Back when I first started blogging (which feels like years ago but was in fact just a few weeks…) I was intrigued to find that one of my viewers came from a tiny island in the Indian ocean I had previously never heard of called Mayotte. This discovery inspired first of all this post and now a whole series of posts which I am calling People Who Live in Small Places.
I was lucky enough to be able to not only track down Curtis, my visitor from Mayotte, but also to pursuade him to be the first person to contribute to this occasional series. Having lived in a few small places myself (Gibraltar, St Lucia), I was intrigued to hear how Curtis coped with life on such a small island so I asked him a few questions. This is what he told me:
First of all, can you tell me a bit about Mayotte?
Mayotte became France’s 101st daprtment in 2011, making it now a part of France in the same way as Martinique or La Réunion – or Normandy. It’s in fact two islands: Grande Terre and Petite Terre, with a total population of just over 200,000, and growing fast. About a third of the people live in the main town, Mamoudzou, the rest being scattered among other small towns and villages.
It’s surrounded by a coral reef, making it a prime destination for divers, or simply for those who like to hang out on one of its many beaches, gazing at the lagoon, taking a dip in the water that’s always warm.
You get the picture: beautiful tropical island. There’s a downside, though. Just 70 kms from the Comoros Islands (one of the poorest countries in the world), Mayotte attracts illegal immigrants keen to get to an island that’s now officially part of the European Union. They make the crossing daily in small, unstable boats called kwassa-kwassa. It’s estimated that over 12,000 people have died in the last 20 years trying to reach Mayotte.
Another estimation: these immigrants make up almost half the population of Mayotte. They live in shanty towns, and often break into the homes of the rich, white population to steal whatever they can. The police call this ‘survival delinquency’. But although it’s rampant, violence remains rare.
What are the good, and the not so good, things about living on Mayotte?
So there you have the best and worst of Mayotte: picture postcard beauty, but a serious problem of immigration, insecurity and poverty. Despite this, the atmosphere is relaxed. The people are very friendly. 95% Muslim, they are moderate in their religious views and women play an active role in the community. You lie on the beach and watch the locals (the Mahorais) enjoy their voulé (huge barbecues), and it’s pretty blissful. Especially when you think what the weather’s like back in Britain.
So what do you find to do with yourselves in your spare time?
Apart from the beaches, not a lot. If you’re fit, and don’t mind trekking in the heat, there are many walks to go on (a Naturalists’ Association provides guides). But Mayotte is small. If you do feel the need to ‘escape’, that means travelling to nearby countries like South Africa, Mauritius or Madagascar.
Mayotte is less developed than other overseas French departments like Martinique or La Réunion. You can find everything you need, more or less, but it’s definitely not for shopaholics. Fewer shops and less choice – no malls or fancy High Streets. Activities are maritime: if you like fishing or diving, or you have a small boat, you’ve come to the right place. Same if you’re a fan of flora and fauna – it’s not Madagascar in that respect but dedicated walkers can find plenty of interest.
What is the community like?
The white population, almost exclusively from metropolitan France, are mainly there to work – teachers, hospital staff, police. There’s no real animosity, but neither is there a lot of mixing with the local population of Mahorais. Consequently, word gets around the white community quickly. So if you don’t want something to be known, best be careful what you say!
And what advice would you offer anyone thinking of visiting or even moving to Mayotte?
There aren’t many tourists as yet, the island still lacking in infrastructure, and competing with other islands like Mauritius, which is much better equipped. But a tourist could easily stay for a fortnight without getting bored, no doubt longer if you’re into diving and snorkelling. Any stay longer than that means finding some activity to keep you busy. If you don’t actually have a job (which is my case), then another activity is essential. Could be botanical, or helping out in an association educating young children, or learning the language (shimaoré), or writing. As I’ve only just retired, and writing is a passion of mine, I have more than enough to do to keep myself busy!
A bit about Curtis:
I was a university teacher in France until a few months ago, then followed my wife to Mayotte, where she works as a school inspector. We’ll stay two years, which seems about right to get to know the place well. But any more might be difficult in such a small place. I’m very happy writing (and blogging!), and fortunate that I can do that anywhere. Right now I’m learning as much as I can about Mayotte, both through observation and research, to make it the setting of a current work in progress. Because of the complexity of the island’s population and history, it offers a rich, and little-known, context to have as the background to a novel.
Thank you so much Curtis for your fascinating introduction to the small place where you live. You can read Curtis’s blog Journey of a Squivelist here and in the meantime if anyone else who lives in a small place (including small islands, rocks, even small towns) would like to feature on my blog please let me know!