This week, we’re going to the southeast coast of Africa to celebrate Madagascar, the island that took humans 300,000 years to discover. It was colonized by settlers in 500 AD, 300,000 years after the first appearance of humans in Africa. The island’s secluded coves were historically safe havens for many pirates. Ile Sainte-Marie, four miles off the east coast, was known as “the island of pirates” on maps in the 1600’s. Today, Madagascar has a well-established agricultural industry and emerging tourism, textile and mining industries.
But perhaps it is most famous for being a paradise for nature lovers. The island has lush rain forests, tropical dry forests, plateaus, and deserts. Thanks to being left undisturbed by humans for a long time, Madagascar is home to almost 15,000 plant species (of which 80% are found nowhere else), half the world’s chameleons and dozens of lemur species. It also has some of the world’s rarest critters, most elusive bird species, and unique baobab trees. Among its many World Heritage Sites is the Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, a labyrinth of limestone in the western half of the island. The reserve is a maze of crooked canyons, caves, tunnels and spires, most of which are still unexplored because they are essentially impassable.
Madagascar is big, in land and in people! At 226,917 square miles, it is the fourth largest island on the planet, bigger than Spain, Thailand, Sweden and Germany. It also has a population of 26.2 million Malagasies. More than 90 percent of the population is Malagasy, which is divided into approximately 20 ethnic groups. The largest is the Merina people, or the Elevated People, referring to the fact that they lived on the plateau. The second largest group is the Betsimisaraka, who live generally in the east.
Most inhabitants of Madagascar speak Malagasy, the national language, which is written in the Latin alphabet. Malagasy is a standardized version of Merina, an Austronesian language, with some words of Bantu origin. French is also widely spoken, officially recognized, and used in schools along with Malagasy. This is most likely due to the island’s political, economic, and cultural connections with the French-speaking countries of western Africa. Use of English has also increased.
Almost half of Malagasies are Christian, more than one-fourth adhere to Protestantism, and one-fifth to Roman Catholicism. There is a community of Sunni Muslims in the northwest of the island.