Madagascar, also known as the Malagasy Republic, lies some 400 kilometres off the East coast of Africa, South of the equator (see map). It is separated from Africa by the Mozambique channel and is crossed by the Tropic of Capricorn near the southern town of Tuléar. The world’s fourth largest island, Madagascar has an area of 590,000 kilometres, 2 1⁄2 times the size of Great Britain and a little smaller than Texas.
The people of Madagascar, the Malagasy, are of Afro-Indonesian origin, divided into 18 tribes or clans. Archaeologists believe that the first people arrived in Madagascar from Indonesia/Malaya about 2,000 years ago. Most experts agree that it is likely that the immigrants came in their outrigger canoes via Southern India and East Africa. The strong African element in the coastal populations probably derived from later migrations. The Merina people of the higlands retain remarkably Indonesian characteristics and may have arrived as recently as 500-600 years ago. My mother is Merina and, thus, I don’t have many similarities with Africans, as some would assume, but rather with Indonesians. However, whenever people guess, they come up with South American, Moroccan, East-Indian, or simply have no idea - Malagasy has never been guessed so far. Other races in Madagascar include Indian/Pakistani, Chinese, and European. The population numbers about 24 million, nearly half of whom are under the age of 15. A (now somewhat older) report shows that 57% of the population live in rural areas. The capital, Antananarivo (Tana), has 1.6 Million people. Some 55% of Tana’s population lives below the poverty line and 85% of the children are undernourished. The average mother has 4.6 children (down from 6.3 in 1990). The “doubling time” of the population is approximately 22 years. The literacy rate is approximately 45% (although the government claims 65%). The average annual income is US$200. I was offered my first job in Diego with an income of $50 per month.
After a time of British influence through the London Missionary Society, Madagascar became a French colony in 1896 and regained independence in 1960. Christianity is the dominant organized religion, with the Protestant church slightly stronger than other denominations. Islam and Hinduism are also practised, mainly by the Asian community, but to the majority of Malagasy their own unique form of ancestor worship is the most important influence in their lives.
The first language is Malagasy, which belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages. French is widely spoken in towns, and is the language of business. Some English is spoken in the capital and major tourist areas. I have met a few Malagasy who spoke German and one who spoke Dutch. Travelling can be very difficult if one does not speak French or Malagasy.
Madagascar has a tropical climate: November to March - summer (rainy season), hot with variable rainfall; April to October - winter (dry season), mainly dry and mild. I was there in the dry season which is the best time to travel there because most roads can be driven on and there are less people suffering from cholera (which spreads with water).
Dangers: Malaria, cholera, diarrhoea, bilharzia, AIDS, sunburn, scorpions, wasps, leeches, crocodiles. For each danger, you can take precautions and it is unlikely that you, as a tourist, die of any of these things. However, it does become a certain way of life to be careful and after about a week back home, I was still dodging mosquitos and checking my shoes for scorpions before putting them on. Violent crime is still relatively rare in Madagascar. You are more likely to be robbed if anything at all. Sexual harassment does not seem to be a problem for women. Anne Axel says: “I personally would feel comfortable returning to Madagascar alone. […] I would encourage other women to travel alone in Madagascar.” John Kupiec writes: “I was constantly fighting off women wherever I went. One night in Fort Dauphin I actually had to run away!” He was also offered the mother of the President du Fokontany in one village. Saying you’re married is considered irrelevant. I had similar experiences, with a few instances of women asking me to marry them or at least to come back in a week. But you quickly learn to refuse (similarly with people who ask for money).
For more information including up to date political information, please refer to Madagascar’s Wikipedia page.
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