A Rough Guide to Madagascar

Believe it or not, there’s more to Madagascar than the movie. Here are the things you should know: 


1. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world. it is 587,713 square kilometres big, more than double the size of the UK!  

2. Madagascar has been an isolated island for 88 million years, making it the oldest island on earth. It became separated from the Indian landmass in the pre-historic breakup of supercontinent Gondwana. 

3. As a result of this long isolation, the natural history of Madagascar is unique: roughly 90% of all plant and animal species are endemic, including lemurs, and the carnivorous fossa. Despite common misconceptions (probably a result of the movie), there are no lions, giraffes, zebra or even hippos in Madagascar. Although, there are chameleons, geckos and tortoises, which are also found on the African mainland. 

4. Madagascar is the motherland of baobab trees. Of the eight species of baobab that exist worldwide, six are exclusive to Madagascar. The others, found in Africa and Australia, are thought to have originated from seedpods swept across the oceans from Madagascar. Baobab trees can live for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years.

5. The first people to arrive in Madagascar were from Indonesia, about 2,000 years ago, having travelled 6,400km across the Indian Ocean in canoes. African populations arrived slightly later. The two-continent origin of the Malagasy is noticeable: Highland & Northern tribes resemble Indonesians, while Southern tribes resemble Africans. Despite racial diversity, there is cultural uniformity. 

6. The majority of Madagascar share a belief in the power of dead ancestors. However, this is a celebration of life, and dead ancestors are considered potent forces that remain within family life. Tradition is strong in Madagascar, and has shaped Malagasy culture: respect for elders and courtesy to all fellow humans is part of the tradition. 

7. The Malagasy have a funerary tradition, Famadihana (or Turning of the Bones), in which people bring out the bones of their ancestors. They rewrap them before dancing with them to live music. 

8. Madagascar has a distinctive and diverse music and dance culture. They are important parts of Malagasy culture, and often combine local traditional instruments with more widespread instruments such as the guitar. Current popular music is often a fusion of hip-hop and traditional Malagasy music styles. Kilalaky is a contemporary Malagasy music & dance genre with ties to traditional culture, and is characterised by fast, 6/8 grove with percussive breakdowns, causing dancing that has been described as “controlled madness”. 


Bonus fact: 

9. The appellation “Madagascar” is not local in origin. It is first recorded in the memoirs of Marco Polo as a corrupted transliteration of Mogadishu, the Somalian port, with which Polo had confused the island. 



Alex Sanderson