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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
By contrast with what happened in much of continental Africa, humans did not reach Madagascar until the seventh century A.D., when sailors from Southeast Asia, as well as Arab and Bantu traders, landed and settled the island. Until the 17th century, its existence was unknown to Europeans. In the 200 years between its “discovery” and its colonization by the French, in 1896, Madagascar underwent many changes that are responsible for the culture visitors can observe today. Between 1750 and 1800, the island’s tribes were united under one monarchy, Antananarivo was established as the capital, and the kings Andrianampoinimerina and Radama I introduced a number of modernizing measures, including codified laws, new rice farming technology, and the abolition of the slave trade.
Since gaining independence from France in 1960 as part of that country’s decolonization process, the Malagasy have actively tried to return t
o their traditional culture, with mixed results: many urbanites shun traditional legends and mythology, and French remains the language of business and of the state. Still, Malagasy is spoken in day-to-day life by 98 percent of the population, and the people of Madagascar are known for their patriotism. After achieving independence, the country was ruled by a series of dictators until 1972, when it democratized. In 2009 the democratically elected president Marc Ravalomanana was ousted in a coup by the military and the opposition party. It is difficult to tell what the long-term consequences will be, although protests are still an occasional occurrence in Antananarivo.
The Top 5: Local Advice
1. Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar, as well as the term for the people who call the country their home. French is also used extensively, for example on public signs and in restaurants. In urban areas, English is widely spoken.
2. Madagascar switched its currency from the Malagasy franc to the ariary in 2006. Old Malagasy francs can still be used, although you won’t see many in the major cities. Ariary can be withdrawn from ATMs in the cities via Visa or MasterCard. Do not rely on credit cards and traveler’s checks; most merchants accept only cash.
3. Tap water is not safe to drink, but if you are in a rural area and run out of bottled water, see whether you can purchase ranomapango , or “rice water.” That is water that has been used for cooking rice and will have been boiled. It is cheap and safer than water in bottles, which rural vendors sometimes fill with tap water.
4. Internet cafés are easy to find in Antananarivo, the capital city, and public Internet access is available in most other cities. Although FM radio and the Internet have allowed a somewhat substantial independent press to form, all the major newspapers and television stations are owned by the state. There are no English-language newspapers; La Gazette de la Grande Île is published in French.
5. Madagascar’s rain forests and wildlife are among its primary attractions. Whether you want to hike, raft, bike, or drive through the country’s stunning reserves and natural parks, it’s best to do so with a guide. The most reliable ones can be booked through travel agencies that cater to Westerners and are well worth the higher price. A list of agencies that specialize in outdoor travel in Madagascar can be found at Eco Tour Directory