People & Culture

An Asian-African mix

Some of Madagascar’s inhabitants – such as the the Indonesian-looking Merina people – are believed to be descendents of seafarers from Indonesia/Malaya, reaching the island by travelling round the Indian Ocean. These Asian travellers brought their beliefs and rice-based diet. Burial of bones, by Saveoursmile (Hery Zo Rakotondramanana) (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There is also an African and Arab element to the population. This reflects how Arab merchants and African migrants came here over the centuries, such as the ancestors of the Arabic Antaimoro people in the east and the darker-skinned Sakalava in the west. The Malagasy language contains some Bantu/Swahili words.

Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and Sakalava. Despite racial differences, Malagasy people share a common culture (practised with regional differences) and language.

The Malagasy language gives clues to its Asian origin, being similar to a dialect spoken in Borneo.The language is very poetical, rich in images and metaphors. So for example, where we would say ‘dusk’, the Malagasy use the phrase ‘maizim-bava vilany’ which means ‘lit when the mouth of the cooking pot is dark’.

Speaking with the dead

The most famous burial practice in Madagascar is probably the famadihana or the ‘turning of the bones’ (shown in the photo above). This is when Merina and Betsileo families remove the remains of a buried loved one from a tomb seven years after death. They wrap the remains in a new burial shroud and celebrations can last up to week.

Malagasy culture

The Asian-African origin of the island’s people has led to a unique and distinctive society, with a complex set of beliefs and customs.

One of the central beliefs is in the power of dead ancestors (razana). Their spirits are believed to be active in looking after their descendants in a variety of ways. And their wishes are therefore to be respected and obeyed. This means that families and communities have various taboos/don’ts (known as fady) regarding the avoidance of certain actions, to ensure the approval of the razana.

Death is the most important part of life, when the soul leaves the body and becomes an immortal spirit/razana. Burial tombs are therefore built to last and funeral practices are often joyful, though they vary from community to community.

Beautiful weaving

Handwoven lamba, British Museum

In some places, the lamba is still hand-woven, as in these woven examples from the Merina people.

Under the traditional beliefs, practised by around half the people, there is one God who is neither male or female. Some people also worship secondary gods or nature spirits, such as those which inhabit rivers or trees. Other Malagasy have been converted to Christianity, with a small number of Muslims (mainly on the west coast). However, even among converts there is a reverence for traditional rituals.

Hats and wraps

Many people still wear the traditional lamba or wraparound cloth. This can be worn as a sarong or draped around shoulders as a kind of shawl. It is also used by mothers as a sling to carry their babies.

The Malagasy also like their hats, which are made from a variety of different plant fibres, weaves and colours, depending on the region. For some women, hat-making is used as a source of income.