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Culture, customs and religion

The Madagascans are a very hospitable and welcoming people, although their relaxed attitude may be sometimes frustrating. Life in Madagascar is by history very French. The language is French, and the breakfasts too. So at least that can be familiar to some tourists.  Gifts should be offered if staying at a local village, particularly to the village headman. Money will be seen as an insult. Friends and acquaintances kiss each other 2, 3 or 4 times on each cheek every time they see each other.
Visitors are advised not to wear any military-style clothing and not to photograph military or police establishments.

Tipping is not usual, although in European-style restaurants and hotels tips of 10-15% are expected.

Almost all Malagasy combine the Christian faith (either Catholic or Protestant) with their traditional religion. Two groups, the Antalaotra in the northwest and the Antaimoro (‘Arab-Malagasy’) of the southeast, have adopted Muslim practices. In traditional religion, the Highest Being or Creator is Zanihari, or Andriananahary, now referred to Andriamanitra, who is neither male nor female.

There are a vast number of secondary gods or nature spirits, which inhabit certain trees, rocks or rivers. These spirits can influence the lives of people, who may then visit sites to pray to spirits reportedly residing there. Spirits can also possess humans, sending them into trances (an important and regular phenomenon in some tribes), and also animals, particularly crocodiles and certain lemurs.
Sacred baobab
Old "sacred" baobabs are used in some religious rituals
© Madagascar Travel Guide

The Malagasy follow a vast, complex system of beliefs pertaining to all aspects of everyday life. These very from village to village and even family to family. The many taboos are called Fady.

There are three category of fady: those related to actions - for example believing it is fady  to sing while you are eating and if you do you will develop elongated teeth; those related to objects - for example, the Merina will not have funerals on Tuesdays as this may bring about another death in the family. Foreigners are exempt from having to adhere to fady, although it is sensible and considerate to find out as much as possible about this in regions you are visiting so as to avoid offending people. The most classical example of fady to which tourists might be confronted is the ban on the access to burial sites.

Fadys can be totally different from place to place. In the region around the Tsingy of Bemaraha it is fady to point at something with the forefinger. You must do it using your five fingers, just the same way the park ranger will probably explain to you.
© Madagascar Travel Guide

The most conspicuous element in traditional Malagasy clothing is the lamba, a wrapround sheet often printed with designs depicting everyday scenes. Some cheaper lambas also have slogans on them which should be checked before the cloth is paid for – some can be suggestive ! In the highlands, particularly among the Betsileo people, lambas are worn on the shoulder. If it trails off to the person’s right, it symbolises mourning. Lamba mena (red Lambas) are reserved for special occasions and are also used as burial shrouds.

The other noticeable element in Malagasy dress is the straw hat. These vary regionally, from broad-rimmed hats to brimless, tight-fitting, cone-shaped hats which can be seen in the south and central-west. Western influence is increasingly apparent and fashion (especially urban areas like Tana) tends to follow trends set by fashion magazines such as Elle and Vogue. There is therefore a huge demand for trainers, jeans and leather jackets.

Tanala Tanala
Tanala people wearing traditional straw hats    © Madagascar Travel Guide