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Le Grand Mariage

In most cultures around the world, getting married marks a key moment in a person's life. Each culture celebrates the union in its own way, but nowhere, perhaps, is marriage more elaborate or more important than in the tiny island nation of the Comoros. Situated in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and the northern tip of Madagascar, this remote, volcanic archipelago practices two forms of marriage, known as the Petit Mariage and the Grand Mariage. The former is an ordinary Islamic wedding celebrating the union of man and woman. The latter features a string of of parties, dances, processions and rituals that last for two weeks and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

A full text by Tommy Trenchard is available on request. Each island, region and town in the Comoros conducts the Grand Mariage in a slightly different way, but all feature a rich and ornate tapestry of symbolic rituals, evoking elements of the island's complicated history. The Grand Mariage of Badaant el Mounyrou and Dhinourayni Ali Kassim Ali Mbaliya, in the town of Domoni on the island of Ndzwani (Anjoan) had a working budget of USD 42,000 and the festivities were so numerous that events like bull-fighting doesn't even make it onto the official schedule.

All this planning and the attendant expense are not just to have a good party. Having a Grand Mariage is a key step on the social ladder and transforms the way a person is seen by the community. On Ngazidja (Grande Comore), the main island of the archipelago, it's so important that those who have not organised a Grand Mariage are effectively cut out of all serious decision making. Until a man has had one, he is not considered to be a full adult, he is not allowed to take part in community decisions, attain a position of power or sit in the front row of the mosque. Effectively, the culture of Grand Mariage keeps power and influence in the hands of those wealthy enough to afford the privilege.

The practice has been criticised for squandering vast amounts of money in one of the poorest nations in the world. Yet it remains a popular cultural practice and a rich part of the cultural heritage of these little-known islands.

A full feature article is available on request.
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