Each of Madagascar’s numerous ethnic sub-groups has its own set of beliefs, customs, and lifestyles that have historically contributed to their distinct identities. However, there are a number of cultural characteristics that are shared throughout the island, resulting in a strong Malagasy cultural identity. Traditional Malagasy values emphasize fihavanana (solidarity), vintana (destiny), tody (karma), and hasina, a sacred life force that traditional communities believe imbues and therefore legitimizes authority figures within the community or fa. Male circumcision, strong family connections, a widespread belief in the power of magic, diviners, astrology, and witch doctors, and a historic separation of social classes into aristocrats, commoners, and slaves are all cultural features present across the island.
Despite the fact that social castes are no longer legally recognized, ancestral caste membership has a significant impact on social status, economic opportunities, and communal responsibilities. According to an ancient astrological system established by Arabs, Malagasy people consult Mpanandro (“Makers of the Days”) to choose the most auspicious days for major occasions such as marriages or famadihana. Similarly, the ombiasy (from olona-be-hasina, “man of great virtue”) of the southeastern Antemoro ethnic group, who trace their lineage back to early Arab immigrants, were often employed by the nobility of numerous Malagasy towns in the pre-colonial era.
The many roots of Malagasy culture may be seen in its physical manifestations. The valiha, Madagascar’s most iconic instrument, is a bamboo tube zither brought to Madagascar by early immigrants from southern Borneo, and is remarkably similar in shape to those seen today in Indonesia and the Philippines. In terms of symbolism and structure, traditional homes in Madagascar are comparable to those in southern Borneo, with a rectangular plan, peaked roof, and central support pillar. Tombs are culturally important in many areas, reflecting a widespread reverence of the ancestors. They are usually constructed of more durable materials, such as stone, and have more ornate ornamentation than living-rooms. Madagascar’s national garment, the woven lamba, has developed into a diverse and sophisticated art form, with silk manufacturing and weaving dating back to the island’s first inhabitants.
Malagasy cuisine reflects the Southeast Asian cultural influence, with rice served at every meal and usually complemented by one of a number of delicious vegetable or meat dishes. The holy significance of zebu cattle and their representation of their owner’s riches, both traditions originating on the African continent, show African influence. Cattle rustling, which began as a rite of passage for young men in Madagascar’s plains areas, where the largest herds of cattle are kept, has evolved into a dangerous and sometimes deadly criminal enterprise as herdsmen in the southwest try to defend their cattle with traditional spears against increasingly armed professional rustlers.
Madagascar has produced a broad range of oral and written literature. Oratory, as represented in hainteny (poetry), kabary (public speech), and ohabolana, is one of the island’s most important creative traditions (proverbs). The Ibonia, an epic poem that exemplifies these traditions, has been passed down through the generations in many versions throughout the island, providing insight into the varied mythologies and beliefs of traditional Malagasy groups. In the twentieth century, artists such as Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Africa’s first modern poet, and Elie Rajaonarison, an example of the new generation of Malagasy poetry, carried on the tradition. Hundreds of regional musical styles, such as coastal salegy or highland hiragasy, enliven village gatherings, local dance floors, and national radios in Madagascar. Madagascar also has a developing classical music culture, which is promoted through youth academies, groups, and orchestras that encourage young people to participate in classical music.
Plastic arts are also widely practiced on the island. Aside from the silk weaving and lamba manufacturing traditions, raffia and other indigenous plant materials have been woven into a variety of useful products such as floor mats, baskets, wallets, and caps. Wood carving is a well-developed art form, with regional styles seen in the ornamentation of balcony railings and other architectural components. Sculptors make a wide range of furniture and domestic items, as well as aloalo funeral poles and wooden sculptures, many of which are marketed to tourists. The Zafimaniry people of the central highlands’ ornamental and utilitarian woodworking traditions were placed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.
The Antaimoro people have a long-standing practice of making paper with flowers and other natural elements incorporated in it, which they have started to sell to eco-tourists.
Clothing, as well as tablecloths and other household textiles, are embroidered and drawn thread work by hand and sold at local craft fairs. A small but increasing number of fine art galleries in Antananarivo and other metropolitan areas sell paintings by local artists, while yearly art events like the capital’s Hosotra open-air show contribute to the country’s continued growth of fine arts.
Sport and recreation
In Madagascar, a variety of traditional hobbies have developed. In coastal areas, moraingy, a kind of hand-to-hand fighting, is a popular spectator activity. It has historically been a male-dominated activity, although women have lately started to partake. In several areas, zebu cattle wrestling, known as savika or tolon-omby, is also performed. A broad range of games are played in addition to sports. Fanorona, a board game popular across the Highlands, is one of the most famous. According to mythology, King Andrianjaka’s succession after his father Ralambo was influenced in part by Andrianjaka’s elder brother’s preoccupation with playing fanorona at the expense of his other duties.
Over the last two centuries, Madagascar has been exposed to Western leisure activities. Rugby Union is considered Madagascar’s national sport. Football is also well-liked. In pétanque, a French game comparable to lawn bowling that is extensively played in urban areas and across the Highlands, Madagascar has produced a world champion. Football, track and field, judo, boxing, women’s basketball, and women’s tennis are some of the most popular school sports. Madagascar participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in 1964, and has also competed in the African Games. In Madagascar, scouting is represented by a local federation of three scouting groups. In 2011, 14,905 people were projected to be members.
Antananarivo was awarded the rights to host several of Africa’s top international basketball events, including the 2011 FIBA Africa Championship, the 2009 FIBA Africa Championship for Women, the 2014 FIBA Africa Under-18 Championship, the 2013 FIBA Africa Under-16 Championship, and the 2015 FIBA Africa Under-16 Championship for Women, thanks to its advanced sports facilities.