Remembering, forgetting, imagining: identity strategies in Mayotte

Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

 
Duration:01.01.2017 - 31.12.2019
Project leader:Dr. Iain Walker
 

This project will analyse strategies engaged by the people of Mayotte, the Maorais, to deny their Comorian identity and express a French one. In 2011 the Comorian island of Mayotte became a French department. This was the culmination of a political process that began with accusations of political and economic domination by the other islands during the late colonial period, provoked in particular by the transfer of the seat of the colonial administration from Mayotte to Ngazidja in 1962, and followed by the refusal of Mayotte to join the Comorian state at independence in 1975. This latest transition appears to reward the islanders' longstanding rejection of a Comorian identity and their persistent claims to a French one.

The social and historical evidence suggests that the majority of Maorais are descended from immigrants from the other islands yet, despite maintaining personal ties, they often exhibit deep hostility toward individuals from those islands and reject any commonality of identity. This project will look at how the category "Maorais" is explicitly constructed not as a different sort of "Comorian", but in opposition to "Comorian", both through claims to French-ness, and, given the obvious difficulties inherent in such claims, through strategies such as an emphasis on the Malagasy or Creole character of Maorais society. It will analyse how memories, individual and collective, of belonging are constructed and narrated, and how memories of being "foreign" are erased.

As Maorais invoke claims to being French, they must confront profound social and cultural changes. French civil law is replacing customary and Islamic legal systems; customary systems of land tenure are being abolished; and Maorais are required to assume family names. This project will probe the contradictions inherent in, on the one hand, a denial of Comorian identity and, on the other, laments of the loss of customary practices. It will ask if resistance to social and cultural change can be reconciled with a rejection of the identity to which such resistance appeals.

Data will be gathered through fieldwork on Mayotte, aimed at elucidating identity narratives and discourses in a variety of contexts from the urban to the rural, the elite to the subaltern. Informants will include metropolitan French on Mayotte who are increasingly complicit in constructing an exotic "Other", particularly in the light of negative perceptions of "Comorians", and particularly through a writing of identities, in a range of spheres. Fieldwork on neighbouring Ndzuani will provide perspectives on Maorais identity construction in a different context. The three perspectives on memory, narrative and practice will allow for a synthetic analysis of identity discourses in Mayotte. Outcomes will include contributions to the anthropology of identity and of memory; contributions to popular and informed debates over identity in Mayotte; and ethnographic contributions to Comorian studies.