Cactus Tours Madagascar

The Malagasy Cultures

A community leader in the Malagasy community

Table of Contents

People of Madagascar, Origin and History

The aboriginals of Madagascar were the Vazimba, who were considered as a mysterious people. The Vazimba race was dwarf. Among the taboos of the Island, one considers the Vazimba tombs sacred. The Vazimba were driven out by the Huva (coming from Asia) who conquered the Highlands that was home of many immigrants of various origins settled thereafter.
The first immigrants originated mainly from Indonesia (Java, Sumatra), Malaisia, Africa, India, Arabia and Borneo. This diversity of origins has given another dimension to the Malagasy culture and language.
Mahafaly tribe Madagascar

The second wave of immigrants were the Arabs’ arriving between the 7th to the 12th centuries and the colonists Bantu in the 12th century in the West coast of the Island. Europeans arrived only in the 16th century. The Portuguese, Diego Diaz, discovered the Island in the year 1500. He noted the prevalence of the Merina tribes based on the central Highlands. From that period, the trade of slaves and weapons started. This trade supported four large kingdoms: the Sakalava Menabe, the Merina, the Zanamalata and the Betsimisaraka. Several tribal conflicts of unification happened throughout the Island.

In 1890, England and France signed a Treaty granting France the occupation of Madagascar. In 1896, the French colonists invaded from the northwest coast and Madagascar became a French colony until June 1960.

Madagascar’s actual population is estimated at 20 million inhabitants (in 2009). Famous for their hospitality and friendliness, Malagasy people put a high value on the land and the traditions handed down by their ancestors. There are 18 main tribes speaking different dialects which have the official Malagasy language (Merina Language) as their root.
Our culture is primarily based on having a great respect for the elders, the ancestors, the family and God the Creator.


The national language is the official Malagasy (like Malagasy people). Each ethnic group also has its own dialect. The nearest language to Malagasy is the Maanja language spoken in south Borneo. The links between the Javannais, Malays, Sanskrit, Bantu and Swahili is rather strong.
Other Arab, English and French words are used in everyday life but the French language remains the second official language and English the third.
A few Malagasy words:

– Hello: Salama e!
– Good bye: Veloma.
– Welcome: Tonga soa.
– Excuse me: Azafady.
– Book: Boky.

Food and Cuisine

The main meal is composed of rice, vegetables, zebu meat and fishes. Local rum is present at every ceremony. Each tribe also has its own cuisine. During our tours, you will have the opportunity to taste several local dishes as well as exclusive royal dishes.

“Famadihana” or exhumation

The famadihana is a family ceremony which happens every 3, 5 or 7 years, depending on the family astrologer’s instructions. The ceremony consists in re-wrapping the remains of the ancestors in silk, out of the family tomb. Friends and relatives are then invited for a big feast animated by traditional musicians.


It is commonly practiced in Madagascar. To be a “real man”, boys have to be circumcised. This practice happens during the winter season (July to August). The ceremony generally starts late in the evening and ends at dawn.

Morality values

Malagasy people are very friendly and hospitable, but also very sensitive.
People spend time to greet one another with good manners. “Azafady” which means “excuse me” or “I beg your pardon” or “please” is a very appreciated and a common polite expression. It is used in different circumstances.

The “family” value in the Malagasy society

The Family cell includes more than the father, the mother and the children; uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews are also called family members. A traditional family lives inseparably: its members settle in the same village and work on the same field. In the past, children were not allowed to live far away from their parents according to that concept of “inseparable family”.
Young people have great respect for the elder people. In everyday life, the elders are given the best part of the meat and are the first to eat meals. A Malagasy proverb says “The speech is for the elder, and the burden for the young”.


Malagasy people are generally religious. Nearly 80 per cent are catholics and protestants. The rest of the population believe in God the Creator called “Zanahary” .

Fady or Taboo

Fady means taboo or forbidden. The fady are beliefs that have influenced and modeled much the Malagasy society and tribes for several centuries until now.
They were created by the elders and the soothsayers to harmonize the society, to educate the children, to safeguard the natural resources and for various religious reasons.
Malagasy people believe in God the Creator that one calls “Zangahari” or “my Creator” (Yang Harei in Tiam language and Yang Hâri in Malay language).
We can say that the taboos have contributed effectively to the conservation of nature since several parts of forest and lakes were considered impenetrable as they keep the ancestors’ spirits.

Taboos have also been helping protecting some natural heritages and prevented some forests and animals from being destroyed as they are sacred.

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