A Taste of the Culture in Madagascar
By Sasha Rusakova
My name is Sasha and I am the legal adviser in Vestability. As a law student I am fascinated by law and particularly by the fact that it encompasses historical, political and economic societal developments. Therefore, I thought that this would be a good opportunity to explore the local traditions and customs that exist in Madagascar, as these make up a different kind of law; a local law abided by many citizens still today.
There are around 18 different ethnic groups living in Madagascar, which include the Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and Sakalava. With such a mix of ethnicities, it is unsurprising that Madagascaran culture is so rich in history and comprises many different interesting traditions.
There are many different taboos in Madagscar, known as “Fady”, attributed to Malagasy ancestors, which result in strict adherence to these taboos. They vary from region to region due to the diverse population in Madagascar. For example, the most well-known taboos in the forest are related to hunting. There are taboos in place to protect certain animals, such as the propithecus lemur, which is a large black and white lemur with orange eyes and the Tolo bird, with fables having been constructed and passed down through generations in order to protect these animals from being hunted.
Respect of one’s elders and authority figures in Madagascar is also extremely important. When addressing anyone older than you, or someone in a position of authority, such as military, police or government officials, use the word "tompoko" (toom-pook), which is similar to "sir/madame” in English.
If visiting a remote village, it is tradition to first meet with the head of the tribe or group before interacting with other members of the group.
One of the most interesting beliefs that I have come across has been the importance of and the adherence to burial rituals, as the Malayan people believe that their dead ancestors (razana) have a lot of spiritual power. People in Madagascar believe that the spirits of their ancestors are active in looking after their descendants, meaning that as a result, the wishes of their ancestors are to be obeyed. This means that families and communities have various taboos to ensure the approval of the razana. In addition to this, the most famous burial practice in Madagascar is the famadihana or the ‘turning of the bones’, where families remove the bones of a buried loved one from a tomb seven years after death, wrapping the remains in a new burial shroud and celebrations can last up to week.
I hope that this has been an interesting, and potentially useful, guide to some of the customs and taboos adhered to in Madagascar.