Madagascar's teeming fertile forests and geographical isolation have served to preserve and propagate 'nature's design laboratory' in a mix found nowhere else on earth. Sadly, this astounding diversity is threatened by aggressive deforestation.
Still, for now, Madagascar's forests are a shimmering, seething mass of a trillion stems and dripping leaves and slithering, jumping, quirky creatures out of nature's bag of tricks: lemurs, chameleons, periwinkles and baobabs, aloes, geckoes, sifakas and octopus trees.
You needn't totally forget about notions of idyllic tropical islands, but there's more to do here than lazing on a sandy beach and dipping into crystalline waters to peek at coral reefs now and again. Cut off from the African mainland for millions of years, Madagascar's forests are a naturalist's damp dream; they've preserved oddities and developed specialisations found nowhere else on earth, and you can get among them in a spectacular collection of accessible national parks.
With fascinating tribal cultures and ceremonies and an intriguing assortment of fady (local taboos) thrown in to perplex visitors, Madagascar makes for a truly rewarding experience.
Full country name: Republic of
Madagascar (Repoblikan'i Madagasiraka)
GDP: US$12.3 billion
Most contemporary and traditional Malagasy music revolves around dance rhythms with influences from Indonesia and the African mainland, notably Kenya. These rhythms are accompanied by the flute, whistle and valiha, a unique, 28-stringed instrument resembling a bassoon but played more like a harp. The lokanga voatavo, or cordophone, is also popular, as are a few types of guitar, including the kabosy, similar to a ukelele. Vaky soava is a rhythmic style of singing accompanied only by hand clapping, and perhaps the most renowned exponent is Paul Bert Rahasimanana, who developed a personal style that included adding a musical accompaniment. He weaves themes of poverty, love, loss and hope into his music.
The regional town of Fianarantsoa has developed into a literary capital of sorts in recent years, and several contemporary novelists and writers work there. While literature didn't really flower until the 1930s and 40s, traditional oratory, called kabary, is highly regarded. Kabary's roots are in early political assemblies, in which each speaker spoke in turn. It evolved and was eventually popularised and extended to the general public as a form of entertainment. Kabary is an integral part of hira gasy, popular spectacles that include music, dancing and story telling, held regularly in Tana on most Sunday afternoons.
While Madagascar officially shares one culture and language, the Malagasy people are divided into 18 tribes whose boundaries are based on old kingdoms rather than ethnic characteristics. Most Malagasy are of mixed race, but some, such as the Merina from the Antananarivo area, are predominantly Indonesian in appearance, and others, like the Vezo of the south-west coast, have close ties to eastern Africa and look like black Africans.
Despite the status of French as the official language, Malagasy is widely spoken. It belongs to the Austronesian language family, which includes Indonesian and many Polynesian languages, and its closest linguistic cousin is spoken on southern Borneo. It has also adopted words from French, Arabic, nearby African languages and English.
Around 50% of Malagasy follow traditional religions, and even confirmed Christians (41%) usually still devoutly carry out traditional practices. The Malagasy regard the dead with awe and reverence, and give the afterlife as much importance as the present; the dead play a role in the life of the living rarely seen in other cultures. Mourners carry out elaborate rituals at funerals, and if it is deemed that the dead are displeased, further rituals are enacted to appease them. The most famous of these is the famadihana, or turning of the bones, when the dead are exhumed, entertained, talked to and reburied with gifts and new shrouds. There are several Muslim communities, and Muslims comprise about 7% of the population.
The dominant element of any Malagasy meal is vary or rice, and vary doesn't accompany the meal, the meal accompanies the vary. Roadside canteens normally offer a big plate of rice with a few tidbits to garnish it, such as beef, fish or poultry. Other than rice, favourite Malagasy dishes include romazava (beef and vegetable stew) and ravitoto (pork stew with manioc greens). Many dishes are accompanied by achards, a hot, pickled vegetable curry. The seafood on the coast is excellent and cheap, and you can eat a range of tropical fruits (voankazo) such as pineapples, lychees, mangoes and bananas for most of the year.
The French influence ensures that the coffee is excellent and more popular than tea. The local THB or Three Horses Beer is also very good. Around Ambalavao and Fianarantsoa they produce several excellent wines, including a greyish-coloured one appropriately enough called gris. The rotguts come in several different kinds but all are strong enough to unblock your pipes. Toaka grasy is a crude rum made from rice and sugar cane; trembo is a coconut toddy; and litchel is an alcoholic fruit drink made from lychees. Up the scale is a distilled rum called roma.
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