The people of Madagascar

About 2000 years ago the first people settled down in Madagascar, coming from south-east Asia (Indonesia, Polynesia) and the east coast of Africa. Amon the first regular visitors were Arabic traders, followed by merchandise ships from Holland, England, France, collecting slaves. Other settlers were European pirates, Jews, people from India/Pakistan, and China. All these influences are still visible in 20 different tribes, among them the Mirina from around the capital Antananarivo, Betsileo from the high plateau near Antsirabe, Betsimisaraka from the east coast, Sakalava from the west coast, and Antandroy from the south. These tribes have their own visible characteristics, dialect, cultural habits and rituals.

The language of Madagascar

Malagasy people speak Malagasy language, although the Antandroy have many lingual differences. Some scientists consider the various dialects of the Malagasy language to be 10 different languages. French is also an official language but merely spoken in the cities by educated people and those working in the tourist sector.

There are currently 27 million Malagasy people and most of them are under the age of 21 years. Most of them live in the country side as small holders of a few hectares with rice or other crops. The formerly large herds of cows have disappeared and nowadays an increasing number of people without land travel for work to a city. 

The Malagasy people are very spiritual, and predominantly Christian influences are everywhere, ee.g. religious songs and meetings. About 7% of the population belongs to the Islam, predominantly people in the north, the south, and in the western cities. But still most Malagasy have traditional beliefs, including worship of ancestors, voodoo (grigri), burial rituals, and many follow specific taboos (fady).

The Malagasy people cook their meals with fuelwood or charcoal, even in most restaurants. Rice is the major food, but is replaced by corn in the south. Other common food is manioc (cassava), sweet potatoes, and beans. Most of the modern food has been introduced in Madagascar. The original Malagasy people consumed local yams and bush meat.

Currently, Madagascar is among the eight poorest countries in the world. Particularly in rural southern and western Madagascar, the people are extremely poor. More than 90% of the Malagasy people live on less than 2 euros a day. In the period around 2013 the Malagasy population grew by 2.9% per year, whereas the economy grew by only 1.8%. In 2021 the economy is projected to shrink by 4%. Hence, each generation is poorer than the former. As a consequence, famine is common and education is poor. Many schools are ruins and many children never attend school. Most of them suffer from malnutrition and because of poor health services, from parasites, e.g. malaria and schistosomiasis (bilharzia).

In rural Madagascar, the cabins are made of local material, Traveller palm in the east, mud in most other areas. Formerly of course the cabins were made of beautiful timber, such as the rosewood bungalows that can still be admired near Maroantsetra or Ambohimanga (24 km north-east of Antananarivo). The whole family sleeps in a single room on a reed mat woven from local plants. Still, a lot of local transport is done with the buffalo cart (tsarety) and many people still wear traditional lambahoany garments – if not Chinese cotton T-shirts. They walk on plastic flip flops or barefoot.

Malagasy people love parties! Religious meetings with song and dance are popular, but also the dead parties. When a person passes away, the whole family is mobilized to raise money, to borrow, sell cows or land – all meant to organize a huge party. Sometimes the party is postponed for months or a year, so the family can gather enough money. The ultimate party may last four days and nights. Cows are regularly slaughtered, ancient guns fired, and sometimes there is wrestling between men, or between a man and a bull zebu, or a public divorce. And all the time hundreds of people are dancing, eating, drinking, or playing domino. Formerly the music was made by local people with valiha and kabocha (kabosy) string instruments, but nowadays enormous blasters produce Kilalaka music that is heard miles away. The common drink is illegally brewed tokagasy or betsabetsa with an extreme percentage of alcohol brought to the party in buckets. Other peculiar rituals are the turning of the bones (famadihana), meaning that a corps is dug up, carried around the village, and exposed during a party. Yet another habit is that the corps sooner or later has to return to the ancestral ground. This transport and the reburial is often costly as many family members and supportive friends join in and expect to party. Particularly in the south of Madagascar the tombs of the Antandruy are sometimes more expensive than the cabins they used to live in. The deeds of the person who passed away are cut into a totem pole which is placed on the tomb (aloalo). Sometimes the building costs of the tomb are painted on it. these people formerly planted specific plants around their cabins as a good luck charm.
Nowadays the influence of the local witch doctor has faded, although some still belong to the elderly of a village (raimandreeny).
The interesting rituals and ceremonies differ among the various tribes and if you want to join one, ask around and bring your camera. Generally, Malagasy people do not difficult about making pictures and probably find you as interesting as you find them.