Madagascar, or Republic of Madagascar (older name Malagasy Republic, French: République malgache), is an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa. The main island, also called Madagascar, is the fourth-largest island in the world.
Most archaeologists believe Madagascar was first inhabited sometime 500-200 AD, by Austronesian peoples arriving on outrigger canoes from Borneo and Sulawesi in the Indonesian archipelago. Soon afterwards, Bantu migrants crossed the Mozambique Channel and the population of the island began to mix. Later Arab and East African migrants were added to the mix. Madagascar was ruled by the local Merina kingdom in the 19th century and was part of the French colonial empire from 1890 to 1960, when the current Republic of Madagascar became independent.
Malagasy, the local language spoken by the majority of the population, is an Austronesian language and one of the official languages. The other official languages are French, official since independence, and English, official since 2007.
The main religions are Malagasy mythology and Christianity but there also minorities of other religions, most significantly Islam.
Madagascar is home to 5% of the world's plant and animal species, of which more than 80% are endemic to Madagascar. They include the lemur infraorder of primates, the carnivorous fossa, three bird families and six baobab species.
As part of East Gondwana, the territory of Madagascar split from Africa approximately 160 million years ago; the island of Madagascar was created when it separated from the Indian subcontinent 80 to 100 million years ago. Malagasy mythology portrays a group of African pygmy like people called the Vazimba as the original inhabitants of Madagascar, however most archaeologists estimate that the human settlement of Madagascar happened between 200 and 500 A.D., when seafarers from southeast Asia (probably from Borneo or the southern Celebes) arrived in outrigger sailing canoes. Bantu settlers probably crossed the Mozambique Channel to Madagascar at about the same time or shortly afterwards. However, Malagasy tradition and ethnographic evidence suggests that they may have been preceded by the Mikea hunter gatherers. The Anteimoro who established a kingdom in Southern Madagascar in the Middle Ages trace their origin to migrants from Somalia.
The written history of Madagascar begins in the 7th century, when Arabs and East Africans established trading posts along the northwest coast. During the Middle Ages, the island's kings began to extend their power through trade with their Indian Ocean neighbours, notably Arab, Persian and Somali traders who connected Madagascar with East Africa, the Middle East and India.
Large chiefdoms began to dominate considerable areas of the island. Among these were the Sakalava chiefdoms of the Menabe, centred in what is now the town of Morondava, and of Boina, centred in what is now the provincial capital of Mahajanga (Majunga). The influence of the Sakalava extended across what are now the provinces of Antsiranana, Mahajanga and Toliara. Madagascar served as an important transoceanic trading port for the east African coast that gave Africa a trade route to the Silk Road, and served simultaneously as a port for incoming ships.
The wealth created in Madagascar through trade created a state system ruled by powerful regional monarchs known as the Maroserana. These monarchs adopted the cultural traditions of subjects in their territories and expanded their kingdoms. They took on divine status, and new nobility and artisan classes were created. Madagascar functioned in the East African Middle Ages as a contact port for the other Swahili seaport city-states such as Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa and Zanzibar.
European contact began in the year 1500, when the Portuguese sea captain Diogo Dias sighted the island after his ship separated from a fleet going to India. The Portuguese continued trading with the islanders and named the island São Lourenço (St. Lawrence). In 1666, François Caron, the Director General of the newly formed French East India Company, sailed to Madagascar. The Company failed to establish a colony on Madagascar but established ports on the nearby islands of Bourbon and Ile-de-France (today's Réunion and Mauritius). In the late 17th century, the French established trading posts along the east coast.
The most famous pirate utopia is that of Captain Misson and his pirate crew, who allegedly founded the free colony of Libertalia in northern Madagascar in the late 17th century. From about 1774 to 1824, Madagascar was a favorite haunt for pirates, including Americans, one of whom brought Malagasy rice to South Carolina. Many European sailors were shipwrecked on the coasts of the island, among them Robert Drury, whose journal is one of the few written depictions of life in southern Madagascar during the 18th century. Sailors sometimes called Madagascar "Island of the Moon".
Beginning in the 1790s, Merina rulers succeeded in establishing hegemony over most of the island, including the coast. In 1817, the Merina ruler and the British governor of Mauritius concluded a treaty abolishing the slave trade, which had been important in Madagascar's economy. In return, the island received British military and financial assistance. British influence remained strong for several decades, during which the Merina court was converted to Presbyterianism, Congregationalism and Anglicanism.
With the domination of the Indian Ocean by the Royal Navy and the end of the Arab slave trade, the western Sakalava lost their power to the emerging Merina state. The Betsimisaraka of the east coast also unified, but this union soon faltered.
Queen Ranavalona I (r. 1828–61) issued a royal edict prohibiting the practice of Christianity in Madagascar. By some estimates, 150,000 Christians died during the reign of Ranavalona. The island grew more isolated, and commerce with other nations came to a standstill.
France invaded Madagascar in 1883, in what became known as the first Franco-Hova War seeking to restore property that had been confiscated from French citizens. (Hova is one of three Merina classes: andriana – aristocracy, hova – common people, andevo – slaves. The term hova was wrongly used by the French to mean Merina.) At the war's end, Madagascar ceded Antsiranana (Diego Suarez) on the northern coast to France and paid 560,000 francs to the heirs of Joseph-François Lambert. In 1890, the British accepted the full formal imposition of a French protectorate.
In 1895, a French flying column landed in Mahajanga (Majunga) and marched to the capital, Antananarivo, where the city's defenders quickly surrendered. Twenty French soldiers died fighting and 6,000 died of malaria and other diseases before the second Franco-Hova War ended.
After the conclusion of hostilities, in 1896 France annexed Madagascar. The 103-year-old Merina monarchy ended with the royal family being sent into exile in Algeria.
During World War II, Malagasy troops fought in France, Morocco, and Syria. Some leaders in Nazi Germany proposed deporting all of Europe's Jews to Madagascar (the Madagascar Plan), but nothing came of this. After France fell to Germany, the Vichy government administered Madagascar. During the Battle of Madagascar, British troops occupied the island in 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese, after which the Free French took over.
In 1947, with French prestige at low ebb, the Malagasy Uprising broke out. It was suppressed after over a year of bitter fighting, with 8,000 to 90,000 people killed. The French later established reformed institutions in 1956 under the Loi Cadre (Overseas Reform Act), and Madagascar moved peacefully towards independence. The Malagasy Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1958, as an autonomous state within the French Community. A period of provisional government ended with the adoption of a constitution in 1959 and full independence on June 26, 1960.
Although the present head of State is self-proclaimed, Madagascar is usually a semi-presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the Prime Minister of Madagascar is head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Senate and the National Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
The political situation in Madagascar has been marked by struggle for control. After Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, assassinations, military coups and disputed elections featured prominently.
Didier Ratsiraka took power in a military coup in 1975 and ruled until 2001, with a short break when he was ousted in the early 1990s. When Marc Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka both claimed victory after presidential elections in December 2001, Ratsiraka's supporters tried to blockade the capital, Antananarivo, which was pro-Ravalomanana. After eight months of sporadic violence with considerable economic disruption, a recount in April 2002 led the High Constitutional Court to pronounce Ravalomanana president, but it was not until July that Ratsiraka fled to France and Ravalomanana gained control of the country.
Internal conflict in Madagascar had been minimal in the years that followed and since 2002, Ravalomanana and his party, Tiako-I-Madagasikara (TIM), have dominated political life. In an attempt to restrict the power and influence of the president, the prime minister and the 150-seat parliament have been given greater power in recent years.
Tension since was generally associated with elections. A presidential election took place in December 2006 with some protests over worsening standards of living, despite a government drive to eradicate poverty. Calls by a retired army general in November 2006 for Ravalomanana to step down were said to have been 'misinterpreted' as a coup attempt.
2009 Malagasy Protests
The latest, and ongoing, spate of violence pitted then-President Marc Ravalomanana against Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo. Since the power tussle started on 26 January, more than 170 people were killed. Rajoelina mobilized his supporters to take to the streets of Antananarivo to demand Ravalomanana's ousting on the grounds of his alleged "autocratic" style of government.
After losing support of the military and under intense pressure from Rajoelina, President Ravalomanana resigned on 17 March 2009. Ravalomanana assigned his powers to a military council loyal to himself headed by Vice-Admiral Hyppolite Ramaroson. The military called the move by Ravalomanana a "ploy" and said that it would support Rajoelina as leader. Rajoelina had already declared himself the new leader a month earlier and has since assumed the role of acting President. He has appointed Monja Roindefo as Prime Minister. Rajoelina announced that elections would be held in two years and that the constitution would be amended.
The European Union, amongst other international entities, has refused to recognize the new government, due to it being installed by force. The African Union, which proceeded to suspend Madagascar's membership on 20 March  and the Southern Africa Development Community both criticized the forced resignation of Ravalomanana. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said he is "gravely concerned about the evolving developments in Madagascar".
Provinces and Regions
Madagascar was divided into six autonomous provinces (faritany mizakatena), and subdivided into 22 regions (faritra), the latter created in 2004. The regions became the highest subdivision level when the provinces were dissolved in accordance with the results of the 4 April 2007 referendum, which means by 4 October 2009.
The regions are further subdivided into 116 districts, 1,548 communes, and 16,969 fokontany. The major cities have a special status as "commune urbaine", at the same level as the districts.
At 587,000 square kilometres (227,000 sq mi), Madagascar is the world's 46th-largest country and the fourth-largest island. It is slightly larger than France, and is one of 11 distinct physiographic provinces of the South African Platform physiographic division.
Towards the east, a steep escarpment leads from the Central Highlands down into a ribbon of rain forest with a narrow coastal further east. The Canal des Pangalanes is a chain of natural and man-made lakes connected by canals that runs parallel to the east coast for some 460 km (286 mi) (about two-thirds of the island). The descent from the central highlands toward the west is more gradual, with remnants of deciduous forest and savanna-like plains (which in the south and southwest, are quite dry and host spiny desert and baobabs). On the west coast are many protected harbours, but silting is a major problem caused by sediment from the high levels of erosion inland.
Along the crest of this ridge lie the central highlands, a plateau region ranging in altitude from 2,450 to 4,400 ft (747 to 1,341 m) above sea level. The central highlands are characterised by terraced, rice-growing valleys lying between barren hills. Here, the red laterite soil that covers much of the island has been exposed by erosion, showing clearly why the country is often referred to as the "Red Island".
The island's highest peak, Maromokotro, at 2,876 metres (9,436 ft), is found in the Tsaratanana Massif, located in the far north of the country. The Ankaratra Massif is in the central area south of the capital Antananarivo and hosts the third highest mountain on the island, Tsiafajavona, with an altitude of 2,642 metres (8,668 ft). Further south is the Andringitra massif which has several peaks over 2,400 metres (7,900 ft) including the second and fourth highest peaks, Pic Imarivolanitra, more widely known as Pic Boby (2,658 metres / 8,720 feet), and Pic Bory (2,630 metres / 8,630 feet). Other peaks in the massif include Pic Soaindra (2,620 metres / 8,600 feet) and Pic Ivangomena (2,556 metres / 8,386 feet). This massif also contains the Andringitra Reserve. On very rare occasions, this region experiences snow in winter due to its high altitude.
There are two seasons: a hot, rainy season from November to April, and a cooler, dry season from May to October. South-eastern trade winds predominate, and the island occasionally experiences cyclones.
Madagascar's long isolation from the neighboring continents has resulted in a unique mix of plants and animals, many found nowhere else in the world; some ecologists refer to Madagascar as the "eighth continent". Of the 10,000 plants native to Madagascar, 90% are found nowhere else in the world. Madagascar's varied fauna and flora are endangered by human activity, as a third of its native vegetation has disappeared since the 1970s, and only 18% remains intact. Since the arrival of humans 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost more than 90% of its original forest. The elephant birds, which were giant ratites native to Madagascar, have been extinct since at least the 17th century. Aepyornis was the world's largest bird, believed to have been over 3 metres (10 ft) tall.
Most lemurs are listed as endangered or threatened species. Many species have gone extinct in the last centuries, mainly due to habitat destruction and hunting.
The eastern, or windward side of the island is home to tropical rainforests, while the western and southern sides, which lie in the rain shadow of the central highlands, are home to tropical dry forests, thorn forests, and deserts and xeric shrublands. Madagascar's dry deciduous rain forest has been preserved generally better than the eastern rainforests or the high central plateau, presumably due to historically low population densities. Madagascar has several national parks.
Indri sitting on a tree branch resting, with head placed on its knee
The Indri is 1 of 99 recognized species and subspecies of lemur found only in Madagascar.
Extensive deforestation has taken place in parts of the country, some due to mining operations. Slash-and-burn activity, locally called tavy, has occurred in the eastern and western dry forests as well as on the central high plateau, reducing certain forest habitat and applying pressure to some endangered species. Slash-and-burn is a method sometimes used by shifting cultivators to create short-term yields from marginal soils. When practiced repeatedly without intervening fallow periods, the nutrient-poor soils may be exhausted or eroded to an unproductive state. The resulting increased surface runoff from burned lands has caused significant erosion and resulting high sedimentation to western rivers.
According to a New York Times article, local timber barons are harvesting scarce species of rosewood trees and exporting the wood to China. The wood is used to make furniture and musical instruments. Some of the wood is being removed from national parks in Madagascar according to the press reports.
As a part of conservation efforts, the Wildlife Conservation Society has recently opened a Madagascar! exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. The New York Academy of Sciences recently published a Podcast about the Madagascar! exhibit, which details the fauna and flora of Madagascar and what types of projects the WCS is involved with in the country. The Podcast can be listened to here
Madagascar is represented in the FIPS 10-4 geographical encoding standard by the symbol MA.
Agriculture, including fishing and forestry, is a mainstay of the economy. Major exports are coffee, vanilla (Madagascar is the world's largest producer and exporter of vanilla), sugarcane, cloves, cocoa, rice, cassava (tapioca), beans, bananas, peanuts and livestock products. Vanilla has historically been of particular importance, and when in 1985 Coca-cola switched to New Coke which involved less vanilla, Madagascar's economy took a marked downturn, but returned to previous levels after the return of Coke Classic.
Structural reforms began in the late 1980s, initially under pressure from international financial institutions, notably the World Bank. An initial privatization program (1988–1993) and the development of an export processing zone (EPZ) regime in the early 1990s were key milestones in this effort. A period of significant stagnation from 1991 to 1996 was followed by five years of solid economic growth and accelerating foreign investment, driven by a second wave of privatizations and EPZ development. Although structural reforms advanced, governance remained weak and perceived corruption in Madagascar was extremely high. During the period of solid growth from 1997 to 2001, poverty levels remained stubbornly high, especially in rural areas. A six-month political crisis triggered by a dispute over the outcome of the presidential elections held in December 2001 virtually halted economic activity in much of the country in the first half of 2002. Real GDP dropped 12.7% for the year 2002, inflows of foreign investment dropped sharply, and the crisis tarnished Madagascar's budding reputation as an AGOA standout and a promising place to invest. After the crisis, the economy rebounded with GDP growth of over 10% in 2003. Currency depreciation and rising inflation in 2004 have hampered economic performance, but growth for the year reached 5.3%, with inflation reaching around 25% at the end of the year. In 2005 inflation was brought under control by tight monetary policy of raising the Taux Directeur (central bank rate) to 16% and tightening reserve requirements for banks. Thus growth was expected to reach around 6.5% in 2005.
Following the 2002 political crisis, the government attempted to set a new course and build confidence, in coordination with international financial institutions and donors. Madagascar developed a recovery plan in collaboration with the private sector and donors and presented it at a "Friends of Madagascar" conference organized by the World Bank in Paris in July 2002. Donor countries demonstrated their confidence in the new government by pledging $1 billion in assistance over five years. The Malagasy Government identified road infrastructure as its principle priority and underlined its commitment to public-private partnership by establishing a joint public-private sector steering committee.
In 2000, Madagascar embarked on the preparation of a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The boards of the IMF and World Bank agreed in December 2000 that the country had reached the decision point for debt relief under the HIPC Initiative and defined a set of conditions for Madagascar to reach the completion point. In October 2004, the boards of the IMF and the World Bank determined that Madagascar had reached the completion point under the enhanced HIPC Initiative.
The Madagascar-U.S. Business Council was formed as a collaboration between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Malagasian artisan producers in Madagascar in 2002. The U.S.-Madagascar Business Council was formed in the United States in May 2003, and the two organisations continue to explore ways to work for the benefit of both groups.
The government of President Ravalomanana is aggressively seeking foreign investment and is tackling many of the obstacles to such investment, including combating corruption, reforming land-ownership laws, encouraging study of American and European business techniques, and active pursuit of foreign investors. President Ravalomanana rose to prominence through his agro-foods TIKO company, and is known for attempting to apply many of the lessons learned in the world of business to running the government. Some recent concerns have arisen about the conflict of interest between his policies and the activities of his firms. Most notable among them the preferential treatment for rice imports initiated by the government in late 2004 when responding to a production shortfall in the country.
Madagascar's sources of growth are tourism; textile and light manufacturing exports (notably through the EPZs); agricultural products; and mining. Madagascar is the world's leading producer of vanilla and accounts for about half the world's export market. Tourism targets the niche eco-tourism market, capitalizing on Madagascar's unique biodiversity, unspoiled natural habitats, national parks and lemur species. Exports from the EPZs, located around Antananarivo and Antsirabe, comprise the majority of garment manufacture, targeting the US market under AGOA and the European markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement. Agricultural exports consist of low-volume high-value products like vanilla, lychees and essential oils. A small but growing part of the economy is based on mining of ilmenite, with investments emerging in recent years, particularly near Tulear and Fort Dauphin. Mining corporation Rio Tinto Group expects to begin operations near Fort Dauphin in 2008, following several years of infrastructure preparation. The mining project is highly controversial, with Friends of the Earth and other environmental organizations filing reports to detail their concerns about effects on the local environment and communities.
Several major projects are underway in the mining and oil and gas sectors that, if successful, will give a significant boost to the Malagasy economy.
In the mining sector, these include the development of coal at Sakoa and nickel near Tamatave. In oil, Madagascar Oil is developing the massive onshore heavy oil field at Tsimiroro and ultra heavy oil field at Bemolanga.
Madagascar was historically perceived as being on the margin of mainstream African affairs despite being a founding member of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was founded in 1963. President Albert Zafy, taking office in 1993, expressed his desire for diplomatic relations with all countries. Early in his tenure, he established formal ties with South Korea and sent emissaries to Morocco.
Starting in 1997, globalisation encouraged the government and President Ratsiraka to adhere to market-oriented policies and to engage world markets. External relations reflect this trend, although Madagascar's physical isolation and strong traditional insular orientation have limited its activity in regional economic organizations and relations with its East African neighbours. It enjoys closer and generally good relations with its Indian Ocean neighbours – Mauritius, Réunion and Comoros. Active relationships with Europe, especially France, Germany, and Switzerland, as well as with Britain, Russia, Japan, India and China have been strong since independence. More recently, President Ravalomanana has cultivated strong links with the United States, and Madagascar was the first country to benefit from the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). Madagascar is also a member of the International Criminal Court with a Bilateral Immunity Agreement of protection for the US-military (as covered under Article 98).
The OAU dissolved in 2002 and was replaced by the African Union. Madagascar was not permitted to attend the first African Union summit due to the dispute over the results of the election in December 2001, but rejoined the African Union in July 2003 after a 14-month hiatus triggered by the 2002 political crisis. However, Madagascar was suspended again by the African Union in March 2009 due to the ongoing political crisis.
During his presidency, Marc Ravalomanana traveled widely promoting Madagascar abroad and consciously sought to strengthen relations with Anglophone countries as a means of balancing traditionally strong French influence. He also cultivated strong ties with China during his tenure.
In November 2004, after an absence of almost 30 years, Madagascar re-opened its embassy in London. On 15 December 2004 the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced the closure of the British embassy in Antananarivo to save £250,000 a year. He also announced an end to the government's aid to Madagascar, the DFID-funded Small Grants Scheme. The embassy closed in August 2005 despite petitions and protests from African heads of state, a European commissioner, the Malagasy Senate, many British companies, 30 or so NGOs operating in Madagascar, and members of the public.
The British Embassy was previously closed (also for financial reasons) from 1975 to 1980. The Anglo-Malagasy Society are campaigning to have it re-opened.
Madagascar's population is predominantly of mixed Austronesian (i.e. South-East Asian/Pacific Islander) and African origin. Those who are visibly Austronesian in appearance and culture are the minority, found mostly in the highland regions. Recent research suggests that the island was uninhabited until Austronesian seafarers arrived about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. Recent DNA research shows that the Malagasy people are approximately of half Austronesian and half East African descent, although some Arab, Indian and European influence is present along the coast. Malagasy language shares some 90% of its basic vocabulary with the Ma'anyan language from the region of the Barito River in southern Borneo.
Subsequent migrations from the East Indies and Africa consolidated this original mixture, and 36 separate tribal groups emerged. Austronesian features are most predominant in the Merina (3 million); the coastal people (called côtiers) are of more clearly African origin. The largest coastal groups are the Betsimisaraka (1.5 million) and the Tsimihety and Sakalava (700,000 each). The Vezo live in the southwest. Two of the southern tribes are the Antandroy and the Antanosy. Other tribes include Tankarana (northern tip), Sihanaka and Bezanozano (east), Tanala (south-east), An-Taimoro, Tambahoaka, Zafisoro, An-Taisaka and Timanambondro (south-east coast), and Mahafaly and Bara (south-west). Chinese and Indian minorities also exist, as well as Europeans, mostly French. In 1958, there were 68,430 European settlers living in Madagascar. The number of Comorans residing in Madagascar was drastically reduced after anti-Comoran rioting in Mahajanga in 1976.
During the French colonial administration (1895–1960) and some time after independence, people were officially classified in ethnic groups. This practice was abandoned in the first census (1975) after independence, so any recent classification and figures for ethnic groups is an unofficial estimate. There is for instance no mention of ethnicity or religion in the national identity cards. Also, territorial divisions (provinces, regions) do not follow any ethnic division lines, despite an attempt by the colonial administration in the early 20th century. Ethnic divisions continue, and may cause violence, but their role is limited in today's society. Ethnic tensions in Madagascar often produce violent conflict between the Merina highlanders and coastal peoples. Regional political parties are also rare, although some parties receive most of their support in certain areas.
The population has grown from 2.2 million in 1900 to 7.6 million in 1975. Slavery was abolished in 1896, but many of the 500,000 liberated slaves remained in their former master's homes as servants.
Only two general censuses, 1975 and 1993, have been carried out after independence.
In 1993 (last census) there were 18,497 foreign residents on Madagascar, or 0.15% of the population.
The fertility rate is at about 5 children per woman. There are about 29 physicians per 100,000 persons. Infant mortality was at 74 per 1,000 live births in 2005. Life expectancy at birth was at 58.4 in the early 21st century. Expenditure on health was 29 US$ (PPP) in 2004. Two-thirds of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.
A significant proportion of the adult population is illiterate. The female youth literacy rate is below the male youth literacy rate. Public expenditure on education was at 16.4 % of total government expenditure in the 2000-2007 period. Public current expenditure on primary education per pupil is at about US$ 57 (PPP). Madagascar has several universities.
The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally spoken throughout the island. Madagascar is a francophone country, and French is spoken among the educated population of this former French colony. English, although still rare, is becoming more widely spoken, and in 2003, the government began a pilot project of introducing the teaching of English into the primary grades of 44 schools, with hopes of taking the project nationwide. Many Peace Corps volunteers are serving to further this effort and train teachers.
In the first Constitution of 1958, Malagasy and French were named the official languages of the Malagasy Republic.
No official languages were recorded in the Constitution of 1992. Instead, Malagasy was named the national language; however, many sources still claimed that Malagasy and French were official languages, as they were de facto. In April 2000, a citizen brought a legal case on the grounds that the publication of official documents in the French language only was unconstitutional. The High Constitutional Court observed in its decision that, in the absence of a language law, French still had the character of an official language.
In the Constitution of 2007, Malagasy remains the national language while official languages are reintroduced: Malagasy, French, and English. The motivation for the inclusion of English is partly to improve relations with the neighbouring countries where English is used and to encourage foreign direct investment.
Malagasy culture reflects a blend of Southeast Asian, Arab, African and European influences.
Houses in Madagascar are typically four-sided with a peaked roof, in a style commonly seen in Southeast Asia, rather than the circular style of hut construction more commonly found in Eastern Africa. Malagasy architecture varies widely from region to region dependent on locally available materials and practical needs.
Rice forms the basis of every meal in most parts of the country as in Asia. The dishes prepared to accompany the rice vary depending on local availability of food products and are known as laoka.
Madagascar has a distinctive and rich musical heritage. The early Austronesian settlers brought with them the predecessor to the bamboo tube zither known as the valiha as well as other instruments that would form the basis for traditional Malagasy music. The influence of Africans is evident in certain drumming and polyharmonic singing styles, while the tendency toward minor chords along the coasts reflects an Arab musical influence. European pirates likewise contributed to Malagasy musical traditions, importing the guitar, accordion, piano and the instruments used in hiragasy performance including the violin, trumpet and clarinet.
The country has a rich oratory tradition in the form of hainteny, kabary and ohabolana. An epic poem, the Ibonia, has been handed down over the centuries in several different forms across the island and showcases the lively and highly developed oral traditions of Madagascar.
The zebu, or humped cattle, occupies an important place in traditional Malagasy culture. The animal can take on sacred importance and constitutes the wealth of the owner, a tradition originating on the African mainland. Cattle rustling, originally a rite of passage for young men in the plains areas of Madagascar where the largest herds of cattle are kept, has become a dangerous and sometimes deadly criminal enterprise as herdsmen in the Southwest attempt to defend their cattle with traditional spears against increasingly armed professional rustlers. Where African influences are strongest, as in the Southern region around Tulear, wealth and social status are measured in cattle, and the zebu can outnumber the inhabitants by two or three to one. Zebu are a popular motif on aloalo, the carved wooden poles that decorate tombs among some tribes in the southwestern part of the country.
Andrianampoinimerina (circa 1745–1810) united the Merina kingdom, moving his capital from Ambohimanga to Antananarivo and building his royal palace, or rova, on a strategic location on the highest hilltop overlooking the city. A number of cultural traditions, including the kabary and the hiragasy, were popularized during the period of his administration.
Arab immigrants were few in number compared to the Indonesians and Bantus, but they left a lasting impression. The Malagasy names for seasons, months, days, and coins are Arabic in origin, as is the practice of circumcision, the communal grain pool, and different forms of salutation. The Arab magicians, known as the ombiasy, established themselves in the courts of many Malagasy tribal kingdoms and introduced the first written form of Malagasy using Arabic script, called sorabe. Arab immigrants imposed the patriarchal system of family and clan rule on Madagascar. Previous to the Arabs, the Malagasy practiced the Polynesian matriarchal system whereby rights of privilege and property are conferred equally on men and women.
Approximately 50% of the country's population practice traditional religion, which tends to emphasize links between the living and the dead. The Merina in the highlands particularly tend to hold tightly to this practice. They believe that the dead join their ancestors in the ranks of divinity and that ancestors are intensely concerned with the fate of their living descendants. The Merina and Betsileo reburial practice of famadihana, or "turning over the dead", celebrates this spiritual communion. In this ritual, relatives' remains are removed from the family tomb, rewrapped in new silk shrouds, and returned to the tomb following festive ceremonies in their honor where sometimes the bodies are lifted and carried high above the celebrants heads with singing and dancing before returning them to the tomb.
Traditionally, the Malagasy hold their ancestors in high esteem and many believe they continue to intervene in events on Earth after their death. A powerful individual may establish a fady (taboo) in his or her lifetime that all their descendents or those of community members will be required to respect well after their death, meaning that when traveling in Madagascar it is advisable to seek out village elders or authorities and inquire into local fady in order not to inadvertently transgress and offend the local population. This veneration of ancestors has also led to the tradition of tomb building and the famadihana, a practice whereby a deceased family member's remains may be taken from the tomb to be periodically re-wrapped in fresh silk shrouds known as lamba before being replaced in the tomb. The event is an occasion to celebrate the loved one's memory, reunite with family and community, and enjoy a festive atmosphere. Residents of surrounding villages are often invited to attend the party, where food and rum are often served and a hiragasy troupe or other musical entertainment is typically present.
Today about 45% of the Malagasy are Christian, divided almost evenly between Catholics and Protestants. Many incorporate the cult of the dead with their other religious beliefs and bless their dead at church before proceeding with the traditional burial rites. They also may invite a Christian minister to attend a famadihana. Many of the Christian churches are influential in politics. The best example of this is the Malagasy Council of Churches (FFKM) comprising the four oldest and most prominent Christian denominations—(Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar, Lutheran, and Anglican). In the 19th century under Queen Ranavalona I, there was infamous persecution and mass extermination of Christians.
Islam in Madagascar constitutes 10 to 15 percent of the population. The Arab and Somali Muslim traders who first brought Islam in the Middle Ages had a deep influence on the west coast. For example, many Malagasy converted to Islam and the Malagasy language was, for the first time, transcribed into an alphabet, based on the Arabic alphabet, called Sorabe. Muslims are concentrated in the provinces of Mahajanga and Antsiranana (Diego Suarez). Muslims are divided between those of Malagasy ethnicity, Indians, Pakistanis and Comorians.
Hinduism in Madagascar began with Gujarati from the Saurashtra region of India as far back as 1900, when Madagascar was a French colony. Most Hindus in Madagascar speak Gujarati or Hindi.
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