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Madagascar - People

Madagascar Ethnic MapThe generic term for the natives of Madagascar is Malagasy. Madagascar's population was about 24,400,000 (July 2016 US Government estimate.) the population is predominantly of mixed Asian and African origin. Research suggests that the island was uninhabited until Indonesian seafarers arrived in roughly the first century AD, probably by way of southern India and East Africa, where they acquired African wives and slaves. Subsequent migrations from both the Pacific and Africa further consolidated this original mixture, and 18 separate tribal groups emerged. Asian features are most predominant in the central highlands people, the Merina (3 million) and the Betsileo (2 million); the coastal people are of more clearly African origin. The largest coastal groups are the Betsimisaraka (1.5 million) and the Tsimihety and Sakalava (700,000 each).

According to one theory, peoples from the Indonesian archipelago migrated along the coast of south Asia, across the Arabian Peninsula into the east coast of Africa and, finally, across the Mozambique Channel into present-day Madagascar. This movement occurred over several generations and, because of the gradual interaction between Asian and African populations, led to the arrival and eventual implantation of a distinct Malagasy people and culture. A second theory emphasizes the diversity of the peoples inhabiting Madagascar. Simply put, proponents argue that the Malagasy resulted from a series of migrations by different peoples over time. According to this theory, migrants from the Indonesian archipelago arrived first and eventually settled in the central highlands, followed by the arrival of African peoples as a result of normal migrational trends and the rise of the slave trade. Recent scholarship has suggested that perhaps the theories are complementary, with greater emphasis being placed on the first.

Scholars traditionally have described Madagascar as being divided into eighteen or twenty ethnic groups, each with its own distinct territory; political developments in the contemporary period are often described in terms of ethnic conflict. Yet ethnicity is potentially misleading in the Malagasy context because it connotes a more or less self-sufficient and unique cultural, socioeconomic, and historically united group that perceives itself as being different from other groups.

The population of Madagascar, however, is remarkably homogeneous in terms of language. Unlike most African countries, the vast majority speak the indigenous national Malagasy language. Moreover, despite significant variations, important cultural elements unify the Malagasy people and give them a "pan-islandic" identity. These include a system of kinship in which descent can be traced through either the paternal or the maternal line. The same kinship terms are used by all Malagasy. A second important element is the centrality of respect for the dead (razana) to the social, moral, and religious life of the people. Tombs and the ceremonies related to them are prominent features of both the Malagasy landscape and the way of life of the people. Other common elements include the circumcision of children, the practice of astrology and divination, and certain concepts associated with authority, such as hasina (sacred, or life-giving, power), which legitimate the position of political and familial authorities.

A third important feature is the division of Malagasy societies into three relatively rigid strata: nobles, commoners, and slaves (or descendants of slaves). Another potentially valuable method of analyzing Malagasy society is to differentiate between the so-called cotiers, or peoples living in coastal areas, and those who live in the central highlands. Indeed, scholars have noted in recent years that the salience of ethnic group identity has declined, while the division between the central highlands peoples and the cotiers continues to be of great importance in understanding social and political competition. Although many observers equate the term central highlander with the Merina ethnic group (once again suggesting the importance of ethnicity), it is important to note that the Betsileo people also live within this region, and the Merina themselves have settled in other regions of the country. Equally important, many cotiers do not live anywhere near the coast. In this sense, the central highlands/ cotier split is best understood as the historical outcome of the domination of the Merina empire, the original center of which was Imerina (around the city of Antananarivo) and was located in the central highlands.

  • Of their three principal tribes, the Hovas are Indonesians, more or less mixed with Malay. They are supposed to be the last wave of the Malay migration, coming about eight centuries ago. They have straight black hair and olive-yellow skin; their eyes are sometimes narrow; their stature is short, their noses prominent and sharp; their head is globular. Agriculture, cattle raising, and trading are their occupations. Their principal food is rice, which is cultivated with the aid of artificial irrigation, recalling the terrace system of the Philippines. Many other customs and arts pointing to their ancestral home are preserved, as the square pile house, bellows, outrigger canoe, musical instruments, dress, taboo, infanticide, ordeal, burial, and the like. The Hovas were until recently the ruling people on the island and were gradually subjecting the other tribes, to which they are much superior in culture. They were divided into nobles, freemen, and slaves. These class distinctions became weaker and the royal and slave classes were finally abolished by the French. They are nominally Protestants in religion. In practice pagan taboos and a system of divination with 16 as the mystic number play a great part. The latter is almost certainly derived from Arabic geomancy. The principal tribes of the Hovas are the Voromahevy, Tsimianboholahy, Tsinahafoty, Mandiavato, Marovatana, and others. The Betsileos living to the south should also be placed with the Hovas.
  • The Betsimisarakas are less pure than the Hovas and are dolichocephalic; they are below the average height and have curly or almost smooth hair and light chestnut complexion. They are rather backward in culture and show influences due to the Arabs who settled in Madagascar about five centuries ago. The principal tribes are the Antambahoaka, Antaimoro, Antaifasina, Antaisaka, Antaisara, Antanosi, Tanala, and Sihanaka. They were conquered by the Hovas early in the nineteenth century.
  • The Sakalavas are dark, long-headed, and of high stature; their hair is frizzly, their lips thick, and their noses flat. Most strongly of all the Madagascar tribes they show the negro element. The best-known tribes are the Menabe, Milaka, Ronondra, and Mahafali.

The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally spoken throughout the island, with significant regional variations. French is spoken among the educated population of this former French colony. English 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. In 2010, however, the de facto government introduced measures that would limit the use and teaching of English.

The Malagasy people have many unique traditions and customs, starting with very strong family bonds. Children usually live with their parents until they want to get married. The engagement or “Fanateram-bodiondry” is a ceremony conducted in the presence of relatives and friends from both sides. During the celebration, the groom-to-be offers a gift to the parents of the future bride, in honor and appreciation of having raised an exemplary daughter. Some families have adopted the western custom of having the groom offer the bride-to-be an engagement ring during the Fanateram-bodiondry. Until the 20th century, the Fanateram-bodiondry was the actual wedding ceremony. More recently however, there came to be an engagement, and a separate wedding day.

Circumcision (Famoràna) is another interesting Malagasy tradition. When a boy is about to be circumcised, all close relatives and friends gather for a feast, and people party all night. At dawn, the child is taken to a hospital to be circumcised. When he returns home, he is offered toys, money, chocolates, and lots of candy. In some cases, especially in rural areas, a traditional practitioner performs the circumcision at home, and the symbolisms in the ceremony and celebrations are more elaborate. In the East coast of Madagascar, in Mananjary, a collective circumcision ritual is celebrated every seven years by the Antambahoaka people. The last such “Sambatra” took place during October 2007.

Several cultural and traditional practices resulted in the sexual exploitation of young women and girls. For example, in some remote areas, the traditional practice of “Tsenan’ampela” (girl markets) continued. Starting at age 13, girls go to cattle markets, where they try to attract cattle owners and negotiate a price for a “marriage,” which can last for a night or the duration of the market (from Friday to Monday), according to the UN special rapporteur’s 2013 report. Such girls generally were paid up to 10,000 ariary ($3) a night and returned home after the market.

Madagascar has a regular plague season. The bubonic plague is deadly, the pneumonic plague deadlier. In 2013 Madagascar was suffering from both. Bubonic plague struck in the northwestern town of Madritsara. Originally 20 were thought to have died from the disease, which results when fleas that feed on infected rodents - often black rats - bite humans, but the number kept rising. More villagers died of pneumonic plague, which, like the bubonic variety, can be caused by the bite of an infected flea, though pneumonic plague can also spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Of the two, bubonic plague is more common though less virulent.

While malaria cases and deaths reported through the national health management information system declined between 2003 and 2012, malaria remains a major health problem in Madagascar. Severe malaria is among the top five causes of reported overall mortality. Malaria epidemiology varies considerably in different regions of the country; however, the entire population is considered to be at risk for the disease. The revised national strategic plan has organized the country into two malaria operational zones based on changes in transmission dynamics, local epidemiology, and level of coverage of malaria interventions: the high transmission zone, including the East Coast and West Coast, and the low transmission zone including the South and the Central Highlands. The majority of cases are caused by Plasmodium falciparum. The cyclone season, extending from December to April, often results in flooding and increased risk of communicable diseases and malaria, compounded by the loss of insecticide-treated nets (ITNs).

The country is among the most food insecure nations and many of its citizens suffer from malnutrition and infectious disease. This contributes to Madagascar being among the world’s poorest countries. In 2006, its human development index rank was 149 out of 177 nations and of the 18+ million Malagasy people in 2006, the World Bank estimated that approximately 70% lived on less than $1 a day [12, 13]. Poverty levels increased after the 1970s as per capita income decreased (estimated in 2005 at US$290), a trend which now seems to be reversing. The country is mainly (75%-80%) rural and a number of rural citizens depend solely upon local natural resources to meet their basic daily needs for food, water, shelter, etc. Expectedly, poverty levels in rural areas are higher than the national average and a considerable proportion of the rural poor qualify as extremely poor.

The poorest of the poor in rural areas are also the least educated and have the poorest health status. They experience high maternal mortality (estimated at approximately 500 per 100,000 live births) associated with high fertility and high infant and child mortality. These result from poor hygiene, household crowding, poor nutrition, infectious disease and large family sizes. They frequently live in inaccessible areas, distant from reliable transportation, economic markets and social services (85% of the Malagasy population live 5 Km+ or more than one hour’s walk from a basic health facility).

The establishment in 1990 of a national population policy officially recognizing the benefits of FP and the need for expanded Family Planning activities. Madagascar is still in the early stages of its demographic transition. Mortality and fertility rates are dropping but the former is dropping more quickly than the latter. Therefore, the country is experiencing a high rate of natural population growth (national estimate in 2006 was 3.3%), particularly in rural areas. Data from a 2003/4 national demographic and health survey (DHS) indicate that, on average, a woman in rural Madagascar will have almost 6 children over her reproductive lifetime.

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Page last modified: 12-10-2016 19:48:39 ZULU