This is a small and non-exhaustive introduction to Madagascar and the Malagasy people. It explains some of the features of the Malagasy lifestyle and everyday behavior as well as values. These are the elements that add a little (actually a lot of) spice to the Malagasy and is part of our national identity.
18 Unique Tribes
The Malagasy today is a mixture of people of several origins. The first population to settle in Madagascar between the 350 BC and the 6th century were Austronesian from Indonesia/Borneo. Between the 7th and the 9th centuries, Omani Arab traders first used the northern part of the island as a hub for their trades then started to settle and introduced cultural elements such as the Arab astrology, Islam, and Arabic script. The presence of Europeans started with the arrival of the Portuguese sea captain Diego Diaz in 1500. Then in the late 17th century, the French established trading hubs along the East coast of the island. Under the reign of King Radama I, British marked their presence by signing treaties with the Kingdom. British influence is still seen in architectures in Antananarivo, the capital city. In 1883, French invasion started and resulted in the colonization of Madagascar in 1896 which lasted until 1960. This long domination of French has remarkable consequences on the Malagasy culture and lifestyle starting from the language to the religion, and influencing other aspects of life such as the description of courtesy. Nevertheless, Madagascar is geographically African and culturally a mix of Arab, African, and Asian aspects.
There are 18 unique tribes in Madagascar: Antaifasy, Antaimoro, Antaisaka, Antambahoaka, Antandroy, Antakarana, Antanosy, Bara, Betsileo, Betsimisaraka, Bezanozano, Mahafaly, Makoa, Merina, Mikea, Sakalava, Tanala, Tsimihety, Vezo.
The Merina, Bestileo, and Sihanaka are in the category of the “highlanders” as they are literally from the highlands, the center of the island. The rest of the tribes reside along the coasts and are called the coastal ethnic groups.
Lifestyle in Madagascar varies from place to place. It can vary from a modern contemporary style, influenced by the western world, to a traditional one.
While lifestyle varies depending on tribe and socio-economic status/access to resources, Malagasy life largely revolves around work, education, and family. Leisure is rather on the weekends and are mostly sports and arts.
Examples of the Malagasy lifestyle:
For those that reside in the countryside, or live in the “tanindrazana”, traditional beliefs and practices are still very common. The fady (taboo) is still very respected, and it is not uncommon to see people not working on any given day of the week for any obvious, likely, or unbelievable reason. The whole family is often involved in the same economic activity (agriculture and farming), the level of literacy is low and the notion of leisure is almost nonexistent. The tsena (day of the market) happens on a specific day of the week and is used to do shopping for the bare necessities. The tsena may happen miles away from the household, therefore many people do not work on that day. It is also an opportunity to socialize. Saving is practically not in the vocabulary of this category, they live every day as it comes.
What’s common with the two categories is the notion of family. The Malagasy is a very family oriented person. Family in the Malagasy concept is referred to as the large family and the family nucleus is called ankohonana. This concept is a very important element of the Malagasy culture: the Fihavanana (stay tuned for our article on this).
Resembling the Asian culture, the Malagasy pays a very strong respect to the elders. The elder is served first, leaves first, speaks first, etc. The eldest gives his/her benedictions to any important project in someone’s life. A marriage that has not received the benediction of the parents, or the eldest if the parents are no longer present, is believed to be cursed. The eldest is seen as someone who has accumulated wisdom and experience and deserves respect. In Malagasy, we may refer to someone older than us as Zoky, meaning elder as a sign of respect, and the older will refer to those younger as zandry, meaning younger sibling.
In many villages, the chief is always the eldest because of his perceived wisdom and the authority he has as a parent. He will be consulted for every decision that concerns the village, nothing will take place without his benediction, he may even act as the judge. People will always apologize for giving a speech in front of the elders.
The Malagasy has also the concept of valim-babena which is giving back to the parents in return for what they have done for you. Respecting the parents is already considered as a valim-babena.
The departed are called the razana which also means the ancestors. In the traditional beliefs, the razana left the earth and are closer to Zanahary (the God Creator), so they can play the role of an intermediate between the living and Zanahary and are to be respected. An expression that be heard often is “ho tahian’i Zanahary sy ny razana” (may God and the ancestors bless you.) The Malagasy practice famadihana, in which the bones of the ancestors are removed from the family tomb, wrapped in new lamba especially woven for that purpose, and placed again in the tomb after the delivery of a kabary
Rice is a staple crop for the Malagasy and for most is eaten 3 times a day! Many gasy will tell you they don't feel full if they don't eat rice at least 2 times a day!
On the 26th of June 1960, Madagascar gained its independence and broke away from colonial rule under the French to establish the Malagasy Republic. The day is in observance of those who fought valiantly for independence after 60 years of colonization.
The date is a public holiday and is celebrated with concerts, festivals, big feasts, military parades, and firework display. A main staple of the holiday is a presentation of Malagasy folklore as told by performers in traditional attire combining song, traditional folktales, and dance and takes place all around the country.
The “Fady” (taboo) is a set of unwritten rules or behaviors expected from the members of any given community. The fady, as a taboo, mostly consists of a prohibition. They can cover different aspects of daily life and they are passed on from one generation to another. Their origins are also diverse. An object, a food, an animal, a behavior, a practice … can become fady because it hurt, originated something unpleasant, or even killed the ancestors. Fady differs from a community to another. One community may have onion as fady, and another one may consider pork as fady. In some places, it is forbidden to bring live pigs in a village but it is allowed to bring pork meat. Fady can also vary from a family to another from a tribe to another. In some places, it is fady to work on Tuesdays, in other areas, it is fady for a person from outside the village to swim in the local lake. In some places, it would be possible to reverse the fady by doing something like offerings to the ancestors or to Zanahary. Commonly, it consists of killing one or more zebus.
The general rule is: when the local people say that something is fady, it is in everyone’s interest to respect.
To us, our national soccer team called The Barea represents a renewed national sense of positive self image and hope in ourselves. Since their qualification for the African Cup of Nations in 2019, to an exhilarating string of wins, it has been met with an amazing uplifting message for the Malagasy to feel hope again and support our countrymen in the international stage. Under the tactical leadership of Nicolas Dupuis, the Barea were the true underdogs of the 2019 CAN matches.