POPULATION: 12 million
LANGUAGE: Malagasy (Merina); French
RELIGION: Traditional beliefs; Christianity; Islam
The origins of the Malagasy people remain a mystery. Scholars believe the Malagasy have a combination of Indonesian, Malayo-Polynesian, and African roots.
Supposedly, the Indonesians were the first arrivals. Then came the Arabs, the southern Indians, and merchants from the Persian Gulf. South and East Africans followed, and eventually Europeans. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, then the Spanish, the British, and finally the French, who conquered the island in 1895.
Today, the Malagasy population of twelve million people is divided into eighteen identifiable ethnic groups in addition to the Comorans, the Karane (Indo-Pakistan), and the Chinese. The white people are classified as either zanathan (local-born) or vazaha (newcomers).
On June 26, 1960, Madagascar gained independence from France. In 1993, the government changed from a communist dictatorship to a democracy with a free-market economy.
One billion years ago a piece of land broke away from Africa and moved southeast to become an island continent in the Indian Ocean—Madagascar. Madagascar, located 250 miles (402 kilometers) off the east coast of Africa, is the fourth-largest island in the world. It is approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) long and 360 miles (579 kilometers) wide, nearly the size of California, Oregon, and Washington combined. It has a population of about 12 million people.
Many of the species of plants and animals originally found on the island either became extinct or evolved independently. As a result, 90 percent of all species on Madagascar today are unique, found nowhere else in the world.
Malagasy and French are the country's official languages. The Malagasy language belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages. The Malagasy language includes many dialects. The Merina dialect is the official language of the country and is universally understood.
Malagasy do not consider death to be the absolute end to life. In fact, Malagasy believe that after death, they will continue to be involved in the affairs of their family. Thus, dead family members are honored for their continuing influence on family decisions. Malagasy tombs are usually far more elaborate than the homes of the living.
Many Malagasy believe that spirits are present in nature, in trees, caves, or rock formations, on mountains, or in rivers or streams. Some also fear the tromba, when the spirits of the unknown dead put people into a trance and make them dance. The one who is possessed must be treated in a ritual by an ombiasy (a divine healer). Quite often, people consult or rely on them to look over the ill or the dying, or to set the dates for important events.
Roughly half of Malagasy are either Roman Catholic or Protestant, and a small number are Muslim (followers of Islam). Native religions featuring ancestor worship are followed by the rest of the population.
Madagascar's official holidays include:
|January 1||New Year's Day|
|March 29||Memorial Day|
|March 31||Easter Monday|
|May 1||Labor Day|
|May 8||Ascension Day|
|May 19||Monday Pentecost Holiday|
|May 25||Unity African Organization Day|
|June 26||National Day|
|August 15||Feast of the Assumption|
|November 1||All Saints' Day|
|December 25||Christmas Day|
Malagasy ancestor worship includes a celebration known as the famadiahana (turning over the dead). Each year, ancestors' bodies are removed from the family tomb. The corpses are rewrapped in a fresh shroud cloth. Family members make special offerings to the dead ancestors on this occasion. The rites are accompanied by music, singing, and dancing.
On a personal level, the Malagasy people are warm and hospitable. However, in unfamiliar surroundings, they appear to be reserved and somewhat distant. They are not likely to initiate a conversation with strangers, or even to keep a conversation going.
A single handshake and a "hello" is the proper greeting when people are introduced. A handshake is also used when saying goodbye. Among family and close friends, a kiss on both cheeks is exchanged at every meeting. Women, as well as young people of both sexes, initiate greetings when they meet elders.
Refusing anything outright, no matter how politely, is considered rude. It is better to make up excuses than to simply say no to food and drink, or anything else that is offered.
Overall, Madagascar is ranked as one of the poorest countries in world. Its people suffer from chronic malnutrition and a high (3 percent) annual population growth rate. In addition, health and education facilities are not adequately funded. Basic necessities such as electricity, clean water, adequate housing, and transportation are hard to come by for the average citizen.
There are sharp divisions between the country's upper and lower classes. There is vitually no middle class.
Most Malagasy social activities revolve around the family, which usually consists of three generations. Extended family members may live in one household or in a number of households. The head of the family is usually the oldest male or father. Traditionally, he makes major decisions and represents the family in dealings with the outside world. However, this authority is declining among urban dwellers.
Malagasy marriages are preceded by lengthy discussions between the two families. The groom's family will give a symbolic gift, called a vody ondry, to pay for the bride. This may be a few thousand Malagasy francs or perhaps one head of cattle. The ancient ideal of having seven boys and seven girls per household is now far from the norm. A more modern expectation today is four children per household.
Women are expected to obey their husbands, but they actually have a great deal of independence and influence. They manage, inherit, and bequeath property and often handle the family finances.
The Malagasy wear both Western-style and traditional clothing. The markets are full of poor-quality imported clothes and imitation Western outfits.
Common traditional clothing items include the lamba, which is worn somewhat like a toga. Lambas are made in bright, multicolored prints. They usually have a proverb printed at the bottom. In some cases, they are used to carry a child on a woman's back. Older women will wear a white lamba over a dress or a blouse and skirt. It is not common for women to wear pants.
In rural areas, men wear malabars, dresslike shirts made of cotton woven fiber. They are usually made in earth tones.
In Madagascar, food means rice. Rice is eaten two or three times a day. It is common to have leftover or fresh rice for breakfast, sometimes served with condensed milk. Lunch and dinner consist of heaping mounds of rice topped with beef, pork, or chicken, with a vegetable relish. Beef is usually served only for a celebration or a religious offering. Koba, the national snack, is a paté (paste) of rice, banana, and peanut. Sakay, a hot red pepper, is usually served on the side with all Malagasy dishes.
Dessert usually consists of fruit, sometimes flavored with vanilla.
About 80 percent of Madagascar's population aged fifteen and over can read and write. The level of education varies depending upon geographic area and other factors. Parents commonly send their children to France or elsewhere overseas for higher education.
The musical form Salegy has become widespread on the island since instruments such as the electric guitar, bass, and drums were introduced. Most Malagasy music and lyrics are about daily life.
Internationally recognized Malagasy musicians include guitarist Earnest Randrianasolo, known as D'Gary; Dama Mahaleo, a Malagasy folk-pop superstar; and Paul Bert Rahasimanana, who is part of Rossy, a group of twelve musicians.
Madagascar's unique melodic instruments include the vahila, a tubular harp; the kabosy, a cross between a guitar, mandolin, and dulcimer; and Tahitahi, tiny flutes, usually of wood, gourd, or bamboo. Percussion instruments include the Ambio, a pair of wood sticks that are struck together; and Kaimbarambo, a bundle of grasses played many ways.
Malagasy men generally do not work full-time throughout the year. Content with satisfying only their families' most basic needs, they may earn wages only three or four months of the year.
Women's role in agricultural work is often more difficult than the men's. It includes carrying water, gathering wood, and pounding rice. Women also have special roles in cultivating crops, marketing the surplus, and preparing food, as well as making domestic crafts.
Business in Madagascar is dominated by non-Malagasy groups, such as Indians, French, and Chinese.
Typical sports played in Madagascar are soccer, volleyball, and basketball. Other activities include martial arts, boxing, wrestling or tolona, swimming, and tennis.
Most social activities center around the family. Typical recreation includes dining and playing sports together.
Unique Malagasy games include games with stones, board games such as Solitaire and Fanorona, cockfights, singing games, and hide-and-seek.
Madagascar is known for its basket-weaving and painting on silk.
The primary social problem in Madagascar is poverty. One-fourth of the population has been estimated to be living in or on the verge of absolute poverty. Unemployment is widespread, and the rate of infant mortality is high. Quatre-amies, or street children, beg for food or search for it in the garbage.
Poverty is a serious problem in Madagascar. Quatre-amies, or street children, beg for food or search for it in the garbage.
Madagascar's population of 12 million is expected to at least double by the year 2015.
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Mack, John. Madagascar: Island of the Ancestors . London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1986.
Madagascar in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Preston-Mafham, Ken. Madagascar: A Natural History. New York: Facts on File, 1991.