Madagascar History, Language and Culture
History of Madagascar
Until the French invasion of 1895, for most of the 19th century Madagascar had been a kingdom, although historically it had been ruled by a variety of alliances. It remained a French colony until achieving full independence in 1960, following a bloody uprising 13 years previously.
For most of the next 40 years, former military man Didier Ratsiraka held power imposing his own brand of Christian-Marxism until his policies caused spectacular economic collapse.
In the early 2000s, a businessman and former mayor of Antananarivo – Marc Ravalomanana – took over the presidency after achieving a narrow electoral victory, which Ratsiraka initially refused to accept.
There followed seven years of impressive economic growth for Madagascar under Ravalomanana’s leadership, accompanied by extensive development such as road building. The international community was impressed by the president’s resolve to triple the protected areas of the country to around 10 per cent.
Sadly, during his second term in office, he began to abuse his position for personal gain and public opinion turned against him. A young former DJ named Andry Rajoelina seized this opportunity to topple Ravalomanana in a coup d’état. Rajoelina successfully forced Ravalomanana into exile and appointed himself leader.
Between 2009 and 2014, Madagascar had no internationally recognised government. Most international aid was stopped, living standards across the country dropped, the economy backpedalled and the security situation worsened.
Rajoelina’s stated aim was to organise democratic elections, but it soon became clear that he had no intention of giving up power. During those five years he dragged his feet and deliberately derailed plans each time election dates were set, while hurrying through constitutional changes that would favour him as a presidential candidate.
Eventually he realised that the international community would never accept him as rightful president, even if he were to win free and fair democratic elections. He decided to change tack and put forward a proxy candidate called Hery Rajaonarimampianina.
Elections went ahead in late 2013 and Rajaonarimampianina won, having spent eye-watering sums – thought to have come from the sale of vast quantities of illegally logged rosewood timber to China – on campaigning. He assumed the presidency in January 2014, with Rajoelina subsequently declaring his intention to run for president in the future.
Did you know?
• In many regions, savika – cattle wrestling – is a popular recreation.
• The lamba, Madagascar’s national dress, is a rectangular length of cloth wrapped around the upper body. Ceremonial lamba can be made of silk or cow hide, but everyday ones are more likely to be cotton, bast or raffia pig skin.
• Libertatia, a possibly fictitious anarchist colony formed by pirates, may have been based on Nosy Boroha, a small island off the northeastern coast of Madagascar.
Around 52% follow animist beliefs whilst about 41% are Christian. The remainder are Muslim.
Malagasy people are extremely hospitable and welcoming with a refreshingly open communicative style that can sometimes border on direct. A handshake is the usual form of of greeting between strangers meeting for the first time. If meeting a friend then three kisses on the cheek is fine.
Arrangements and meetings can suffer as a result of a relaxed attitude to clock-watching. Dress is casual, except for posh hotels and restaurants where lightweight suits are advised. Note that military-style clothing should always be avoided, as wearing it can lead to arrest. Restaurants and bars are used for entertaining, with invitations to a family home requiring a good degree of personal acquaintance. An invitation to attend a special celebration is a great honour. Acts of kindness should be rewarded with a gift, but never money. Respect should be afforded to the many local taboos (fady) of the Malagasy – these are various behaviours that you shouldn’t do. Although these can change from tribe to tribe and person to person (try to be informed about what they will be before travelling to a new area on the island), some fady are imposed nationwide. Examples include not pointing at tombs, and not killing a propithecus lemur.
Photography: Military, airport or police establishments should not be photographed.
Language in Madagascar
English is not widely spoken. Malagasy (which is related to Indonesian) and French are the official languages. Local dialects are also common.