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.

Indians

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.

Chinese

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.

Arabs

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.

Creoles

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.

Are Malagasys racist?

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.