The Culture of Madagascar
Madagascar was first settled by humans between 350 BCE and 550 AD by Austronesian peoples, who arrived from Borneo on crude outrigger canoes. Five-hundred years later, they were joined by Bantu migrants crossing the Mozambique Channel. Other groups continued to settle in Madagascar over the course of time, each making a significant contribution to the island’s culture. The largest ethnic group on the island is the Malagasy, an ethnic group that is often divided into 18 or more sub-groups, the largest of which are the Merina of the central highlands. Below we will take a closer look at some of the significant cultural aspects of Madagascar, including language, religion, daily customs and cuisine.
Culture of Madagascar: LanguageFor much of its modern history, Madagascar was a colony of France, a country that has left a lasting mark on the culture and traditions of the island. Madagascar ultimately achieved full independence from France in the summer of 1960, but French continues to be one of the nation’s official languages, the other being Malagasy, the most commonly spoken language in the country.
The Malagasy language is spoken throughout Madagascar and is the first language for an overwhelming majority of the population. The language is the only one in the African region that belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Language specialists believe that Malagasy shares a common origin with, and is most closely related to Maanyan, a language spoken predominantly in the southeastern portion of Borneo. Both the Malagasy and Maanyan languages closely resemble the languages of the western Indonesian archipelago, languages that include Malay, Javanese, Balinese, and the Minangkabau language of Sumatra.
The origin of the Malagasy language in Southeast Asia is clearly evident in some of the common words and definitions it shares with a number of the Indonesian languages. For instance, the Malagasy term antalaotra, which means “people of the sea,” closely resembles the Malay term for “sea,” which is laut.
While the Malagasy language has different regional dialects, most of these are mutually intelligible. Moreover, the language is viewed in the country as an important foundation of cultural unity. Malagasy words are derived from roots with basic meanings; roots which are then combined with various prefixes and suffixes to create derivatives. Many words in the Malagasy language tend to be quite long (such as Andrianampoinimerina, the word for the Merina King), but certain syllables in these longer words, particularly the last syllable, are only slightly accented or not accented whatsoever.
The Malagasy lexicon contains scores of foreign words, including the days of the week and the months of the year, all taken from Arabic. Many of the words for animals derive from a Swahili dialect of East Africa, and a number of English and French words entered the vocabulary during the 19 and 20 centuries.
Prior to the 19 century, only the Malagasy people known as the Antaimoro—the keepers of the sorabe—possessed a written language. This changed in the years following 1825, when a written form of Malagasy, one using Roman Characters, was developed by members of the London Missionary Society working under the patronage of the Merina King Radama I. The result of this effort was a consistent phonetic language, one that continues to be used today throughout Madagascar. Within this language, the consonants are pronounced as they would be in English and the vowels as they would be in French, a compromise, according to linguists, apparently endorsed by King Radama I. The completion of the Malagasy alphabet was significant in that it allowed the foreign missionaries to publish and distribute Malagasy Bibles and school textbooks. The new alphabet would also prove decisive to the development of the Merina-dominated portion of Madagascar.
After France officially annexed Madagascar in 1896, French emerged as the dominant language of the island, while Malagasy was relegated to an inferior position, especially in official and academic circles. Following independence in 1960, Malagasy and French were both deemed official languages, but the French language continued to dominate until the inauguration of Didier Ratsiraka, who served as Madagascar’s president both from 1975 to1993 and from 1997 to 2002. Upon his ascension to the Madagascar presidency in 1975, Ratsiraka began to promote an official policy of Malagachization—a return, of sorts, to the country’s Malagasy roots. Originally conceived by nationalists as the promotion of education in the national language, Malagachization would ultimately include a radical denunciation of the French language and culture, as well as the French influence over the national economy and political system.
Malagachization additionally included the creation of a common Malagasy language, one that synthesized all the regional dialects of the island, rather than being primarily a Merina dialect, as remains the case with the official Malagasy language of today.
After 1982, Malagachization began to sputter in favor of a trend toward re-embracing the concept of Madagascar’s inclusion in the international francophone (French-speaking) community. Today, the French language remains significant in Madagascar, primarily due to its international status and economic importance.
Culture of Madagascar: ReligionMadagascar is considered one of the most beautiful places on earth, a place whose geography and ecosystems are diverse, colorful and fascinating. In recent years the country has become increasingly modern, particularly in and around the capital city of Antananarivo. Despite this push for modernity, however, many of the island’s people are still practicing a form of religious ancestor-worship known as Fomban-razana, a traditional belief system that holds them in perpetual fear and spiritual darkness.
As it is in the case of most ancient tribal religions, where the “spirits” (known as fanahy) of deceased ancestors (calledrazana) are worshipped or venerated, the traditional religion of Madagascar, known as Fomban-razana (meaning ancestor-worship), acknowledges the existence of the Supreme God. This Supreme God, known as Andriamanitra or Zanaharyin depending on the region, is believed to have created everything that exists. Madagascar people who practice Fomban-razana also believe that this Supreme God has ultimate and unlimited power in the universe and thus possesses the ability to manipulate nature, punish people who offend him and bless and protect those who please him.
Very little is known about the Supreme God Andriamanitra, and the practitioners of Fomban-razana certainly do not claim to be living in any kind of a personal relationship with him. Andriamanitra is therefore never approached directly, but always via the “spirits” of the ancestors. To accomplish this, many of the ritual prayers are often concluded with the phrase “Hahasoa ahatsara Andriamanitra andriananahar,” which translates literally to mean “Bring us good blessings, oh God the Creator.”
Traditional tribal beliefs are not practiced by all of the people of Madagascar. They are augmented by a number of imported organized religions—religions that are either practiced alone or in concert with traditional beliefs. Although precise figures on the religious distribution in Madagascar do not exist, experts estimate that approximately 55 percent of the population adheres to traditional beliefs, and roughly 40 percent practices Christianity, evenly divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The remaining 5 percent practice Islam.
In recent years, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have engaged in a competition of sorts to attract new adherents. The towns and villages of Madagascar, particularly those in the central highlands, tend to have two churches, one Protestant and one Roman Catholic, a fact that further underscores the competition. The Roman Catholic Church enjoys its largest support among the Betsileo people, located in the southern portion of the central highlands. It is also the choice among former slaves and the côtiers—a French term meaning people of coastal areas. Protestantism enjoys its largest backing among the Merina people of the central highlands, and because the Merina people are associated with status, Protestantism has historically been perceived as the form of Christianity deemed most significant among the upper classes. Despite Christianity’s minority status in the country, the Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar played a major role in arbitrating a resolution to the conflict resulting from the violence and general strikes in May and August of 1991 during the Second Republic (1975-1992).
During the 19 century, a confrontation between Christianity and Madagascar’s traditional religious beliefs saw then Queen Ranavalona I expel scores of foreign missionaries. Thousands of Christians were persecuted, and some were even put to death. This trend ended, however, upon her death, and with the ascension of Ranavalona II, who declared Christianity, namely Protestantism, the official religion of the royal family. Despite confrontations such as these, Madagascar has traditionally witnessed a type of mutual assimilation between Christianity and traditional beliefs. Christian missionaries were able to build on the Malagasy concept of a Supreme God by using the term, Andriamanitra, to refer to the biblical God, and by choosing one of the traditional terms for soul—fanahy—to define its Christian counterpart. Even today, many Christians living in Madagascar have their dead blessed at a church before burying them according to the old traditional ceremonies. The Christian belief in an all-powerful, yet distant God has blended with older beliefs in the closeness and intimacy of ancestors who have passed on, and many Malagasy Christians will go as far as to say that the dead have themselves become Christians and continue to be the arbiters of right and wrong in the universe.
Finally, the small Muslim population (5 percent) in Madagascar is divided between followers of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Most Muslims are Comorans or Indo-Pakistanis, the majority of whom live in Madagascar’s Mahajanga Province. A very small minority of the nation’s Indian community adheres to the traditional beliefs of Hinduism.
Culture of Madagascar: Daily Life and Social CustomsMost of the Malagasy (people of Madagascar) live in rural areas, where their lifestyle and the politic arena remain highly traditional, and where most decisions are still made by a council of male elders. Bucking these traditions are a growing number of young people in Madagascar. Seeing little economic future in their rural home villages, these youth have become the primary source of the rural-to-urban migration into the country’s larger cities.
For people who remain in the countryside, traditional ceremonies and traveling orators and musicians are a major source of entertainment. In urban areas, on the other hand, the opportunities for entertainment and enjoyment vary. Some Malagasy people take part in video clubs, where movies are rented and projected. Action films are extremely popular in Madagascar, particularly since the films are rarely dubbed or subtitled in Malagasy. Poorer urban inhabitants, however, have reduced access to this type of entertainment.
The typical form of dress in Madagascar varies depending on location and socioeconomic status. Rural and poorer urban residents tend to wear traditional attire: for men, this consists of a large shirt and shorts or long pants, while women may wear dresses with gathered skirts. In the country’s coastal regions, women can often be seen in a wrapped skirt with a top; a rectangular shawl, known as a lamba, is also worn, particularly during ceremonial occasions. People of the middle class frequently wear Western clothes, with blue jeans being the favorite among the youth.
Most citizens of Madagascar, regardless of status, continue to observe most of the traditional customs, especially those related to the family tomb and those ceremonies that demonstrate respect for family ancestors. The most common of these traditions is the Famadihana, in which the bones of the ancestors are removed from the family tomb, wrapped in a specially-designed lamba, and placed again in the tomb after the delivery of a kabary, a traditional speech for special occasions. The kabary is also delivered at other special occasions, including weddings and business grand openings. Those who deliver these speeches are very well paid, particularly those who employ the use of traditional proverbs.
The current government of Madagascar promotes the amalgamation of old and new cultural aspects and expressions. Evidence of this can be seen at the many seasonal festivals in the country, including the Festival of Rice and the Festival of the Trees. Cities, churches, schools and other groups put on concerts and dances; and in the cities there are a number of cultural associations based on members’ home districts. Some of the holidays observed and celebrated in Madagascar include Easter and Christmas (celebrated by the Christian community), as well as Independence Day, celebrated on June 26; and the Anniversary of the Republic, observed on December 30 of each year.
Culture of Madagascar: CuisineThe cuisine of Madagascar reflects the gastronomic interests of people belonging to a variety of cultures and ethnicities, including the Indonesians, Africans, French and Arabs. Long-standing traditions in Madagascar have also played a major role in the evolution of Malagasy cuisine.
In Madagascar, a traditional meal is typically eaten on the floor. Food items are generally served on a single plate and eaten with a spoon. Meals are served when they are steaming hot. No drinks accompany the meal, nor do any type of starters or appetizers. The traditional meal is made up of three of four dishes, followed by a dessert of some kind, usually made from local fruits and vanilla.
Madagascar’s cuisine consists of many popular specialties, with Ro and Ravitoto ranking high on the list. Ro, which is considered the staple of the Malagasy diet, is a dish made by mixing rice with herbs and fragrant leaves. Ravitoto is a type of meat dish, usually beef or pork, which is deep fried in oil and spices and mixed with herbs. Popular beverages, which as we mentioned are not served with meals, include toaka, gasy, betsa, litchel and Rononapango, a beverage made from burning rice.
To prepare meals, the people of Madagascar use a variety of locally-grown ingredients. Fruits and vegetables are very popular, as are many of the local plants which are used as spices and herbs. Fish and poultry are also prominently featured as ingredients in Madagascar cuisine, and are often used in the creation of soups and curries. The food is quite simple and prepared using very basic techniques that have sustained the people of Madagascar for centuries.
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