Madagascar - Its people and eclectic culture

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With over 18 different tribes, traditions and cultures, Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. The Malagasy people are referred to as both highlanders (including the Merina, Betsileo and Sihanaka) and the coastal people, including Sakalava, Antaifasy, Bara, and Bezanozano.

Though Madagascar lies close to the east coast of Africa, its original settlers are actually from Borneo. They settled in the highlands growing rice which they had carried with them, and then later East Africans and Arab travellers settled along the coastal areas. 

Traditions, values and ancient religious beliefs are important to the Malagasy - indeed about 40% of the population still worships local myths, spirits and folklore. The Malagasy believe in Andriamanitra who is the god who created the world.  Christian and Muslim faiths make up the balance of 60%, though they do integrate both Christian and traditional beliefs together – there is a strong belief in magic, witch doctors and shamans.

One thing most visitors will notice scattered across the land (especially in the highlands) are Mahafaly tombs which are decorated with paintings of the deceased life. Some are quite extravagant – noting those more wealthy than others or know for their zebu herds/ large family/ prowess or successful farmers.

Many of the ethnic groups are known for specific cultures and they like to identify with specific groups. For example, some are known for their artistic and carving talents, others for their clothing or hair styles, some for their traditional beliefs and others for specific agricultural professions.

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The Malagasy are noted for specific crafts - the ladies across the island produce the most beautiful embroidered cloths, dresses and other clothing. These mostly depict flowers and birds crafted onto 100% cotton which is grown and produced on the island. Madagascar exports their cotton to the USA.

There are also silk weavers, and the Antaimoro in the south of the country are paper makers, enclosing dried flowers within the paper. Raffia is made into practical and useful items – mats, hats and baskets and the Zafimaniry is great wood carver producing both art as well as ornate railings on balconies.

A Malagasy traditional meal would be pork or chicken with crushed cassava leaves and rice, but it depends on where they live and what they are able to grow. Rice is eaten at almost every meal. Traditional meals definitely have an Asian influence with vegetables, fish and rice being dominant - visitors to Madagascar will see hundreds of rice paddies alongside the roads in the highlands.  

Meat comes from their prized zebu herds and long legged chickens. The largest herds are found grazing over the plains in the central belt.   Laoka is a sauce served with the rice and served with most dishes and accompaniments. This can be tomato and onion based or if living near the coast – coconut milk based. Sometimes curdled milk is added or groundnuts, ginger and garlic.

Madagascar is known specifically for one exotic and gorgeous edible commodity - vanilla! The best is exported all over the world. Vanilla is actually from the orchid family. One distinctive item visitors will see in bars and restaurants are very large clear glass demijohns filled with rum – locally produced, sometimes extremely potent! Each demijohn will have a different ingredient on view- banana, vanilla, pineapple, etc.

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