The People

Madagascar’s early human history is unclear but remnants of ninth century fortifications built by Arab traders attest to the island’s importance to early sailors. Asian and African migrants arrived 2000 years ago. The Asian descendants populate the highlands, while Africans stayed near the coasts. In 1794, most of the people were united under the highlander Merina king. Rivalries between the two groups remain today from the time when coastal “Blacks” were forced to work as slaves for “Whites,” primarily the Merina. The first Europeans attempted settlements with limited success in the 1600s. Missionaries came and went, depending on the favor of the ruling monarch and in 1883, the French attacked and eventually made Madagascar a French protectorate until 1958 when it gained independence.


Two lively men with stubbly beards step to the front of a small stage. They are part of our lunch stop entertainment. Both men wear garish red sarong-like lambas over their street clothes that set off their leathered faces topped by small straw hats. The round faced man puts his crude violin to his chin while his friend clutches the half-gourd sound box of an odd banjo-like instrument to his right shoulder and plucks the two strings with his right hand. He changes between the two notes he knows with his left hand by pressing the strings against pegs that protrude from the instrument’s neck. The men gum the words to lively local songs, making them up as it suits them. They sing with gusto and race to the finish, laughing as they lower their instruments to our applause. Their uninhibited performance is worth a good tip.

The musicians performed during the intermission of a dance troupe assembled to entertain visiting tourists like us. The dancers wore simple skirts, blouses and straw hats. A small band accompanied their dances, which were adapted from songs that would have lasted much longer had they been part of a traditional ceremony to communicate with the ancestors. When we were invited to partner with the dancers, they were at a loss to discover that our gender distribution favored women. No matter, the last woman grabbed me and lined us up for a couple of circuits around the stage shuffling a simple step to the music.

Malagasies are rooted to the land. Their ancestors are buried near their villages so their spirits can guide their descendants’ lives. The bodies are entombed in rectangular brick enclosures filled with rubble. Murals that celebrate the occupant’s life are painted on the 4 feet high tomb walls. On top of the tombs, zebu skulls with elegant horns honor the ancestor’s status.

Zebu at Work Mark Smith photo

Zebus are the hardy bovines brought to the island by the African migrants and are well adapted to a hot, dry climate though they also do well in the rainforest. They are culturally important as well, used as ceremonial gifts and sacrifices. At the owner’s death, the herd is killed for the funeral and the finest skulls are saved for the tomb. Recently, as people have been converting to Christianity, only a few zebus are needed for the funeral, not the whole herd, which evens out the food supply but does not help the fragile environment.

In the arid south, people live in small reed houses, sometimes finished with mud. Inside there is room for a bed, a small fire, a shelf and no more. The structures seemed tiny until we saw how much of the family and village life took place outside. There were times I felt as if we were driving through someone’s living room, the scenes were so intimate: a man sitting on the ground and playing with his toddlers, a woman bathing in a water trough modestly wrapped in her lamba, another woman sweeping her dirt yard with a handful of twigs and, outside another house, a little charcoal cooker sitting on the bare earth supporting a bubbling rice pot. Everywhere, women and girls carried water from the river or the road-side water taps, each container size appropriate for the bearer. No need for books on their heads to teach posture. A few younger women strolled around town with a paste of manioc flour on their faces for sun-protection. It reminded me of mudpacks women in the U.S. use for beautiful skin.


On the north coast, red-sailed boats glided past our hotel at dawn on their way to the fishing reefs. The boats are a smaller version of the original Arab dhows. A triangular sail is draped from a single boom that hangs on a loosely stepped mast, but the small vessels were only about 20 feet long. The hull is very narrow at that size and outriggers add stability. When we took a motor boat across the bay to a mangrove forest to find Sacred Ibis, we passed a family wedged into their boat on their way to one of the nearby islands. The father guided the boat from the stern, the mother and children sat quietly, one in front of the other, on the bottom of the slim craft. One child hung his arm over the side and dragged his fingers in the water.

Tourists were common in most places and the people were comfortable greeting us in French. A few people took advantage of my unfamiliarity with the money, giving incorrect change or accepting a very large tip for a minor service. I tried to let those moments pass as an acceptable form of sharing wealth. More often, friendly shopkeepers patiently helped me through my confusion.

In a country with light traffic, anything that passes on the road is of interest to the people who are walking, especially a bus full of vazaha. Often, when the kids saw we were tourists, they shrieked, “Vazaha a a a a”, and ran beside the bus, waving.

We are visiting a village near Perinet. We ask the people in the little market if we can take their photos, and they oblige with a smile. They delight to see their images on the screen of our digital cameras.

Through Rivo, we ask some school children to sing a song that we tried to learn on the bus. They join hands and circle each other, singing gaily about a Madagascar kestrel. Don captures it all on his tiny video camera. Then he gathers the kids around him and plays it back. The images are so surprising to them they explode into screams of delight before they can even hear their own voices. They run around and jump high into the air hugging each other, clapping and laughing. I wonder how they would have reacted if they had heard us struggling to learn the song they sang. Our bus driver thought it was hysterical.

Two Guys at the Market

More land is needed to feed the increasing Malagasy population. We were taken to two places where an endemic bird lived, only to discover human encroachment had driven the birds off or disturbed them so they could not breed. As everywhere, the dilemma of people’s current requirements grates against their future needs. There are no simple answers.