Building a traditional wooden boat in Madagascar

Finished boat 2007Jean has finished building his latest boat named Miaraka (Malagasy for ‘to be together’ or ‘to go together’) . It’s a traditional wooden boat that can use sail or outboard motor (up to 40hp).  It was constructed using methods passed down from older fishermen in his district (follow links to see photos of La Dordogne, Antsiranana).

See all Traditional wooden boat building photos.

He built his first boat when he was 23 years old. He used to do it all by hand but now has many power tools that kind people (usually friends from Reunion island) have given him.

Boats can be built in one of 2 forms:

  1. a ‘V’ shape – better for use with the sail (it cuts through the water better at an angle)
  2. a ‘U’ shape – better for use with a motor (it’s more stable in the water)

Timing and logistics

Traditional wooden boat building, Diego, 2007

It takes about 3 months to build a boat. If you could guarantee having all the parts at your fingertips when you wanted them you could push it down to 2 months at a push. Jean does more than half the work himself working mainly with one assistant (Big Meo – not very big actually but it’s to differentiate him from Little Meo who also works with Jean quite often). He then calls on others from the area to help with odd tasks.

Boats are generally built during the dry windy season (June-November). This is partly because you can’t fish much during this period and also because there’s no rain so the boat stays dry whilst being built

Jean sold his previous boat in August which just gave himself enough time to build a new one before the next fishing season. As soon as the wind dropped – he was out at sea.


The 2007 boat is:

  • Length: 7.50m
  • Width: 2.25m
  • Height at front: 1.60m
  • Height at back: 1.00m

It’s form is in between the V and U shapes mentioned above.

Boat building process

Boat in water 2007
  1. Keel – needs a hard wood that doesn’t float – Jean buys this from a wood merchant in town
  2. Front vertical ‘stem’
  3. Stern – Back of boat –
  4. Four central ‘strakes’ (cross bits)
  5. Guiding rods put in place to give shape of boat
  6. Construct and fit all strakes – this is biggest part of job, takes about two thirds of overall time
  7. Outer planks put in place (imported tacamaca wood used)
  8. Cross beams and seats constructed
  9. Put cord in gaps
  10. Put tar in gaps
  11. Paint inside and out (underside of boat needs special paint to protect against sea creatures attaching themselves)
  12. Launch boat in water
  13. Install mast and sail


Jean built two boats in 2006; one for himself and one for sale. Their lenghts were 7.20m and 8.00m respectively.

Traditional wooden boat building 2006


The 2005 boat was 7.20m.

Traditional wooden boat building 2005

Racial and ethnic groups in Northern Madagascar

As described in ‘Are Malagasys racist?’, race and ethnicity matter in Madagascar. Although it may look as if everybody is a crazy mix, these are the main groups that I have identified.

In Antsiranana, the racial groups are:

  • Coastal Gasys
  • Plateau Gasys
  • White people – Vazahas
  • Chinese – Sinoa
  • Indians – Karan
  • Arabs
  • Creoles

Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys

This subheading, Coastal versus Plateau Malagasys, implies competition and conflict. This is a fair representation of the situation; there is much suspicion and bad feeling between the groups.

In simple terms, the ethnic groups of the plateau are largely of Indonesian origin, so that many people have glossy Asian hair and Indonesian features. The Coastal groups are largely of African descent.

Historically, the plateau tribes, primarily the Merina, dominated the other tribes for three centuries leading up to the French colonisation.

Some of their dominance was based on having a more complex society structure and beneficial relationships with the British. But, their dominance was also enforced by slavery and war.

It is not ancient history by any means and the memories of the coastal people are long and seemingly unforgiving. Their resentment is reinforced by each generation with constant criticism of the ‘bourozan’, the disrespectful name for the Merina, almost whenever there is an opportunity to have the discussion.

In turn, I think it is fair to generalise that some people of the plateau consider their own culture more advanced and sophisticated than that of the coastal groups. Certainly, when I go to Tana (Antananarivo) there are many things that feel more developed than in the coastal regions.

Understandably, there are not many Plateau Malagasys in Diego because they have to deal with feeling unwelcome. If they are here, they tend to be in a secure financial position and have come because of work or through a marriage (normally to a Vazaha, it’s rare for them to marry a Coastal Malagasy).

However, there are extremes of wealth on the plateau with some of the country’s richest and poorest residents. So, as well as the bourgeouis Merina that come here there are also teams of low paid workers working on things such as road projects.

Just yesterday I sat having a drink with a local woman explaining to me why the plateau people were all racist (and uncaring and greedy), at least the pale skinned ones are. I eventually gave up pointing out that she was being racist by saying this as she just kept giving me more examples to prove her case. I have had this conversation many times here.

Vazahas – white people

Vazaha means stranger. Vazahas come from ‘andaf’ which means overseas. The term Vazaha is used almost exclusively to mean white people, or any thing that is not of Malagasy origin, e.g. You can speak Vazaha, listen to Vazaha music etc.

I’ve posed the question of whether foreigners of other racial origin are also Vazahas but, in general, these people would be called African, Chinese (probably covering any countries of Far East), Indian (covering all of Indian sub continent) etc. And mixed race people are just called mixed race (my son is known as Vazaha Gasy – like this site).

If you’re Black British you will just cause confusion. Jean, my partner, wouldn’t see anyone who wasn’t white as truly English when he was in England. It didn’t matter how many times I explained about successive invasions by the Vikings, the Saxons and the French – White people were British and anyone else was African or Indian. Similarly, American Peace Corps volunteers will not be accepted as American if they’re not White (and, Yes, we have all tried explaining the ‘melting-pot’ aspect of American immigration).

Resident Vazahas tend to be French but there are also many Italians, especially on the tourist island of Nosy Be. I suspect we will see increasing numbers of Southern Africans as they are increasingly investing in tourism here. Americans tend to be Peace Corps volunteers or working for an NGO. In Diego, the British are all Frontier or volunteering for something – there aren’t that many of us in Madagascar.


There are many people of clearly Indian descent here as they tend to marry within their own race and religion. They probably dominate the economic life of the Antsiranana region more than the Vazahas. They run many businesses from small shops to major import-export concerns.

Most of the Indians are Muslim, with women often wearing an outfit that comprises of a skirt and a top piece, with head covering in pastel material with embroidery.  For some reason I keep having visions of pastel versions of the Wicked Witch of the West on her bike every time I see an Indian woman on the back of a moped.

The non-Muslim Indians are primarily Hindu.

I interact with people of Indian descent a fair bit; including my French teacher, the older married couple neighbours opposite (rare to find coastal Malagasy couples that have married once and stayed together), and various women at aerobics. It is not uncommon for them to have family in Britain or, like the local tailor, to have lived on Essex Road in Islington himself.


People have come from China at various points over the last 150 years, mainly to help with construction of roads or to escape conflict at home. I imagine that there has been quite a bit of intermarriage because there are relatively few people looking ‘pure’ Chinese but lots of people with some Chinese features.

Apparently, in Madagascar …”there are about 30,000 Chinese, the majority of them came from the Pearl River delta in Canton.”

The first major wave of Chinese immigration to the Indian Ocean was as indentured labour in the nineteenth century, when slavery was abolished. However, many of these people returned to China when their contracts were finished. So most people who stayed are from free immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century.


I had to do some asking about this group as I wasn’t sure what constituted being called an Arab here and, like the Chinese, they don’t seem to be a racially pure group. As with much of coastal Africa, most of the contact with outsiders before the European scramble for land was with Arab traders. Most of the African slave trade went on with Arabs long before the British started shipping people to the New World. Therefore the influence of Arab culture goes back a long way.

However, many Arabs came to Madagascar, mainly in the North around the 1800s – apparently most originated from Yemen. They were especially involved in trade around the Port.

Unlike the Indians, they have intermarried a fair bit (marriage should always be taken in the loosest sense of the word in Northern Madagascar). Muslim men are entitled to marry non-Muslim women as the women take the religion of the man (her whole family is supposed to do this also I understand). So they didn’t need to only marry people who were already practising Muslims.


I had tried without success to identify the true meaning of the term ‘Creole’ here by asking many people who call themselves it, all from Reunion Island. I’ve either had vague or conflicting answers.

By looking it up on the internet, I can now see why there is this confusion.

The Wikipedia page on Creoles says:
“The term Creole…has been applied to people in different countries and epochs, with rather different meanings… and originally referred to locally-born people with foreign ancestry.”

“…in the Indian Ocean, the term denotes someone whose ancestry is so mixed that they don’t belong to the other categories (small white, big white, Indian, Chinese, and so on).

In Reunion island, creole is a more inclusive term that denotes all those born on the island.”

Nearly all Creoles that one meets here are from Reunion, a tiny island 880km to the East of Madagascar (not far from Mauritius) which is part of France.

The people that visit from Reunion tend to be mixed race with some nearer the black end and some near the white end. Sometimes you meet someone who looks 100% white but it’s rare.

There is a high rate of relationships between men from Reunion and women from Madagascar. Men from Reunion appear to make up the highest percentage of foreigners marrying Malagasys and are frequently‘sex tourists’ (or men who pay for sex whilst they’re here on holiday – they may not like being called sex tourists). It’s common for Reunion men to find girlfriends here that they see on repeat visits (and not uncommon for the local girl to have more than one of these boyfriends). If the girl is lucky, the man ends up marrying her and taking her to live there. If the girl is really lucky the man turns out to be a gentleman to her as well (I know of one girl who is desperate to come back as her Reunion husband drinks and hits her).

So, there are a lot of children of mixed Malagasy / Reunion parentage which makes them a whole Indian Ocean mix anyway. Diego is full of visitors from Reunion at holiday times, back to visit family.

Apparently, much of the black racial origin on the surrounding islands, such as Reunion is from Malagasy slaves who ended up there. I also heard (BBC World Service) that a high proportion of the ‘Coloureds’ in South Africa are also of Malagasy origin.

Mouse eats knickers

A mouse has just run over my foot whilst I was getting underwear out of the cupboard. Thus I have now linked two minor events that happened in the last week where I spotted:

1. holes in my knickers

2. a mouse running into our bedroom during the night.

This will teach me for letting my knickers fall to the bottom of the cupboard.

This is just one of the beasties which enjoy sharing our human world in Madagascar. Here are the other top offenders, all impressive creatures in their own right, with my most hated at the top.

Aedes Aegypti Mosquito Enemy number one that inspire me to irrational hatred. They are everywhere, they buzz, they give you itchy bites and they carry life threatening diseases. I’m sure there’s an ecological reason they exist (food for something much cuter I expect). They are amazing only in that they are all over the world so must be an incredibly effective species at reproducing. But this is one time I’d really like the human race to dominate – wipe the buggers out!

I have personal experience of one of the maladies they carry, Chikungunya, which is still giving me joint pain.

Madagascar is well known (amongst cockroach fans) for its large, hissing variety of cockroach, the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.

Apparently these are not the ones that I sometimes find crawling through the grill over the plug hole in my shower (how can something that big get out of such a small holes?)

There’s something about them that just makes me nose wrinkle and my skin crawl. We don’t get many of them in our house – about one a week. But they are so big and they scuttle – really fast. The only way to pick them up is by your hand because with any other method they run off whatever implement you’ve used and up your arm.

It’s one of the few times I go quite girly and go, head tilted on one side, and ask Jean to get rid of them for me. He points out that I have to learn to do it myself. So far, the squealing and head tilting is working fine for me.

From looking at the Wikipedia pages given above I’ve learned that they can climb smooth glass – which I actually discovered when I looked up from brushing my teeth to find one on the mirror in front of me, waving its antenna smugly at me.

There’s a hole at the corner of my street where they all pour out of at night – cockroach horror movie style.

I’ve had pet rats and think they are splendid animals. But we all know they shouldn’t be running around your house. And now I have a baby boy in the house, I especially don’t want big rats which are partial to chewing little limbs. I’ve seen one run through the area at the back of the house and in the next door neighbour’s garden in the last week.

However, the most memorable encounter with a rat – and one of my most memorable Madagascar moments – was in August, not long after I’d got back. I’d spent the day investigating a smell in the kitchen. I’d cleaned everything. At 6pm we found the dead rat that had fallen and got squashed between the back of the fridge and the grill, thus slowly cooking said rat until all its rotting juices poured out into the drip tray. Gag, gag, gag.

I am delighted to read this article, Plague; a Reemerging Disease in Madagascar, which confirms that:

“In the last 15 years, Madagascar (population 13 million) has accounted for 45% of the cases of plague in Africa.”

Luckily, it’s not in my town – but it’s not far away.

These are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet and I wish no individual any harm. However, it’s their pesky effectiveness which makes them so infuriating. Even if you clean your kitchen so there’s not an ant to be found, drop a grain or rice and it’s a party. And I’m tired of clearing out pots full of ant infested food before I’ve had my morning tea because they’ve managed to find where the lid doesn’t fit properly.

And today’s new entry – mice. I’ve been aware of a single mouse that I have seen over the past few weeks but I think they’re cute and our house in England had them for years. Of course, I know enough about small rodents to realise that this solitary mouse is in fact probably a gang (or harem). So, the traps will come out. Small rodents with a penchant for Marks and Spencers white cotton briefs are getting too close to my precious little boy. Off with their heads!

Should we be nice to children?

In Britain, children are worshiped and considered the most important members of the family. The parents exist to provide for and guide the children, their own needs being second place to fulfilling their children’s needs (or wants).

In Madagascar, children justify much less respect and sentimentality.

Here are some examples of how children are not on a pedestal:

  • Any adult (not just family) can instruct any child to do, fetch anything and the child will do it straight away
  • Children must never walk in front of adults who are sat talking
  • Children don’t join in the adult conversations
  • Children are expected to do domestic chores (and not just the nice ones)
  • Parents don’t spend much more time on their children than is necessary – playing is something done by children amongst themselves.
  • Parents don’t intervene much in children’s disputes (unless it disturbs the adults)
  • Children are the last people to be greeted when visitors arrive
  • Smacking children is normal
  • Children are not encouraged to express their opinions or ask questions
  • Children are not comforted if they hurt themselves – it is either pointed out why it was their own fault or someone distracts them by doing something humorous
  • Physical affection is kept a minimum
  • Children are rarely praised
  • The normal mode of parental conversation is barking instructions, correcting negative behaviour (criticising or telling off) or mocking (Malagasys from other towns tell me this ‘mickey taking’ is particularly a Diego trait)

If you are a sensitive Anglo-Saxon reader (British or American), you are probably sobbing quietly into your hanky by now. I frequently come up with plans to protect my child from unfeeling Malagasys such as raising him alone in my living room, setting up an orphanage where children can be raised in my way and distributing copies of the poem ‘If a Child lives with’ in French and Malagasy (I confess I’ve already translated this to put up in my own house).

I should note that, despite my initial concerns, the two people who have looked after my son, his Dady (Granny) and Zakia, have both been lovely with him.

How is my parenting perceived?

Remember that all Malagasy parents were raised as Malagasy children and so see this as the right way to raise children to be functioning adults. And they’re right because that’s the way society works here. It would be unacceptable for children to impinge on adult lives and Malagasy adults also talk to each other in ways more critical, more directive and more mocking than we consider appropriate.

So far, people aren’t too critical (to my face) about my parenting but I know there will many opinions about over indulgence, over sentimentality and lack of boundaries.

Is it about money?

Boys at RamenaIn England, families spend a fortune on their children – not just toys but food, education, activities, holidays, electronic gadgets, baby equipment – I could go on and on.

The difference in parenting isn’t directly about money – people also don’t see why children need much more than food, basic clothes and a place to sleep. Children make their own entertainment and toys and certainly don’t need after school activities to keep them fit – all the 10 year old boys are ripped with six packs and biceps.

Is it about time?

In England, adults invest inordinate amount of time into their children. Manic middle class mummies attempt to create a constant environment of stimulation with visits to petting zoos, coffee mornings with other mums and children, playing classical music, reading, putting on child friendly videos etc. etc.

People have argued with me that Malagasys are too busy looking for something to eat for their children to be ‘playing’ with them. However, anybody who has visited Coastal Madagascar will know that there’s a fair amount of ‘down-time’. Britain has the longest working hours of any country in Europe – maybe that’s why we make so much effort in the hours that we are with the children.

Son and ducksIn Madagascar, real life is going on all around and children get a lot of stimulation just from watching real life. There’s no need to visit petting zoos when animals are all around. And who needs videos when the adults are carrying on their lives around them. And there are always plenty of kids around providing the best form of entertainment.

However, looking at Madagascar with my English eyes, I do feel that children here lack something by not doing some structured activities lead by adults. My natural reaction is to be depressed by the lack of effort put into encouraging children to have inquiring minds. I heard a resident Vazaha say the other day that ‘The problem with Madagascar is the lack of a stimulating environment for infants.’ It’s an interesting thought although may say more about different cultural approaches between Vazahas and Malagasys than whether they lack a stimulating environment.

Less children, more effort?

I saw Bill and Melinda Gates talk about setting up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the world’s biggest medical funding charity, trying to cure the world of big nasties, such as malaria and HIV. They commented that the West has been allowed to develop a different parenting model because of our increased confidence that our children will grow up to achieve adulthood. We can confidently invest all of our effort into our precious 2 children relatively safe in the knowledge that they will thrive. In poorer countries, the child mortality rate is still very high and people have more children.

I asked the woman I bought fish off this week how many children she has and she said 8. With 8 children and little money, you have little choice but to let them raise themselves whilst you search for money to feed and clothe them. She could have saved money by investing in condoms but that’s a whole other debate.

Or is it just more French?

After I’d written this piece, I found the following article in the Telegraph by Janine di Giovanni called, ‘Is Maman mean or magnifique?

It describes the difference between Anglo-Saxon and French parenting styles and seems to sum up the situation here perfectly. I’ve yet to work out how to evaluate the effects of French colonialism (only 60 years) on Malagasy cultures. But, by coincidence or learning, the Malagasys are definitely quite French in their approach to children.

Who’s got it right?

Little Robin HoodsAnd Malagasy children do grow up (usually) and they grow up very respectful of authority and rules. And they learn to fulfil the main tasks of life. Could they achieve more if they were given more attention? Probably? Could they benefit from some praise and tenderness from time to time? Well, I’m British so I’m going to shout ‘Yes, show me the love – let’s all hug’.

But could British kids benefit from having a bit less of everything they want, a bit more time freely running outside with other children and a bit more hard graft to do? I think they probably could.

What about me?

I am British and middle class and the child of Anglo-Saxon educationalists. I fulfil my demographic clichés nicely. I devote my time to making my son feel loved and stimulated, monitor his progress against developmental milestones and ensure he is my priority in life (and everybody else’s if I get the chance).

However, I hope that he will benefit from a more physical life here (will he be the one fetching coconuts?), he will have more chores to do (keeps them occupied and gives them a sense of responsibility) and will spend time running around outside with other kids (I’m more nervous about this one when I see what some of the kids get up to but you can’t have it all ways!).

I believe in discipline and boundaries in theory though I’ve yet to demonstrate I can do it in practice. But I had an idea that punishment comes from showing disapproval contrasting with the usual positive atmosphere of praise and love – disapproval isn’t a punishment if it’s the default mode of interaction. I’ve also been watching TV programmes like Supernanny (and anyone else peddling the same ideas) since becoming a Mum so I’m all up for (again in theory) giving the child choices and explaining consequences and following up on them.

But, I know I sound like I’ve swallowed an ‘Earth mother’s guide to raising your child’ and even I have a horrible fear that’s a recipe for a wilful little prince to develop.

Can I learn to be a little more Malagasy and a little more French so my child doesn’t get horribly confused or take his mother for a sucker against all the other bossy adults around him (surely any approach needs to be consistent and in context)?

We’ll wait and see. For now I will go and wrap my son in my arms protect him from any stray harsh words or mean looks that might be blowing around on the hot Malagasy breeze.