Leader: President Didier Ratsiraka
Economy: GNP per capita $320 (1982)
Main imports: petroleum, food.
Main exports: coffee, cloves, vanilla, fish and shrimp, textiles.
People: 9.5 million
Culture: Ethnic groups: 18 tribes; largest are the Merina in the Highlands and the coastal Betsisimaraka. The Madagascan is the product of successives waves of immigration from Asia, East Africa and Arabia.
Religion: Ancestor worshippers; Christian.
Language: Malagasi, French.
Health: Infant mortality: 70 per thousand live births.
Percentage of population with access to clean water 25%.
Source: State of the World’s Children (1984, 1985),’ Africa Review (1985).
Even before the dawn reveille rings out from the market barracks, horse bridles jingle over Tana’s cobbled streets. In the seaport of Taomasina, the loudest sound in a sweltering noon is the squeak of rickshaws, carrying Chinese kids from school. On the red roads, oxcarts roll ponderously past shawled women, bringing charcoal, bricks baked from paddy mud and temperate vegetables to sell in town.
Only the overloaded Malagasy development machine seems to have broken down. A late Seventies investment program weighted towards industry tore the ligaments that joined the town and country. The profits from the earlier coffee boom were sunk in costly plant — but the island now spends more than it did on imports.
Stung by indifference the peasants went limping off into a sullen subsistency, from which the government is still trying to woo them. For the price of rice long ago outstripped politics as the most urgent issue of the day. In the volatile capital Antananarivo, an impossible city for any regime to rule, the fokontany or councils, now sell rations at fixed rates to keep the urban population happy while the government experiments with free marketing in a bid to raise production.
Recession and foreign debts of $1.6 billion have marred the solid achievements of the revolution which overthrew the conservative government over a decade ago. In spite of limited funds and the migration of doctors to the former colonising country, France, the government was able to put a primary health care centre within 10 kilometres of every village and staff it with a trained student, selected by the community. But annual spending on medicines is less than 20 cents per head and with every austerity budget it slips a little further.
Madagascar has excellent long-term prospects, including sizeable oil deposits. But agricultural reform and the liberalisation of prices, all urged by the International Monetary Fund , entail nothing less than the dismantling of a major part of the government’s socialist platform.
Despite the revolution, Madagascar is a profoundly conservative society and doubly insular because its culture is unique in the hemisphere. It shares the same map location as Mozambique but its beliefs originate in the East.
These include respect paid to the ancestors, who remain in constant contact with the living to protect and chastise them. A complex web of taboos, known as fady, based on astrology and the words of the long dead, guides their feet from day to day. The Highland custom of ‘reshrouding the corpse’, which takes place after the rice-harvest, is the most striking example of the Malagasy intimacy with death. Like the fady and the construction of fortress-like tombs, these rites are a formidable barrier to social change.