8 Things You (Probably) Never Knew About Madagascar
Famed for its unique wildlife and remote location, little is ever reported in the western world of the people of Madagascar, their culture and traditions. Arriving there in October, I realised that I knew practically nothing about the often-forgotten island other than that which I’d seen on the odd David Attenborough documentary. So, with a month of first-hand experience before me and armed with a good old book*, I decided to find out more about Madagascar, a developing country on a mission to catch up with the rest.
1. The rumours are true
Might as well start with a cliché! Lemurs, the arboreal cuddly-toys of the rainforest, are undoubtedly the most symbolic member of Madagascar’s animal kingdom, if only because of their memorable cameo in the 2005 DreamWorks film. Yet even in reality, the lemur represents a crucial record of natural history and national identity; the Malagasy are proud parents and in certain areas of the country it is an offence to kill or eat one. Amazingly, the island still boasts over 105 varieties, ranging from the tiny mouse lemur, to the majestic indri, as well as the most bizarre of all – the gargoyle-like nocturnal aye-aye. And if only we could wind the clock back two thousand years, we might even catch a glimpse of a now-extinct species of gorilla-sized lemurs that roamed the tropical forests.
Once reigning as one of the planet’s most intellectually-sophisticated and able-bodied primates of its kind, the lemur was thwarted by the arrival of the highly adaptable monkey and was driven to extinction across the world around 35 million years ago. Only on Madagascar did the species find refuge, and it still flourishes in its safe haven to this day. They are fascinating to watch and even more so to listen to - their ear-deafening cries and barks (used to mark territories or warn of danger) are mesmerising to hear first-hand. But they can be silent talkers too, communicating essential information on location, fertility and social hierarchy via the omission of scents. Clever.
2. They like the music, music
I lived for three weeks in the small village of Andasibe, so crammed with wooden shacks separated by wide, dusty tracks that it was distinctly reminiscent of a cowboy town. Never, however, was there silence for long enough to trigger the tumble-weed scenario of the Wild West movies. All day, music blared out across the neighbourhood, and at night the faint thumping of bass mingled with the distant call of the lemurs. On my first morning in Madagascar I was awoken by the deafening sound of reggae music echoing from the floor above, and the lively singing of a man who was much too sprightly for 5am. In the weeks that followed, I witnessed an impromptu pop performance by our tenant’s daughter (whose accompanying dance moves were so energetic that I was forced to catch the ornament that tumbled from her dresser), I passed a six-year-old girl jumping beneath a tree to Cindy Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ and, on more than one occasion, I drank my evening brew to the eerily-nostalgic melody of a Westlife classic. In short, the Malagasy love music, and though African and Latin-inspired beats are not infrequent, the scale of the American and British influence is vast. The inexplicable juxtaposition of decade-old tracks and modern ones, though, took some getting used to. The two Malagasy girls I spent most time with raved about Celine Dion, Britney and (above all) Ronan Keating, yet their eyes also lit up at the mention of Adele, Katy Perry, Jason Mraz and – heaven help me – High School Musical. And on perhaps the most bizarre occasion of all, I saw a tired-looking salesman manning his deserted stall while staring into space and nodding his head nonchalantly to the Swedish House Mafia...
3. A little lingo goes a long way
Learn the Malagasy word “azafady” and you’re set - It means ‘sorry’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘please’! Also learn “salama” (hello), “misaotra” (thank you) and “veloma” (goodbye) and you’ll gain loads of respect from locals for making the effort. But beware: the pronunciation isn’t so straight-forward, so check out the phonetic spellings in the Madagascar Bradt Travel Guide beforehand.
4. You’ll save on spending
Until recently Madagascar’s currency was the Malagasy Franc (MGF), but now the Ariary (MGA) is in widespread use. Ariary come in big wads of colourful notes - quite pleasing to the eye but rather fiddly to handle – the smallest being the 100Ar note and the largest the 10,000Ar. Coins in smaller denominations do exist but are rarely used. As a rough measure £1 = 3000Ar, and we certainly get a lot for our money. An average packet of biscuits might cost just 1000Ar (33p), a kilo of potatoes is around 400 Ar (13p) and a two-course meal at an upmarket restaurant can be just 12,000 Ar (£4!). So, if you’re not in a position to splash the cash, this is certainly the place to be.
5. Travel = taxi with a twist
If you want to travel anywhere in Madagascar, you better be prepared for chaos. Truth be told, transport systems are not advanced and time management is rarely a priority, as suggested by the popular Malagasy phrase ‘mora mora’ (‘slowly slowly’). Travel by rail, water and air is possible, but very limited, so the most popular form of public transport by far is in one of the island’s infamous Taxi Brousses. “A taxi? Great!”, I hear you say, but don’t be fooled! These are no ordinary taxis... Melodrama aside, travelling by Taxi Brousse can be one heck of an experience, and doing so gave me some of the most colourful memories of my time in Madagascar. Whether a small, musty mini-bus or a downright dilapidated old van, you never know quite what you’ll end up climbing into. One thing’s for sure though: you’ll be sharing the ride (and probably your personal space) with at least fifteen strangers. In fact, drivers have been known to make passengers wait for several hours in order for their taxi to fill to bursting capacity before setting off, often with a few balancing on the bumper and hanging out of the back door. At worst, be prepared for dark, hot and cramped conditions; during a particularly memorable Taxi Brousse journey, we were herded into what can only be described as a cattle trailer to find ourselves balancing on a 10cm-wide bench and interlocking our knees with a string of men. But it’s not all bad. The next day you might stumble across a clean, comfortable Taxi Brousse and thank your lucky stars that karma is on your side once again. Would I recommend it? If you’re anxious or prone to frustration, long journeys in Mada should be avoided, as areas of the country can take days to reach and breakdowns are inevitable. However, if you want a truly Malagasy experience (and don’t suffer from extreme claustrophobia) it might even be fun! Travelling by Taxi Brousse can be hit or miss, but it’s generally safe, often intriguing, and almost always worth taking the gamble.
6. You need to stick to the rules
Fady are Malagasy beliefs and rules, or traditional taboos that are thought to prevent danger and give prosperous life to a community. Fady (which means “dangerous to”) relate to a wide variety of things such as actions, time or food, and vary from region to region, village to village and even family to family. In many regions, it is fady to hold a funeral on a Tuesday, as it is believed to cause further death. And in Ambohimanga, located just east of the country’s capital city, a unique tradition exists thanks to a piece of local history: the village was once raided by thieves who were caught thanks to the commotion created by a gaggle of geese disturbed by the intruders, and it is now fady to eat geese in this area of Madagascar. Although technically a series of rules, fady are not intended to restrict freedom but instead to improve the quality of life for the Malagasy people.
7. Wanted: less preaching, more teaching
We often hear stories of deforestation and its disastrous impact on our planet’s flora and fauna. Not often, however, are we made aware of the factors that drive so many people to destroy their own land in this way. ‘Slash and Burn Farming’, or ‘Tavy’ in Malagasy, is a widespread and problematic practice in Madagascar. Growing rice is an indispensable form of income for families in poorer regions (as the Malagasy eat more rice per head than any other race) and in order to create space for new rice fields, the forest must be burnt to the ground. Farmers are generally aware, though, of the consequences of their actions for future generations, and do respect their forests. It’s just not enough, as the problem lies in the fact that the practical need to earn money to sustain the lives of their loved ones remains a much more pressing matter. However, all is not lost. If a more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative is suggested, the Malagasy are often willing to pursue it. A number of organisations are dedicated to this very task, along with some switched-on locals. I spoke with a Malagasy man who has set up initiatives to provide the means for vegetable farming and embroidery trade (both of which are less harmful than rice-growing) in his home region, with encouraging results. With the severity of the problem becoming increasingly well-known locally, it is the job of environmentalists to show the rest the way, while keeping the practical and cultural context in mind.
8. Madagascar is best buds with Britain!
The relationship between Madagascar and its former coloniser, France, is widely understood: only in 1960 did the island gain independence, and French remains a national language. Madagascar’s ties with Britain, however, are lesser known, and yet go back even farther. It was King Radama I, the second ruler of the powerful Merina Kingdown (in many ways a Malagasy parallel of the Peruvian Inca tribe) who established a friendly bond with Britain in 1818, by inviting the London Missionary Society to send teachers to Madagascar. However, the French attacked soon after, leading to the 30-month long Franco-Malagasy war which ended in disaster for the island – the teaching of English was banned and the British influence removed. Despite this, the history of the British-Malagasy friendship, particularly in terms of the British military’s aid in the fight against the French, has had a lasting effect, and British tourists and volunteers are often welcomed with open arms. There’s also a growing desire among the educated Malgasy to learn English, a skill considered increasingly valuable on the African continent. The Dodwell Trust is just one of a handful of organisations dedicated to providing volunteers to teach English in schools, hospitals and English Clubs across Madagascar...et voilà, now you know! Madagascar is rich in traditions, driven by ambition and full of surprises. And if you think it’s still that bit too far away, remember that it’s a small journey to make for the unforgettable experiences you’ll come back home with. Trust me.
*Many helpful facts and figures were found in ‘Madagascar – The Bradt Travel Guide’ by Hilary Bradt and Daniel Austin.