Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Madagascar is an island nation situated on the fourth largest island in the world, and is separated from the African mainland by a 250 mile wide strip known as the Mozambique Channel. It's human history begins only 1,300 years ago, and is strongly influenced by the Indonesian people, which is odd, considering that Indonesia is much further away from the island (3,000 miles) than is Africa.
The people who live on the island currently are a mix of various cultures and a great many ethnicities, and their culture bears some obvious resemblances to Chinese, English, Arabic, French, and Indian cultures. More than 90% of the people living on the island today are considered to belong to the Malagasy culture, which has evolved in its own way, incorporating all those influences to become a unique group of people.
The flora and fauna of the island are much different than what is found in nearby Africa, and is unique in many ways, owing to its isolation from other lands. People in Western civilization don't often hear much about Madagascar, but it has a rich history and a charm that make it unique among the countries of the world. Let's take a look at the landscape and the people who inhabit this island.
The island of Madagascar is situated in the Southwest Indian Ocean, and is relatively close to the eastern coast of Africa. There are three parallel longitudinal zones consisting of the coastal strip in the east, a section of plains and plateaus in the West, and a central plateau. The entire island rises between 2500 feet and 4500 feet above sea level, and over the course of millennia, the central plateau has been lifted up and worn down a number of times.
There are several mountainous regions on the island with the tallest peaks being close to 9,000 feet high. The eastern side of the island is drained by a number of short, torrential rivers, most of which discharge directly into coastal lagoons or into the sea itself after cascading over waterfalls and through rapids. The western side of the island slopes more gently toward the Mozambique Channel, and is crisscrossed by rivers which are longer and larger. These rivers bring enormous deposits of fertile alluvium down into the plains, providing opportunities for rice-growing, which is by far the biggest food staple of the country.
There is a warm, wet season which lasts from November until April, followed by a cooler and drier season which stretches from May through October. The southeast trade winds bring considerable moisture, as do the Northwest monsoon winds which have the greatest impact on the central plateau. The trade winds affect the island all year round, but are strongest between the months of May and October. The eastern side of the island averages about 150 inches of rainfall each year.
The central plateau tends to receive considerable drizzle and is often shrouded in mist, while the western part of the island frequently is under a dry rain shadow. In fact, the southwest part of the island is close to having desert conditions, with the arid nature of the region exacerbated by a cool offshore current. Temperatures on the island range from the mid 50s Fahrenheit in July, to high temperatures which reach the 80s in December, which is typically the hottest month. Generally speaking, temperatures on the island decrease correspondingly with increasing elevation, so that the lowest temperatures encountered are on the plateau, and the highest temperatures are on the northwest coast.
Approximately 90% of the island inhabitants are Malagasy, and they speak the Malagasy language, which is written using the Latin alphabet. English is also spoken on the island and in recent years, it has become more popular, but by far the most popular language on the island are the three variations of Malagasy.
About 40% of the island's population practices a traditional religion based on worshiping their ancestors, who are believed to punish or reward the living. Local spirits also hold sway over the people, and there are a number of taboos which exert a major influence over traditional Malagasy life. Roughly half the population is Christian, with one-fifth being Roman Catholic and one-fourth being Protestant. However, the conversion to Christianity has not quite eliminated the practice of traditional religious rites, especially those involving dead ancestors.
There is a smaller community of Sunni Muslims would which can be found in the northwest section of the island. For food, rice is eaten at virtually every meal and constitutes a huge part of the Islanders' diet. Rice is grown on virtually every area of the island that will support it, but cattle are also grown in most parts of the island, although they are far fewer in the few dense forest areas of the eastern escarpment. Many of the Islanders grow subsistence crops just to support their immediate families.
People who live on the island, especially those in urban areas, have largely adapted to the Western style of dressing. In the rural areas, as well as the Highlands and remote areas of the country, traditional dress is still worn. This consists of a traditional wrap worn around the waist, with women often matching a shawl over the head and shoulders to this.
In the Highlands, both sexes wear a white wrap on their shoulders above other garments. Straw hats are very popular in the country, because they protect the wearers from powerful rays of the sun. Music on the island is dominated by traditional, popular, and temporary themes, with local variations. Rock music, hip-hop, and jazz have gained popularity in recent years, although contemporary music is still popular and shows a fusion of traditional music with modern instrumentation.
Madagascar has a strong tradition in literature, with epic poems, mythology, and historical accounts passed down by word-of-mouth through the ages. Modern Malagasy poets and writers encourage the use of Malagasy language, and frequently blend it with the country's oral traditions to generate a very rich Malagasy literature.
Many of the Malagasy people are adept at making craft items, either for themselves or for sale. These can include the weaving of silk, weaving other plant materials to produce hats, baskets, and mats, wood carving, embroidery, and some handcrafted drawn-thread work. Modern day Madagascar is very much a blend of traditional culture and practices, with some more contemporary influences, all of which serve to make this a fascinating country and collection of people.