For centuries, the romanticism of exploring the so called “Dark Continent” of Africa entranced the minds of daring explorers worldwide. But to her east between the Mozambique Channel and the Indian Ocean there lies an equally intriguing land. Sequestered within this island’s borders are species of flora and fauna of which most of the outside world is incognizant. This is the Great Red Island, the fourth largest island in the world.
Though Madagascar could easily appear to be the missing piece of a continental African jigsaw puzzle, both her people and culture are uniquely her own. The Malagasy people are a fusion of African, Asian, and European people and culture. They make up eighteen tribes and up to thirty nine recognized ethnic groups representing the island.
Historical records date the history of the Malagasy people possibly as far back as the first century A.D. Contact with the western world was initiated by Portugal. After that the island was continually ravaged by slave traders and greedy pirates seeking to use Madagascar as their base. The island was officially recognized as an independent state by the British in 1820, but in 1895 the French initiated by military force their oppressive regime on the Malagasy.
The French wanted to uproot anything that did not reflect the French culture. The Malagasy were not quite so elated about the attempted changes, and they were able to retain many of their original customs. Almost inevitably, Britain entered Madagascar during World War II, spurring the Malagasy people towards a greater desire for freedom. In 1960, Madagascar was granted independence from France. Much of what France left behind is still evident in the Malagasy government today. Both Malagasy and French are official languages.
Madagascar would appear to be an exemplary model of a third world country: it’s economy is poor, it’s food sources are minimal, and it’s growth toward technological implementation is slow. Madagascar is a subsistence agriculture society. Only a little over 5% of the land is considered arable land.
The use of slash-and-burn techniques has rapidly diminished the availability and amount of arable land. Because of the extreme soil erosion, much of this soil is washed into the sea around the coastal areas. National Geographic reports that “from space, astronauts could see Madagascar’s red earth bleeding into the sea.” It is for this reason that Madagascar has often been called the Great Red Island.
Tragically, Madagascar is bleeding more that just the dirt that is rapidly eroding from her shores. Madagascar suffers from internal bleeding. She is hemorrhaging from within. The people today represent a mixture of their ancestors of the past and the government’s goals for the future. They are a people hesitant to accept change, and deeply steeped in rituals of the past. Of the 20,042,551 people inhabiting the 587, 040 square kilometers, current figures estimate that 52% of the people follow indigenous beliefs, 41% would be considered “Christian,” and 7% would be considered Muslim in their religious practices.
Though over half of the people are classified as following indigenous beliefs, the people that hold to traditional beliefs would probably be considered much higher, as many attempt to unite “Christian and indigenous beliefs.” Additionally, this is the case because very few will part with their ancestral rites and traditions for fear of contravening a taboo, or fady. The fear of breaking the fady dominates the mindset of a deeply animistic Malagasy.
This vehement adherence to the fady carries over into the “cult of the dead”, which is essentially ancestor worship. I can remember being told that many Malagasy would spend a great majority of their income on their burial site and its decorations. The Malagasy are engrossed in the belief that “it is the dead who are the sole and inexhaustible source of all good things: life, happiness, peace, and, above all, fertility.”
Those classified “Christian” can be divided almost equally into Catholic and Protestant segments. The label of “Protestant Christians” consists of an umbrella over nominal Christians, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, and Pentacostals. Muslim beliefs continue to seep southward from the central source of Islam flowing from the Middle East. Madagascar, too, has been engulfed by the religion’s captivating attractions.
And very few have heard the Gospel.
 “Restoring Madagascar.” National Geographic, February 1999.
Halverson, Alton C.O. Madagascar: Footprint at the End of the World. Augsburg Publishing House. Minneapolis, MI. 1973., page 20