Culture shock comes quickly in Madagascar. Even as the plane swooped over the outskirts of Antananarivo I was scanning streets of red-clay houses and emerald patchworks of paddy fields for an image that would confirm my arrival in Africa. As a dilapidated Citroen taxi shuttled me onward into the capital, swerving around rickshaws and garishly painted carts drawn by hump-backed zebu cattle, I struggled even more against the illusion that I had landed in the Far East. Even the taxi driver’s fine-boned, café-au-lait features only served to confound my efforts to convince myself that this was Africa.
Since Madagascar first sailed away from the African continent over eighty million years ago, the 250 miles of fierce currents that make up the Mozambique Channel’s have done more to insulate the island than the entirety of the Indian Ocean. The intrepid Indonesian sailors who were the island’s first settlers have left their legacy everywhere: from the pirogue outriggers of the reefs; to the stilted huts that evolved on other, distant islands to withstand the tropical monsoons; to the ecologically disastrous slash-and-burn agricultural system that may have driven them from their homelands in the first place.
They also brought their own complex religious beliefs that revolved around a fear of supernatural spirits and a respect for the dead. Mysticism and, to our eyes, superstition still govern every important stage of rural life in Madagascar, but in no other area are they more important than in the question of death. ‘A house is for a lifetime but a tomb is forever’ the Malagasy point out and there can be no worse fate than exclusion from the family tomb. For many, the duties of burial, re-burial and the famous ‘bone-turning’ ceremonies (along with the accompanying cattle sacrifices and feasts) are the paramount obligation of the living. In some areas 80% of income is spent on the ancestors…but these ‘investments’ must be made if the living are to continue enjoying the protection of the dead.
The Malagasy as a whole (and particularly the powerful Merina and Betsileo tribes of the high plateau) are descended primarily from Malay-Polynesian pioneers who arrived within the last 2000 years. But there are now eighteen main tribes, each with their own unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds. On the southern scrub-pastures and cactus deserts, there are Bara and Antanosy people who would not look out of place in the Mozambique of their forefathers, while along the eastern coast there are the Antaimoro (keepers of sacred texts written in ancient Arabic script) and the Antambohoaka whose bloodline dates directly to the Arab sailors who knew Madagascar as Gezirat Al-Komr - the Isle of the Moon.
You can waste a lot of time shifting Madagascar from Asian to African pigeonholes, and back again, before you come to accept the fact that the world’s fourth largest island is at once a combination of many things…and an island continent in its own right.
By Mark Eveleigh