are very close friends eat with the family.

Comorians wash their hands in a bowl of water before and after eating. For large gatherings, food is served buffet-style and guests stand and take food from many different plates. No one eats until a short blessing has been offered.

While some urban men eat at restaurants when they cannot get home for lunch, most Comorians (especially in rural areas) consider eating out embarrassing—it implies the person is poorly fed at home, has no family, or has marital problems.

Socializing

Comorian men shake hands whenever they meet another man, but in public, at least, they greet women only verbally because touching women in public is considered improper. In private and among relatives, men and women may sometimes kiss one another on the cheek. Women might also greet their female friends with a kiss.

Upon greeting, Comorians exchange any of several standard phrases, depending on the level of formality. The Shingazidja version of an exchange between social equals is Edje? (an informal “Hello”) followed by Ye yapvo? (“What’s up?”). More formal terms are used to greet elders, superiors, or strangers. Bariza husha (“Good morning”), Bariza hazi? (“How’s work?”), and Bariza masihu (“Good evening”) are all common Shingazidja phrases. In fact, Bariza can precede anything to form a greeting.

On the island of Mwali, Djedje? (“How how?”) is the most common informal greeting, followed by Habari? (“News?”). Anjouan has similar greetings. Comorians also use traditional Muslim Arabic terms such as Asalaam alaikum (“Peace be unto you”). A positive response to something is often followed by the Arabic expression Insha’Allah (“Allah willing”) or Alhamdul’illah (“Thanks be to Allah”).

When calling out to someone, Grand Comorians often say Bo before the person’s name (for example, “Bo Mbaraka!”). Titles used to address people include mwana hangu (“my child/brother”) for good friends, coco for a grandmother, fundi for a teacher or craftsman, and mzé for an elder man.

A child shows respect to his or her elders by greeting them with both hands cupped and extended while saying Kwezi. In response, the elder clasps the child’s hands and says Mbona. The exchange is like asking for and receiving a blessing. On Mwali, the elder raises the cupped hands to the child’s forehead before saying Mbona.

Comorians make frequent informal visits to close friends; it is impolite to lose contact with any friend or family member for more than a few days. Extended families are large, so social obligations are numerous. People consider it a special honor to host a foreigner.

Within a village, Comorians visit freely without prior arrangement; time for visiting is usually set aside from 4 to 6 pm. When visiting someone in another town, it is polite to give advance notice (oulaha) to allow the hosts time to prepare. Guests are offered food and drink, which it is impolite to refuse. Weekday visits are short (an hour or less) but weekend ones may last the entire afternoon and include at least one meal. Visitors usually take gifts only when returning from a trip abroad.

Recreation

Soccer is the most popular sport, and each town has a team that competes at the national level. Young men play basketball and volleyball. Television is available in towns with electricity, but programs are limited to those broadcast by a French overseas channel. Comorian youth organize village dances. Musical tastes are diverse; people enjoy Western popular music and reggae, as well as traditional dance music. On weekends, families and friends might have a picnic at the beach. Men play games such as cards, dominoes, or mdraha, which is a strategy game played with pebbles.

Holidays and Celebrations

National holidays include New Year’s Day (1 January), the Lunar New Year, Labor Day (1 May), and Independence Day (6 July). Islamic holidays are based on the lunar calendar, so the dates vary each year. During the month of Ramadan, the people fast from dawn to dusk, but the nights are filled with activity and eating. At the end of the month is the holiest day, Id-al-Fitr, which Comorians celebrate by visiting, exchanging gifts, and having feasts. Forty days later, Id-al-Adha honors Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son. Comorians celebrate Muhammad’s birth for a month, and Maulid, his actual birthday, is a national holiday.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas