The Culture Of Madagascar

Woman carrying log on the head, Avenue of the Baobabs, Madagascar. Image credit: javarman/
  • The Malagasy cuisine is based on rice as a staple of the diet and is consumed with nearly every meal.
  • In the highland areas, rural areas, and remote places of the country, traditional dresses are still worn.
  • The modern day Malagasy poets and writers promote the use of the Malagasy language and blend it well with the oral traditions.
  • Moraingy, an indigenous hand-to-hand combat game is popular in the coastal regions of Madagascar.
  • Christian festivals are celebrated with great pomp and glory in Madagascar.

The culture of Madagascar is an amalgamation of various cultures of its multi-ethnic population. The culture of the country reflects the origins of the Malagasy people and exhibits striking resemblance in certain aspects with the cultural practices of Southeast Asians and East Africans. The culture of the country is also influenced by the cultures of the Arabic, Indian, French, English, and Chinese settlers in the country.

Cuisine Of Madagascar

Traditional Malagasy dishes. Image credit: Damian Ryszawy/

The Malagasy cuisine is based on rice as a staple of the diet and is consumed with nearly every meal. Rice is served with different types of accompaniments called kabaka which might have beans, beef, chicken or fish. A broth prepared using green leafy vegetables called romazava is also often served with rice. The side dishes are either in the fried, boiled, grilled or cooked form. Tomato-based sauces in the highlands and coconut milk in the coastal areas are added to the cooked side dishes to enhance the flavor of the dish. Other additives that are used to add flavor to the kabaka are ginger, cloves, turmeric, vanilla, garlic, onions, and salt. A variety of condiments are also used to add flavor according to an individual’s taste buds and are added during a meal rather than while cooking it. These include sakay (made of chilly peppers) and tangy or sweet fruit pickles. In the arid areas of Madagascar, zebu is reared by the people and zebu milk is often added to vegetable dishes. Sweet potato, cassava, maize, millet, yams are the most important types of foods consumed in these arid regions. The different ethnic groups living in Madagascar have their own food taboos which are either observed at all times or during special circumstances like pregnancy or lactation.

Traditional Clothing Of Madagascar

Malagasy men in their traditional attire. Image credit: Davide Gandolfi/

Dressing styles vary in different regions of Madagascar. A large section of the country’s urban population follows the western style of dressing. In the highland areas, rural areas, and remote places of the country, traditional dresses are still worn. Both men and women wear a lamba, a traditional wrap that is worn around the waist. Women often wear a matching shawl over the head and shoulders. In the highland regions, both men and women adorn a white wrap on their shoulders above their garment. Various styles of straw hats are worn in the country that helps protect the wearers from the strong rays of the sun.

Music Of Madagascar

Show of Hira Gasy troupe in Antananarivo. The Hiragasy is a musical tradition in Madagascar from the Merina ethnic group of the Highlands.Image credit: Pierre-Yves Babelon/

The musical scene in Madagascar is highly diverse and influenced by the various cultures that shaped the history of the country. The music of the country belongs to one of the three categories of traditional, popular, and contemporary music. The traditional music scene exhibits local variations. Rock, hip-hop, folk rock, jazz are some of the popular music styles that gained popularity in Madagascar towards the second half of the 20th century. Contemporary-style music involves a fusion of traditional music with modern instruments. Music is not only played as a source of entertainment but also has an important role to play in spiritual, cultural, and historical events and ceremonies. The valiha, a musical instrument made of bamboo reflects the Southeast Asian origin of a section of the Malagasy people and bears similarities with instruments used in the Philippines and Indonesia today.

Literature And Arts

A woman basket seller in the market of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar highlands. Image credit: Pierre-Yves Babelon/

Madagascar has a rich oral literary tradition where epic poems like Ibonia, historical accounts, mythological tales, and legends have been passed down through generations by word of mouth. The earliest written accounts produced here include information about herbal medicines and religious rites that were penned down by “wise men" or ombiasy using the Arabic script called sorabe that was introduced by the Arab sailors. The Europeans were the first to document the oral history and tradition of Madagascar in the written form. Raombana was the first Malagasy historian to document Merina history (the history of Madagascar’s largest ethnic group) in the early 19th century. During the colonial period, literature flourished in Madagascar, and a number of western-inspired literary works were produced. European style poetry, novels, journals, etc., were now being written in the country by the Malagasy scholars. The modern day Malagasy poets and writers promote the use of the Malagasy language and blend it well with the oral traditions prevalent in the country to produce a wealth of Malagasy literature. A number of craft forms are practiced in Madagascar. These include silk weaving; weaving of plant materials to produce mats, baskets, hats, etc.; wood carving; drawn-thread work; embroidery, etc.

Sports In Madagascar

Boys practicing basketball in the street in Madagascar. Image credit: Muriel Lasure/

Moraingy, an indigenous hand-to-hand combat game is popular in the coastal regions of Madagascar. Zebu wrestling is also practiced in the rural areas of the country. Fanorona is a board game that is extremely popular in the highlands of Madagascar. A large number of Western sports are also played here. Rugby is regarded as the nation’s national sports. Football is also played here. The French game of Pétanque is played widely in the highlands and urban areas of Madagascar and the country has even produced a world champion in the game. The country first competed in the Olympic Games in 1964. Some schools in the country offer to teach a number of sports like soccer, judo, basketball, tennis, boxing, etc., to the students.

Social Beliefs And Customs In Madagascar

Two women engage in a conversation as they meet on the streets during a usual busy day. Image credit: Anton_Ivanov/

The Malagasy society is made of a small elite and bourgeois class and a large lower class. A caste system was prevalent in the early Merina society but caste-based discrimination has gradually diluted with time. Although gender-based differences are also gradually disappearing from the Malagasy society, a distinct variation in the roles played by the males and females can still be observed in the country. Men are the primary bread-earners in most families while women usually are engaged in petty jobs or engage in the role of being a homemaker. However, female empowerment and education in recent times have encouraged women to diversify their roles and also enter politics in Madagascar.

Marriages in Madagascar have exhibited a shift from arranged marriages to love marriages. The marriage customs also vary by ethnic groups. For example, the Betsileos play great importance to the ancestral history and family background of the potential spouse and once they are fully satisfied they consult an astrologer to fix a date for the marriage. Marriage among cousins is not uncommon among the Bara people. These people also sacrifice a cow symbolizing the establishment of a marriage bond. Polygyny was more common in precolonial age and in some areas nearly half the men were reported to have married more than once. Divorce is common in the Malagasy society. Women usually leave their natal homes to live with their husband either in nuclear families or with the extended family of their spouse. The division of labor is both age and gender dependent. Women dominate the household sphere while men handle the professional sphere. Although men and women are entitled to equal inheritance by law, in practice men inherit the land and household while women inherit jewelry and belongings of the house. Children in the Malagasy society are taught to respect their elders and learn about life from them. Education is compulsory for children aged 6 to 14 but many children of school-going years in rural areas drop school to participate in agricultural work in the fields.

Religions And Festivals Of Madagascar

Disciples of the white shepherds of Soatanana in their Sunday procession in Madagascar. Image credit: Pierre-Yves Babelon/

The remaining population of Madagascar is mostly composed of Christians. The religion spread in the country after the arrival of the Christian missionaries in 1818. The reigning Queen Ranavalona I did not support the spread of the religion and persecuted the converts but her heir, Queen Ranavalona II was a strict adherent of Christianity and under her rule, the religion flourished in Madagascar. Today, most Christians in the country integrate the traditional religion with modern Christianity and continue to perform ancestral worship. Islam is another religion practiced by a significant minority in Madagascar. The religion was introduced by the Arabs and Somali traders in the Middle Ages. The religion, however, failed to spread inland and followers of Islam are primarily restricted to the Antsiranana and Mahajanga provinces of the country. About 7% of the population of Madagascar practice Islam. Hinduism has also been introduced in the country by the Gujarati merchants who settled there for trade.

Christian festivals are celebrated with great pomp and glory in Madagascar. Secular holidays observed here include the Memorial Day on March 29 in memory of those who sacrificed their lives in the 1949 French Malagasy War and the Labor Day on the third Thursday in the month of May. Women rights and freedoms are recognized on the International Women's Day. The country’s independence from French rule is celebrated on June 26. The Celebration of the Dead, a day devoted to the ancestors, is observed on November 1.


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