The people of Madagascar

18,040,341 (July 2005 est.)
Age structure:
0-14 years: 44.8% (male 4,051,832/female 4,038,837)
15-64 years: 52.1% (male 4,657,346/female 4,745,971)
65 years and over: 3% (male 247,146/female 299,209) (2005 est.)
Median age:
total: 17.46 years
male: 17.24 years
female: 17.67 years (2005 est.)
Population growth rate:
3.03% (2005 est.)
Birth rate:
41.66 births/1,000 population (2005 est.)
Death rate:
11.35 deaths/1,000 population (2005 est.)
Net migration rate:
0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2005 est.)
Sex ratio:
at birth: 1.03 male(s)/female
under 15 years: 1 male(s)/female
15-64 years: 0.98 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0.83 male(s)/female
total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2005 est.)
Infant mortality rate:
total: 76.83 deaths/1,000 live births
male: 85.05 deaths/1,000 live births
female: 68.36 deaths/1,000 live births (2005 est.)
Life expectancy at birth:
total population: 56.95 years
male: 54.57 years
female: 59.4 years (2005 est.)
Total fertility rate:
5.66 children born/woman (2005 est.)
HIV/AIDS - adult prevalence rate:
1.7% (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - people living with HIV/AIDS:
140,000 (2003 est.)
HIV/AIDS - deaths:
7,500 (2003 est.)
Major infectious diseases:
degree of risk: high
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne diseases: malaria and plague are high risks in some locations
water contact disease: schistosomiasis (2004)
noun: Malagasy (singular and plural)
adjective: Malagasy
Ethnic groups:
Malayo-Indonesian (Merina and related Betsileo), Cotiers (mixed African, Malayo-Indonesian, and Arab ancestry - Betsimisaraka, Tsimihety, Antaisaka, Sakalava), French, Indian, Creole, Comoran
indigenous beliefs 52%, Christian 41%, Muslim 7%
French (official), Malagasy (official)
definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 68.9%
male: 75.5%
female: 62.5% (2003 est.)

Madagascar - Population

Madagascar has experienced steady population growth throughout the twentieth century. Since the first systematic census was undertaken by colonial authorities at the turn of the twentieth century, the population has grown from 2.2 million in 1900 to 7.6 million in 1975 (the last year that a census was undertaken) and to a population estimated by the IMF in mid-1993 at 11.86 million. It is expected that the population will approach 17 million by the end of the twentieth century, underscoring a more than fivefold increase in less than a hundred years. Moreover, the average rate of population growth itself has increased from 2.3 percent in 1975 to 3.1 percent over the 1980 to 1990 decade. This rate has made Madagascar one of the most rapidly growing countries in Africa, with a large youthful population--in 1992 nearly 55 percent of the population was under twenty years of age.

The increase in population is significantly influenced by Madagascar's increasingly healthy and youthful population. As a result of more extensive and accessible health care services, for example, Madagascar has witnessed a 36 percent decline in infant mortality from 177 per 1,000 live births in 1981 to 114 per 1,000 in 1991--the average for sub-Saharan Africa was 103. Moreover, as of 1991 a significant portion of the population (estimates range from 40 to 50 percent) was below fourteen years of age, and population density (per square kilometer) had risen to twenty (from roughly fourteen in 1981).

The urban population percentage has doubled since 1975, rising from 13 percent of the population to 26 percent in 1992. The annual urban population growth rate in the 1980s was 6.4 percent. Figures for Madagascar's foreign population in the early 1990s are lacking, but in 1988, such persons were estimated to include 25,000 Comorans, 18,000 French, 17,000 Indians, and 9,000 Chinese.

A unique blend of African and Asian landscapes and cultures is usually one of the first things recognized by first-time travelers to Madagascar. In the zebu cattle-raising regions of the south and west, for example, the savannas resemble those of East Africa. In the central highlands, however, irrigated and terraced rice fields evoke images of Southeast Asia. These contrasting images lie at the heart of an ongoing debate over the origins of the Malagasy people.

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 "panislandic " 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. A third important feature is the division of Malagasy societies into three relatively rigid strata: nobles, commoners, and slaves (or descendants of slaves). 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.

Another potentially valuable method of analyzing Malagasy society is to differentiate between the so-called c�tiers, 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 c�tiers 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 c�tiers do not live anywhere near the coast. In this sense, the central highlands/c�tier 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.

A true understanding of the character of Madagascar's population and historical development requires an appreciation of the inhabitants' shared characteristics, including language and kinship structure, as well as the central highlands/c�tier split and other divisions based on geographical regions. These latter divisions coincide with the major geographical divisions of the island: east coast, west coast, central highlands, southwest, and the Tsaratamana Massif. Within these regions, the people have certain cultural similarities accentuated by the natural environment.

Peoples of the ...
<>East Coast

<>West Coast
<>Central Highlands
<>Tsaratamana Massif and the Southwest

Updated population figures for Madagascar.

Madagascar - Peoples of the East Coast

The Betsimisaraka constitute the second largest (14.9 percent) group of Madagascar's population and clearly are the most numerous on the east coast. They are divided into three subgroups: the northern Betsimisaraka, the Betanimena, and the southern Betsimisaraka. Their territory extends along the coast in a narrow band from the Bemarivo River in the north to the Mananjary River in the south, a distance of some 640 kilometers. The Betsimisaraka, whose name means "numerous and inseparable," have traditionally been traders, seafarers, and fishers, as well as cultivators of the tropical lowland areas. They trace their origins to the confederacy established by Ratsimilaho, allegedly the son of a British pirate and a Malagasy princess, who unified several small coastal states in the eighteenth century. The confederation continued after Ratsimilaho died in 1751, but it was much weakened by internal conflict and external pressure. The Betsimisaraka territory has included the important port city of Toamasina, as well as Fenerive and Maroansetra at the head of the Baie d'Antongil.

South of the Betsimisaraka are ethnic groups who trace their origins to Islamic traders of mixed Arab, African, and MalayoIndonesian origin who settled on the coasts after the fourteenth century, and are known as Antalaotra ("people of the sea"). The Antambahoaka, whose name is translated as "the people," make up 0.4 percent of the population and live around the Mananjary River just south of the Betsimisaraka territory. They claim as their ancestor Raminia, a king who came from Mecca around the early fourteenth century, and are part of a larger group known as the Zafi-Raminia, or "descendants of Raminia;" some of this group migrated from the Mananjary region to become rulers of peoples to the south. Some scholars have speculated that the Zafi-Raminia may have formed part of the ruling class of the Merina, who came to dominate Madagascar in the nineteenth century. Their power and prestige derived from their willingness to use their knowledge of astrology, medicine, and divination to serve the courts of kings throughout Madagascar.

Another people descended from the Antalaotra, the Antaimoro ("people of the shore") constitute 3.4 percent of the population and also live south of the Betsimisaraka. The Antaimoro were apparently the last significant arrivals, appearing around the end of the fifteenth century, possibly from the Arabian Peninsula with a sojourn in Ethiopia or Somalia, just before the coming of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. They are the only Malagasy people before the nineteenth century to possess a system of writing, based on Arabic script. Their books, the sorabe (from the Arabic sura, meaning "writing," and the Malagasy be, meaning "big" or "great"), which were inscribed in ink on special paper made from beaten wood bark, dealt with astrology, divination, medicine, and historical chronicles. Like the Antambahoaka, the Antaimoro are noted throughout Madagascar for their knowledge of the supernatural and medicine.

Among a number of other groups around Farafangana, at the southern end of the Canal des Pangalanes, the most important are the Antaifasy ("people of the sands"), who constitute 1.2 percent of the population. To the south, the Antaisaka (5.3 percent of the population) are found in large numbers around the alluvial valley of the Mananara River. The Antanosy ("people of the island"), who live in the extreme southeastern part of the island around Faradofay, make up 2.3 percent of the population.

The peoples of the eastern escarpment separating the east coast from the central highlands are the Sihanaka ("people of the lake"), who represent 2.4 percent of the population; the Bezanozano (0.8 percent), living south of the Sihanaka; and the Tanala (3.8 percent). The Sihanaka live around Lake Alaotra and practice wet-rice cultivation in a manner similar to that of the Merina. The Bezanozano ("many little braids," referring to their hair style), the Tanala ("people of the forest"), and the inland Betsimisaraka practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the forests, cultivating dry rice, corn, yams, and other crops. Although the Merina conquered the Sihanaka, the Bezanozano, and the inland Betsimisaraka in the early nineteenth century, the southern Tanala remained independent up to the French occupation.


Madagascar - Peoples of the West Coast

The peoples of the west coast, known as the Sakalava ("people of the long valley"), constitute 6.2 percent of the population. Their large territory of some 128,000 square kilometers extends in a broad band up the coast from the Onilahy River in the south to Nosy-Be in the north. The Sakalava were among the most dynamic and expansionist of the Malagasy peoples from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, when the Merina conquered them. During this period, Sakalava territory was divided into a number of kingdoms ruled by branches of the royal Maroserana clan. In the early eighteenth century, the kings of Menabe in the south and Boina in the north united these divisions into confederations.

The Sakalava, along with the Bara people of the southwest, are considered the most "African" of the Malagasy peoples. Specifically, several elements in Sakalava culture bear a strong resemblance to those of Africa, including the keeping of relics (such as pieces of bone) considered to have magical powers and the practice of spirit possession, in which a medium transmits the wishes of dead kings to the living. The Sakalava are also a pastoral people, and those who live in the hinterland keep large herds of zebu cattle that outnumber the human population.

The Sakalava are perhaps best known for the seafaring skills they developed throughout history. In the seventeenth century, they were potentially the first to receive firearms from Europeans in exchange for cattle and slaves and, thus, were in a position to force many of the other peoples of the island to pay them tribute. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, large fleets of Sakalava outrigger canoes went on seasonal raids to capture slaves in the Comoro Islands and on the East African coast, causing much devastation. They also sought slaves in the central highlands of Madagascar. Because of the Merina conquest and subsequent French occupation at the end of the century, Sakalava fortunes declined somewhat. They have not increased in number as rapidly as many of the other Malagasy peoples, and their territories, still the largest of all the ethnic groups, have been encroached upon, particularly by the Tsimihety people to the east. A people known as the Makoa, the descendants of slaves brought from Africa by slave raiders, also live along the northwest coast and constitute about 1.1 percent of the population.


Madagascar - Peoples of the Central Highlands

The Merina, whose name means "those from the country where one can see far" (an eloquent yet important reference to their control of the central highlands) are not only the most numerous of the Malagasy peoples, representing more than one-quarter of the total population (26.2 percent), but since the early nineteenth century have been the most organized in terms of social, economic, and political structure. During the nineteenth century, the Merina almost succeeded in unifying the entire island under a centralized administration. Although their influence declined somewhat during the French colonial period, especially after the unsuccessful Revolt of 1947, they are heavily represented among the country's socioeconomic and political elite. Merina territory originally consisted only of the lands encircling the current capital of Antananarivo, but as they expanded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it came to include most of the northern central highlands, now the province of Antananarivo. Many Merina have settled in other parts of the island as government officials, professionals, and traders, and all the major cities have sizable Merina populations.

The Merina are considered the most "Asian" of the Malagasy ethnic groups in terms of their physical characteristics and culture. Having relatively light complexions and straight black hair, as well as a way of life based on wet-rice cultivation, they are strongly reminiscent of the peoples of Southeast Asia. It has been suggested that the ancestors of the Merina may have preserved their Malayo-Indonesian characteristics through the practice of endogamy or intermarriage. Such a practice would have discouraged their marrying with African peoples even during their hypothesized sojourn on the East African coast, which may have lasted centuries. The plausibility of this thesis is supported by the fact that the Merina continue to practice endogamy, although it is also plausible that Merina ancestors may simply have migrated directly to Madagascar without settling first in Africa. The Merina are sensitive to physical differences and distinguish between people who are fotsy (white), with relatively light complexions and descended from the freeborn of the nineteenth-century Merina kingdom, and those who are mainty (black), descendants of slaves or captives from other parts of the island who are described as being more "African" in physical appearance. Fotsy and mainty are not always clearly distinguishable, even to the Merina themselves, but this racial distinction nonetheless divides Merina society into two distinct groups and contributes to its highly unequal nature.

The Betsileo, who constitute 12.1 percent of the population and live in the central highlands south of the Merina in a region of about 40,000 square kilometers, have a culture similar to that of their northern neighbors. They are reputedly the best farmers in Madagascar, building rice terraces on the slopes of steep hills similar to those of Indonesia or the Philippines. They were united in the late eighteenth century by King Andriamanalimbetany of Isandra, one of the four Betsileo royal principalities, but were incorporated into the Merina kingdom in 1830. The Betsileo share something of the privileged position of the Merina, constituting a significant portion of Madagascar's official, professional, and skilled artisan classes.

South of the Betsileo live the Bara (3.3 percent of the population), who are divided into five clans in the dry regions at the southern end of the central highlands. They keep large herds of zebu cattle and are the most pastoral people in Madagascar; they also have a reputation of being valiant warriors.

The Tsimihety (7.3 percent of the population), whose lands are located north of Imerina, illustrate rather strikingly the birth and development of a Malagasy people. Their name, "those who do not cut their hair," refers to the refusal of their forebears in the early eighteenth century to submit to the Sakalava custom of cutting their hair when the king died; rather, they migrated to the unsettled north-central region of the island. The Tsimihety are noted for the rapid expansion of their population and for their penchant for migration, expanding the boundaries of their territory and encroaching on the lands of neighboring peoples. Primarily raisers of cattle, they are divided into a large number of traditional clans with little political organization. They are described as the individualists of the island, desiring to live a life free of government control in the unsettled hinterlands.


Madagascar - Peoples of the Tsaratamana Massif and the Southwest

The Antakarana, living on the Tsaratamana Massif and the northern tip of the island, make up 0.6 percent of the population. The topography of the region isolates them from the other Malagasy peoples. They are both cattle herders and tropical horticulturalists.

The major peoples of the arid southwest region are the Mahafaly and the Antandroy, making up 1.6 and 5.4 percent of the population, respectively. The Mahafaly occupy a region between the Onilahy River to the north and the Menarandra River to the south, encompassing an area of some 45,000 square kilometers. The Antandroy territory lies to the east, a desert area full of cacti and thorn bushes. Its terrain makes their name, translated as "people of the thorns," especially apt. Both peoples depend upon the raising of cattle. Limited cultivation is also practiced. The Antandroy region is especially poor, causing workers to migrate to other parts of the island to make a living. Along with cattle, the prickly pear cactus is vital to the people's livelihood. Its spiny growths have served as a source of water and nourishment and as a means of defense against outside invaders.


Madagascar - Minorities

Madagascar is also inhabited by nonindigenous minorities who constitute roughly 1.7 percent of the population. Because of the status of France as the former colonial power, Madagascar is home to many former French colonial administrators and military officers. The country is also home to French professionals, businesspersons, managers of large plantations, and colons (small farmers) working their own holdings. Approximately 18,000 French citizens lived and worked in Madagascar in the early 1990s.

The Comorans (currently numbering 25,000) historically have constituted a second important nonindigenous population group, but their numbers decreased after racial riots in Mahajanga in December 1976 resulted in nearly 1,400 killed; in addition, some 20,000 were repatriated to the islands in the ensuing months. They have been concentrated in the northern part of Madagascar, along the coast, and prior to 1976 formed more than one-tenth of the populations of the port cities of Mahajanga and Antsiranana. Most of the Comorans, who adhere to the Muslim faith, have migrated from the island of Njazidja (Grande Comore); they typically work as unskilled laborers in the fields or on the docks of the ports.

Indo-Pakistanis (roughly numbering 17,000) represent a third nonindigenous minority group, and trace their origins to the regions of Gujerat or Bombay on the Indian subcontinent. Like the Comorans, they are for the most part Muslim. Despite living on the island for several generations (or even several centuries), the Indo-Pakistanis still maintain contact with their home areas in northwestern India and Pakistan. Historically, they have worked as merchants and small entrepreneurs and in the past have monopolized the wholesale and retail trade in textiles. They tend to be concentrated in the cities along the west coast.

The Chinese (numbering approximately 9,000) constitute a fourth major nonindigenous population group. Like the IndoPakistanis , they are engaged primarily in commerce but are found mostly along the east coast and around Antananarivo. They are more commonly found in the rural areas than the Indo-Pakistanis. They work as small traders and often marry Malagasy.

Madagascar - Language

The Malagasy language--spoken throughout Madagascar by the entire population--is the only one in the African region that belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family. Linguists believe that it shares a common origin with, and is most closely related to Maanyan, a language spoken in southeast Borneo. Both Malagasy and Maanyan bear a close affinity with the languages of the western Indonesian archipelago, such as Malay, Javanese, Balinese, and the Minangkabau language of Sumatra.

The origins of the Malagasy language in southeast Asia are clearly demonstrated by common words and meanings shared with several of the Indonesian languages. For example, the Malagasy term antalaotra (people of the sea) echoes the Malay laut (sea). Even more geographically widespread and interesting affinities have been discovered. Vahiny means "stranger" in Malagasy, while vahini means "girl" in Tahitian Polynesian. Scholars suggest that the two words (assuming they share a common origin) reveal that the first Malayo-Indonesian settlers along the African coast, or Madagascar itself, were male and that women came later as guests or strangers to settlements already established.

Although different regional dialects of Malagasy exist, these are mutually intelligible, and the language is a significant basis of cultural unity. Words are formed from roots with basic meanings, which are combined with prefixes or suffixes to create derivatives. Many Malagasy words, particularly names (such as that of the Merina king, Andrianampoinimerina), are very long, but certain syllables, particularly the last, are lightly accented or not at all.

A number of foreign words are found in the Malagasy vocabulary. The names of the days of the week and the months of the year are taken from Arabic, and the names of animals are taken from a Swahili dialect of East Africa. A number of English and French words also entered the language in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Before the nineteenth century, the only Malagasy people with a written language were the Antaimoro, keepers of the sorabe. By 1824-25, a written form of Malagasy using Roman characters was developed by members of the London Missionary Society working under the patronage of Merina King Radama I. The result was an almost perfectly consistent phonetic language that continues to be used throughout the country; the consonants are pronounced as in English and the vowels as in French, a compromise apparently promoted by Radama I. The completion of the alphabet enabled the missionaries to publish a Malagasy Bible and other books for their schools, and the possession of a written language was to prove decisive to the development of the Merinadominated portion of Madagascar.

The colonial period witnessed the emergence of French as the dominant language of the island, and Malagasy was relegated to an inferior position, particularly in official and academic circles. Although the First Republic adopted an official policy of bilingualism (French and Malagasy), French continued to dominate until the inauguration of Ratsiraka and his promulgation of an official policy of Malagachization. Originally conceived by nationalists as the promotion of education in the national language, Malagachization also ultimately included the more radical denunciation of French culture and influence over the national economy and political system. Malagachization further entailed the creation of a common Malagasy language that partook of dialects from all the regions and peoples of the island rather than being primarily a Merina dialect, as remains the case with official Malagasy today. After 1982 the drive toward Malagachization increasingly faltered in favor of a continuing trend toward reembracing the concept of Madagascar's inclusion in the international francophone community. Indeed, French remains important, largely because of its international status and the fact that most of the leadership has been educated in French. Both Malagasy and French are used in official government publications.

Madagascar - Traditional Beliefs and Religion

A firm belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead constitutes the most basic of all traditional beliefs and the foundation for Malagasy religious and social values. All the Malagasy peoples have traditionally accepted the existence of a supreme God, known commonly as Zanahary (Creator) or Andriamanitra (Sweet, or Fragrant, Lord). The dead have been conceived as playing the role of intermediary between this supreme God and humankind and are viewed as having the power to affect the fortunes of the living for good or evil. The dead are sometimes described as "gods on earth," who are considered the most important and authoritative members of the family, intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. At the same time, the razana (best defined as "ancestors") are the sources from which the life force flows and the creators of Malagasy customs and ways of life. The living are merely temporary extensions of the dead. Great hardship or trouble can result if the dead are offended or neglected.

The burial tomb, a prominent part of the island landscape in all regions, is the primary link between the living and the dead among the Malagasy. It is built with great care and expense, reflecting the privileged position of the dead, and is often more costly and substantial than the houses of the living. The land upon which a family tomb is situated--tanindrazana (land of the ancestors)--is inalienable, and social and economic practices are designed to guarantee that tomb lands are kept within the family. Anthropologists have described the Merina as living, in effect, in two localities: the place where one happens to work and keep one's household, and the tanindrazana, a locality of much deeper sentimental significance, the spiritual center where the family tomb is located. The two are usually separated by a considerable distance. Among some groups, whether one decides to be buried in the tombs of the father's or mother's family determines individual descent-group allegiance.

The tombs of the various peoples around the island differ somewhat in form. Merina tombs tend to be solid, stone structures, built partially underground, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds. The traditional tombs of the Mahafaly in the southwest were built of stone but surmounted by intricately carved wooden posts depicting human and animal figures. More recent Mahafaly tombs, particularly those built by rich families, are often made of concrete, with glass windows, brightly painted designs and often remarkable depictions of airplanes, taxicabs, or other modern paraphernalia mounted on the roof. At one time, it was the custom of the Sakalava people living around the Morondava River on the west coast to decorate their tombs with carvings showing explicit sexual activity. These were meant to illustrate the life-giving force, or fertility, of the ancestors.

Among the Merina and Betsileo peoples of the central highlands, the custom of famadihana ("placing" or the "turning" of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead. This occurs when a person is taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb in the tanindrazana, and the remains are taken out of the tomb to be wrapped in new shrouds, or when a body is moved from one tomb to another. These ceremonies are costly, mainly because of the expense of providing food for a large number of relatives and guests. They represent for the peoples of the central highlands a time of communion with the razana and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so. The ceremony is presided over by an astrologer, but the chief participants are the close relatives of those persons whose remains are being moved or rewrapped. In this regard, the famadihana resembles in spirit a family reunion or the more austere ancestral ceremonies of China and Korea, where the spirits of ancestors are invited to a feast given by members of a family or lineage, rather than the funerals of the West, which are "final endings."

Although the famadihana does not occur outside the central highlands and the attitudes of the Merina and Betsileo toward the dead differ in certain significant respects, the idea of the dead as beings to be respected is universal in Madagascar. A number of different "souls" are recognized by the Malagasy. Among the Merina, these include the fanahy, a kind of essence which determines individual character and behavior; thus, an individual can have a good or a bad fanahy. Another is the soul of the person after death, the ambiroa, which is called to the tomb for the celebration of the famadihana, but which, over time, is believed to blend with the collective spirit of other ancestors. The ambiroa is believed to permeate the tomb building, the family household, and the hills and valleys of the tanindrazana, being in a sense omnipresent. Other concepts include the soul of a recently deceased person, the lolo, which is said to be harmless but feels homesick for its old surroundings and often appears in the form of a moth or a butterfly. The angatra, ghosts of the unknown dead, are often malevolent and frighten people at night. The emphases in the minds of the people, however, are not on the afterlife or on the experiences of the dead souls either as ghosts or in heaven or hell, but on the relationship of the dead with the living and the role of the former as bearers of power and authority.

The ombiasy and the mpanandro combine the functions of diviners, traditional healers, and astrologers. They originated among the Antaimoro and the Antambahoaka of the southwest coast, who were influenced by the Antalaotra. Among the Antandroy, it is the ombiasy who are often asked to eradicate a mistake made by neglecting a taboo. The Bara consult the ombiasy to look after the sick and dying. Family heads ask them when to begin certain agricultural tasks or when to marry or circumcise those entering adulthood. Merina families have their personal diviners who consult the stars; their advice is requested on all enterprises that are thought to involve dangers. They are paid a regular salary and additional fees for extra services. They set the auspicious day for a famadihana. Even a highly educated Merina would not think of building a house without consulting the ombiasy or the mpanandro for the favorable day to begin work. When a marriage is contemplated, both sets of parents will ask the ombiasy and the mpanandro whether the partners will be compatible.

The science of the ombiasy and the mpanandro is tied to the concept of vintana, which means fate ordained by the position of moon, sun, and stars. Accordingly, different values and different forces, either active or passive, are attributed to each fraction of time. Space, too, is thought to be affected by these forces, east being superior to west, and north being superior to south. Northeast therefore is believed to be the most favorable direction. People build their houses on the north-south axis and reserve the northeastern corner for prayers. Guests are seated on the northern side, and chickens are kept in the southwestern corner.

Fate is impersonal and cannot be changed, but certain aspects can be foretold and avoided. For divination the ombiasy use a system of Arabic origin in which fruit seeds or grains of corn are put into rows of eight. Various figure combinations indicate the future and what to do regarding sickness, love, business, and other enterprises. The ombiasy also sell talismans made of such objects as dried or powdered vegetables, glass beads, or animal teeth.

Fady are taboos on the use of certain substances, particularly foods, or on the performance, including the timing, of certain acts. They continue to regulate much of Malagasy life. Many are connected with vintana, while others express certain social values. For example, to deny hospitality to a stranger is fady, as is the act of refusing this hospitality. The concept of fady often also expresses a well-developed metaphorical sense. According to one fady, it is wrong to sit in the doorway of a house while the rice is sprouting, since the door of the house is compared to the "gateway" of birth and by blocking it, one might impede the "birth" of the rice. It is important to remember, however, that fady, particularly dietary prohibitions, vary widely among different ethnic groups, and from village to village within the same ethnic group. To be at home in a different locality, travelers must acquaint themselves with a large number of local variations.

Traditional beliefs are augmented by imported organized religions. Although exact figures on religious affiliations do not exist, it is estimated that approximately 55 percent of the total population adhere to traditional beliefs, and 40 percent are Christian, about evenly divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the remaining 5 percent being Muslim. Indeed, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have found themselves competing for new adherents, most notably underscored by the fact that villages in the central highlands often have two churches, one Protestant and one Roman Catholic, that face each other at opposite ends of the village. The Roman Catholic church enjoys its largest support among the Betsileo people in the southern portion of the central highlands, and is also associated with former slaves and the c�tiers. Protestantism enjoys its largest support among the Merina of the central highlands and, therefore, historically has been perceived as the Christian affiliation of the upper classes. Despite the minority status of Christians, the Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar played a major role in arbitrating a resolution to the conflict resulting from the violence and general strikes in May and August 1991.

The nineteenth century witnessed a confrontation between Christianity and traditional religious beliefs, as Queen Ranavalona I expelled foreign missionaries and persecuted Christians, putting many of them to death. The tide reversed at her death, and at the beginning of the reign of Ranavalona II, the old sampy--idols or talismans endowed with supernatural powers to protect the kingdom--were destroyed, and Protestantism became the religion of the royal family. Yet opposition has given way in many cases to a kind of mutual assimilation. Christian missionaries were able to build on the Malagasy concept of a supreme God by using the term, "Andriamanitra," to refer to the biblical God and by choosing one of the traditional terms for soul, fanahy, to define its Christian counterpart. Although the supremacy of Christianity in the central highlands led to the demise of idol worship, Malagasy pastors have not challenged the strength of traditional beliefs in the power and authority of the razana. Christians have their dead blessed at a church before burying them according to the old ceremonies, and may invite the pastor to attend a famadihana and place a cross on top of the tomb. Christian belief in the power of a transcendent and somewhat distant God has blended with older beliefs in the closeness and intimacy of the dead as spiritual beings. Some Malagasy Christians will even say that the dead have become Christians themselves and continue to be the arbiters of right and wrong.

Exact figures are not available, but followers of the Sunni and Shia variants of Islam together constitute somewhere around 5 percent of the total population. Most are Comorans or Indo-Pakistanis; a small number are converted Malagasy. The majority are located in Mahajanga Province. A small minority of the Indian community practices Hinduism.

Madagascar - Social Structure and Family

Traditional society is hierarchical in structure. Kinship groups are ranked precisely along a superior/inferior continuum, and individuals within these groups are ranked according to age, descent, and gender. This pervasive ranking reflects the perceived power of ancestors as the source of hasina (life-giving power), which is distributed unequally among individuals and family groups. Royal or noble persons are supposed to possess a greater level of hasina than others, so that their descendants enjoy superior social status. Within families of any rank, elders possess greater hasina than the young not only by virtue of their maturity and experience but also because they are perceived as closer to the dead and thus share in part of their power. Rulers do not rule alone but share their offices in effect with their ancestors, who are, in fact, more powerful and influential than the rulers themselves. Among the Sakalava, it is believed that the soul or spirit of a royal ancestor can take possession of a person in order to make known its commands to the living.

Social values are highly conservative, demonstrating an awareness of hierarchy and place that permeates the daily life of the people. Observers have noted, for example, that in Merina households each member of the family is expected to eat a meal in turn according to age; the youngest is served last. Family members are seated around the table in an arrangement that reflects age-rank, the father or grandfather occupying the "noble corner" (the northeast). Failure to honor the rank is considered a serious violation of fady. Children who eat before their elders can be severely punished. Within the village, the local notables and respected elders of kin groups, who are usually male, have preponderant influence in village affairs.

The society as a whole remains divided into a number of unequal social groups based entirely on descent. Among the Merina, Madagascar's dominant ethnic group, these are referred to as the andriana (nobles), the hova (commoners), and the andevo (slaves or, more properly, the descendants of slaves). The distinction between andriana and hova on the one hand and andevo on the other hand corresponds to the distinction between "whites" and "blacks" in Merina society. Among the Sakalava, royal clans descended from the Maroserana occupy the highest social position, followed by noble and commoner clans; the descendants of slaves again occupy the lowest status. Noble and commoner clans possess histories that define their relations to the king and their different social roles. The social hierarchy of the Malagasy people, however, is actually far more differentiated than this system might suggest, because within each "caste" constituent clans or kin groups are also arranged in a precise hierarchy of superior and inferior that is well known to all individuals.

Among the Merina, the Malagasy people most thoroughly studied by anthropologists, the population is divided into a number of karazana (large kin groups) that are defined in terms of the common land upon which the family tomb is located. They are hierarchically ranked and usually named after a single ancestor. Members of the same karazana are described as being "of one womb." The general practice is for individuals to marry within the karazana or even within the same subunit to which they belong. Although endogamy carries with it the taint of incest, intermarriage is preferred because, in this way, land (especially tomb land) can be kept within the kin unit rather than being inherited by outsiders. Preserving the boundaries of the kinship unit through intermarriage preserves the integrity of the all-important link between the living and the dead.

Below the level of the karazana, the Merina are divided into fianakaviana (family), which includes close relatives by blood and affiliation. The family is less defined by territory than by its role as the locus of feelings of loyalty and affection. Members of the same fianakaviana are havana (relatives) but with a strong emotional connotation. The ideal of fihavanana (amity, solidarity) is that havana should love and trust one another, rendering mutual aid and sharing each other's possessions. When a man moves to new lands, his relatives will often come after him to claim parcels of land to cultivate. Persons who are not havana are often considered untrustworthy. However, fictive kinship, described as "those who are kin because they are loved," is a widespread Malagasy institution drawing individuals into an intermediate status between strangers and kin. This system can be very useful in daily life, particularly outside the tanindrazana.

Descent among the Merina is neither strictly patrilineal nor matrilineal. Instead, the practice of endogamy enables the two families involved in a marriage to define the situation as one in which they each receive a new child. The husband and wife are equally deferential to both sets of in-laws. Although women have occupied social roles inferior to those of men in traditional society, they are not completely subject to the will of their husbands or parents-in-law, as has been the case in strictly patrilineal societies.

There is some choice of which tomb group an individual will join and, thus, in which tomb he or she will be buried. Tomb groups consist of closely related fianakaviana members who own and maintain a tomb in common. The heads of tomb groups are local notables or government officials, and each member contributes to the tomb's upkeep, often a heavy financial burden because the tomb buildings are large and in frequent need of repair. New tombs are built, and new tomb groups are formed with the passing of generations. Both social identity and relationship with the dead are determined by one's tomb group. The most unfortunate persons are those who, because they are strangers or because of some other disqualification, cannot be interred within a tomb.

The difference between former free persons and former slaves remains particularly significant, despite the formal abolition of slavery by the French in 1897. Persons of slave origin are generally poorer than other Merina and are expected to perform the most menial tasks and to be particularly deferential to others. One observer noticed among the Betsileo in a rural household that during a meal to which a number of men had been invited, two persons of slave origin had to use a common plate, while free persons had their own plates. Former slaves are also often stereotypically described as rude, uncultured, and ugly. Marriages between persons of slave origin and other Merina are rare. When they do occur, the offspring are considered part of the slave group and are denied a place in the tomb of the free parent's family. In fact, the parent of the offspring may also be denied entrance. Former slaves do not possess links to a tanindrazana and, thus, are apt to be more mobile than the descendants of free persons, because migration offers the possibility of escaping from the stigma of slave descent. It is estimated that as much as 50 percent of the population of Imerina is of slave origin, whereas the percentage for the Betsileo territory is much lower.

Although the Merina social and kinship pattern is to a great degree common to all the peoples of Madagascar, there are important variations based in part on different histories and on ecological variations between the rice-growing and pastoral regions of the country. The pastoral Bara and the Tsimihety, who are agriculturalists but place great cultural and sentimental significance on herds of zebu, base descent and inheritance on patrilineality more strictly than the Merina.

Madagascar - Education

In traditional Madagascar, education was not seen as separate from the other spheres of life. It emphasized the importance of maintaining one's place in a hierarchical society, trained people in the proper observance of ritual and innumerable fady prohibitions, and, above all, taught respect for ancestors. Formal education in the modern sense first appeared when the missionary David Jones of the London Missionary Society established a school in Antananarivo in 1820. It was sponsored by King Radama I, and Jones's first students were children of the royal family. Literacy spread as a result of the schools the Imerina missionaries built; in 1835 an estimated 15,000 persons knew how to read and write the new Malagasy language. Despite significant retrenchment during the reign of Queen Ranavalona I, the missionary school system, including both Protestant and Roman Catholic institutions, continued to grow.

During the colonial period, the French established a system of public schools that was divided into two parts: elite schools, modeled after those of France and reserved for the children of French citizens (a status few Malagasy enjoyed); and indigenous schools for the Malagasy, which offered practical and vocational education but were not designed to train students for positions of leadership or responsibility. Middle-grade Malagasy civil servants and functionaries were trained at the �coles r�gionales (regional schools), the most important of which was the �cole le Myre de Villers in Antananarivo. Reforms of the public school system designed to give the Malagasy more educational opportunities were initiated after World War II. At independence in 1960, the country had a system of education almost identical to that of France.

Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and fourteen. The current education system provides primary schooling for five years, from ages six to eleven. Secondary education lasts for seven years and is divided into two parts: a junior secondary level of four years from ages twelve to fifteen, and a senior secondary level of three years from ages sixteen to eighteen. At the end of the junior level, graduates receive a certificate, and at the end of the senior level, graduates receive the baccalaur�at (the equivalent of a high school diploma). A vocational secondary school system, the coll�ge professionelle (professional college), is the equivalent of the junior secondary level; the coll�ge technique (technical college), which awards the baccalaur�at technique (technical diploma), is the equivalent of the senior level.

The University of Madagascar, established as an Institute for Advanced Studies in 1955 in Antananarivo and renamed in 1961, is the main institute of higher education. It maintains six separate, independent branches in Antananarivo, Antsiranana, Fianarantsoa, Toamasina, Toliara, and Mahajanga. (Prior to 1988, the latter five institutions were provincial extensions of the main university in Antananarivo.) The university system consists of several faculties, including law and economics, sciences, and letters and human sciences, and numerous schools that specialize in public administration, management, medicine, social welfare, public works, and agronomy. Official reports have criticized the excessive number of students at the six universities: a total of 40,000 in 1994, whereas the collective capacity is 26,000. Reform measures are underway to improve the success rate of students-- only 10 percent complete their programs, and the average number of years required to obtain a given degree is eight to ten compared with five years for African countries. The baccalaur�at is required for admission to the university. Madagascar also has teacher-training colleges.

The gradual expansion of educational opportunities has had an impressive impact on Malagasy society, most notably in raising the literacy level of the general population. Only 39 percent of the population could be considered literate in 1966, but the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that this number had risen to 50 percent at the beginning of the 1980s and to 80 percent in 1991. Similarly, primary school enrollment is nearly universal, a significant increase from the lower figure of 65 percent enrollment in 1965 (Madagascar had 13,000 public primary schools in 1994); 36 percent of the relevant school-age population attends secondary school (there were 700 general education secondary schools and eighty lyc�es or classical secondary institutions) and 5 percent of the relevant school-age population attends institutions of higher learning. Despite these statistics, a 1993 UNICEF report considers the education system a "failure," pointing out that in contrast to the early 1980s when education represented approximately 33 percent of the national budget, in 1993 education constituted less than 20 percent of the budget, and 95 percent of this amount was devoted to salaries. The average number of years required for a student to complete primary school was twelve. Girls have equal access with boys to educational institutions.

The national education system often has been at the center of political debate. As is the case throughout Africa, educational credentials provide one of the few opportunities to obtain employment in a country with a limited private sector, and the distribution of educational resources has continued to be an issue with explosive political ramifications.

Historically, the system has been characterized by an unequal distribution of education resources among the different regions of the country. Because the central highlands had a long history of formal education beginning in the early nineteenth century, this region had more schools and higher educational standards than the coastal regions. The disparity continued to be a major divisive factor in national life in the years following independence. The Merina and the Betsileo peoples, having better access to schools, inevitably tended to be overrepresented in administration and the professions, both under French colonialism and after independence in 1960.

Adding to these geographical inequities is the continued lack of educational opportunities for the poorest sectors of society. For example, the riots that led to the fall of the Tsiranana regime in 1972 were initiated by students protesting official education and language policies, including a decision to revoke the newly established competitive examination system that would have allowed access to public secondary schools on the basis of merit rather than the ability to pay. Yet when the Ratsiraka regime attempted in 1978 to correct historical inequalities and make standards for the baccalaur�at lower in the disadvantaged provinces outside the capital region, Merina students led riots against what they perceived as an inherently unfair preferential treatment policy.

The lack of access is compounded by an education system that still rewards those who are the most proficient in the French language, despite the fact that the country is officially bilingual. As of 1994, it was estimated that only between 20,000 and 30,000 citizens could be considered truly fluent in the French language and that another 2 million citizens have received, at best, a passive high school-level competence in the language. The vast majority (8 to 9 million) speak only Malagasy and, therefore, potentially find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in terms of future advancement. It is at least partially because of shortcomings in French-language abilities that approximately 90 percent of all first-year university students are refused entry into the second year.

A final challenge revolves around the growing gap between a declining government-sponsored public school system and an increasingly vibrant and growing private school system. The Ratsiraka regime's education policy of Malagachization strengthened this primarily two-tiered education system during the 1980s. The elite and the well-off middle class placed their children in private French-language schools, while the vast majority of the relatively poorer population had little choice but to enroll their children in increasingly disadvantaged public schools. By the 1991-92 academic year, only 5,870 students were enrolled in private French-sponsored grade schools and high schools (the most prestigious of the education system), while another 199,433 students were enrolled in the second tier of private Roman Catholic schools where teaching is also in French. An undetermined small number of students were enrolled in a third tier of private schools considered "mediocre" by French-language standards, but the vast majority (1,534,142) found themselves competing in the public school system.

Madagascar - Public Health

Life expectancy at birth has gradually improved from an average of 37.5 years for men and 38.3 years for women in 1966 to an average of fifty-two years for men and fifty-five years for women in 1990 (for a combined average of fifty-four). Malaria remains the most serious tropical disease, although eradication campaigns against mosquitoes waged since 1948 initially resulted in spectacular declines in incidence and a dramatic decrease in the island's mortality rate during a twenty-year period. Indeed, in some regions, especially the central highlands, these campaigns were almost completely successful, although malaria continues to be prevalent in the coastal regions, especially the east coast. As prevention practices faltered during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the mosquito staged a comeback. The effect on a population with a significantly reduced resistance to malaria was devastating. For example, the Malagasy Ministry of Health reported 490,000 cases and 6,200 deaths from malaria in 1985, but these figures rose--to 760,000 cases and 11,000 deaths--in 1987.

As of 1994, other serious diseases included schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, and leprosy. The prevalence of schistosomiasis, a parasitic ailment that spreads primarily through the passing of human wastes into ponds, irrigation canals, and slow-moving streams, reflects the continued lack of adequate sewage facilities, especially in the rural areas. Occasional outbreaks of bubonic plague occur in urban areas, the most recent of them in 1990. Yet Madagascar has been spared many of the diseases common in tropical countries, such as trypanosomiasis, cholera, brucellosis, and yellow fever.

The occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has increased during the 1980s and the 1990s. It is estimated that 287 of 100,000 inhabitants have gonorrhea, and 220 of 100,000 have syphilis. According to data collected from 9,574 inhabitants treated for STDs in 1987, the breakdown by type of disease was as follows: gonorrhea (38 percent); syphilis (33 percent); trichomoniasis (20 percent); and candidiasis (8 percent). According to data compiled by the World Health Organization, only three cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) were reported in the 1990-92 period, and six cases in 1993, earning Madagascar a 0.0 "case rate" (reported cases per 100,000 population).

The government has committed itself to the principle that good health is a right of each Malagasy citizen, and has made significant strides in the area of health care. A number of new hospitals and medical centers were built in various parts of the country during the 1970s and the first part of the 1980s. However, about two-thirds of the population reside at least five kilometers from a medical center, resulting in the May 1993 finding of UNICEF that 35 percent of the population lacked adequate access to health services.

Economic decline has led to a deterioration in medical services during the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 1976, of the national budget, 9.2 percent was allocated to health care; this percentage dropped to 6.6 percent in 1981, 4.5 percent in 1990, and 2 percent in 1994. For example, as of 1993, according to UNICEF, the country had only one physician per 17,000 people. Important regional differences also exist. For example, in some provinces the ratio was as low as one physician for 35,000 persons. For the entire island, in 1993 a total of 234 medical centers were under the direction of one doctor, and the remaining 1,728 centers were under the direction of paramedics, midwives, nurses, health aides, or sanitarians. For those unable to obtain modern medical treatment, traditional medicine--the use of herbs or the exorcism of malicious spirits--remains popular.

Additional factors contributing to health problems include overcrowding (in some areas five to eight persons live in a room fourteen meters square), contagious diseases such as the plague, and inadequate garbage disposal facilities. Infant mortality has risen from sixty-eight per 1,000 births in 1975 to 109 per 1,000 in 1980 and 150 per 1,000 in 1990. Malnutrition, diarrheal diseases, respiratory infections, and malaria are major causes of infant deaths. Madagascar had a serious malaria epidemic in 1990 causing the death of tens of thousands; efforts are underway for annual antimalarial campaigns, especially in the Hauts Plateaux.

The following is excerpted from the Country Studies--Area Handbook program of the U.S. Department of the Army. The original version of this text is available at the
Library of Congress.
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