Once upon a saga – Comoros

Published: 29 July 2016 11:00 CET

Torbjørn C. Pedersen, a goodwill ambassador with the Danish Red Cross, is currently travelling the world, aiming to visit all 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Travelling on a budget of just $20 USD per day, Thor is undertaking his journey without the convenience of air travel, something no one has ever achieved. While visiting the The Comoros Red Crescent, Thor finds he is quickly reminded about the differences and similarities between the Red Cross and Red Crescent. To read more about Thor’s journey, visit: http://www.onceuponasaga.dk/.

After five days at sea, an island emerges in the distance. As we get closer, I see the relatively small volcanic island boasting its green mountain and extraordinary nature. Soon after passing customs and immigration I am on the lookout for The Comoros Red Cross Society, but I am quickly corrected: "Croissant Rouge Monsieur?" Ah yes, I nearly forgot. As Comoros is predominantly Islamic they use the emblem of the crescent. Little does it matter to the work, as the red cross, crystal and crescent are all emblems of the same humanitarian family and operate with complete neutrality towards religion.

A very small (and quite old) man approaches me with a high pitched voice and lets me know that he was member number 003 of The Comoros Red Crescent. He flicks open his wallet and shows me his membership card which is more than 30 years old. He asks me to follow him and points me in the right direction.

It doesn’t take long before I find the National Society in a rather humble complex of white buildings. I am greeted friendly by everyone I pass and am quickly introduced to the Secretary General who presents himself as Ali, although his full name is Daniel Ali Soumaili. Ali has kind and attentive eyes and it strikes me that he knows more English than he is willing to admit. After a few polite phrases he gets to some of the more tough questions about who I am. When I run out of French words, he suggests I meet with the French Red Cross, which is a partnering National Society in Comoros.

I am introduced to Elodie Anthonioz, the head of the French Red Cross delegation. She is a true Red Crosser with a lot of experience from various African countries. She quickly realizes that the Secretary General probably thinks I am in Comoros in relation to "PIROI". In English, with a subtle French accent, she explains that PIROI is a French abbreviation which covers over 18 years of humanitarian involvement from the French Red Cross within the Indian Ocean islands (Plate-forme d'Intervention Régionale de L'Océan Indien).

Understandings over tea

Elodie pours me a cup of tea and explains how the region is vulnerable to cyclones, volcanic eruptions, epidemics and flooding. Changes within the global climate have increased the vulnerability of several regional countries which now face a greater risk from nature. The objective of PIROI is, overall, to reduce the impact of disasters within the Indian Ocean. While I finish my tea, Elodie sets up a meeting for me with Ali Hassani Soilihi at The Comoros Red Crescent.

Ali Hassani is a well spoken man who masters several languages and embodies a calm attitude. He has been with the Red Crescent since 2005 and smiles when I mention my encounter with the little old man at the port. "Ah, I see you have met Bacar Soilihi. He is one of our very first members. I myself have membership number 1,071," he says. Ali Hassani is the Fundraising Coordinator and has ensured some recent donations from Saudi Arabia. He tells me that The Comoros Red Crescent has over 20,000 volunteers - about 2.5 per cent of the population. 

Ali Hassani explains that they do what they can with what little they have. They promote the 7 Fundamental Principles and do first aid trainings among the population. Diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, diabetes and lung infections are common, and the Red Crescent involves itself with the local communities through numerous health actions, educating the public and treating if possible. Ali Hassani explains that lung infections are most typical for infants under the age of five. Although HIV/AIDS is only found in 0.01 per cent of the population, The Comoros Red Crescent wants to keep it low and educates on safe sex practices, while handing out condoms.

Quite interestingly, malaria has been completely eradicated from Comoros. The exact details on how it was done are unclear to me, but it is evident that the Red Crescent has been involved in teachings about the necessity of protection from mosquito bites. Wearing long sleeves and pants around sunset and sleeping underneath mosquito nets are some of the best precautions one can take. But also minimizing any areas with still fresh water helps make it harder for mosquitos to find places to lay their eggs.

Ali Hassani looks into the thin air for a while without saying anything. Then he looks at me and says, "If we had the funds, we could start creating more income generating activities for people." He explains how agriculture could be expanded, as could the fishing industry and the tourism industry which, through new motels and resorts, could provide jobs while accommodating tourists. With a clear memory of derelict buildings and broken roads in my mind, I fully understand his sentiment.

With a smile as large as the crescent moon, Ali Hassani shakes my hand while I get ready to leave. The sun slowly sets with its warm colours mirrored on the volcano behind me. I look across the Indian Ocean while a thought runs through my mind, “In Comoros, the Red Crescent is always present.”