This is Madagascar
Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and home to really unique plants and wildlife. However, the island’s biodiversity has been at risk due to poverty and competition for agricultural land.
Over the centuries, Madagascar developed a mixed ethnic base of mostly East African and Southeast Asian settlers.
From the 16th century onwards, traders, pirates, and explorers from both Europe and the Arab world frequented Madagascar.
Arabs established trading posts along the coast and Portuguese Diego Dias sighted the island in the 1500s, determining the first time European contact.
The capital city of Antananarivo resides on the central highland. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century there were four main kingdoms: Merina, Betsileo, Betsimisaraka, and Sakalava. Friction between the Merina, the largest ethnic group, and the other ethnic groups during the pre-colonial period eventually resulted in domination by the Merina Empire. In the early 19th century, the Merina Kingdom king, Radama I, began to establish relations with British and Christian missionaries. Eventually, Britain conquered the region, but it later gave up all claims and recognized it as a French protectorate during the Scramble for Africa. The Malagasy people rose in rebellion against French rule many times, but they were brutally crushed. Nationalist sentiments against the French emerged resulting in various concessions made by France to give the Malagasy people greater control. This eventually led to independence on 26 June 1960.
Language, ethnology and cities
There are many different ethnicities throughout Madagascar, each with their own beliefs and customs. That being said, a uniform Malagasy identity has been fostered over the years. Southeast Asian culture can clearly be seen in the Malagasy way of life – especially when it comes to the consumption of rice in cuisine. Cattle and cattle rustling (common in Africa) have also made it to Madagascar. In Madagascar today, there is a fundamental linguistic unity, with Malagasy, an Austronesian language that shows the effects of long contact with Bantu languages.
Most inhabitants of Madagascar speak Malagasy, the national language, which is written in the Latin alphabet. The building and maintenance of tombs and observance of religious ceremonies related to ancestors are central to the way of life for most Malagasy.
The diversity of cultures contributing to the formation of Malagasy culture is probably important in explaining the tremendous human ecological and economic diversity on the island. Presented with an island of enormous environmental variety, Malagasy settlers in each region could select appropriate domesticates and agricultural techniques from the full range available in the lands bordering the Indian Ocean.
Small towns began to develop at the administrative centres of the island’s several kingdoms at least by the 18th century. Antananarivo, Fianarantsoa, and Toamasina, three of Madagascar’s oldest cities, predate French rule. The most populous cities are Antananarivo, in the central highland; Mahajanga (formerly Majunga), on the northwest coast; Fianarantsoa, in the southern plateau; Toamasina (formerly Tamatave), on the east coast; Antsiranana, in the north; Toliara, in the southwest; and Antsirabe. Antananarivo is by far the most crowded of these.
Madagascar has six “autonomous provinces ” including Antananarivo, Toliary, Antsiranana, Toamasina, Mahajanga, and Fianarantsoa.
Madagascar has a primarily rural population, with fewer people living on the coast and more in the highland.
There are several distinct styles of architecture. A vast majority of government buildings in the capital and regional urban centres were built during the colonial period showing a French influence. However, there are two distinct traditional architectural styles evident in the country. The style of homes built on the highland differs markedly from homes found elsewhere due to a heavy reliance on local materials. Homes on the highland tend to be multistoried and are constructed of mud bricks that are plastered with a hard drying mud coat that is then painted. Verandas are often made of elaborate scrolled woodwork. The countryside in this region has homes enclosed by ancient mud walls and newly constructed brick walls. Homes in coastal regions are often built on a raised platform in areas with high rainfall and on the ground in drier areas. These homes tend to be much smaller with one or two rooms and are made of bamboo-like materials. The type of materials used signifies a past or present economic status. In most cases, manmade materials such as corrugated metal or cement are more desirable than natural materials as they last longer and signify greater prestige.
Image: traditional house of Antananarivo
The conquest of the plateau peoples by the French and their subsequent assimilation of Western values have deprived them of most of their traditional institutions. In music, however, Western dance and musical instruments have been adapted to Malagasy rhythms. The Valiha (a type of zither, typically tubular and traditionally made from bamboo) and the cone drum are of Indonesian origin, while other types of drums and animal horns suggest African influence. Folk music has been retained, but much of the singing consists of Western church hymns and chants adapted to the distinctive Malagasy musical style.
The Mahafaly have a remarkable wood-carving industry, and their tombs of coloured stones and carved wooden sculptures called Aloalo also used as funeral poles for the Antandroy are among the most beautiful on the island.
Image: Aloalo, Mahafaly sculptures of the Efiaimbelos Aloalo, Perrotin, New York (28 June–17 August 2018).
The woodworking skills of the Zafimaniry, exemplified by their elaborate carved designs, are also renowned; their knowledge of woodcraft is included by UNESCO among its designation of Intangible Cultural Heritage, intended to safeguard nonmaterial cultural properties. The Betsileo also have a thriving wood-carving industry, making inlaid furniture of valuable hardwoods. In addition, they produce ornamental cloths of very finely woven raffia and have become specialists in the production of coloured straw hats.
Betsileo and Merina women, in particular, are expert in French-style embroidery, sewing, and dressmaking.
Until some 50 years ago, Madagascar was home to a variety of flourishing weaving traditions. The island’s markedly divergent ecological zones made available a wide range of fibres. Raffia was prominent on the island’s east and west coasts. In the southeast, the Malagasy produced fabrics from reeds and beaten and spun bark fibres. The south and west were noted for textiles of cotton and wild silk. In the central highlands, the Malagasy used hemp, banana stem, domesticated mulberry silk and other fibres in weaving.
Lamba: the textile, highly emblematic of Malagasy culture is the traditional garment worn by Malagasy people.
The Malagasy language is rich in proverbs, and there is now an extensive written literature including poetry, legend, history, works treating contemporary themes, and scholarly works. Literary production is aided by an excellent printing industry, for which the Merina has shown a flair since learning it from the London Missionary Society in the 1820s. The peoples of the southeast still preserve their sorabe manuscripts—discourses written in Arabic script on geomancy, astrology, history, and traditional lore—with great reverence; few can be more than 200 years old, although some may be copies of much earlier manuscripts.
words by Ihoby Lysiane Rabarijohn