This island off the East African coast is not a very well-known travel destination. In the middle of the ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, and surrounded by coral reefs, lies the oldest of the volcanic Comoro Islands, Mayotte. Once an important trading centre and a pirate stronghold, the island was colonised by sailors and slaves and, thanks to its beautiful lagoons and diverse sea life, remains a well-kept secret among divers. If you’re looking for peace and quiet beneath the palms, deserted white sandy beaches and blue lagoons, then this is the place for you. With its natural scenery, Mayotte really is an unbelievable paradise.
Since 2014, the fifth French overseas department has also been officially recognised as part of the EU. Due to its geographic position in this region, this remote island has long been of strategic importance.
Finally, a holiday! Four weeks of downtime. So why not get away – far, far away, preferably! Fairly spontaneously and without much preparation, I packed my case, grabbed my camera and set off to visit an old friend from Paris. I didn’t know much more about the island myself, and before I set off I made it my mission to discover more about the country and its people, but especially about how the different ethnic groups there live together in harmony, as I had previously read about somewhere.
The quickest way to get to the island is by plane from Nairobi, or via Réunion and Madagascar. I risked a brief glimpse below as we began our descent towards the small neighbouring island of “Petite Terre”, at which point I realised what a tiny little patch of land amid the vast blue ocean the plane was about to try to land on. It must be a challenge for even the most experienced pilots. Larger planes simply cannot land on the island. After landing safely, we took a ferry straight to the neighbouring island of “Grande Terre” and its capital city of Mamoudzou. From there, we took a shared taxi along narrow roads up into the mountainous jungle in the middle of the island, through Combani to the remote village of Tsingoni, where I was to spend four weeks with my friend and his family of five.
France’s forgotten children
As I was travelling to the village, what particularly stood out to me was how many children we came across all over the island – there were kids everywhere as far as the eye could see. More than two thirds of the population are younger than 20 years old. Children arrive on the beaches of Mayotte in their droves, having been put on boats by their parents, hoping to give them a better future. There is also an astonishing level of youth unemployment, because the influx of refugees creates an employment vacuum.
The women of Mayotte
Another striking thing about the island is the Comoran women in their colourful “chiromani”, the traditional wrap dresses, which make the island burst with colour. The women on Mayotte are known for their beauty and grace, but also their intelligence. They enjoy a special position within the still-prevalent tribal culture. This island is home to one of the world’s last matriarchies still in existence. For example, here the family home belongs to the woman, which gives her great independence and autonomy. It is really fascinating to see that there is no conflict between this tradition and the beliefs of the majority Muslim population.
Thieves at dusk
Makis, a type of lemur, are anything but shy. They are found all over the island. Every evening, shortly before dusk, they gather on roofs and electricity masts, band together in small gangs and begin their raids on the villages.
On Fridays after Maghrib, the collective evening prayer, people clad in robes stream out of the many mosques and into the streets. The place begins to pulse with life. People stop to chat and call out greetings. There is a sense that the people of Mayotte still live in harmony with nature, and that is also true of my host family. Early each morning, shortly before dawn and and the unmistakable sound of the call to prayer, I was awoken by the crowing of the neighbour’s cockerel.
Ilot de Sable Blanc – white sandy beaches and blue lagoons
The white sandy island can only be seen and visited for a few hours each a day at low tide, when it can be reached by boat. As the tide rises, the white sandy beach gradually disappears beneath the sea, a phenomenon that made a long-lasting impression on me, and was my personal highlight of the trip.
The Equipment Choices
Before setting off on my four-week adventure, after talking to Olympus I was given the opportunity to test out the OM-D E-M10 Mark II and a few of the Olympus PRO Series lenses, including the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO with a M.Zuiko Digital 1.4x teleconverter MC 14. Both lenses seemed a good choice, and I have not regretted this decision. To this date, they are a firm fixture in my travel kit. Their optimum imaging and the high sharpness of detail are what make these lenses my absolute favourites, surpassed only by their extreme light sensitivity. What the 5-axis image stabilisation of this camera, in combination with the 40-150mm telephoto lens, can achieve while travelling at full speed on a boat battered by waves, is just incredible. This was a real endurance test for the kit, and it passed with flying colours!
In terms of candid street photography, I find the region fairly risky – especially for inexperienced photographers. The current situation is unstable, and the atmosphere is characterised by poverty and the harsh day-to-day life. My need for security there reached completely new levels in some areas. Also, the generally negative attitude that many Muslims have towards photography did not make it especially easy for me to take photos. If I hadn't been accompanied by trusted locals, there is no way that I would have been able to achieve many of the photos I shot.
From the second week, I made sure I had my significantly pared-down kit to hand, carrying it around in a cheap and inconspicuous shoulder bag. Every raise of the camera came with a certain risk, and attracted the attention of passers-by. Not because they had never seen a camera before, but because it was clearly an expensive piece of kit. For me personally, in such extreme conditions the silent shutter of a mirrorless and compact camera like the E-M10 Mark II is indispensable if you want to get a few shots in the bag without running into trouble.
Even though I had to scrap the photography project I had originally planned once I arrived there, as it happened.
I realised during this trip that the dire situation of the countless refugee children living there illegally was to determine the themes of my next series of photographs.
Author & Photographer : Shamsan Anders