George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Friday 7 September 2007
Alex Horne – 7th September 2007
‘We’re the forgotten island’ were the first words Dalila said to me after we’d met outside Kentish Town tube station; me, hungover after my early birthday party; her, keen to remind people about where she’s from, however much they’d drunk the night before.
To be honest, it wasn’t even a case of not remembering Comoros for me, despite my dozy morning-after-an-evening-in-the-Windsor-Castle (just off Edgware Road, currently my favourite London pub) state. I’d never even heard of Comoros. At least I didn’t think I had. Comoros… Comoros… No, I was pretty sure I’d never come across Comoros in my life.
I held my head in shame. And pain.
Dalila – and yes, it’s a cracking name; I told her so, she told me it was a traditional, somewhat old fashioned North African name and that she liked it to – had just turned 29. I will turn 29 in three days time (I hope to have recovered enough by then to celebrate all over again). I think we’re the closest in age of anyone I’ve met so far. And it is quite funny to meet someone the same age as you who’s from a county you’re not even aware of. I’d thought I was so wise. Obviously not.
‘The thing is’, she began, ‘we’re one of the most indebted countries in the world and our government isn’t very proactive when it comes to tourism. We have a sad record’, she continued, obviously keen to now brand Comoros on my addled mind, ‘which is that we’ve had nineteen coups d’état (no idea where the ‘s’ goes there, just as I’ve no idea if the title is actually French for forgotten island) in the last twenty two years.’ That’s quite a statistic. Nineteen coups! I’ve seen none in my lifetime! Nineteen! That’s loads! And because I said those exclamations as well as writing them here, Dalila did her best to explain why there’d been so many (even handing out wikipedia notes at the end of our chat to make sure I’d understood).
It goes something like this. Comoros is made up of four islands located off the eastern coast of Africa between Madagascar and northern Mozambique. It gained independence from France in 1975 although one of the islands, Mayotte, voted in favour of French rule and is therefore still now officially part of France.
Her island, Anjouan, is perhaps the most contentious of the other three. ‘We have issues with the other islands about where the capital city is’, she said. ‘It’s officially Moroni so all the aid goes there. That’s not particularly fair so in 1995 we decided to have a cessation and got our own government. For the next seven years there were loads of problems and embargoes until a treaty in December 2001 eventually installed the Constitution of the Union of the Comoros which basically meant there’s a federal government on each island’.
But that’s not quite it. Six months ago her own island’s president decided that he wasn’t going to stand down at the end of his term so the central government is now keen to take action against Anjouan. Bearing in mind there are only 200,000 people livng on Anjouan, it’s quite a strange, some might even say farcical situation.
‘Have you ever seen it on the news over here?’ I asked, wondering how I’d missed this political soap opera. ‘Twice’, she said definitively, ‘but only because of Bob Denard. He’s our real bête noir’. Unfortunately I thought she’s said Bob Dylan so by now was utterly lost.
If you want the full story, have a look at wikipedia for yourself, but I’m sure even that will leave you fairly confused. It seems this guy Bob was a mercenary who, for more than twenty years, was apparently paid by the French government (bearing in mind this is all according to wikipedia) to remove presidents from office and replace them with other people who were in turn ousted by opposing factions. As far as I can tell, this happened on at least five occasions with at least a couple of people dying in the process. I think the fact that he’s called Bob made it all a bit too surreal for me, especially the day after the night before and all that.
‘He was on trial in France recently’, said Dalila when we’d reached the end of the unlikely story. ‘But he got off because he was deemed too old’. ‘Deemed too Bob’ I thought, but I didn’t say it because I don’t think it would have made any sense.
The setting for this rather late geography and history lesson was an unfeasibly low-ceilinged mezzanine in an Italian café called Tolli opposite the station. And I should probably mention that about ten minutes into our chat we were joined by Mali (the third person we’ve met with a country for a name), a journalist from Canada who wanted to do a story about our story and this story in particular. Mali is from Montreal. She therefore speaks French (and was in fact keen for us to include French Canada in our list of Countries That Are Countries Despite the UN Not Thinking So considering their constant struggle for independence – I said I’d think about it). Comoros is another French speaking country (there, I’ve thought about it and have indeed granted country status on French Canada) so there were quite a few rather odd minutes while these two strangers from different continents spoke in a language native to another country in another continent which just happened to be located a matter of miles from this particular non-French speaking stranger’s home.
Congratulations on getting through that quagmire of a paragraph.
Dalila was now faced with two people who knew nothing about Comoros scribbling her words into notepads. Luckily, keen to shake off her country’s forgotten status, Dalila saw this as an opportunity rather than an imposition. She told us she’d actually grown up in France ‘like most people from Comoros’ and Mali and I wrote it down. We also noted that her grandparents and dad still live on the islands and that Dalila visits every few years ‘but it’s a nightmare to get to. You have to fly to Sana’a in Yemen and take a rubbish plane from there.’ ‘How much does it cost?’ asked Mali. ‘£1000’, said Dalila. ‘Wow’, gasped the two stenographers.
‘So why did you come to the UK?’ asked Mali next, by now with a tight grip on the interview reins. I was happy to be a passenger, reassured that an actual journalist was asking one of the questions I’ve tended to pose over the last ten months. ‘Well, the situation in France is obviously ridiculous at the moment’, answered Dalila. Mali nodded. I didn’t. I wasn’t really aware of an obviously ridiculous situation in France at the moment. But I wasn’t going to let them know that.
‘The racial tensions?’ prompted Mali. ‘Yeah’, agreed Dalila and I made some sort of noise to indicate both disgust, knowledge of the situation and the fact that I was still at the table. ‘It’s all over France’, she continued. ‘You just can’t get work if you’re black. There’s no way I could get the sort of job I’ve got over here over there’.
‘Really?’ I suddenly blurted out, ‘because of your race?’ I think I’d surprised myself with how shocked I was. I knew racism was prevalent across Europe from hearing and reading about the abuse hurled from football terraces as well as what people like Mohamed from Guinea had told us earlier in the year, but I suppose I’d never met anyone whom it had so directly affected.
‘Oh yes’, said both Mali and Dalila. ‘It’s impossible’, the latter continued. ‘I couldn’t find a temp job all summer in France, then I came here and landed a permanent job within a week. From then on I wasn’t even thinking about going back there. I told my two brothers what had happened and now they’re over here too’.
‘I now work for a charity called Parent Line Plus’, said Dalila with pride. Her job title is Operations and Quality Assurance Officer and I know that’s accurate because Mali is a proper journalist who made Dalila repeat any crucial details. I vowed to start doing things like that too.
‘What do you like about London?’ was the reporter’s next question and Dalila gave the same answer I’d given to Mali when she’d asked Owen and I what people like about the city the day before – ‘it’s so comospolitan.’ It’s true. It’s a defining characteristic of London and one that continues to attract people, despite the negative press it (often referred to more crudely as ‘immigration’) often gets. ‘People don’t look at you here. You can dress how you want. On the tube in France everyone looks at everyone – their clothes, shoes, the way you speak. Here you can dress how you want.’
‘And what do you miss?’ asked Mali – another classic question. ‘Well, the fact that it is forgotten does make it an amazing place to go to get away from things’, replied Dalila, thus ever so slightly weakening her petition for people to remember her homeland. ‘You’re away from everything else in the world. Calling abroad is extortionate and the internet doesn’t usually work. They now have French channels on TV but I go there to escape so I don’t watch them either. I love it. There’s no pollution, no tourists.’
‘It sounds great’, I said, my first words for quite some time now.
‘Yes. And there is potential for tourism’, agreed Dalila. ‘But only if it’s done the right away. Ecotourism – that’s where it’s at. In fact I’ve bought some land myself there recently. One day I hope to return and maybe start a hotel…’
I guess she does want some people to remember Comoros, but not everyone, and I think that’s fair enough. For now, I’m just grateful to have caught her before it’s too late. She won’t be in London for long; ‘I won’t be going back home for a little while but right now I’m moving to Luton’, she said. ‘I live in Stratford and it’s a nightmare with the Olympics. All the prices are going up – not just houses, but everyday things. So in November I’m off to Luton – I can still get to work on the Thameslink and I’ll be able to fly back to my family in Paris whenever I want.’ And whenever they start doing flights from Luton to Comoros, she’ll be in pole position for a slightly quicker journey home.