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Comoros, The People of Comoros

grand mariage, Domoni, Mwali, festivals of Islam, Kilwa

The 2002 population for the three islands was estimated to be 614,382. Nzwani and Njazidja each have populations of about 200,000, but the smaller size of Nzwani gives it one of the highest population densities in the world, with more than 500 persons per sq km (1,300 per sq mi). Some 67 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The largest towns are Mutsamudu (population, 1988 estimate, 14,000) and Domoni on Nzwani; Moroni (36,000) and Mitsamiouli on Njazidja; and Fomboni (7,000) on Mwali.

The population has been formed by successive settlements over at least 1,000 years. Early migrations from Madagascar were followed by Islamic settlers whose ruling elites were related to families in Kilwa and Zanzibar, islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania, as well as to families in Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. Early in the 19th century there were fresh incursions from Madagascar, and Mayotte and Mwali were ruled by Malagasy dynasties. Slaves meanwhile were regularly imported from Mozambique, and by the end of the 19th century their descendants may have constituted the majority of the population. Today there are no strong ethnic divisions; rivalries between the islands are more important than ethnic differences. The descendants of the former ruling elites may, however, tend to be more conservative Muslims who maintain ties to the broader Islamic world.

Most Comorians are Sunni Muslims, with the exceptions of the resident Indians and French Creoles. French and Arabic are the official languages, but the dialects of the islands, collectively called Shimasiwa (or Comoran), are used in everyday speech. Shimasiwa is related to Swahili. Islamic schools are attended by many children, and state education is officially compulsory from the age of 7 to 16. Although 76 percent of the primary school-age children attend school, only 25 percent receive a secondary education. The state spends one-quarter of its income on education. With the exception of a lycee (French high school) in Moroni, most education is of a low standard, and educational facilities are very poor. Adult literacy was estimated to be 68 percent in 2001.

Most of the people live in houses made of palm fronds in rural villages, but wealthier people build more substantial houses of stone or concrete blocks when they marry. Most women still wear the chirumani, a colorful traditional garment made of cotton. The festivals of Islam are observed, but the principal communal celebrations are those associated with marriage. When celebrated by a wealthy family, the grand mariage can last for weeks with public and private ceremonies, as well as a concert, called the twarab, which is an occasion for traditional musicians to display their arts and for the whole community to join in the festivities. Polygyny, a form of polygamy in which a man has more than one wife, is still common among the wealthy. Each wife has her own house and is endowed with considerable amounts of gold jewelry.

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