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I went round the Mont Choungui last week-end with a walking group. It's near the bottom of the island, and is the most famous mountain in Mayotte, if not the highest (That's Mont Bénara, 664m). From its top, you're supposed to be able to see all the southern half of the island. It's actually a volcano rather than a mountain, but it has been inactive for ages.

         

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Once we had started walking into the forest from the village of Choungui, there were several bangas around the base of the mountain. Bangas are small shed-like houses built by teenage boys once they decide to leave their family. Traditionally, they build their own sheds and decorate them lavishly inside and out, the idea being to bring friends and girlfriends back to the banga rather than to their parents' house (and their ten or fifteen brothers and sisters, for many of them). Bangas used to be made like the two in the photos, bamboo structure with wattle and daub for the walls, but many are made out of corrugated iron nowadays.

        

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The earth is reddish-brown here, as in Madagascar and the Comoros islands. The volcanic nature of the island makes it like this, as well as turning the sand on the beaches brown, ochre or black. In the forests, there are lots of places where the trees have been stripped away to make room for a banana or coconut plantation, owned or rather occupied by a family who comes to look after it regularly. This was harming the forest, so people started importing trees - Australian acacias - to try and refertilize the soil. These trees dropped squiggles with seeds in all over the place, and these squiggles were supposed to decompose... which they are doing, but so slowly that it doesn't actually make any difference.

     

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This family is occupying a chunk of forest that they cleared out to plant things. The clearing doesn't belong to them and can be taken back at any moment by the owner, so they won't be staying for long, maybe a couple of years. In Mayotte, there's no real way of determining which land belongs to whom anyway, though : each person knows that Ali's land goes up to the lamp-post and that Sitirati's house is the brown one at the back, but it's no clearer than that. There aren't any fences or clear limits showing what belongs to whom. We don't even know who the land on which is built the vice-rectorate - the highest education administration building in Mayotte - belongs to.

In these photos, they've planted their banana plants. These only fruit once, and give a bunch of bananas every two months on average. They're preparing to plant a coconut tree and the woman is picking mountain rice - these clumps of grass in the soil are a specific variety of rice which grows in "high" altitudes. Meanwhile, the little girl, who looks about 8, is cooking lunch and looking after her younger brothers and sisters. Children here are quickly taught to look after themselves and each other, each elder child looking after the next one or two.

          

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I'm not that keen on spiders, and these ones were just above our heads, spinning great webs between two trees. The biggest spiders are about the size of my hand. I don't know if they bite, but they do spin very strong webs with a gold-coloured thread... which is collected and used to make bullet-proof vests!

          

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There were other beasts in there too : my first chameleon, bright green but still impossible to see until you're pretty much on top of him, and a couple of makis jumping about in the treetops.

          

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Coming across what looked like a very messy rock in the middle of a quite clean forest, our guide explained that the milk and rosewater which adorned the rock weren't actually rubbish, but an offering. Apparently, as the sign points out, the forest djinn wants an offering of perfume, rice, cow's milk or even just a leaf on his rock to let people pass. If you offer him something, you can make a wish and he will grant it. If, however, you do not, you may never come out of the forest.

         

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