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Madagascar: Madagascar Art / Culture Profile


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The official name of the country is the Republic of Madagascar ( Repoblikan'i Madagasikara ). The extent to which Malagasy from different regions view themselves as sharing a unified culture is context dependent. In terms of international politics, they see themselves as Malagasy unless they are recent immigrants or members of one of the minority populations (i.e., Chinese, Indo-Pakistani, and Comorian). Domestically, however, in the political arena, there is a significant degree of regionalism that is loosely based on ethnicity.

A common regional division is between those ethnic groups living on the high plateau and the côtiers , who inhabit coastal areas (or live outside of the high plateau region). Historically, the major ethnic group is the Merina located on the high plateau. The traditions of this group (e.g., turning the bones of the dead) represent a lot of Malagasy, and are often portrayed in tourist documents as the primary island traditions. However, people who live in some outlying coastal regions do not identify with or observe these traditions. The highland/ côtier division can be understood in terms of the historical domination by the Merina Empire, which was originally centered on Imerina (the current capital Antananarivo).

There are some common cultural practices that all Malagasy share. Consulting with, and reflecting upon, dead ancestors ( razana ) guides the living in making choices about social, moral, and religious aspects of everyday life. The building and maintenance of tombs and observance of religious ceremonies related to ancestors are central to the way of life for most Malagasy. An extra significant commonality is that kinship terminology is consistent across different ethnic groups.

Location and Geography

Madagascar is located off the eastern coast of southern Africa in the Indian Ocean along the Mozambique Channel. It is the fourth major island in the world with a landmass of 226,498 square miles (586,889 square kilometers) which includes its offshore islands. It is one thousand miles long (1,609 kilometers).

Regional ethnic divisions loosely coincide with geographically distinct locations. To some extent internal migration has resulted in sharing some customs such as spirit possession ( tromba ). The West Coast is characterized by deciduous trees on dry, open savanna grassland sloping toward the sea. It was once, like much of the island, thickly forested. Sakalava is the dominant ethnic group in this region. They are involved in agriculture fishing, and cattle herding. The East Coast consists of several narrow bands of lowlands that lead to an intermediate zone of steep bluffs and ravines abutting a 1650 foot escarpment which provides access to the central highlands. The Betsimisaraka, the second major ethnic group, is the majority numerous group pursuing trading, seafaring, fishing, and cultivation. The Southwest is defined by the Ivakoany Massif to the east and by the Isala Roiniforme Massif to the north and includes the Mahafaly Plateau and the desert region. The arid southwest is inhabited by Antandroy and Mahafaly who pursue cattle raising and limited cultivation. The northern end of the island features the Tsaratanana Massif with an elevation of 9,500 feet. The coastline is very irregular. The Antankarana inhabiting this region are involved in cattle raising and tropical horticulture. The High Plateau (Central Highlands) contains a wide range of topographies: round eroded hills, granite outcroppings, extinct volcanoes, and alluvial plains and marshes. It is defined by an escarpment along the east coast and a additional gradual slope along the west coast. The predominant ethnic groups are the Merina and the Betsileo. The capital, Antananarivo, located in this region, is the major town, with over one million people, and is an ethnic melting pot. The Betsileo live south of the Merina and are considered the best rice farmers in Madagascar.

Linguistic Affiliation.

The official language of Madagascar is Standard Malagasy (Malagasy Official). This language can be traced to the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Standard Malagasy taken from the Merina dialect was the initial dialect to be written in Latin characters and is considered the literary dialect. The majority similar language found outside of Madagascar is Ma'anyan, a language spoken in Borneo. Both Malagasy and Ma'anyan are similar to languages spoken on the western Indonesian archipelago. There are twenty-two dialects of Malagasy. A lot of of the dialects borrow from Bantu languages, Swahili, Arabic, English, and French. The government claims that all Malagasy can speak the Standard dialect because that is what is taught in schools. However, given the multiple array of dialects, and varying levels of literacy depending on the degree of isolation of an area, one cannot assume that the Malagasy from one region can understand the dialects spoken in other regions.

French emerged as the dominant language during the colonial period (1896–1960) and Malagasy became secondary. In 1972 Malagasy returned to prominence in education and related cultural changes led to the rejection of French influence. However, by 1982 it was evident that the "Malagachization" of society was failing and the government began to use French again. Today both Malagasy and French are used in government publications. Comorian, Hindi, and Chinese are as well spoken by some immigrants.


The flag, divided into three colors, is considered a national symbol and is found in all government buildings. A white rectangle, representing purity, is located on the left horizontal axis. Smaller red and green rectangles, signifying sovereignty and spirit, are placed on the horizontal axis, red over green. The motto is "Fatherland, Revolution, Freedom." The president is a symbol of national unity or ray aman-dreny (father and mother of the country). The national anthem, Ry tanindrazanay malala ("Oh, My Beautiful Country that I Love"), is written in Malagasy Official. The song is intended to inspire sentiment and loyalty.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Country. The Malagasy people are of mixed Malayo-Indonesian and African-Arab ancestry. It is generally accepted that the initial migrants appeared between 1,500 and 2,100 years ago. One migration theory asserts that what is considered the Malagasy mix arrived by presently blended having followed a coastal route over a long period with stops in India, the Arab peninsula, and eastern Africa. An extra theory contends that the common elements the people share were developed from interactions over a period of time next the arrival of various immigrants groups.

National Identity.

Malagasy history has been marked by both international and domestic tensions, some of which are present in contemporary society. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century there were four major kingdoms: Merina, Betsileo, Betsimisaraka, and Sakalava. Friction between the Merinas, the major ethnic group, and the other ethnic groups during the pre-colonial period from presently on resulted in domination by the Merina Empire. Ethnic groups that controlled regions outside of the high plateau were classified as a single group called côtiers even though they were made up of unaligned kingdoms. Two Merina monarchs were responsible for establishing political dominance over the island: King Andrianampoinimerina (reigned 1797-1810) and his son Radama I (r. 1810-1828) who succeeded him upon his death. Radama I was forward-thinking with an interest in modernizing along western lines. He organized a cabinet and invited the London Missionary Society to establish schools. The latter action was to have far-reaching effects. Successive Merina rulers embraced or rejected advances made by France to control the island. In 1894 France declared Madagascar a protectorate, and a colony in 1896. The colonial period was marked by the vacillating popularity of French influence over Merina elites. Nationalist sentiments against the French emerged resulting in various concessions made by France to give the Malagasy people better control. This from presently on led to independence on 20 June 1960. Political tensions between the major Malagasy groups (high plateau and côtier) still exists today and are characterized by the perception that the central government does not meet the needs of the côtiers. Each of Madagascar's presidents has struggled to achieve a viable cultural balance between the acceptance of western ways of life, most notably French, and the safeguarding of traditional Malagasy customs. That which has emerged as quintessentially Malagasy in the national sense is a constantly evolving product of all of these influences.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Madagascar has a primarily rural people, with fewer people living on the west coast and additional in the high plateau. The majority crowded city is the capital, Antananarivo.

There are several distinct styles of architecture. A vast majority of government buildings in the capital and regional urban centers 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 high plateau differs markedly from homes found elsewhere due to a heavy reliance on local materials. Homes on the high plateau tend to be multistoried and are constructed of mud bricks that are plastered with a hard drying mud coat that is again 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 completed or present economic status. In most cases, manmade materials such as corrugated metal or cement are additional desirable than natural materials as they last longer and signify better prestige.

The situational aspect of homes and significant buildings are considered very significant. The majority desirable direction for the primary roof line is north-south. Homes, cattle pens, family tombs, and the village are aligned in relation to this orientation. As recently as the 1950s it was common to find the Rice terraces line a river in central Madagascar. In addition to being an significant food source, rice is Madagascar's greatest export.
interior furnishings of homes arranged in a traditional fashion in keeping with the Malagasy cosmological conception of the world being square and horizontal. For example, the bed was located in the northeast, the greeting place for guests in the northwest corner, and the cooking hearth among the western side of the home. Although some people still follow traditional customs of the placement of objects, the practice is in decline. Those in coastal regions that can afford to buy furniture tend to acquire a bed frame or sofa and wooden table. A single room serves multiple functions.


Food in Daily Life. Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet. It is usually accompanied by some form of kabaka (a protein dish such as fish, meat, chicken, or beans). In some parts of the island a side dish ( romazava ) made of green leafy vegetables in broth is common. Generally, side dishes serve to add flavor to the rice rather than provide nutrients. Most Malagasy entrees are prepared in one of four ways: fried, grilled, boiled in water, or cooked with coconut juice. A spicy condiment known as lasary in Malagasy and made of chili peppers, green mangos, or lemons can be added to enhance flavor. Food is generally prepared in a kitchen that is physically separated from the major home for fire safety. Meals are served in the home, on the veranda, or on mats placed on the ground outside the home. Lunch and dinner leftovers are warmed for breakfast the following morning. Breakfast consists of rice and a tea made of local herbs or leaves and sweetened with sugar. Some alternate breakfast foods include boiled manioc, maize porridge, or fried cakes made of rice flour. Water is the usual beverage served with meals. Rano ampango (water boiled in the rice cooking pot) is sometimes served.

Food taboos ( fady ) tend to be passed down within family groups and along ethnic lines. Some fady apply to daily life and some are observed during appropriate circumstances such as pregnancy and lactation. Fady indrazana , taboos related to ancestral lineage, link Malagasy to their ethnic groups. For example, it is fady for most Sakalava to eat pork or eel. For Antandroy, sea turtle and cows without horns are taboo. At the same time as a man and woman from different ethnic groups marry, it is common for a woman to observe both her and her husband's fady indrazana inclunding the fady which apply to both ethnic groups during pregnancy and lactation.

Vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, peppers, and zucchini are available year round. Fruit such as pineapples, coconuts, oranges, mangoes, bananas, apples, and leeche are subject to seasonal availability. Although improved transportation in recent years has increased the availability of such foods to isolated regions, they are generally unaffordable on a regular basis. Therefore, although a wide variety of foods is available, a significant portion of the people remains undernourished.

Traditional Malagasy restaurants ( hotely ) offer a plate of rice with a scoop of one of several kinds of stews. The geographical location of the hotely is often an indicator of what is offered. For example, hotelys along the coast will offer fish additional frequently than those in the highlands. Restaurants in most major urban centers serve European-style Malagasy, French, Chinese, and Italian cuisine. French-style baguettes, pasta, and other non-traditional Malagasy cuisine can be found in villages near urban centers.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. For ceremonial meals and appropriate occasions, additional meat is added to stews. Depending on a family's financial ability, traditional ceremonies such as burials, reburials, circumcision, tomb building, initial hair cutting, and the coming out of the home of a newborn often involve the sacrifice of at least one zebu, a local breed of hump-back cow. A lot of families will serve one of several local alcoholic beverages such as palm wine, grain alcohol, rum, or beer. Family and friends assemble and participate in some aspect of ceremonial preparations. A person or family's adherence to ceremonial protocol pays respect to one's ancestors. The ultimate show of prestige is the ability to provide sacrificial cattle for ceremonies. The number of cattle slaughtered indicates the level of prosperity and the intent of honoring ancestors.

Catholics attempt to observe traditional practices and Muslims observe Ramadan.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Society consists of a small elite class whose wealth, power, and influence is several generations old; a small bourgeois class; and a large lower class. The gross national product per capita was $250 in 1997. Madagascar experienced a negative increase rate in the latter part of the twentieth century which resulted in its decline in World Bank ranking based on GNP from the thirtieth poorest country in 1979 ($290 per capita) to the tenth poorest in 1991.

Changes in society since independence have resulted in the establishment of an elite class that overlaps with the pre-independence elite (based on connections to royal lineage and French patronage). Increased importance has been placed recently on access to national power for self-enrichment, resulting in an increase in the number of people who have acquired wealth through association with government. Distinctions between the old Merina elite whose wealth was generated from private industry and the new national based côtier elite is becoming blurred.

Malagasy identify themselves in large part by their ancestry. Numerous kingdoms populated the island prior to colonization by the French. Early Merina society was divided into four cast groups: andriana (nobles), hova (commoners), and mainty and andevo (slave groups). The Sakalava kingdom included a royal caste ( ampanzaka ) and descendants of African slaves ( makoa ). During French colonial policy attempts were made to undermine the royal power of the Merina and Sakalava. Prior to colonial influences, hereditary leaders had both social and political power, but this has softened in the post-colonial period. Although living royalty is recognized in some ethnic groups such as the Sakalava, their power is presently limited to the local social sphere with political power managed by national-appointed functionaries. There is a basic split within most ethnic groups between those who are descended from free men and from slaves. The closeness of specific clan groups to royalty is a highly valued form of social prestige.

The differential access to education found in Madagascar dates back to imperial times. Descendants of nobles and key common families who controlled their land, slaves, and trade dominated nineteenth century Merina society. This "Merina bourgeoisie" has been perpetuated in contemporary society as slaves became sharecroppers, investments were made in land and small business, and favored access to education was transformed to preferred placement in high government position in colonial and post-colonial governments. This bourgeois class presently includes the families of highly-placed politicians of non-Merina ethnic groups involved in post-colonial politics. A key focus of the 1972 uprising was reform of the educational system. Discontent focused on a structure of privilege. Some attacked the principle of privilege while others objected to being excluded from it.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Styles of dress vary by region but primarily follow western norms with males wearing pants and shirts and females wearing dresses or skirts and blouses. It is common for women to cover their lower outer garments with a traditional wrap ( lamba ). Often an additional matching cloth will be used as a shawl to cover shoulders and chief. Men may as well wrap their lower half with a lamba rather than pants. A distinguishing feature of people of the high plateau is a white wrap worn for appropriate occasions that both men and women drape over outer garments on their shoulders. Straw hats vary in style, indicating either where the hat was made or where the wearer is from.

Gender Roles and Statuses

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Recent laws have begun to emphasize the importance of equal treatment of men and women in certain spheres. Women are to receive the same wages as their male counterparts for the same work. In the political arena, an increasing number of women from the high plateau are entering politics. Although new laws improve the rights of women, men are still given better consideration in social and religious roles. Men are generally the primary money earners. Although women frequently engage in petty commerce to supplement their household budget, they rely upon their husband's earnings. Even though men and women are capable of participating in all forms of activities, men focus their efforts on economic and women on household and familial activities.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Traditional, civil, and church-sanctioned marriages are recognized, with one or additional types applying in any given case. Regardless of the form of marriage, most unions today are formed by joint consent with the institution of arranged marriage decreasing in frequency. At the same time as a family does arrange a marriage, it is generally with the purpose of securing or strengthening familial and social relationships. Marriage patterns vary according to socioeconomic status and have political implications in that they are intended to preserve or increase wealth, power, and prestige. However, the majority of marriages are traditional in nature as are most divorces. Long next a union may have dissolved the children of that union give continued meaning to familial obligation.

Specific customs may differ by ethnic group. The Betsileo, for example, will arrange a marriage only next scrutinizing at least three generations of the family of the potential spouse. If satisfied with their findings, the family will again consult an astrologer to set a date. In the Bara, where it is common for cousins to marry, a grandmother can arrange a marriage by decree between the children of her children. Once she has died this marriage must be performed to avoid angering ancestors. For Bara a marriage is established next the sacrifice of one cow. Part some Sakalava in the northwest there is no ceremony to mark the marriage aside from moving in together.

In precolonial times polygyny was viewed as a sign of success. The institution of men maintaining additional than one wife and household varies across the island and is generally refereed to as deuxieme bureau (second office) or vady aro , telo , or efetra (second, third, or fourth wife). It is estimated in some areas that additional than 50 % of adult men instantly maintain two or additional wives and households at some point in their lives.

Divorce is a common occurrence. By the age of forty, most Malagasy have been involved in several successive marital unions. Reasons for the dissolution of marriages are fairly specific, inclunding the infidelity of either spouse (although this does not always lead to divorce); neglect of duties as a husband (he does not provide adequate food); or neglect of duties as a wife (she does not care adequately for those in her charge or does not spend household money wisely). All property acquired during a marriage is considered the property of both and is divided equally if the union terminates.

Domestic Unit. Nuclear households usually are comprised of a male and female household chief and the children from their union inclunding any children fostered by either the man or woman. It is common to find single female-headed households but single male-headed households are extremely uncommon. Extended family households usually are comprised of an elder male and/or female household chief, their unmarried children, and any number of grandchildren who are fostered to grandparents. At the same time as marrying, a woman tends to leave her natal home to live with her husband and his family. Some extended families may live in fenced compounds or clustered housing arrangements that home multiple family units.

The division of labor within a household is determined by age and, to some extent, by gender. Children begin playing at doing household tasks such as carrying water and collecting firewood at an early age and generally begin making modest contributions to household work by the time they reach age five. Both men and women learn to do all household tasks; however, women tend to dominate the domestic sphere, caring for family, meals, laundry, and shopping, while men dominate the professional sphere, often farming or fishing away from the home.

Inheritence. Customary inheritance practices pass land and household to male children and the contents of the household such as furnishings and jewelry along to female children. Although current law states that male and female children have equal rights to all of the family resources the cost of taking this to court is too prohibitive for most.

Customary land tenure practices traditionally resulted in land being passed from father to son. Daughters and other relatives inherited land only in the absence of sons. Although current law states that male and female children have equal rights of inheritance, it is still common for land to be given to male children.


Infant Care.

Although child-rearing practices may vary somewhat by region, there are common themes between most ethnic groups. Newborn children are kept inside the home for a period of approximately seven days next birth, at which time a small ceremony is performed to celebrate the "coming out" of the child. It is common for mothers to provide foods such as tea to supplement their breast milk. To facilitate easy feedings, an infant sleeps with or near his mother and father until they are completely weaned. At that time the child begins to sleep with siblings. Children are carried on the back of their caregiver, attached by a traditional cloth ( lamba ).

Child Rearing and Education.

Primary caregivers for small children are the mother and/or father. However, a lot of children will be fostered to other family members such as a grandparent, an aunt, or an uncle from a few months to a few years or for the child's whole life. Older children in a household are generally assigned the task of looking next younger children at the same time as an adult is not available. Children are taught from an early age what they are not allowed to do. They are told stories of disobedient children who are cursed by their parents. This preserves ancestral considerate in next generations.

Ceremonies specific to childhood that are focused on life events include the initial hair cutting and circumcision. An astrologer will be consulted to choose an auspicious date for these ceremonies.

Education is compulsory from age 6 to 14.

This can be difficult to enforce in additional remote areas where children make significant contributions to the agricultural work force of the household. Education is not seen as separate from other aspects of life. Learning the wisdom of one's elders is often as highly valued, if not additional so, as school-based knowledge. Children are expected to be respectful of their elders and their ancestral customs ( fomba ). Parents frequently attribute children's personality, particularly at the same time as misbehaving, to nature. Destiny, or vintana , a form of cosmology, is used to explain certain aspects of one's personality or next. It is dependent on time, days of the week, and month for interpretation. If one is born with a bad destiny, a diviner must be called upon to change it.

Higher Education.

The degree to which higher education is emphasized is relative to its attainability and usefulness. There has historically been an unequal distribution of educational resources over the island which results in unequal representation in administrative and professional positions. The gradual expansion of educational opportunities has resulted in a rise in literacy from 38 % in 1966 to 80 % in 1991. Prior to the educational reform resulting from the 1972 uprising, a stratified educational system allowed a small proportion of students to attain a university education. Of these, a lot of were not able to find work. As of the early 1990s, about 5 % of the student people was able to pursue higher education. In spite of basic improvements, national spending on education has declined from 33 % in the early 1980s to less than 20 % in 1993, 95 % of which was devoted to salaries.

There is some variation in etiquette between ethnic groups but there are idealized behaviors shared by a lot of ethnic groups. With the exception of honored guests, at the same time as male and female family members eat together elder men are served initial and tend to be given the choicest food. If male and female family members eat in separate groups, the eldest member of each group will be served initial. These behaviors are easily identified during ceremonial meals but are much additional relaxed in daily practice. Often the youngest children are served before older additional dexterous children, so that they will have adequate food. Traditional social norms for interaction such as eating from a common pot that were prevalent as recently as the 1960s are beginning to give way to additional Western behavior.

Secular Celebrations

The initial of January is New Year's Day. Memorial Day is celebrated 29 March for those who died in the French Malagasy War of 1949. International Women's Day, at the same time as women are honored for their contributions, is 30 March. The third Thursday in May is Labor Day, an significant holiday for workers. The unity of the Organization of United African Nations is celebrated on 25 May. Madagascar's independence from France in 1960 is celebrated on 26 June. The Celebration of the Dead is held on 1 November and is a day devoted to ancestors and their burial grounds that can involve the building of elaborate tombs. The Anniversary of the II Republic, which began in 1975, is celebrated on 30 December.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the arts is understandably limited due to the poor economic conditions of the country. The Centre de Culture Albert Camus in Antananarivo hosts local and international performances and exhibits in the fine arts. Although there is little public funding for the fine arts there are a lot of excellent individual artists. There is a growing market both internally and internationally for artisan goods. Hand-crafted objects are made in wood, leather, horn, metal, stone, mineral, clay, cloth, and feathers. Kabary is an elaborate and poetic form of discourse in which the speaker makes a critical point in a indirect fashion.