A former outpost of the French colonial empire following its purchase by France in 1841, the island of Mayotte nevertheless always enjoyed a relative degree of independence. Though the country gained administrative autonomy as recently as 1946 as a collectivité d’outre-mer (overseas collectivity) — similar to the administrative status of other French DOM-TOM entities such as Saint Barthélemy and French Polynesia — in a 2009 referendum the island voted to reverse this decision and change its status from collectivité to full-fledged département,.
Geographically closer to Nairobi than to the Hexagone, the 2009 vote was enacted in 2011, making Mayotte the 101st French départemente and giving the residents full access to French citizenship and other broad social benefits. The vote was a controversial one since the island, which is 95 percent Sunni Muslim, was required to accept certain compromises between the Koran and the French Civil Code. In addition to raising the legal age for marriage from 15 to 18 and abolishing polygamous marriages, citizens must respect France’s ultimate expression of laïcité (secularism): the 2010 anti-burqa law.
For many mahorais, as the local residents are called, the 2014 new year brought further reason to celebrate, when the island was recognized as an outermost region of the European Union as of January 1. This was not without controversy, either, as the African Union claimed it was a form of French neocolonial occupation and French and EU groups questioned the “Frenchness” of the far-flung outpost. Nevertheless, France’s newest department will continue to face its share of troubles — it is, for one, the département with the highest birth rate in France, namely due to illegal immigration from nearby Comoros — but is sure to reap the benefits of full French financial support.
But regardless of the political implications, the outpost is a rich cultural addition to the global community of Francophonie, bringing its multi-faceted mix of European, Arabic, and African influences.
Commercially, Mayotte is likely best known for its large-scale production of ylang-ylang, a sweet-smelling essential oil that, along with vanilla and coffee, is one of the backbone crops of the island’s mainly agricultural exports. Among the many beauty products that feature ylang-ylant are many French luxury fragrances, including Chanel No. 5 and its namesake perfume by Guerlain.
For tourists, Mayotte is a slightly more secret option for exploring the the islands off the Eastern coast of Africa. Located just off the beaten track, on the opposite coast of Mozambique from Réunion Island, aesthetic highlights include stunning Arabic architecture, breathtaking beaches, and a lagoon with a rare double-barrier coral reef, making it an unforgettable diving spot.
Mahorais cuisine is a mix of French, Arabic, Indian, and African influences, rendering Mayotte a unique culinary destination as well. Local fare is known, in particular, for the variety of fish dishes, such as the traditional bata-bata manioc dish. Visitors will also be amused to discover a number of endemic exotic fruits, such as the soursop and the jackfruit, the latter of which can reach up to 80 pounds.
Should you visit the island and want to communicate with the locals using a regional tongue, you may wish to thank your Mahoran hosts with marahaɓa, which means “thank you” in Shimaore, the local dialect of the Comorian language. French is also an official language, but is spoken natively by much less of the population.
Now that you’re intrigued, here are five must-try activities should you venture to these far flung European shores:
- Visit the world’s largest lagoon, le Lagon Bleu (the Blue Lagoon), for regular sightings of pods of hundreds of dolphins.
- Hike Mount Choungui, a strikingly conical volcano, for spectacular views and exotic bird watching.
- Explore the island’s many forests, which are populated with ring-tailed lemurs.
- Go to Salou Beach, where the cascade de Salou, an eight meter waterfall, cascades directly into the sea.
- Take in the intricate Arab architecture of the capital city, Mamoudzou.