Mayotte is a strange place to live in. On one hand, the country is a French department and has belonged to France for over a hundred years. You can find La Poste and the Conseil Général, every village has a Mairie (town hall) and often a boulangerie (baker's). Most people speak fairly fluent French. The school curriculum, the police and gendarmerie, the military system and the hospitals follow the same directions as in France. You can live among all-white people, all-black people or a mixture. The Préfecture even has signs up saying that you will only be received in French, so please bring a translator if you need one.

All this leads people to believe that things should happen in exactly the same way as they would happen in France. Which in turn leads to a lot of complaining when people realize that things don't quite happen the way they think they should. The electricity company says you've got 9 amps of power going to your house, but 9 amps here don't get quite as many things done as 9 amps in the mainland do. The water company says the water is drinkable, and it is, but it's never going to come from a pure mountain source as it can do in some regions of France. Most of the bottled water in France comes from such pure mountain sources, but the bottled water in Mayotte is tap water - which, may I remind you, is far from being accessible to many people here. When you go to the post office in France, there's a queue but you're always dealt with fairly quickly. When you go to the post office here, there's still a queue, but when you finally arrive at the counter, that's the time when whoever's at the desk decides to go to the loo / have something to eat / chat with their friends / serve the person behind you because they know him, and he or she isn't replaced so you can be in for a long wait. By which time, if the office's closing time is near, you'll be asked to come back tomorrow. Stamps? Stamps are upstairs. So you go upstairs, just to be told that the container hasn't arrived and that there aren't any stamps at the moment. We don't know when there'll be any more.

Coming from France, you expect people to be polite and friendly, especially those who work in shops or any place involving customer service. When you arrive in any shop in France, you're greeted with a smile and probably something along the lines of "how can I help you?". You can ask any salesperson for advice, and you'll get it. Albeit not always very helpful, but they do try. In Mayotte, you can go into the local bakery and wait for someone to notice you're there. Once they've seen you, they'll slowly come behind the counter, look up at you and grunt. That means: "Hello, valued customer. How can I be of service today?". You ask for your loaf of bread or whatever, they'll put it on the counter for you and wait silently. That means: "Please look at the display showing the price. We would be grateful if you could find the exact change for us, as we don't really want to have to give you the change we have". You give them the money, they'll give you any change as long as it's not over a euro or two, and you leave the shop. You'll be the only one to say goodbye: the salesperson's already gone off to do something else.

I learnt the explanation of this a few months ago from one of my English pupils, the director of the local supermarket. He said that the reason salespeople are polite in France is that they want to keep you as a customer, because they're scared that you'll go somewhere else if they're not nice to you. The thing is that in Mayotte, there is no somewhere else. You have to come back to the shop, because that's the only one there is. So they can treat you how they like, they can sell whatever they like - they know you'll be back.



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On the other hand, Mayotte is geographically nearer to Madagascar or East Africa than the infamous "Mainland" everyone seems to be obsessed with (Continental France). They'll talk about "la métropole" for ages and it doesn't get anybody anywhere. The first languages here are a mixture of Malagasy and Swahili. People live according to African traditions: large people, large families, children who bring each other up, bare feet, salouvas and shawls, objects carried on the head. It's an extremely poor country... and a Muslim one, which means that things are certainly not going to happen the way they do in France. Nowhere near. Even if it is a French department. Some people believe the "departmentalization" is a good thing, that it'll bring lots of money and resources to Mayotte. True. But, like all things, it comes at a price which the Mahorese people apparently weren't warned about. Now they've signed up to be part of France, they're being told that they have to obey French laws, only have one wife each instead of the usual three or four, have a French identity card, stop clandestine immigration and pay taxes. The French state will help them, but only if they "help" themselves by conforming to French norms and legislation... which is somewhere between difficult and impossible for most aspects of life here.

Take the example of land. Until now, land was the property of whoever was on it at the time. You can plant coconut trees and mountain rice in this field, sure, but if someone else comes along, you'll have to fight it out, and if he wins, he wins and you lose the lot. Up to you. You can build a house or a shack in the village, everybody will know it's your piece of land and they'll build their house next door. There aren't a lot of addresses: people know that Ali's house is the one at the back and that Sitti's shack is the one with the red roof, that's enough. Now, with the departmentalization, people are being told to pay taxes on their land. Land that they can't prove is theirs. If they want it, they'll have to pay for the land to start with. That's the first shock: suddenly having to pay for something that you've been using and that you've considered as yours for the last few generations. Once you've paid for the land, you'll then have to pay a smaller amount of money every year to the French state in order to continue using that piece of land. That sum of money will be larger if you have a TV or if you usually use a field behind your house. The Mahorese response to this is to strike, which doesn't help much, as we saw last year.




Sometimes, adverts and products from France appear totally out of place in a place like Mayotte. Recently, there have been a lot of adverts for the Peugeot 208, at a rather horrendous price once you've added the transport fees. Even if you pay the price, it's still a ridiculous car for Mayotte, where the climate is pretty hostile to a car's well-being and the holes in the roads are getting deeper now the rainy season has started. The family who lives above my flat and who has just moved in brought their Mini Cooper with them from France. When they arrived, all four of them were in the car. They tried to drive up our street, which has a gaping hole in the middle. The car went halfway down the hole, the wheels went down and the front of the car went bang. The mother and two children got out of the car, the father tried again and managed it. The car's a bit of a mess. It's not worth it.

In the shops, there are occasionnally some rather pretty technological gadgets such as an eePC or a wide-screen TV. You can forget queuing up all night to buy the latest iPhone before there aren't any left... or the latest fashionable book, for that matter. There is one shop which stocks only computer-related products. You can order pretty much anything, but there's a long wait and high transport fees. That was where P ordered his replacement computer after our burglary in June (what do you mean, I didn't tell you about that?), and paid twice as much for it as he would have paid in France. The result of this lack of technological clutter and iJunk is that I have absolutely no idea what exists and at what price. Sure, there's the Internet. I don't really bother looking things up when I don't need them, though, so my ignorance on the subject remains intact. Last Christmas, Nanny and I had the following conversation:

Emily: "I'd like to watch (whatever it was) on TV but I think the programme's finished now."

Nanny: "Well, why don't you watch it on iPlayer?"

Emily: "What's that?"

Nanny: "Oh."

I can see this sort of thing becoming a regular occurrence. I went on earlier to find a few books I needed and to send them to Nanny's and Papi's over the Christmas holidays. There was everything from books and Kindles to memory sticks to shoes and soap on there. Amazing. I found what I was looking for, but it was buried under hordes of stuff I can't see myself needing any time soon. That might be one of the good things of living on a small island, away from the ultra-consumer society: you don't have very much, so you don't actually need very much. Makes a change from having everything and needing twice as much. This Christmas, several family members had tablet computers. A month ago, I'd never seen one. Mayotte is extremely disconnected from anything with a screen, a battery or even a plug.