One reason I chose to live in an ‘exotic’ country is because I enjoy getting to know people from different cultures. But I’ve found a society so obsessed with race and ethnicity that I often long for the interracial mixing of Britain (and if you disagree that races mix in Britain – you want to see it here!).
Economic, religious and social lives in Madagascar are all divided along fairly clear racial lines.
It’s an Indian!
Western tourists are often offended to be referred to and treated first and foremost as a Vazaha. But, what they don’t realise is that, in Diego, your race is the most important piece of information about you. When my partner was in England, we couldn’t see somebody of Indian origin without him commenting, “It’s an Indian.” Every single time. I tried to stop him doing it but it was an unstoppable reflex.
Race and status
In Britain we are aware of statistical differences in status between racial groups (the disadvantaged groups are probably more aware than the Whites). In Madagascar, as in much of Africa, it’s totally separate boxes – your race gives a fairly certain prediction of your lifestyle and status. I’m reminded of a white Zimbabwean friend of mine who said he was shocked to see white people driving buses and cleaning streets when he first arrived in the UK.
When I was back in England, taking a bus to my old house in Hackney, I was struck by how colour and class were not a correlation amongst my fellow passengers. I saw black professional people and poor white people, something you don’t see here.
I should qualify that there are some very well off Malagasy people and in the capital city, Antananarivo, great extremes of wealth can be seen. However, this only partly breaks the race rules as a closer look at Malagasy culture, especially on the plateau, reveals an ingrained ‘caste’ system where society has always been broken down between different ‘levels’ of society. Within Madagascar your ethnicity is also very important.
So, what race are the Malagasys?
When you stand back with a global and historical eye, the obsession with race in Madagascar is even more bizarre as they are such a racially mixed population. I often feel like I’m looking at a Benetton advert with 1000s of people, each one showing a slightly different shade and combination of features than the other.
For starters the original population is split genetically between African and Indonesian origin (see Research: Migration to Madagascar by the Wellcome Trust)
Research: Migration to Madagascar
Secondly, Madagascar has only been populated for 2000 years so any claim to be ‘pure Malagasy’ requires some explanation.
Lastly, there has been a considerable mixing of genes ever since humans arrived from all the foreign groups listed above through trade, piracy, war, colonisation and slavery. Some might say that the Coastal Malagasys reputation for being good hosts and for promiscuity has predisposed this island to racial mixing.
What about me?
I now define somebody’s race when I’m talking about them, and often ask for it if someone hasn’t described it. It’s partly that I’ve got over the hang up about asking but also because it does give a context to someone here. In England, finding out whether somebody is black or white doesn’t tell you very much.
Madagascar has a long way to go before there are enough opportunities for everybody that race is as unimportant.
Filed under: Race and ethnicity