History & Background
Scientific evidence suggests that Madagascar originated from a severe earthquake that separated it from Africa about 200 million years ago. This separation from continental mainland caused the island to drift 250 miles northeast and settled for about 35-45 million years. The distance between Madagascar and the East African coastline is 1,000 miles. It is separated by Mozambique Channel, which is part of the Indian Ocean. The island is 228,880 square miles; it has a mountainous central plateau, coastal plain and a moderate or tropical climate. The original inhabitants of Madagascar are Austronesianas and Arabs. The human settlements were made about 2,000 years ago. Austronesians from Southeastern Asia were the first to arrive. Theoretically, ethnographic evidence shows that their materials culture of looms, smelting knowledge, canoes, architecture, food crops, and agricultural were known. Bantu-Kiswali speaking peoples of Eastern Africa, who may have brought the Austronecians with them, are linguistically and culturally proficient Kiswahili users.
Around A.D. 900, trade flourished between Eastern African peoples and the inhabitants of Madagascar. This may have influenced the evolution of the earliest site at Mahilaka on the West Coast. The fact that this site consisted of stone buildings and mosques characterize it with early mixed cultural integration between Africans, Arabs and Austranesians. The inhabitants of Madagascar had a low level of technology, which they used for the construction of simple arts and crafts, buildings, fishing, agriculture, and trade. They largely lived on nature's bounty. This made it possible for each of the three tribal races to avoid segregation by encouraging cooperation in order to combine efforts and obtain the available resources for their survival. As a result, an incredible synthesis of tradition, religion, language and genetics developed to create Madagascar's cultural uniformity and linguistic homogeneity for centuries. The main language which all the 18 tribal communities use is Malagasy.
The Asiatic and Austronesian element of the population is predominantly found in the central highland, which they inhabited since the thirteenth century A.D. Out of 14 million people, the Merino number about 3 million and the Betsilio 1.5 million. Both groups are rice growers who use irrigation for farming. The rest of the population consists of the African coastal peoples who rely on fishing and trade. Numerically, the Betsioni-Sakalava (1.5 million), the Tsimihety (1 million) and the Sakavala (1 million) are the largest groups. Before Madagascar became a French colony, the Merino had established and empire that existed for over 200 years, from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. The Merina state had large fortresses that were the central institutions governing smaller forts and states on the island.
In Madagascar, 50 percent of the people are adherents of traditional African religion. These religions are naturalistic because their followers emphasize the spiritual linkage between the living and the dead. Followers believe the dead join their ancestors in a variety of ranks of divinity. The ancestors are intensely concerned with the well being or bad luck of their living descendants. Within the Merina and Betsileo communities, the reburial of the famadihana (turning over the dead) is a highly celebrated ritual. In this ritual of reburial, the remains of the dead are exhumed and wrapped up in new silk attire. They are festively and ceremoniously reburied to display awe and honor and to perpetuate the dead's appeasement. The appeased will not develop retaliatory, ghostly, and punitive ramifications on the living.
Forty percent of Madagascar's citizens are Christians who are evenly divided into Catholics and Protestants. In spite of their Christian beliefs, most Christians incorporate the cult of the dead with their religious practices and beliefs. They celebrate their dead in church before they hold traditional burial ceremonies. Occasionally, they invite religious ministers to witness the ritual of famadihana.
Historically, an intense rivalry has existed between the largely coastal, under privileged Catholics (Cotiers) and the predominantly Protestant Merina who dominate the bureaucracy, corporate sector, and the professions. While authority seems to be highly centralized, attempts are underway to decentralize both authority and resources for the six provinces of Madagascar. Historical and cultural realities are regarded as important educational experience upon which modern scientific learning on the island is rooted.
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