Madagascar’s cultural heritage is fascinating, and completely unexpected if you have any experience of travelling on the African continent: this is not Africa. Traditional Malagasy culture derives in large part from the other side of the Indian Ocean, blended with strong influences from the African mainland, and more recently with the traces of the French colonial experience and with the Creole culture of the Mascarene Islands – Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues. There are distinct variations among the various ethnic regions of Madagascar, but on the whole, it’s an informal, welcoming society, and relations with vazaha (foreigners) are usually relaxed and uncomplicated.
In counterpoint to the surface gaiety of street life, traditional culture is infested with the deeply woven threads of rigorous and often seemingly bizarre restrictions, known as fady. Fady are traditional injunctions and mandates regulating everyday life. Mostly not as strong as taboos, they are believed to derive from the wishes of the ancestors, or razana, and people believe they bring bad luck if disobeyed. The razana include not just the long dead of the distant past but recently deceased relatives – whose remains, in the central highlands region, are regularly exhumed and paraded at famadihana ceremonies. The personalities, habits and whims of the ancestors are transmuted into the fears and desires of their descendants and their extended families. Over time, certain fady have become widespread across districts and entire ethnic regions.
On the whole, fady don’t impact greatly on short-term visitors, and most Malagasy understand that vazaha don’t know about their local fady. Educated and westernized Malagasy fear them much less, and at their mildest they are little more than superstitions, like not walking under a ladder. Many fady relate to the hunting of certain animals and how to behave in forest areas which often have spiritual significance: national park guides may explain certain rules of behaviour to you before you start your walk, which might include not smoking or eating, or avoiding amorous contact.
Fady become much more significant if you’re living in Madagascar, when you’ll discover that there are places you can and can’t go, depending on circumstances, actions you can’t perform on certain days, colours you must avoid wearing in certain conditions, and so on. The only way you’ll come to understand your area’s fady is to talk to locals: you won’t get a uniform response, but you can soon build up a picture of how much the fady control people’s lives.
Greetings and body language
Greetings are fairly straightforward, with handshaking the norm especially between men, and in an urban setting or in a Western context such as an office, between both sexes. French-style cheek-to-cheek greetings are also de rigueur among people who know each other. As a vazaha, you’re not likely to be made to feel uncomfortable by any minor gaffes in social etiquette. Watch what others do, and take note of the following general rules: the left hand is reserved for unclean acts, at least in theory, so don’t use it to pass things or eat with; avoid pointing with an outstretched finger, but crook your finger instead; and beckon with the palm down, not up.
A century and a half of Christian mission work across the island has had a major impact on religious beliefs. Around twenty percent of the population are Roman Catholics and a quarter follow various Protestant churches, including the largest, the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (Fiangonan’i Jesoa Kristy eto Madagasikara or FJKM), with perhaps eight percent being Muslims. But people everywhere tend also to adhere to traditional beliefs, for example happily mixing the practice of confession with planning the next exhumation ceremony. Only the more extreme evangelical churches have pushed hard against traditional practices.
Dress and modesty
Every Malagasy tribe has its traditional dress, hair and hat styles, but these are often hard to discern as people move, intermarry and follow global fashion trends rather than traditional styles. Modern Malagasy dress styles tend to split along rural and urban lines for women, although there isn’t a lot of difference as far as men are concerned, calf-length trousers and loose shirts being the norm, along with a good solid hat. Older rural women typically wear long cotton dresses or lamba wraps, often with straw hats. However, their younger counterparts, and the majority of women in towns, are often strikingly attired in tight, brightly coloured leggings or shorts, and skinny T-shirts. It’s an outfit that looks more fit for the dancefloor than walking to market, and dramatically reveals an absence of traditional restraint. And it means that as a visitor, refreshingly enough, your own choice of dress is not apt to faze the locals. This informality extends to relations between the sexes: physical contact between men and women is relatively unrestrained, and you’ll often see couples out for a stroll, arm in arm.
Malagasy sexual attitudes are less conservative than you might expect. Sex outside marriage, divorce and remarriage are common, and casual sex and informal prostitution are very widespread. Parts of Madagascar, particularly Nosy Be, have acquired notoriety for sex tourism – not in any organized sense, simply as a result of women heading to the bars to make some extra money, or possibly even to find a husband. In turn, many European men, drawn by the allure of what they perceive to be Madagascar’s uncluttered mores, end up trying to establish a business with a Malagasy business partner (a legal requirement) who is their girlfriend. These relationships often end badly and many Malagasy are offended and deeply uncomfortable about the widespread exploitation of young people. There is strong support for efforts to eradicate child sexual exploitation (sex workers have to be 18 and carry ID cards).
Unlike many countries in the region, Madagascar has never had any laws governing male or female homosexual relationships, and gay couples are unlikely to experience any problems here. That said, there is no gay or lesbian scene to speak of.
Alcohol and other drugs
Rum and other spirits, beer and local wine are cheap and available throughout the country, and alcoholism is a serious problem. Most Malagasy are tolerant of booze, even if in the case of strict Muslims and some Christians they don’t touch it themselves. However, public drunkenness and associated misbehaviour is strongly disapproved of: people are expected to behave decently and that includes visitors.
The main illegal drug is marijuana, smoked in herbal form, and grown all over the country. While it is illegal on the statute books, discreet use in private is usually tolerated. Don’t make any assumptions however, or buy or smoke pot without being very sure of your surroundings: if you fall on the wrong side of the law you will get no sympathy from your embassy.
The herbal stimulant khat is legal and quite popular in the north – but something of an acquired taste that there is no special reason to acquire. Other illegal narcotics circulate in Tana and other cities: stay well clear.