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close this bookThe Courier N 156 - March - April 1996 - Dossier: Trade in Services - Country Report : Madagascar (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderMadagascar: A history of the unknown
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe red moon
View the documentProfile
View the documentPresident Albert Zafy's priorities
View the documentGuy Razanamasy, Mayor of Antananarivo
View the documentAn economy on the rocks
View the documentExaltation of the senses in Madagascar
View the documentEven the Malagasies have the blues
View the documentCulture and tradition in Madagascar


Madagascar could be described as a country with a strange history, a land of unanswered questions. If you ask a Malagasy about his country's history, or if you refer to scholarly texts, and come away buzzing with questions, then perhaps you may begin to understand just how strange this land is. Only scant records remain of events in the country before the 19th century although going further back, there is one reference by a classical Greek author to an island which could well be this largest member of the Mascarene group. Scientists are also convinced that, millions of years ago, the break up of the single 'continent' of Gondwana resulted in the formation of Madagascar alongside the major continents that are familiar to us today. This may be a simple fact of geography, but there are few places where geography has been so important in shaping history.

Madagascar's history can be read more in people's faces than in written works. If one were to rely only on the fragments of text which have survived, one would be left with more questions than answers about the origins of the island's inhabitants. No one disputes that they are the result of interbreeding between Asians and Africans but very little is known about when and how this happened. Was it in ancient times, for example, or more recently? There are as many different faces as there are Malagasies, and each has its own story of racial blending. In a single face, one may see traces of Indonesia or Malaysia, Africa, India and China.

Isolated from the rest of the global landmass millions of years ago, Madagascar today has its own unique flora and fauna - living species which have either evolved along different lines or have disappeared elsewhere. The island's relatively small size may have something to do with this. The 1938 discovery in its waters, of that veritable 'living fossil', the coelacanth, increased research interest in this area. Closer to Man, the lemur provides another intriguing insight into the history of the origin of species. It is not in fact the missing link between ape and Man, as is often thought, but a third line of evolution. In the 1 8th century, European travellers often spoke of Lemuria when referring to the country.

The earliest texts, which tell of the existence of a 'happy island' which might be the Malagasy Republic, date from pre-Christian times and are the work of Greek and Roman writers, (Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy), who recount stories brought back by travellers. However, these descriptions and the locations given for the wondrous island are too vague for us to state unequivocally that they refer to Madagascar. Later, texts describing African islands under Indian control were a little more precise. The word 'Madagascar' is itself the result of uncertainty, stemming from a mix-up on the part of Marco Polo between this particular land and the Mogadishu Peninsula.

White pygmies: fact or fantasy?

The local belief is that the country had been populated since ancient times. More scholarly hypotheses suggest that it was inhabited, at the beginning of the Christian era by one or more races of pygmies. One of these, the Vazimba, are still the subject of local mythology. Some believe that they were white pygmies, others that they came from nearby Africa and still others that they were the result of early interbreeding between African populations and immigrants from Asia. What is beyond dispute is that pygmy skeletons have been discovered at many sites. It is also probable that fire, which has been a recurring feature in the island's internal conflicts, was used as a weapon between the ethnic groups who first inhabited the island. The remains of charred tress discovered in rivers are evidence of this. However, although scientific opinion is divided over the origins of the people, popular belief in the supernatural is imbued with stories about the Vazimba. From the cradle, Malagasies are told their story and they live in fear of inadvertently treading on Vazimba graves. These sly and vindictive spirits, it is said, would not hesitate to punish such impudence. There is also a belief that the vengeance of the Vazimba, who were wiped out by foreign conquerors, lies behind the country's ill fortune. At the end of the 1 6th century, the descendants of these pygmies, after interbreeding, about which little is known, formed a number of relatively organised kingdoms, one of which managed to unite a sizeable part of the country.

Uncertainty also surrounds the order of arrival of the various settlers who were to forge the Malagasy population. There was probably a component from the Malaysia/lndonesia region, an African element, and a Semite group. An Indian contingent is known to have arrived later. Each group initially installed itself in a well-defined area, but later, they expanded their territory, defeating the indigenous Vazimba people in the process. They then began to move closer to one another, waging war and mixing physically and culturally. When the first European travellers arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, they found a patchwork of kingdoms with completely interbred populations, although there were a number of nuances. Asiatic features tended to dominate among people living on the high plateaus while African features were more common in the coastal populations. The language was also unified by this time. Linguists can do little more than conjecture about this subject. Some say the language is a branch of Sanskrit, with strong similarities to the Indonesian tongue, but there are also important African linguistic influences and a considerable amount of Arabic vocabulary. The first transcription of the Malagasy language appears to have been a variant of Arabic script.

Four of the early kingdoms,including that of the Sakalava, are known to have been important. The Sakalava, who were by far the most powerful group, first occupied the coastal regions but with successive conquests they began to take over the higher altitudes inland. In their expansion, they held an important trump card in the form of firearms purchased from Arab slave traders. They also derived considerable revenue from their forays on to African soil in search of slaves. Slavery was a constant feature of Malagasy society until late in the 19th century.

A queen to confront France

The group that came to dominate over the last two centuries were the Merina, who were among those living on the high plateaus. These people tended to be equated with the country as a whole, although this was no more than a reflection of the colonists' view. Early European 'visitors' preferred to deal with this population, which they regarded as more 'civilised'. When the first immigrants from Europe arrived, the Merina kingdom (the 'Imerina') was at the height of its powers, having been unified at the end of the 18th century.

Around the same time, the coastal kingdoms were beginning to fall apart. According to anecdotal evidence, Maurice-Auguste Comte, a French slave trader who lived on a minute scrap of land on the east coast, was the first to proclaim himself emperor of the island. His tenure, if it can be described as such, did not last long, and he was killed shortly afterwards by his own compatriots. By around 1810, the Merina administration extended over half the country and a new king, Radama I, had just ascended the throne. 17 years later, just before his death, he was in a position to declare: 'I have fulfilled my father's wishes. My kingdom's only border is the sea'. To achieve this goal he used every means available to him: war, diplomacy and even love. Unable, for example, to conquer a Sakalava kingdom, he married the princess next in line to the Sakalava throne.

He was succeeded by one of his wives (Queen Ranavalona I) who was to gain a place in the annals of Malagasy history by confronting the Europeans. The latter had taken increasingly to pillaging the island, using missionaries as a Trojan horse. The queen dared to extend Malagasy laws, applying them to European residents. In so doing, she incurred the wrath of France which sent its navy to bombard one of the island's small coastal kingdoms. After several attacks, and three years of harassment, France secured the surrender of its king. This signalled the start of colonisation, and the first Malagasy war against the European powers in 1832. The confrontation dragged on for a long time without a decisive outcome. In 1845, for example, the Malagasy army defeated a coalition of French and British forces. Queen Ranavalona became the symbol of the struggle against the 'Vazaha' (the foreigners). Her methods were severe and the Malagasy Christians, whom she regarded as a fifth column, bore the brunt. By way of atonement, her son who succeeded her, and who is reputed to have been a low-calibre monarch with a penchant for orgies, gave the Europeans the run of his country. This move prompted the government-employee class, who were not of noble blood but were increasingly rich and powerful, to rise in revolt. The king was assessinated in 1863. This coup d't proved to be much more than a simple palace affair. It firmly established the caste of high-ranking government employees as masters of the country. From that time on, they would hold the reins of power, operating behind figurehead monarchs.

Having failed to conquer the country, France tried a policy of 'divide and rule', playing on ancient clan and group rivalries. Subsequently, it decided to mount a full-scale attack. Although France initially demanded sovereignty over the entire territory, it ended by claiming only a protectorate on Malagasy soil. This was reflected in the 1885 treaty which gave it only limited authority - the right to appoint the country's representatives in international affairs and the right of French citizens, if not to acquire property, then at least to rent it for an unlimited term. French forces were also allowed to occupy the Bay of Diego Suarez in the north of the country. France used this bridgehead to fulfil its wider ambitions a decade later. In 1895, an expeditionary force of 12 000 men - the first of many - disembarked in the bay. Under the command of General Galli, these forces rapidly went on to occupy Madagascar and the Prime Minister was sent into exile. This time, both the monarchy and the administration had been defeated. A popular uprising ensued, not only against the occupying forces of France, but also against the symbols of the two power centres which the rebels believed had lost the wer through not having respected ancestral precepts. General Galli's repression was merciless. Not even the Queen was spared being exiled to Rion and later to Algiers. The country had been pacified.

It was to take more than two decades before popular demands, initially in the modest form of pressure for cultural rights, began to be heard again. This coincided with the ending of the First World War, which had seen Malagasy soldiers being used as cannon fodder. Nationalist feeling grew further following the first democratic elections, the growth of of trade unionism at the end of the 1930s and, most notably, the occupation of the island by British forces towards the end of the Second World War. A popular revolt broke out in 1947, heralding the 21 month-long war of independence. Order was then restored although 100 000 Malagasies had died in the meantime.

Third-World revolution

Process towards self-determination was inexorable, however. In a process which some have dubbed 'balkanisation', France undertook a lengthy attempt to divide the country into self governing provinces. In 1958 Madagascar became an 'autonomous republic' of the French community following a referendum which gave only a narrow victory to the 'yes' side. Two years later, it declared its full independence. The prized unity of those activists who had worked for independence proved to be short-lived, however. Even before independence, the movement was somewhat divided with competing groups advancing different sectional interests. Paradoxically perhaps, the country's first president, Philibert Tsiranana, came from the camp that was sceptical about independence. He was chosen by the Congress of the provincial assemblies and skilfully negotiated to maintain privileged links with France including, above all, an amnesty for opponents imprisoned in France. He was re-elected twice. His hard-line opposition to a popular uprising in 1972 hardened his opponents' determination and the army imposed a referendum which led to the resignation of the President barely months after his re-election. It was effectively a 'coup d't by referendum'.

General Ramanantsoa then took over as leader. He succeeded in putting an end to what the Malagasies termed the 'slavery accords', which gave France the right to two military bases. A central bank was then set up and the country left the franc zone. The Foreign Minister, at this time, who has come to be viewed as the man who brought total independence to Madagascar, was Didier Ratsiraka. He is recognised as a key figure in what was one of the most significant Third-Worid revolutions of the 1970s. A populist wind of reform swept through the country. Palace disputes lead to the resignation of General Ramanantsoa in 1975. His Interior Minister succeeded him but was assassinated within a week of assuming office. 200 people were tried for the crime, but none was convicted.

Commander Ratsiraka seized power in June 1975, and was nominated to lead a 'Higher Revolutionary Council'. He also staged a referendum which brought him popular backing (the Malagasy Republic has never yet voted 'no' in this type of consultation). Thus, the 'Second Republic' was proclaimed. Paradoxically, it was Ratsakira, the person who decreed that his country should be for the Malagasies alone, who began to borrow the vocabulary of the former colonial power during his time in office. Through his Higher Revolutionary Council, he succeeded in forming a federation of all the country's major parties with his own movement, AREMA, being the mainspring. This was a rather neat way of setting up a form of single-party regime. Years were to pass before the emergence of a true opposition. He won election after election, apparently democratically, the last one being in 1989. However, the tide began to turn against him and he increasingly resorted to stringent controls over the population, particularly in the major towns and cities.

An ongoing transition

A period of transition then began, heralding the end of the revolutionary era. Democratic reforms were introduced in 1990, with the legalising of all political parties, followed swiftly by economic liberalisation. The Third Republic was proclaimed and elections were held in February 1993 resulting in defeat for Commander Ratsiraka. The victor was Professor Albert Zafy who had, for some years, been consolidating his position as genuine opposition leader. The legislative elections which followed confirmed the new president's victory. Under the roles in force at that time, Parliament appointed the Prime Minister, in the shape of Francisque Ravony, who was regarded by the international institutions as the guarantor of economic liberalisation. A split soon emerged between the Prime Minister and the President, each of whom had an electoral mandate. The upshot of this was a further referendum, held last year, from which the President emerged triumphant, with the power to appoint the Prime Minister in future. However, the aftershocks of this conflict are still being felt. The new Prime Minister, Emmanuel Rakotovahiny, who was appointed in November 1995, had problems forming a government. The difficulties were exacerbated by the disaster of the Queen's Palace fire on 6 November - an event which appears to have upset Madagascar's political apple cart. Just two weeks after the appointment of the ministerial team, the government found itself undermined by three resignations from the cabinet. In addition, the new government could not credibly claim to be offering a 'fresh start'. Most of the key ministers in the previous administration had been reinstated. The Prime Minister himself acknowledged, in his interview with The Courier, that it was now incumbent on him to achieve concrete results within three months. But the signs are not encouraging. On the contrary, the government appears increasingly unstable and struggling with internal conflicts. Thus, for example, the agreement with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which most of Madagascar's foreign partners appear to be waiting for, has been repeatedly put off with various delaying tactics. The Prime Minister's three months expired in February 1996 and his position now looks increasingly vulnerable. H.G.

The red moon

The rosy halo encircling a red moon made the blood of the inhabitants of Antananarivo run cold on the evening of 7 November. They just stood looking at the sky and the charred remains of the Queen's Palace, the jewel of Malagasy culture, which had burned down the day before. The Palace of Manjakamiadana, and the surrounding estate of Anatirova, with its dominant position on one of the 12 hills which surround the lower part of the city, holds a particular significance for the people - the repository of their traditions and their 'holy of holies'. The situation could hardly have been worse.

The palace went up in flames, just as it was about to be classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Worse still, the sacred remains of the Imerina sovereigns had been touched by sacrilegious flames, not to mention the 'unworthy' hands of those who braved the fire to save the country's historical artefacts (including the savereigns' corpses). Hundreds of youths took part in the rescue operation, including many homeless people, and at least four volunteers perished in the fire.

Those who assembled the next evening to view the scene - in a gathering that was something between a vigil and a 'society' event-could feel the bad omens. 'That red moon is still there', observed one participant. There was a palpable sense of foreboding. Was Tana, as the inhabitants of the capital affectionately term their city, about to suffer further disasters? Was the country on the brink of something far worse?

A lost heritage

It is said that on the morning of 6 November, the day the fire broke out, the Queen's Palace was surrounded by a halo - which could not just have come from the mist which often swirls around the city's hills, or from pollution. The gentle tears that marred the make-up of some of the women present, and the hoarse, husky voices of the men, demonstrated to the visitor, arriving 24 hours after the disaster, that this was a unique episode in the country's history. The foreign press likened it to the destruction of the Louvre, or Buckingham Palace. But these attempted analogies do not even come close. For the people of Tana and Madagascar, and particularly for the Merina population, the burning of the Palace was a far more profound event. For a civilisation built around the sanctity of death, it was as if the essence of culture itself had been consumed. This helps to explain why foreign residents of the city were unable to conceal their confusion.

The red moon which persisted long after the flames were extinguishad may have bean a portent. In the days that followed, the rumours that this was an arson attack would be confirmed. An act of sacrilege had been committed and the result was a resurgence of 'tribal' mistrust echo of ancient hatreds which the country thought now lay in the past. Suspicions began to grow among the different groups of the population, and politicians began to make accusations. Each implied that others could have profited from the crime. The red moon might also have been symbolic of the current state of the country: its state of penury, the failures of the authorities and the weaknesses of the political class which often becomes enmeshed in byzantine quarrelling.

Although the capital has more than a million inhabitants, there is no fire-fighting service worthy of the name capable of protecting the country's finest jewel. When the conflagration began, the little equipment available was already deployed tackling another fire. And parked cars hampered the firefighters' movements when they finally did arrive. Low water pressure, and the poor state of the hoses, made it impossible to use the little water that was available. This was despite reports by both domestic and foreign experts highlighting the vulnerability of palaces constructed mainly from wood, and calling for a fire station to be built nearby. These reports had also condemned the 'lax' attitude of the authorities in tolerating the existence of scrubland close to the site.

That very morning, just a few hundred metres away, the Finance Ministry had gone up in flames, although this event did not generate a great deal of emotion. The rumour, later confirmed, was that the fire had been started deliberately, the aim reportedly being to destroy tax information concerning a number of highly-placed people. Such events are not unprecedented in Madagascar. In 1976, the Prime Minister's palace was gutted in similar circumstances. This has still not been rebuilt. Ironically, the area around it, which has just been tidied up, will be used as an operational 'command post' and workshop for the reconstruction of the Queen's Palace and the royal estates. Just a stone's throw away is the City Palace, which also fell prey to arson in 1972.

The aftermath

A collection was organised on the night of the fire during spontaneaus vigil around the remains of one of the sovereigns which had been hastily carried to a nearby sports field. But no one knows who was handling the funds and the money has not been seen since.

Two hundred suspects were arrested in subsequent weeks but it will be difficult to pinpoint those who were responsible Throughout the evening of the fire, firefighters were unable to prevent the curious from walking all over the site. Looters blended in with rescuers. In the days that followed, newspapers carried an announcement, appealing to the people's conscience: 'Anyone in possession of items from the Rova collection are asked to return them to the National Library'. In the ensuing period, the police were conspicuous only by their absence. By the time cordons were finally set up to bar entry to journalists and other spectators, any physical evidence that might have existed had almost certainly been trodden underfoot by the crowds.

Rumours attributing blame to one or other politician or group spread rapidly. There was a risk that these might spark off an ethnic confrontation. The capital is inhabited mainly by the Merina people and the burnt-out palace has long been regarded by some as the symbol of this group's domination. On the other hand, the President and Prime Minister originally come from the coast. Despite the risks, the authorities did not appear seized by any sense of urgency. They could, for example, have sought assistance from European experts to determine the actual cause of the fire, the number of places where it broke out and so on. But any suggestion of this was met with the reply: 'This is a Malagasy matter'. Nor did those levelling accusations seem in any hurry to find out whether the fire was actually arson.

A foreign diplomat summed it up: 'The European approach is probably to want to find out whether or not the fire was started deliberately. What is important here is its meaning.' He pointed out that at the trial which followed the death of President Ratsimandrave in 1975, dozens of accused and witnesses appeared in court over a three-month period. 'But there were no convictions. The important thing was the psychological drama of the trial itself. No one knows who assassinated Ratsimandrave. Indeed, no-one knows how the 1947 revolution began even though historical evidence of what actually happened exists.'

The ethnic question

In Madagascar, the only person who is unaware of whether he is speaking to a Betsileo noble, a Merina hova or a descendent of a slave, is the foreigner. No matter how much a product of mixed race someone is, he has his place in a community or an ethnic group, and often within a clan or even a caste. But one must take care. To all intents and purposes, these words are taboo, and they can only be used when speaking in historical terms. For those who are sensitive to such problems, geography comes to the rescue. The expressions, 'people from the high plateaus' and 'people from the coast' can be used although they conceal great complexity. A Malagasy journalist explained to us how under the Second Republic, at the time of Ratsiraka, 'a skilful regional balance was struck in which the word ethnic was not used'. In times of peace at least, the sense of unity of the Malagasy nation is very strong indeed. But after the Palace fire, the headline" in three of the capital's dailies were particularly revealing. They spoke of the'jewel of the Merina culture', and denounced those responsible. There was no explicit reference to who these people were, but the implication that other communities were involved was difficult to escape. The following quotations illustrate this. 'The initial reaction of the population was to incriminate those who have long striven to humble Merina pride ' 'The fear was that there would be an impulsive reaction, with matters getting out of hand and vengeance being sought /n the end, this didn't happen because the inhabitants of . In kept their coal. ' 'Politicians call for calm but, in the streets, the mood is one of vengeance'. In short, according to Pastor Richard Andriamanjato, President of the National Assembly, there were people who wanted 'to provoke tribal warfare.'

It is clear that the threats were there, under the surface, even if not carried out. The insistence on the wisdom of the inhabitants of Antananarivo carried the implication that the Merina people could have instigated a pogrom against other communities living in the capital - whose origin could be identified from their features.

But to be fair, Malagasy restraint and wisdom must exist in good measure. While there was an outbreak of violence in 1977 in Mahajanga, the brunt of which was borne by the Comorans who were recent immigrants, such events have rarely occurred in the country's history. The kabary culture (the art of discourse) seems to have played an important part in exorcising demons and preventing bloodshed.


The fire at the Queen's Palace was obviously a great shock and it prompted people to turn their thoughts to more practical considerations such as the issue of administrative negligence, poor upkeep of infrastructures, corruption and unhappy practices such as the 'culture of fire'. The latter expression may seem somewhat 'over the top' but it reflects a sad reality in the country. Wherever one walks, one can see flames or smoke somewhere. On an island of almost 600 000 square kilometres, with a population of just 13 million, it comes a surprise to discover that most of the forest has bean burned down. This is generally done so that rice can be planted. The plot will be cultivated for two or three years before being abandoned. Another area of land will then be put to the torch. At least four hectares of forest are burnt for every hectare of rice planted.

Burning is also a way of demonstrating discontent - a form of 'suicidal' revolt which has always existed. The green island has become red (and black) but the authorities have never banned or regulated the growing of crops on patches of burnt land. Indeed, erudite studies published by foreign development organisations sometimes include this entrenched practice of setting fire to the land as a 'normal' parameter.

Since independence, there has only once been a major effort to improve public infrastructures. This was during the early years of the Ratsiraka government. Four universities were established to supplement the only one which then existed. Although decay set in towards the end of Ratsiraka's long term in office, the Malagasies still remember the time as a period of relative opulence. With the passage of the years, they have tended to forget his government's stranglehold on all aspects of life, and the disadvantages of living under dictatorship. It is no coincidence that, at the most recent local elections, the results of which sent a shockwave across the nation, many of the former dictator's close associates were returned as local government leaders. This is not to mention all those who switched allegiance and adopted his nationalist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is fashionable nowadays with many people opposing negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF. Among their number are some highly influential people in President Zafy's entourage, including, it is said, the aforementioned National Assembly President, Richard Andriamanjato, who is a former member of President Ratsiraka's Higher Revolutionary Council.

Administrative problems

Entrepreneur Walter Bordese is a man whose Italian accent can be cut with a knife and whose sincerity is clear. He has a passion for business dealings which mingles with a more generalised passion about life. He is clearly very fond of the countries of the South where he has worked and wants to make a success of his stake in Madagascar. When The Courier spoke to him, however, there was no escaping the sense of discouragement in his voice. Mr Bordese manages the abattoir in Mahajanga, one of the country's three main slaughterhouses. It was built some few years ago with EDF support.

Under the Lomeef Protocol, Madagascar is allowed to export some 7500 tonnes of beef annually to the EU on highly preferential terms. But the three abattoirs are not capable of meeting the quota. Indeed, in 1994, they barely achieved a third of this figure. The European Commission therefore reduced the quota by 2000 tonnes, with a promise that it would be restored once the country was able to fulfil its commitments.

This is the background against which Walter Bordese is operating - and he has an eventful life which reflects what might politely be termed the dichotomous attitude of the administration. After going bankrupt, the abattoir was offered recently on a lease management basis to a group of financiers whose main shareholder was a German consortium. TIVIAM (Malagasy Industrial Meat Processing), the company set up to manage the Mahajanga plant, decided to invest approximately ECU 1.7 million in upgrading the facility, enabling it to supply half the EU quota on its own. At full output, the abattoir will employ 200 people and bring almost half a million ECUs a month into the country. This has not prevented the authorities from issuing an expulsion order against Walter Bordese, allegedly to placate the former manager who is said to owe considerable sums to the state. He has been allowed to stay but the threat of expulsion still hangs like the sword of Damocles over foreign investors. Moreover, no legal proceedings have ever been taken against intermediaries who are believed to have diverted money intended for purchasing livestock on behalf of the TIVIAM. Despite this, Mr Bordese manages to be positive. 'This country abounds with opportunities and could be the Taiwan of Africa', he stresses.

A young entrepreneur in the capital whom we spoke to, and who studied business abroad, criticised the division which he said exists between entrepreneurs who benefited from Ratsiraka's protectionism and those of his own generation. According to him, there are two types of business; those which import (and do not have to worry unduly about customs control), and those which produce. The latter, he argues are exposed to unfair competition from the former. He also claims that similar companies receive different treatment. Some obtain exemptions and others do not, he says, and this happens on an apparently random basis. He goes on to cite other 'imbalances' such as variations in the price of electricity. This can apparently vary by as much as 100% between one part of the country and another. He concludes with a complaint that there have been no successful enquiries into corruption, despite the laudable intentions of successive governments.

The fiscal situation is not the only thing on trial. Justice in the more traditional sense is woefully inadequate. Faced with a high crime rate, the population often has recourse to self-help remedies. Organised bands of criminals (the Dahalos), cattle rustlers and bandits are said not to remain in prison, returning to mock their victims, sometimes the day after their arrest, having allegedly bought their liberty. The trend now is for them to be Iynched upon capture, which does nothing to improve the image of justice.

It is difficult, however, to blame officials who receive very low salaries and are faced with ever-rising living costs. Many civil servants have a second job, a fact they do not conceal. The administration, perhaps understandably, tends to turn a blind eye to this. After 20 years of good and loyal service, a high-ranking executive will receive a salary of between 300 000 to 400 000 Malagasy francs a month.

This is much less than the income of a locally engaged secretary in a foreign embassy. It is barely sufficient to pay a modest rent, or put one's children (who are likely to be numerous) through school in a country where inadequacies in the state education system are forcing people to look elsewhere.

Two of the essential moral virtues in Madagascar are moderation and patience. There is a proverb which says, 'I can wait for God'. But when one hears the criticism being voiced throughout Malagasy society today, as the people await the changes promised by those in power, one wonders whether their reserves of patience may be runing out. H.G.



General information

Area: 587000 km²

Population: 13.7 million (1995 estimate)

Population density: 23.3 per kilometre²

Population growth rate: 3.19% (199095)

Capital: Antananarivo

Population of capital: 932 000 (1 .55m for Greater Antananarivo)

Other main towns: Fianarantsoa (350 000), Toamasina (260 000), Antseranana (Diego Suarez) (250 000), Mahajanga (230 000), Antsirabe.

Main languages: Malgache (the official language), French.

National curreny: Madagascar franc (1 ECU = FM 5119 in February 1996))


Political structure: Presidential system strengthened as a result of the referendum of 17 September 1995 which gave the President the right to nominate the Prime Minister. Previously, this was the responsibility of the Parliament.

President: Albert Zafy (since 14 February 1993)

Political parties: Numerous. The Presidents party is the UNDD. The presidential 'majority' ('mouvance prdentielle') contains a number of parties which are sometimes divided further into tendencies or factions. The largest of these is the HVR ('Rasalama Living Force') which has three factions. At the last municipal elections, some 15 groups presenting electoral lists claimed to be attached to the presidential majority.

The most powerful opposition comes from the 'G7' which brings together seven seperate groupings. The largest of these is the Leader Fanilo. Former President Ratsakira's old party, AREMA, was relatively successful in the recent local elections.

Number of National Assembly members: 137

(A Senate is foreseen under the Constitution and elections to this body are planned for the near future)


GDP: $2.8 billion (1992)

GNP: $3.1 billion

GNP per capita: $230

GNP growth rate: 0.5% (1980-91)

GNP growth rate per capita: - 2.6% (1980-93)

Total exports: $441m (spices 27%, coffee 23%)

Balance of payments: - $326m (1993)

Total external debt: $4.4bn (1992) representing 142% of the GNP

Main trade partners: France, USA, Germany, Japan, Singapore

Inflation rate: 48% (1995)

Social indicators

Life expectany at birth: 57 (1992)

Infant mortality (0-5years): 84 per 1000

Illiteracy rates: men - 22%, women - 27%

Enrolment in education: Primary - almost 100%, Secondary - 36%, Tertiary - 5%

Human Development Index rating: 0.432 (135th out of 174)


The Situation of Children in the World 1994, The State of the World 1995, UNDP Human Development Report 1995, The Economist's Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), Madagascar Country Profile 1994. Madagascar Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning.

President Albert Zafy's priorities

Security, economic recovery and good management

The Courier met the President of Madagascar, Albert Zafy, at a difficult time in the country's history. Only a week before, the Rova (Queen's Palace) and the entire royal estate had gone up in flames. Not on/y was negligence on the part of the administration implied, but the fire - subsequently confirmed as arson - initially looked as if it might provoke ethnic conflict. Moreover, the government (formed with great difficulty only two weeks earlier, after the appointment of the Prime Minister) had seen the immediate resignation of three.ministers. These problems took the shine off the President's success in the constitutional referendum on 17 September, which gave him the power to choose the Prime Minister. The country's situation is still deteriorating, and this is perhaps the most worrying aspect for the head of state. This was the subject he tackled first offered us his diagnosis of the main problems facing his country.

- The Malagasy Republic has all the resources it needs to emerge from its destitute state. An example I would give is our mineral resources, such as gold, which we have in abundance in the north of the country. The mines have been worked for a long time and have generated income. But since independence the workings have been in complete disarray, as have been the sales of this product. The same applies to sapphires and other precious stones. There is no production and no worthwhile sales; only illegal trading. The fishing industry is in a similar position. We are one of the richest countries in terms of this resource and it saddens me to see such a large proportion of our income being lost to illegal trading. Even people with proper licences sometimes resort to crime, and we have to prosecute them. In the case of produce such as coffee, vanilla, cloves and other commodities, we are not yet in a position to get things under control, particularly on the marketing side.

We also lack certain means, not so much in the area of human resources, but in capital goods and plant. This is exacerbated by the country's current inflationary climate, as is the case in all developing countries. Some 15 or 20 years ago, we had about 100 tractors in the Diego region. People were content and production was soaring. Nowadays, if you can count 20 or 30 tractors, that's a large number. People are no longer used to using tractors and they have abandoned their ploughs. Now they find that they must take them up again.

A third element which adds to our difficulties is the security situation and the crime rate. I am thinking here in particular of the Dahalo bandits who operate in the countryside. They have been killing people and have provoked a rural exodus from those areas that are most productive from the agricultural point of view. This phenomenon has grown in the last 15 or 16 years, to the extent that five Malagasy provinces are now affected, with only the province of Diego escaping.

· The way you describe the situation saggests, above all, a certain degree of political weakness. Do you think that the state is too weak? Also, the country has just had a referendum which has apparently strengthened your power. Does this mean that you have moved from the Third to the Fourth Republic in all but name?

- It's too early to speak of a Fourth Republic. We are still operating under the Third Republic, but I should say that things have not turned out entirely as I might have wished. Before the referendum, it was the National Assembly that appointed the Prime Minister and the President had no authority over domestic policies. It is true that as a result of the vote, this power was given to the people and I believe, God willing, that I am now in a position to guide the government. But as you so rightly say, there has been a degree of political weakness in that certain courageous political actions that should have been taken in a number fields, have not been taken.

Let me just mention a couple of examples which everyone knows about, and which have drawn criticism from the IMF and the World Bank. They have said that one of the reasons for the state deficit is the problem of corruption within government. They have also pointed to the weakness of successive governments in failing to take the necessary measures to recover the losses or punish offenders. It is a bad Malagasy habit to appeal to tradition in saying 'These are our friends and relations'. Another factor is the mentality of those in positions of authority. Even if a law exists, it is not always applied.

· You have accused senior people of corruption, going so far as to mention the former Prime Minister by name. Is the state going to prosecute him?

- I don't think we have reached that point yet. Investigations are currently proceeding but, in such cases, one has to be circumspect in the language we use and the things we say. However, we will certainly be taking measures against anyone committing serious crimes of this nature. They are partly responsible for the state of poverty in which our country now finds itself.

· You could have taken advantage of the aftermath of this national tragedy to reunite your country. But people are talking about a UNDD government, formed by your party.

- I don't believe that it's fair to speak simply of a UNDD administration. There are only about six UNDD members, by which I mean actual members or people close to the party, in the government. If you look at it in terms of the number of newcomers holding office, the criticism is, perhaps, valid. In my opinion, however, it isn't necessarily the newcomers who get the job done. The Prime Minister originally intended to form his government only after the final results were in from the territorial elections, so that he could be more confident of the political will of the country. The idea was to leave the members of the former government to settle matters currently in hand. But it was risky to leave the government in the hands of our opponents for two or three months. You spoke earlier about political weakness. Well just before the old government resigned, some ministers leapt at the chance to empty the coffers as much as they could, by buying furniture.

Another point is that the new Prime Minister wanted to continue negotiations with the donors the World Bank and the IMF - without a break. I believe that is one of the reasons why he chose people already well acquainted with the subject and who were therefore part of the former government. From what he has told me, I don't believe that what we have at present is the definitive government line-up. Once agreement has been reached with the World Bank and the IMF, the government may well be consolidated.

· As regards financial policies, isn't there the risk that subsidies for staple commodities and other types of intervention will obstnact agreement with the World Bank and the IMF? It is said that some of your closest associates, such as Mr Andriamanjeto, the President of the National Assembly, is unenthusiastic about an agreement.

- No, I don't see that as a problem. Nor do I think that the President of the Assembly or those close to him oppose negotiations with the Bretton Woods institutions. All he said was that the financing provided by our traditional sponsors would be insufficient, if we wanted to relaunch our economy fairly quickly, and that we also ought to be given the opportunity to approach some private sources of financing, as a back-up. The opposition took advantage of this, saying that the government favours parallel financing, which is different from the idea he put forward and which 1, moreover, support.

In a country such as ours, liberalisation can lead to speculation if it is not regulated by healthy competition, as is the case in the developed countries. Private businesses which benefit from privatisation will not necessarily take account of the impact of this in the social sphere. You can see what a poor state the country is in, in areas like education and health. Look at the problems of our small farmers and the condition of our abattoirs. You know that we have lost part of our European beef quota because of, among other things, the lack of cattle vaccination. Progress has to be made in stages and each country needs a certain remedy, but there is no standard cure. As regards the financial system, I have just received a short IMF report on the interbank currency market. What they say ties in exactly with my line of thought. They are critical of speculation and the fact that the profits from exchange transactions do not come into the country but go outside.

· You have summarised your guiding principles as follows: security, economic recovery and good management What do you plan to do during your mandate to achieve your goals?

- Security is my top priority because it impedes investment, particularly on the part of those involved in agriculture and stock-breeding. In conjunction with regional leaders, we are going to set up systems for making the countryside more secure, involving supplementary police units in 'red' areas. We also plan to organise mobile detachments. These will be civilians, volunteers for the most part, trained by the local community. They will be armed and backed up by the forces of law and order. The people we are going to train include many volunteers who have retired from different branches of the police force and former soldiers who have time on their hands. Unfortunately, some of the latter are sometimes attracted to the Dahalo groups. These mobile detachments will also assist local communities in maintaining public infrastructures. We will use some military equipment for certain public works and prisoners will also be mobilised, to stop them vegetating in jail. They will also be called upon in urban areas. It is worth remembering that they did some really useful work in colonial times.

As regards economic rehabilitation, we will do no more than tie in with the recommendations of the World Bank and the IMF in respect of tax income and the fight against corruption. But what we say to our international partners is this. You recommended that we should open up our economy, so we did. You recommended VAT, so we applied it. But the results have not been what you were expecting. I have bean told that it is up to us to apply the necessary measures. But if you take the case of VAT, we were told that the rate should be 25%. Togo introduced a rate of 7% for staple commodities and 18% for other produce. Why does Madagascar not have the same choice?
Interview by HG

Guy Razanamasy, Mayor of Antananarivo

A cool-headed Opposition

The new Mayor of Antananarivo and President of larivo Department (which includes tire capital is a pre-eminent figure in Madagascar politics He is a former Prime Minister who held office during the transition, prior to the 1993 elections, and he has also held the mayoralty before. Of all the leaders of the divided opposition, he is currently regarded as someone capable of proposing a new political direction. He spoke to The Courier in ear/y November, answering questions on the e/ections he had recently won, on key issues facing the newly-formed government and on the country's main problems. He chose his words careful/y, but was nonetheless decisive and self-assured in expressing his viewpoint.

'Out of the seven big towns and cities in the country, there are only one or two which could now be said to be within the president's sphere of influence. All the others have gone over to the opposition. Admittedly, part of that opposition has not come out clearly against the government. Some politicians are dashing around frantically, seeking ministerial office, whilst others are just waiting, disillusioned with the lack of competence which is now there for all to see.

'I used to be a Member of Parliament and I returned to the House two years ago. I had hoped that we would see a renewal of the political class and the emergence of younger people. However, the parties have taken the upper hand again and are in the process of stifling everything, giving no thought to the Republic's future. Why are people turning away from the ballot box? The answer is that there have been too many elections and a lot of disappointments. There is a surfeit of political parties. The electoral code was adopted when I was Prime Minister during the transition and my personal preference was for proportional representation with elimination of lists which did not reach a certain ceiling, but no one would listen.

'Why was it that two floors of the Finance Ministry went up in flames at ten in the morning on 6 November? Should this fire be linked to the one at the Queens Palace? I was there when the fire started in the Palace, and what worries me from what I saw is the total absence of authority and of competent administrative reaction. Although I myself had no legal competence, I found myself compelled to give orders which were not carried out very well, given that the forces of law and order are well aware that I was only a Member of Parliament, not even Mayor of the city (ed. note: Mr Razanamasy was Mayorelect and had not yet taken up the post when we interviewed him in November). Not surprisingly, there were tensions which began to be seen the following day, and a number of politicians have been trying to fan this movement. I am afraid that some of them are seeking to provoke a confrontation between certain inhabitants of Antananarivo and others who have come from the coastal regions: in short, a tribal war. I personally spent four days trying to defuse this criminal plan. I can quite understand your amazement that the government or the minister responsible did not think to request foreign expert assistance to determine the origin of the fire, and you are neither the first nor the only one to have those feelings. However, what happened must be seen in context. It occurred on a Monday and the new Prime Minister had only been installed the previous Friday evening, so there had not yet been time to appoint any leaders.

Contrary to what is often said, the Queens Palace has not been the so called symbol of Merina domination for a long time. With colonisation and then independence, Antananarivo became the Malagasy Republic's capita. If those sorcerer's apprentices knew any history, they would know that the kings and queens buried up there included many with blood links to princes from other regions in the country. A council of wise men came into being spontaneously to discuss the way in which the aftermath of this fire should be managed, and it included descendants of princes from the six provinces, so the rebuilding will undoubtedly be an opportunity for the spirit of national solidarity to be made stronger; to be revived.

As for the problems of overpopulation and deterioration of infrastructures in the capital, it should be remembered that this is a city which was designed for a maximum of 400000 inhabitants. The current population is in excess of 1 million, not counting the floating population. To relieve pressure on the city, we would first have to change the government's attitude and then modify the boundaries. It is probably true to say that successive governments have planned to solve the problem, but they always got cold feet. That's the very least one can say with regard to Antananarivo. And civic leaders were not always up to the job.

I am under no illusions. We have to look at the financial resource problem of Antananarivo in both the short and the long term. This is why I am turning to the European Union. It would benefit no one if it were to become a city after the style of Mexico City. There is a plan which could be implemented over the next four years and a second plan which should be put into action as quickly as possible, and which will have even more far-reaching effects.

But my budget is only 7 billion francs, and, after wages have bean paid, there is barely 20% left. What am I to do with only one and a half billion francs? There is an urgent need for better drinking-water supplies and primary schools. We should try to give our children good health, and the opportunity to enter primary school, so that they can learn to read and count. This is the minimum required for a decent working life.

Particular attention must be given to investors and, above all, to a particular category, namely those who are able to take on a large number of employees and who do not run businesses which pollute. We have serious environmental problems here. It is impossible to breathe the air in some places. The problem is that the average citizen doesn't actually grasp what all the talk and publicity about the environment actually means. They don't see it as providing a contribution to solving current pollution problems.

I am interested in Tana being twinned with European cities. This might make it possible, at the very least, to obtain equipment from partner cities. I brought the matter up at a meeting of the International Association of French speaking Mayors, formerly presided over by Jacques Chirac and I intend to follow up my initial approaches. The urgent problems I face include the capability to fight fires and I hope to get some assistance from the EU in this area. Then there is the reconstruction of the Queen's Palace. The city will make a contribution but, according to the first estimates, it will cost us 60 billion Malagasy francs. Interview by H.G.

An economy on the rocks

In the wake of continual skirmishing between the President of the Republic, Albert Zafy, and the Prime Minister appointed by Parliament, Francisque Ravony, which punctuated political life in the country throughout the last year, September's constitutional referendum -(entitling the Head of State to appoint the head of government) was intended to strengthen the country's leadership.

1995 began with a budget war between the new Prime Minister and his Finance Minister, which did not augur well for the future. Two budgets were submitted to Parliament, but the President and legislature were unable to reach agreement. During that time, the conclusion of negotiations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was repeatedly postponed, although donors were waiting for the go-ahead to send funds to the Republic once again. The country was unable to wait any longer: all the newspapers spoke of famine, which was beginning to take hold in the South, and virtually all the economic and social indicators made depressing reading.

Agriculture is the most important sector of the economy, representing 41% of Gross Domestic Product and providing three quarters of all jobs. It is, however, built on fragile foundations. The Malagasy Republic is the world's principal exporter of vanilla, but the price of this commodity is declining, as a consequence, among other things, of the availability of artificial flavourings. Vanilla is a fragile crop and suffers greatly from the effects of tropical cyclones.

The real driving force behind the rural economy is rice, which covers 40% of cultivated land. This crop is essentially grown on areas of burnt land, however, and the result is considerable erosion. 80% of the country's forests have already disappeared, and the loss is continuing at a rate of 200 000 hectares per year.

In addition to vanilla and cloves, the Republic's other main exports are cotton and coffee. Coffee exports fell sharply in 1994 - by nearly 20% compared with 1993 - which was regarded as an average year. In addition, the quality of Malagasy coffee is becoming poorer all the time owing to the lack of investment and poor monitoring.

Stock-rearing has the potential to be a source of foreign exchange earnings, but this sector is very poorly managed. Although the country has 10.5 million cattle, 1.5 million pigs and two million sheep, it is unable to meet its quota under the LomV Beef Protocol. This allows for seven and a half thousand tonnes of Malagasy meat to be exported to the European Unlon on highly preferential terms. This failure meant that for last year, the quota was cut by 2000 tonnes.

Successive devaluations of the Malagasy franc have also prevented farmers from looking after their livestock and from modernising their farms. Between the time the currency left the franc zone (in 1973), and 1982, the Malagasy franc was stable against the French franc. The slide began in 1983 with a depreciation of 15% and in the following year, the currency plunged by no less than 65%. The trend has continued ever since. In May 1994, the rate was FMG 330: FF1. By September 1995, it had reached 920:1. The inflation rate has hovered consistently around 50% per annum.

The impact of this has been seen in bank interest rates which are in the region of 40%; enough to stifle many small and medium-sized businesses. In addition, those at the lower end of the income scale have been affected by economic liberalisation, one of whose effects has been a drop in the minimum monthly wage. Recently, this stood at just FMG 110 000, (less than FF 120). Unemployment is rife and private investment, at just 5% of GDP, is stagnant. Those companies that offer the best hope of creating jobs, namely the SMEs, are unable to take on staff and, with the state no longer recruiting, the average age of civil servants is now more than 50. The informal sector accounts for 70% of the economy. Public works, state education and health services are neglected and, according to the FAO, 85% of the population are short of food. 66% of the inhabitants are classified as living in poverty and only 31 % of dwellings have lavatories. This helps to explain the resurgence of diseases, exemplified by the plague outbreak that occurred in Mahajanga last year.

The state is unable to meet its obligations for a number of reasons. In the first place, it has a crippling debt burden. The country's external debt, which stood at 560 million SDR (Special Drawing Rights) in 1994, reached 1.3 billion by the end of 1995. There is also a problem of corruption and embezzlement which has prompted many bilateral and multilateral donors to stop making payments. The revelation, for example, that the Central Bank was the victim of an international fraud resulting in the loss of almost four million dollars has hardly helped to instil confidence.

Moreover, the Bank of Madagascar does not appear to have any clear or coherent financial policy. It grants disguised subsidies and tax exemptions to food manufacturers, and to companies involved in agriculture and petroleum. It also gives export aid which appears difficult to justify. In 1994, these allocations amounted to FMG 200 billion, out of a meagre national budget of FMG 900 billion. It is not particularly surprising to learn that income from taxation is low as a proportion of GDP. Usually it is around 9% - in 1994 it was just 7.7%!

In 1995, World Bank and IMF officials visited the country on four separate occasions to examine the situation and discuss the financial crisis with the authorities. The outcome was an agreement on the structural and sectoral measures that should be taken to stabilise the currency. These included reforms in the public sector, privatisation of state enterprises, reorganisation of the banking sector, and liberalisation of air transport, the petroleum sector, telecommunications and the vanilla industry. The aim is to reduce the inflation rate, running at 48% in 1995, to 15%. On the fiscal side, the World Bank is recommending that state income be boosted by an increase in tax on petroleum products, while the VAT rate would be held at 25%.

Against this gloomy background, one positive factor has been the recent development of the free zone. This has led to an increase in industrial added value of 10% per year over the last two years and has created ten thousand jobs.

The fact is that, despite the difficulties, Madagascar has considerable assets which could be exploited further. Agriculture falls short of realising its full potential, but fishing has made a good start, particularly in the sea-food sector. There are, for example, two large fish farming businesses - one in the Mahajanga region and the other in the South - that have the capacity to boost exports substantially. Tourism is also on the increase. The number of visitors is still low, given the natural beauty and wealth of the country, but there has been a threefold increase over ten years, with 60 000 tourists choosing to holiday in Madagascar in 1995.

The greatest hope for the Malagasy Republic must lie in the people's growing awareness of the need to tackle the crisis. This awareness includes a recognition of the importance of democracy and transparency of government. There is hope for a better future although much work remains to be done. H.G.

Exaltation of the senses in Madagascar


Antananarivo, beautiful and without artifice

Tana is beautiful, very beautiful. Some may find this statement difficult to understand, given the dust and traffic related smog which creates an asphyxiating atmosphere during the daytime. The city does not have just have one area of shanty housing; in fact it appears to be one big shanty town. Annexes are built on to houses to cope, after a fashion, with the city's rising population. Poverty is at the very doors of all the luxury villas, and there are no rich districts. Unlike the major 'capitals of destitution', where the rich can always take refuge in 'reservations', here, as one expatriate resident puts it, one cannot shield oneself from the spectacle of misery. This is probably why so many foreign aid volunteers are often sharp and scornful when talking about the city, forgetting its essentials. The important point about Tana is that it is beautiful and original, unlike all the other showcase capitals in Africa and other Third-World countries which aspire to this condition.

There is, moreover, a light which bathes the city in glorious glowing colours. This is the light of dawn, seen before the polluting vehicles make their mark. The city comes to life as rickety carts drawn by hungry animals and dense crowds of pedestrians spill on to the streets. In this soft light, Antananarivo is unique and captivating, particularly if one has the opportunity to admire it from the lower town which is encircled by hills, as if by a pearl necklace. There is a small lake in the middle of the lower town, from the centre of which rises a monument. As in so many of France's former colonial capitals, this was erected to commemorate those who died in war, but it is more reminiscent of a sculpture in a grand English garden, rising like a huge candle from the middle of the lake. The sun, which has not yet taken on the shape of a perfect disc, casts its reflection over a hazy sky and lifts the mist from the lake - a genuine soft mist which contrasts with the polluted daytime fog which will appear later. The magnificent stage set is completed by the filmy curtain of the surrounding hills which, at this time of day, appear as watered silk. The effect is due to the pale violet clusters of jacaranda blossom. In this warm southern winter, the flowering jacarandas give the city the appearance of an enormous mixed bouquet, tinted with the russet of the roof tiles that rise in stages towards churches and palaces that appear in silhouette. Standing amongst them are the walls of the Queen's Palace offering a tragically grandiose shadow play. The interior of the building has been gutted by fire allowing a few timid rays of sun to filter through. This subtle interplay between the city, the light and the mist on the lake, gives the impression of incense rising from a huge altar - paying homage perhaps to the Queen's Palace.

Looking at the morning scene calls to mind some words by Racine: 'Beautiful, unadorned, attired only in a beauty just torn from sleep'. And at dusk, the few small lamps illuminating the houses on the hills create an effect of shadow and light which is almost as seductive.

During the day, the contrast is striking. Overwhelmed by the harshness of the city - the pollution, noise and sights of misery and poverty - it is easy to overlock the essential beauty. Below the old Galli bridge, a boy of seven or eight years, in rags, feeds his little sister with a withered fruit. These two little souls, alone in the world, make one forget the pretty cottages and narrow streets of the higher town, the jacarandas, flower-decked balconies and charm of the colonial houses behind their peeling walls. The initial image may fade, but it is rekindled again at sunrise, or when one suddenly stumbles across a square which is reminiscent of a small Swiss town rebuilt under a tropical sky. This is when a curious sense of nostalgia sets in, a nostalgia for a city one has never known! Antananarivo must have been truly stunning 30 or 40 years ago!

The brashness of Diego

Even when one has been told that no two regions in this country are alike, a short trip inland throws up many surprises. For the traveller, the first surprise is the journey itself. In such a poor country, where public transport in the capital is so unreliable, one might expect to be flying in an overcrowded old crate of an aircraft and one is prepared to be patient. But the aircraft leaves exactly on time and the 'crate' turns out to be a Boeing in perfect condition. Given the stipulations of the World Bank, it is clear the airline is preparing for privatisation.

Antseranana, in the far north, is still known as Diego Suarez to the rest of the world, or just Diego to its inhabitants. It was the first concession made by Madagascar to France in the last century and the French influence can still be seen everywhere, from the street names which were never translated into Malagasy, to the decor of the caf This was one of the most prosperous ports in the French overseas territories and today it is a splendid relic. One's first impression, coming from the overpopulated capital, is of space, relaxation and relative cleanliness. In comparison with the austerity of the high plateaux (in Antananarivo everything closes down in the evening), Diego Suarez displays all the expected brashness of a port. It has a bustling nightlife with cafes and nightclubs that stay open into the small hours. Late into the night, couples can be seen taking a stroll or passing the time in pavement cafes. The scene is illuminated by the lights of the many cheap restaurants that serve tasty fried fish. Here you find young foreign tourists mixing with the locals, eager to breathe in the scents of the city.

The six-month season of the tuna boats lends rhythm to the life of this nostalgic city with its history of steam ships and elegant foreigners. The last tuna vessel docked, a few days later than usual, in November. The population is cosmopolitan, a significant proportion being recently arrived Indo-Pakistanis and Arabs, who have not yet blended into the Malagasy melting pot. Diego also has a higher concentration of European tourists than elsewhere in the country, (with the exception of the tourist island of Nosy Be).

Fish caught in the region are processed at the port. Many of the tuna boats come from far away (particularly Australia). In the evenings, the 'false tuna' (unintentional catches, or windfalls) are distributed amongst the population. There is enough for everyone. All have a right to a standard measure and the fish are carried on a home-made wooden trolley. This is a small bonus in addition to the direct and indirect employment created by the port activities. The CMDM (Malagasy Handling Company), which packs tuna and has a cannery, alone employs almost 200 people full time and up to 800 day labourers in high season. Outside the tuna-fishing season, other activities continue, such as boat maintenance and the export of coffee, cocoa, wood, vanilla and tobacco. The city appears to be going through a rebirth at present as the fortunes of its port, which is one of the oldest in the region, revive.

The Compagnie de Batelage et de Charbonnage de Madagascar (Malagasy Lighterage and Bunkering Company) was set up here in 1839, later to become the East-African Maritime Company. The current renaissance dates from the end of the 1980s, when the government introduced a degree of liberatisation. The intention is to extend the port, making Diego more competitive vis-a-vis other ports around the Indian Ocean. In this respect, its location in the far north of the Malagasy Republic gives it a considerable initial advantage. Apart from the CMDM, six other companies working in the port and involved in the tuna trade have formed a professional grouping to protect their interests.

Antseranana's twin port city, Mahajanga, which has also benefited from the spin-offs of the recent economic development, is the country's second largest city although it does not have the same nightlife or apparent cosmopolitan character - the air of freedom possessed by true port cities. However, it does have the same sense of space. The streets are uncrowded and a long boulevard runs beside the port, alongside a pedestrian promenade, giving it something of the air of a Caribbean coastal city. The interesting thing about Mahajanga is its countless rickshaws. These are meticulously decorated in bright colours, and their bodywork and softly upholstered seats make them appear like miniature limousines. Mahajanga's rickshaws, unlike those of many Asian cities, leave less of an impression of wretchedness and social injustice - but this may be nothing more than an illusion created by the clever use of tropical colours.

The sensual isle

Nosy Be (pronounced Nosch-Bis regarded by many as the place to visit. It faces a large bay where an estuary gives the mainland the appearance of a constellation of small islands. Two airlines and five cruise ships can take you to this place of dreams. And it is cheap in comparison with the very few islands on earth which can genuinely compete with it in terms of beauty and changes of scenery. Seen from here, the rest of the country is not just the mainland but a fully-fledged continent.

Nosy Be is an island apart in all senses. It is round, like a child's drawing and has a luxuriant flora of fruit trees, lianas, orchids and other flowers in their thousands. The hill in the centre sparkles with small crater lakes, and it is surrounded by a myriad of small islands and sandbanks which pattern the sea with stripes of every shade of blue and green. Then there are the inviting spices and fragrances. This is the island of ylang ylang, the flowering tree which has a scent as captivating as its name suggests and which provides an essential oil used in the composition of virtually all the world's great perfumes. On the island, its fragrance blends with the piquant scent of the pepper plant and the magical smells of vetiver, coffee, cinnamon, geranium and sugar cane. I his is an island one could visit with one's eyes closed: it is sensual and enchanted, each spring and small stream telling stories of philtres, magic and love.

What a delight it is to be the first to reach the hill as the afternoon draws to a close. There is beauty as far as the eye can see -in the sky, at sea and on land. The noise from the four-wheel drives and motorcycles of the tourists, arriving at the meeting point, does little to mar the pleasurable assault on your senses. The faces of the little girls and teenagers are decorated with white paste in lacy designs. This is a cosmetic rather than 'make-up' and their faces blend well with the finely worked white tablecloths which the embroiderers have hung out to flutter in the wind as they await their customers. The children offer little bottles of pure ylang ylang oil in return for a trilling sum.

All the while, the colours in the sky are gradually changing. We have been told to expect a riot of hues but for once - perhaps the only time this year - Nosy Be's sunset is disappointing. The island's rain is supposed to stop before dusk, but this time, nature plays a trick on us, and the drizzle is still descending. Just before surreptitiously dropping out of sight, the sun briefly reveals itself as a small pale disc, as if to cock a snook at those who believe they can be at one with nature. However, even this furtive appearance, seen through a screen of fine suspended droplets against a backdrop of islands and water, has its own beauty! We were certainly not shortchanged.

For a growing band of tourists, Nosy Be is, above all, the Indian Ocean's island of leisure. It is extremely rich, with beaches which one could argue are the finest in the worid. It has wonderful promenades and exceptional underwater offshore reserves. The neighbouring small islands are home to the lemurs. Then there is the history. If you should grow bored, one of the last old Sakalava kings will gladly tell you the secular history of his family and of the other kingdoms on the island - wonderful stories of battles and love. H.G.

Even the Malagasies have the blues

A frank discussion with up and coming singer, Bodo

You have to learn how to pronounce her name: 'Bou'd' for Francophones and 'Bood' for English speakers. She enbodies the new dynamism in young Ma/agasy music, grafting swing from other islands in the Indian Ocean and the rhythm of nearby Africa onto local nostalgia. With her ta/ents and apparently mild but firm disposition - she does not mince words - there is every chance that Bodo will be one of the first batch of Malagasy singers to invade the music market in the North Let's listen to what she has to say.

The music I play is called Hira Gasy (pronounced 'Ira Gash,) and it is genuine popular music which mixes all the influences found in Tana (Antananarivo), from the North and the South. We don't make a scholarly distinction. Hira Gasy blends together all Malagasy styles, including courtly music. During the last five years there has been an explosion in terms of young music. In the 1970s, people on the coast came up here with their tunes. There were also various musical styles in the capital that had originated here and elsewhere. Before that, there were the 'Kitanate'. At their gatherings, groups would play together, each one retaining its regional style, as if they were competing with one another. Today, young people have really begun to play together.

Some claim that rock is a corrupting influence in our music, but the Malagasy art will keep its individual character. Loss of identity does not necessarily spring from colonisation. On the contrary, colonisation can be used to make oneself heard and understood in other places. I use French so that people can understand what Malagasy means. If I want to pass a Malagasy message, I do so in French, or in another international language. Rock is the same; it's a universal language. Everyone has the blues in them, even the Malagasies.

It's incorrect to say that music from the high plateaux has no rhythm, because all music has rhythm. Reniry is languorous, a kind of lament that suits the blues. Salogy is a different style of music which has more movement. And Hira Gasy, which is a blend of influences from the high plateaux and the coast, is a style which is becoming more popular, a happy medium between romanticism and rhythm.

I am not sure whether the authorities have understood our young music which can seem puzzling to them. The composition of the current government is significant in that they have omitted to appoint a Minister of Culture. Perhaps they think that culture is a waste of time and that anyone can do the job.

You know that in 1993, two of us were selected to perform at a big festival in France (Jeux de la Francophonie) The event was postponed for a year and, in the intervening period, the government here changed. Our participation was thrown into doubt. The pretext given was that our style was that of someone like Whitney Houston and therefore did not represent the country. In the end, we went, accompanied by two 'babysitters' from the ministry. They spent all their time sitting around while we worked, with no one doing our promotion for us. We rehearsed, did our own publicity and made contacts without their help. They had no idea about music. I hope I am not sounding too harsh about them. They were very nice but they weren't really able to help us. I saw myself as representing my country, which was a big challenge, and we ended up winning the silver medal against tough competition. But they did not even come to congratulate us. Why? Because culture in this country is so underestimated that people working in a Ministry of Culture are unaware of the importance of their task.

The same attitude can also be seen in certain sectors of the press. The day I left for France, there was only negative criticism of the fact that I was going to sing in French. They seem to have forgotten that I was going to take part in a competition for French songs. The important thing for me was to present the Malagasy spirit and the Malagasy rhythm. They could have made constructive or sincere criticisms. I would have understood it, for example, if they had given their opinion on the rhythm and the words or suggested that I should give up my melancholy style.

I find it difficult to understand music critics in the media. An artist puts on a show to an empty auditorium and they will report that it was wonderful. Another one attracts a full house and there is always a newspaper ready to decry them. This is what happened recently to a very good artiste called Irosy.

Malagasy music is on the move but what we need here is a big shake-up, particularly in the ministries. Let them come to the aid of our Malagasy heritage! Fortunately, dynamism is sweeping through the Indian Ocean. The islands are beginning to wake up and, with a bit of luck, my CD will be coming out next year in Rion. They not only have good equipment but the producers want to manage Malagasy artists so that they can launch them in Europe. And, of course, with your article, who knows? Interview by HG

Culture and tradition in Madagascar

The poetry of death and anxiety

If there is one Malagasy word which the visitor is almost certain to remember - because it is heard all the time - X is 'fady'. It translates as 'prohibited', 'taboo' or 'forbidden'. A place, a gesture, a word, an object, an animal or a food, throughout the country or in a particular region, may be 'fady.. This is not something that is open to discussion nor does it require explanation. It must simply be accepted. Nothing and no one is able to lift the fady, apart from, in very rare cases, an ancestor; that is to say a dead person communicating with the living.

Two key notions in Malagasy culture make it possible to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of the spiritual worid in which the inhabitants of that great island live. They owe more to a philosophy than to morals and the words used to denote them - tsiny and tody - are difficult to translate.

Tsiny corresponds to a type of reproach or chastisement of someone who has committed a sin, whether against God or the ancestral spirits, against a mere mortal or in violation of traditional standards. The result will be just retribution and the punishment may be severe, affecting the wrongdoer in terms of his assets, his close relations or his very life. According to popular wisdom, the tsiny is 'like a hoar frost: You are unaware of it until it has gripped your body'. Nothing can stop it, not even God (who is above it all), for free agency has been conferred on Man and he finds himself enclosed in his solitude, in tense anxiety. It is no coincidence that the Malagasy word 'fanahy', which is usually translated as 'soul', etymologically means 'the tool or ability to suffer anxiety'. The soul is viewed essentially as a tool in the service of the body - an idea that is in contrast to Christian philosophy which characterises it as a component part of the human being but one which is detachable from the body.

The art of the spoken word

The only protection against the tsiny is to exorcise it by means of the spoken word, preferably before committing the sin. An example of a wrong committed against another person may be the simple act of speaking in public. By speaking, in all probability one is claiming precedence over someone who is superior in the ethical hierarchy. This hierarchy ranges from God down to oneself and includes in between, one's ancestors, the dead, the King or Queen, persons of higher rank, the authorities, older people and so on. All these are deemed more 'qualified' than you to address an audience. So to exorcise the punishment due for this sin, you must confess it - and not just in any way you please. You must use ritual formulae - not to be confused with magic formulae - which are arranged and improvised upon depending on the speakers talent. Thus, no one can speak in public unless they have mastered the rules for exorcising the tsiny. The spoken word is a sophisticated art known as the kabary and when the formulae are used in such circumstances, it is not, strictly speaking, an excuse that is being offered but rather a self-accusation designed to ward off evil.

Under certain circumstances, for example, when a man is seeking to marry a woman, the task of making the request will be given to a specialist in the field. A kabary for asking for someone's hand in marriage is an exercise in balance, in which pretence, arabesque, surprise and tact combine, touching lightly upon one another and interweaving, forming infinite variations on a theme. Throughout, the speaker teeters on the brink of anxiety and insecurity. To paraphrase the formula used by the police, 'anything he says may be used against him and his close relatives'. There must be no flourishes and no raised voices, for one of the primary qualities of a Malagasy must be discretion in all things. It is interesting to learn that the Malagasy word which equates with 'just' in English, has no moral connotations. Etymologically speaking, it means 'the happy medium', 'level' or 'equilibrium'. This implies that an excess of good, like an excess of evil, is not right. By extension, the evil to be found in Man is not necessarily put there by the devil.

The 'tody' is even more curious than the 'tsiny'. This may be described loosely as 'fate' (although not as 'random chance'). It is the reaction to your actions or the 'inevitable return of things': in short the logic of destiny which may unknowingly fall upon you as a result of an action committed, consciously or unconsciously, for good or for evil, which has harmed another person. Unlike the tsiny, which can, if necessary, be warded off, there is no exorcism against the tody.

This constant fear of doing wrong, even in one's thoughts and judgement explains the existence of a unique word, 'tsara', which loosely encompasses the 'fine' and the 'good'. To judge by the dread of the tsiny, Malagasy ethics are not a vision of what is fine but, rather, the aesthetic, which is subject to moral judgement. Moreover, linguists liken this word tsara to a phoneme close to the sanskrit and which means 'conforming to tradition'.

Fear of the tsiny and of the tody, alongside respect for God and for the voice of conscience, constitute the four cornerstones of Malagasy morals or ethics. The consequences of this are paralysis of action, anxiety and permanent guilt, mistrust of oneself and a fear of one's weaknesses. This has led one researcher to conclude that Malagasy people are afraid of speaking aloud and are even afraid of their thoughts. This philosophy of anxiety also engenders respect for others and promotes the spiritual side of life and a great artistic sensitivity. It helps furthermore to guarantee social cohesion which is governed by a code of life as a society and mutual assistance - the 'fhavanana'. Here is an example of the elegance of this code. The pardon conferred by an entire community on a wrongdoer, after the latter's repentance, may be such that anyone who subsequently refers to the sin commits a 'fady' act and has to make reparation through offerings. On the occasion of a theft, in certain cases a ceremony is organised at which everyone deposits a
crumpled ball of paper on a heap. The thief thus has the opportunity to give back the stolen article whilst retaining his honour and obtaining this near sacred pardon.

Living well after death

Without doubt, some of the finest structures on the island are the tombs and funerary monuments. These are much more than the sad private chapels which usually fill cemeteries. Indeed, the very idea of a cemetery is a relative one in this country. Family tombs can be found practically everywhere, sometimes isolated, sometimes in small 'communities' and sometimes in the form of mini-towns where the people 'live out their death well'. Entire villages are reserved for the dead where they are said to speak, sing and be entertained.

The bodily remains Iying underground regularly receive offerings. Rarely, however, are strangers able to identify tombs at first glance, so great is their resemblance to ordinary small dwellings. Sometimes, they are even large houses surrounded by gardens containing ornate sculptures. And the sculptures are not necessarily pious: in some parts of the south, one can find works of an erotic nature. The people converse regularly with their dead. This may take place in front of the family tomb or anywhere in sacred places, such as a river bank or by a tree trunk in the village.

Death is the passage from one part of life to another and is therefore endowed with special qualities. The deceased is promoted to the rank of sacred ancestor, but this does not mean that the way in which the dead are addressed is one of veneration. There may even be a scolding if the deceased is slow to reply to the requests put to him.

When death occurs, it therefore gives rise to ambivalent reactions: sadness in the family, of course, but, at the same time, pleasure at having a close relative gain access to the ranks of ancestor and thereby become capable of offering protection and assistance - provided, of course, that the deceased is pampered somewhat. Hence the incantations and offerings. However, the strangest phenomenon in the eyes of visitors is the 'famadibana', the'turning-over of the dead'. This takes place from June to September on the high plateaux where families go 'to turn over the beds of stone' (although some of the populations along the coast do not do this). This is when they clean and embellish the inside of the family tomb. At the same time, they exhume the dead for a day and share their intimacy, cleaning them, changing their shrouds and showing them to the children - who handle the revered remains without a hint of disgust or repugnance.

This ceremony is the occasion for a big celebration and it takes place as often as the family can afford. Three years after death, the corpse has to be reburied in the final shroud. These practices are not classed as traditions but are part of everyday life. Malagasy civilisation has merely placed death amongst the living.

This closeness to death is probably unique, although much attention has been given to the case of Mexico, where close relatives tenderly touch, the bodies of those who have just died, posing beside them for a photograph. Although the Day of the Dead is a special celebration there, particularly for children who receive unusual gifts linked to the cult of the dead, such as little coffins or sugar skulls, the degree of familiarity does not extend beyond the funeral services.


It is fady for a father to use the familiar form of address to his daughter. A mother may do so to reprimand her, but this must never be done in public. In a particular town, the tamarind tree may be fady. It may be forbidden in some places to expose part of one's finger. Taboos and prohibitions abound, although they are not always coercive in nature, and they can lend rhythm to a strange spectacle.

The most enchanting region of the Malagasy Republic is probably Antakarna, in the North-East. One of its most striking legends is that of the crocodile men. Near the town of Ambilobe, the hottest place on the island, underground rivers flow through a mountainous massif and there are countless hidden lakes in which innumerable 'reptiles' splash about. You are not likely to be attacked by them because they are men in reptilian guise, although one of them may touch you to warn of the approach of a 'real' crocodile. They are said to be the last remaining battalions of the army of a Sakalava king who, encircled by the forces of the Merina king, Ramada 1, preferred to drown themselves rather than surrender. These caves are formally off limits (fady) to the inhabitants of the high plateaux. Another captivating site in the same region, where the mountains continually flirt with water, is the Andranamamofona falls. It is said that at one time, the river was no more than a small stream but that it widened miraculously. Two lovers who were gazing at each other across the water perished in the process and two rocks have been erected at the places where they stood. In the Malagasy language, these are called 'the man's side' and 'the woman's side'. It is fady to visit the underground waters in this region if one is wearing any garment that slips on over one's feet (such as trousers or pants). The pagne (loincloth) is de rigueur and all guides must be of royal blood. Street traders in the nearby town of Ambilobe do not deal in drugs or gems but in the fossils of baby coelacanths found in places regarded as 'fady' to strangers - a good way to protect the trade.

Desperation produces beautiful songs

Malagasy poetry has inherited a language of astonishing sensitivity, if the foreign linguists are to be believed. This can be seen in the musicality of the words, the length of which (on paper) often intimidate foreigners. They are invariably surprised by the softness of the corresponding sounds and by the brevity of the words in spoken form. This is because transcription into the Roman alphabet by English and French speaking scholars resulted in the insertion of vowels which are not pronounced. Traditional Malagasy writing, which is similar to Arabic, gave a better impression of the true sounds. The final syllable is almost never pronounced, while the vowels of the last two syllables are frequently silent. Thus, Tsiranana, is simply 'Tsira'n', while 'fady' becomes 'fad'. Verbs can have a third mood in addition to the active and the passive, allowing for unusual inversions in the Malagasy language. For example, in addition to the active 'I play swing with my guitar' and passive 'Swing is played by me with my guitar', the relative or adverbial mood will give something which roughly translates as 'My guitar is that with which swing is played by me'. It must be stressed that this is no more than an inelegant approximation. It sounds much better in the original to those who can understand it. A wide range of words exists to denote each action according to its direction, intensity or the position of the speaker. For example, there are about twenty words that translate the verb 'to look', depending on whether one is looking at a certain distance, whether one's head is raised or lowered, whether one is looking through something, revealing only one's eyes, and so on.

Literature is full of melancholy. Even modern literature tends to concentrate on nostalgia or subjects such as death. Researchers believe they can place the source of this poetry of nostalgia in the very make-up of the Malagasy population, which is the product of immigration.

Music is also melancholic, particularly on the high plateaux. Cire Rabenoro, President of the Malagasy Academy, is a scientist and jurist by training, a career diplomat and passionate musician. He explains that music on the plateaux is often sad, arising from the relatively cold mountain climate. On the coast, in Mahajanga, it is somewhat more African in nature. Music further south, in Antananarivo, is seen as exuberant. In fact, a tropical music lover would find a slightly rhythmical chant. The national instrument, which can be seen throughout the country, is the valiha. This is a kind of harp reminiscent of instruments from the Malay-lndonesian region, which has a shrill quality and a soft, muted resonance. As such, it lends itself wonderfully to the anxious and sad Malagasy chant. The Mpihira Gasy, the musical, dance and kabary groups, are to be found on the high plateaux, among the Merina and Betsileo populations, but they are appreciated throughout the republic.

Apart from traditional music on the plateaux, there is also scholarly music inspired, initially, by European operettas. It is also full of languor. Christian chants, particularly those of the Protestant church, have also influenced Malagasy song, feeding the melancholy which is intrinsic to this culture. In regretting the European failure to appreciate scholarly Malagasy music, given that it is of European origin, Professor Rabenoro is resigned: 'Perhaps you have to be a Malagasy to experience melancholy like this.' H.G.