On the fourth largest island in the world, where wildlife is wonderful and beaches are blissfully beautiful, you may easily be forgiven for pointing at ....let's say a lemur! But think again.
This feature introduces you to various aspects of the Madagasy culture. Then it takes you to some of the island's highlights.
If you're planning to travel to Madagascar, you'll certainly get far more out of your travel experience if you understand the island's fadys, which are cultural taboos, especially as life in Madagascar is dominated by thousands of fadys.
Let's take the example of pointing: the main issue here, is that as you innocently point at an interesting example of wildlife, you could be pointing at the burial place of a local's ancestor. Totally taboo. If you break a fady, you could reap scary results from the spirit of said ancestor, or if you manage to escape that, at the very least you will experience social shame.
Madagascar was featured in the New York Times & Irish Times as a top destination in 2017
Lying off the coast of East Africa, Madagascar has got its act together since stabilising after the 2013 elections and has been selected by the New York Times and Irish Times as a top destination in 2017. There are some beautiful eco-friendly lodgings available, which include rain forest camps and luxury island retreats. These are perfect bases from which to experience the amazing wildlife; 80% of the mammals found there, cannot be found elsewhere. The stars of the show on land in Madagascar are the chameleons, lemurs and dancing sifakas, while underwater, humpback and shark whales can be seen cruising around.
Download this free colouring page about Madagascar
Madagascar is still unspoilt
The landscape is incredibly diverse, and in some areas you'll find vast tracts of unoccupied land. Madagascar is still unspoilt, so let's hope it stays that way. Although it has its own agricultural practices that have affected the island, but more about that a bit later.
Take a trip of around 200 miles and you can travel from rainforest to desert. The turquoise sea is never very far away, with the island's 4000+ miles of coastline, and in between you can discover rice paddies, limestone karsts, mountains and sandstone canyons. Impressive trees and fauna are to be found everywhere, with inspirationally shaped baobab trees being the order of the day.
Madagascar has a strange geological history
It is Madagascar's strange geological history that is responsible for the fact that the island is home to wildlife, of which 80% can't be found elsewhere. 160 million years ago, Madagascar lost contact with Africa. It was part of the Gondwana supercontinent but after losing contact with Africa, it subsequently also did the same with Antarctica, Australia and then India.
Amazingly much of the island's endemic species went along for the ride, and stuck with it on the journey, like the elephant bird, for example. Additionally both animals and seeds were swept out to sea from rivers in Mozambique and Tanzania, which makes it possible that the ancestors of the lemurs that you can see in Madagascar today, arrived there this way.
Madagascar is a cultural melting pot. Waves of migrants have come to the island from various corners of the Indian Ocean, which has led to a distinctive, unique society being fashioned, with its own intricate, complex set of customs and beliefs. The Malagasy people, above all, revere the spirits of their ancestors.
"The smiles of the children, the hustle and bustle and the architecture of the city catch your attention. Houses in adobe, beige and yellow are jumbled onto the hills like a Cezanne painting." Patricia C. Wright, Anthropology Professor
The humble people of Madagascar are truly welcoming and friendly, but even though visitors find their culture fascinating, they are not entirely comfortable about it. They don't like confrontation, so even if something doesn't go as expected, it will help you culturally if you don't make a fuss. The reason for this is that underlying their social fabric is 'fihavanana', which means ‘conciliation’.
Photo: M M
Respecting this and the complex taboo (fady) system will go a long way to making your trip there more rewarding and enjoyable. The fadys vary from village to village, making the situation even more complicated. When visiting a village, don't be scared to ask firstly about the taboos there, so you don't make an embarrassing mistake. In one of the villages a fady is wearing swimming goggles! The fady system is based on not wishing to disrespect or upset the spirits of their ancestors. Here are a few examples, but the Malagasy are creating new fadys all the time. People who, even unknowingly, break a fady, are considered unclean.
- Don't point at a tomb
- If you're pregnant, don't eat eels
- Whatever you do, don't describe a newborn as ugly
Madagascar ethnic groups
The Merina people of Madagascar look like Indonesians. It is believed that they arrived there when travelling around the Indian Ocean, and it is thought that they descend from seafarers who hailed from Indonesia and Malaya. These people brought their rice-based diet and belief system with them. The Merina account for around a quarter of the island's population.
Some Swahili and Bantu words can be heard in the Malagasy language. These come from the African migrants who arrived there over the centuries. Arab merchants also made their way there, and they may have descended from the Arabic Antaimoro peoples.
In total, today, you can meet around eighteen different ethnic groups in Madagascar, who even though they have some racial differences they do feel that they share the same culture, even though there are variations from village to village, and the same language.
Communicating in Madagascar
Madagascar was a French colony until 1960. Therefore if you speak some French, it will help you get by. That said, the ideal is to learn a few important phrases in Malagasy, such as saying hello (Manahoana) or ordering a beer (Afaka mahazo labiera azafady)! Remember that if you do speak French, the Malagasies have a difficult ex-colonial relationship with their ex-colonisers. The Malagasy language is rather similar to a dialect, which we can hear spoken in Borneo. It is rich in both metaphors and images, and rather poetical.
Death in Madagascar
In Madagascar, the most important part of life is death. Funerals are often joyful occasions, as the Malagasy people regard death as the moment when the soul transmutes into razana, which means an immortal spirit.
Speaking with the dead
Their culture revolves around Razana. These ancestors, that are now immortal spirits, are a kind of life force to the people. They call upon them to inform them. It is believed that the razana are actively looking after them in various ways. Their wishes are both obeyed and respected. This is the reason that the villages operate under the systems of fadys, in order to please these deceased ancestors.
As a traveller to Madagascar, an important highlight of your trip, could be attending a famadihana. This is when the family turn the bones of a deceased ancestor, removing the remains of their loved one after the person has been dead for seven years. This is a special time for them to communicate with the razana, and celebrations can last for a week or so, before the family wrap the remains of their ancestors in a fresh burial shroud and re-bury them. This exhumation and reburial practice is carried out by the Merina and Betsileo peoples.
Around fifty per cent of the islanders believe that there is one God, that is neither female or male, according to traditional beliefs. Some of Malagasy worship nature spirits, whom they believe inhabit elements of nature, such as trees and rivers. Others have converted to Christianity, and a small amount of people have become Muslims. Even so, they still all respect the traditional rituals.
Food in Madagascar
Madagascar cuisine is influenced by the peoples who have settled there and also the French who colonised the country. So expect a blend of Indonesian, Arab and African, with a dash of French in the mix. Crops such as sugar cane, vanilla, cloves and coffee were brought by French colonisers.
Typically a traditional main meal will include some poultry, meat or fish, along with vegetables as a side dish, served with ro, which is a bowl of rice mixed with leaves and herbs; simple presented but full of flavour.
Some popular Malagasy dishes:
Foza sy hena-kisoa: Stir fried crab and pork, with rice
Ramazava: Pork and beef browned in oil, with herbs and leaves
Vary amid’anana: Some meat, sometimes shrimp also with rice, herbs and leaves
Koba: is a popular snack of rice with seafood and banana
Try the local brew, ranonapango – a burned rice water
Local beers – Gold or Three Horses Beer
Tap water is unsafe, so you need to drink bottled water.
Tips in restaurants should be around 10%. Hotel staff don't expect tips, but you can always break this custom.
Handwoven cloth in Madagascar is an integral part of life. Not only is it elegant for clothing, but lamba, as it is called, is a valuable symbol of the heritage. It is offered to the spirits in exchange for blessings. Lamba is used as a ceremonial gift. It is also offered to rulers.
At marriage, men offer lamba to their brides, which is a time-honoured tradition. When they are being wed, a single cloth encircles the couple as a symbol of their union. Historically lamba has been used in matters of diplomacy. It is given to create or renew alliances. Lamba has been used in international diplomatic relations. The cloth is also used in wraparounds, and can be worn draped around the shoulders or as a sarong. Mothers use lamba to carry their babies in a sling.
Hats are another important aspect of the Malagasy culture. These are made from a variety of plant fibres, using different colours and weaves.
Madagascar UNESCO wood working
The woodworking traditions and knowledge of the Zafimaniry tribe have been designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2008. These people are located in Madagascar's central highlands. However woodworking is to be found throughout the country. Probably the first place wood carving in Madagascar will catch your eye, is on one of the balcony railings, although it does also feature in other architectural elements. Wood sculptors create various household goods and furniture. Wood carving is also used to produce Aloalo funerary posts. Additionally many wooden sculptures are produced for the tourist market.
The Antaimoro people seem to have found a bit of a niche in crafts that appeal to the eco-tourist, such as paper which is embedded with decorative natural materials and/or flowers. This is a long-established tradition of theirs, but also their local artists are painters worth considering, and in fact, there is a continuing growth of fine arts in Madagascar. In Hosotra, there's an annual open-air exhibition. In craft markets, visitors can also find home textiles and tablecloths, which have been fashioned using drawn thread work techniques and embroidery.
Photo: Alfred Payne
Madagascar performing arts
On the island, there's a strong tradition of music, theatre and dance, that stems from the Merina race, and can be traced back to the 18th century. A Merina King, named Andrianampoinimerina, found that using musicians helped him to draw crowds, who were then more likely to stay and listen to his political speeches. These days visitors can enjoy a genre of hiragasy, which is a spectacle of song, dance and music, that lasts all day. It is performed by a troupe, who are typically related to each other, by marriage or blood. Hiragasy is a competition between different troupes, making it an interesting performance.
Photo: Chris Phutully
From sources of knowledge to performance, oral traditions in Madagascar were originally documented by French and British visitors. In the late 19th century, the Tantara ny Andriana eto Madagasikara, was published by a Catholic priest, who had been living in the highlands. He had collected knowledge about the society of highlands. Oral performance genres include public discourse (kabary), proverbs (ohabolana) and poetry (hainteny). The Ibonia, which has come down through the centuries, is an epic poem, offering insights into the beliefs and mythologies of the communities.
Photo: Frank Vassen
"In this unique environment, even time feels skewed, as if the twin processes of evolution and extinction are happening simultaneously....Madagascar leaves you with the sense there is something left to be found." Sophy Roberts, Condé Nast Traveler
Madagascar capital city: Antananarivo
Madagascar's colourful capital is Antananarivo. Granted that there you'll encounter both pollution and heavy traffic, but avoiding the city would be like missing out on a vital part of the island's character and history. Tana, as it is called locally, has been the seat of Malagasy power for over three centuries, and offers some fascinating cultural attractions, such as the Rova of Antananarivo palace, which from the 17th century, was the centre of the Merina kingdom. It is perched on high cliffs, which overlook the city centre. Just outside the palace complex, you'll find Ambohimanga, which is the older sacred capital.
The city is 1400 metres above sea level; giving it a cooler climate, which makes it easier to wander around its steep streets. Discover the beautiful old colonial buildings of the Haute-Ville and treat yourself to a delicious meal, in a restaurant that could have a Michelin star, but doesn't have the prices to match. Tana also has lots of great shops and excellent markets, full of crafts from around the country.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
Lying around 110 miles (150 km) east of Tana, is the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, which covers a protected area of just under 100 miles squared (155 km2). This park can be accessed in three to four hours from the capital, on a paved road.To the south of the Andasibe village, lies one area of the park, popularly known as Périnet, but it's official name is Réserve Spéciale d'Analamazaotra. To the north, you'll find the much larger park, Parc National de Mantadia. They have been divided into two parks, due to human activity, but they both belong to the same humid forest.
If you visit between September and January, you can see hundreds of different orchid species blooming, amongst the moss, lians, ferns, palm and bamboo trees. The park is home to many beautiful birds, fourteen lemur species, coloured chameleons, lizards and frogs. The highlight for visitors is the Indri, who is the largest lemur, with an interesting call that can be heard in the early morning. The local name for Indris is Babakotos, which translates into 'man of the forest' or 'little father'.
Antsirabe thermal springs & rickshaws
Capital of the Vakinankaratra region, Antsirabe is situated in Madagascar's central highlands. In the late 1800s, a health retreat was built here by Norwegian missionaries, making the city known for its thermal springs. Today the facade is still impressive, but inside has seen better days. French colonists also did their bit by making it a chic getaway from the country's capital, Tana, which left it with large French-style tree-lined avenues and turn-of-the-century villas.
Photo: Rod Waddington
Although its colonial past and architecture is fading, Antsirabe is full of life, and colourful rickshaws. There are drink, food and textile factories, which inject an energy into the city. Antsirabe had good sightseeing options, food and the Sabotsy Market, which is an outdoor market where you can buy local produce and clothing.
Ranomafana National Park UNESCO
Ranomafana National Park is one of the six parks that make up the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in the southeastern part of Madagascar, the park comprises of 161 square miles (41,600 hectares) of tropical rainforest. It's name means hot water in Malagasy.
Photo: Frank Vassen
The park is one of the most visited places in Madagascar, due to good access and infrastructure. Amongst the many species to be seen there, are 12 types of lemurs, 130 frog species, 8 species of bats, sifakas, mongoose and much more. It is also home to several types of rare flora.
Isalo National Park
If you're looking for Jurassic Park type scenery then visit Isalo National Park. A rugged massif which seems to rise majestically up from the surrounding grassy plains, dominates the landscape. Founded in 1962, the park is around 700 km southwest from Tana; Ranohira is the closest town. Its best known for its fascinating, diverse terrain, rather than for its wildlife. Deep canyons, sandstone formations, grasslands and bizarre ridges attract keen hikers from all over the world.
Photo: Rod Waddington
Along the streams, there are 14 different nocturnal lemur species, lurking in the dense vegetation. You can also spot sifakas, brown and ring-tailed lemurs, and around 80 different bird species.