Traditions and customs of Madagascar

What traditions and customs are there in Madagascar?

We fully immerse ourselves in the customs and traditions of Madagascar.


Food in daily life

Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet. It is usually accompanied by some form of kabaka (a protein dish such as fish, meat, chicken, or beans). In some parts of the island, a side dish (“romazava”) made of green leafy vegetables in broth is common.

Side dishes generally serve to add flavor to the rice rather than provide nutrients. Most Malagasy main dishes are prepared in one of four ways: fried, grilled, boiled in water, or cooked with coconut juice.

A spicy condiment known as lasary in Malagasy and made from chili peppers, green mangoes or lemons can be added to enhance the flavor. Food is usually prepared in a kitchen that is physically separated from the main house for fire safety reasons.

Meals are served in the house, on the terrace or on mats placed on the ground outside the house. Leftovers from lunch and dinner are heated up for breakfast the next morning. Breakfast consists of rice and a tea made from local herbs or leaves and sweetened with sugar.

Some alternative breakfast foods include boiled cassava, corn porridge, or fried cakes made from rice flour. Water is the usual drink served with meals. Rano ampango (water boiled in the rice cooker) is sometimes served.

Food taboos (“fady”) tend to be transmitted within family groups and according to ethnicity. Some of them apply to daily life and others are observed during special circumstances such as pregnancy and lactation. Fady indrazana, taboos related to ancestral lineage, link Malagasy people with their ethnic groups.

For example, for most Sakalaovians it is crazy to eat pork or eel. For Antandroy, sea turtles and hornless cows are taboo. When a man and a woman from different ethnic groups get married, it is common for the woman to observe both her and her husband’s indrazana, as well as the one that applies to both ethnic groups during pregnancy and lactation.

Vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, bell peppers and zucchini are available throughout the year. Fruits such as pineapples, coconuts, oranges, mangoes, bananas, apples, and leeches are subject to seasonal availability.

Although improved transportation in recent years has increased the availability of these foods in isolated regions, they are generally unaffordable on a regular basis. Therefore, although a wide variety of foods are available, a significant part of the population remains undernourished.

Traditional Malagasy (“hot”) restaurants offer a rice dish with a ball of one of several types of stews. The geographic location of hot people is often an indicator of what is on offer.

For example, hotels along the coast will offer fish more often than those in the highlands. Restaurants in most major urban centers serve European-style Malagasy, French, Chinese, and Italian cuisine. Baguettes, pasta, and other non-traditional Malagasy foods can be found in villages near urban centers.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

For ceremonial meals and special occasions, extra meat is added to stews. Depending on the financial capacity of the family, traditional ceremonies such as burials, entombments, circumcisions, tomb-building, the first haircut, and the leaving of a newborn’s home often involve the sacrifice of at least one zebu, a breed local humpback cow.

Many families will serve one of several local alcoholic beverages such as palm wine, grain alcohol, rum, or beer. Family and friends gather and participate in some aspect of the ceremonial preparations. The adherence of a person or family to the ceremonial protocol is respectful of their ancestors.

The ultimate token of prestige is the ability to provide sacrificial cattle for ceremonies. The number of cattle slaughtered indicates the level of prosperity and the intention to honor the ancestors.

Catholics try to observe traditional practices and Muslims observe Ramadan.


Traditional, civil, and church-sanctioned marriages are recognized, with one or more types applied in each case. Regardless of the form of marriage, most unions today are formed by joint consent with the institution of arranged marriage, the frequency of which is declining.

When a family arranges a marriage, it is usually for the purpose of securing or strengthening family and social relationships. Marriage patterns vary according to socioeconomic status and have political implications in that they are intended to preserve or increase wealth, power, and prestige.

However, most marriages are traditional in nature, as are most divorces. Long after a union has dissolved, the children of that union give continued meaning to the family obligation.

Specific customs may vary by ethnic group. The Betsileo, for example, will arrange a marriage only after examining at least three generations of the potential spouse’s family. If they are satisfied with their findings, the family will consult an astrologer to set a date.

In the Bara, where it is common for cousins ​​to marry, a grandmother can arrange a marriage by decree between her children’s children. Once she has died, this marriage must be performed to avoid angering her ancestors.

For Bara the marriage is established after the sacrifice of a cow. Among some Sakalava in the northwest there is no ceremony to mark the marriage apart from moving in together.

In pre-colonial times, polygamy was seen as a sign of success. The institution of men maintaining more than one wife and household varies throughout the island and is generally called deuxieme bureau (second office) or vady aro, telo, or efetra (second, third, or fourth wife).

It is estimated that in some areas more than 50 percent of adult men simultaneously support two or more wives and households at some point in their lives.

Divorce is a common occurrence. By the age of forty, most Malagasy have participated in several successive marital unions. The reasons for the dissolution of the marriage are quite specific, including the infidelity of either spouse (although this does not always lead to divorce); neglect of duties as a husband (he does not provide adequate food); or neglect of duties as a wife (she does not take proper care of those in charge of her or does not spend household money wisely).

All assets acquired during the marriage are considered the property of both and are divided equally if the union ends.


There is some variation in etiquette between ethnic groups, but there are idealized behaviors shared by many ethnic groups. With the exception of guests of honour, when male and female family members eat together, older men are served first and tend to receive the choicest food.

If male and female family members eat in separate groups, the oldest member of each group will be served first. These behaviors are easily identified during ceremonial meals, but are much more relaxed in daily practice. Younger children are often seen before older, more skilled children, so that they are adequately nourished.

Traditional social norms for interaction, such as eating from a common pot that were prevalent as recently as the 1960s, are beginning to give way to more Western behavior.


Religious beliefs

It is estimated that 52 percent of the population has indigenous beliefs; 41 percent are Christian (split evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant); and 7 percent are Muslim. However, many people have a combination of indigenous and Christian or Muslim beliefs.

The traditionally accepted supreme god is Zanahary (God on high) while Andriamanitra (the King of Heaven) is the Christian god. At the most fundamental level of traditional beliefs and social values ​​is the relationship between the living and the dead.

Religious professionals

A variety of traditional practitioners provide the functions of fortune teller, traditional healer and/or astrologer. The clergy of the Catholic or Protestant church are consulted along with traditional practitioners.

Illness, misfortune, financial difficulties, and relationship problems are often related to the discontent of ancestral spirits, causing healers of all traditional practitioners to become healers.

Rituals and sacred places

Burial tombs are a prominent feature of the landscape. The materials used vary by region, but the time and money used to build and maintain them is significant and, in many cases, more expensive than the home itself. The degree of elaboration of the tombs reflects the level of privilege of the dead.

People often live and work at a great distance from their ancestral tombs (“tanindrazana”), maintaining a strong sentimental attachment and the desire to be buried in their natal tombs. Among the Merina and Betsileo of the highlands, the Famadihana ceremony is an opportunity to reaffirm the bond with the ancestors.

The deceased are often temporarily buried near where they lived. Later, sometimes after many years of planning, the bones are removed from the tomb, wrapped in a new shroud, and moved to the ancestral tomb. At that time the family decides whether to place the bones in the mother’s or father’s grave, depending on the group’s allegiance to ancestry.

Ancestral tombs are considered sacred places, especially royal tombs. In the Northwest, as in other parts of the country, holy places abound. Most villages have a holy tree or other holy place nearby.

Death and the afterlife

The ancestral spirits are considered as intermediaries between the living and either of the two supreme gods. The dead are considered to have the power to affect the lives of the living. They are considered the most important members of the family, influencing daily life. The Razana (ancestors) are the pulse of the vital force and the creators of customs (“fomba”).

Secular celebrations

The first of January is New Year’s Day. March 29 is the Day of Remembrance for the Fallen in the French Malagasy War of 1949. International Women’s Day, in which women are honored for their contributions, is March 30. The third Thursday in May is Labor Day, a major holiday for workers.

The unity of the Organization of United African Countries is celebrated on May 25. Madagascar’s independence from France in 1960 is celebrated on June 26. The Festival of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and is a day dedicated to the ancestors and their cemeteries which may include the construction of elaborate tombs. December 30 marks the anniversary of the Second Republic, which began in 1975.

The arts and humanities

Support for the arts is understandably limited due to the country’s poor economic conditions. Antananarivo’s Albert Camus Cultural Center hosts local and international performances and fine art exhibitions. Although there is little public funding for fine art, there are many excellent individual artists.

There is a growing market, both domestically and internationally, for craft products. Craft items are made from wood, leather, horn, metal, stone, minerals, clay, cloth, and feathers. Kabary is an elaborate and poetic form of speech in which the speaker indirectly makes a critical point.

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