I was once told that while most cultures ethnocentrically consider themselves the center of the universe, the difference with Malagasy culture is that it believes itself the universe entire. This is no trivial distinction to draw, for that which unfolds in this insular world is taken as the one and only way, and those who stand to oppose this undiluted cultural force are not combated as much as dismissed utterly.
To those who have visited or even lived in the Malagasy world this statement of cultural unity, power, and exclusion may appear melodramatic, for are the Malagasy people not universally known to be “laid-back” and “carefree?” Are there not eighteen tribes on this island, each a subculture unto itself?
What lies at the core of this culture, though, is just such paradox: paradox which allows a fragmented people to meld and mix and maintain a powerful cultural core, which enables a culture of color and noise and bright exchange to harbor a heart of passivity and fear, which tethers those who are seemingly carefree to a profound fatalism. Understood through a lens of overpowering community force, this core paradox does much to explain Madagascar, the place and its people, as well as its progress or lack thereof in the world.
It is crucial to recognize the manner in which Malagasy people strive to create formality, reinforce distinction, and maintain hierarchy. From the inherent structure of kabary (speeches) to the dictates of daily exchange, a sense of place and order undergirds this culture of surface nonchalance. Such hierarchal nature is most clearly manifest at meetings: those presiding usually sit facing the participants, commanding the gulf of floor space that yawns between; those of the audience crowd together, shoulder tucked behind shoulder, as if seeking shelter from a fire hose; they huddle in fear of being forced to stand apart.
This also serves to reflect the strong, nearly overwhelming sense of community that weaves Malagasy culture into one. Within societal structure place and status are clearly defined. There is minimal social mobility and while one hears an expected amount of griping, both the high and the low find comfort in the clarity of their standing. Equally condemned are those who believe themselves above the community (miavona- the “arrogant”) and those who fall below (menatra- the “ashamed”).
Yet out of this sense of community, and the social pressures that provide for its cohesion, arises the puzzling paradox of Malagasy culture. For hours no one will reach out to adjust the blaring of a malfunctioning radio. A drunk can run rampage down the street, unchecked. A husband comes home to beat his wife and children with the broad handle of a machete as the neighborhood looks on, and not a finger is lifted to intervene. I have seen this and have always had tremendous difficulty reconciling it with the bold and buoyant, deeply-united cultural half that is the easier to know.
But if one wants to understand the nature of Madagascar, a chronically underdeveloped nation with a people who suffer greatly for it, then one has to be willing to take a hard and unapologetic look at a cultural core of passivity, conservatism, and most profoundly, fatalism. Born of a powerful sense of community is a repression of genuine individuality, and of actual aspiration. The vast majority of Malagasy people hope for very little of their lives. Of course they want to make money and acquire things, but trapped in systematic poverty and a culture that condemns risk-taking, few are equipped or courageous enough to take even the first step towards a better life. Most are resigned to days of farming and fishing, marrying and birthing.
Though it is worth asking which came first, the poverty or its passive acceptance, it is more relevant to recognize what the cycle reveals: a fatalism that pervades Malagasy culture. One’s place and what comes to pass are simply accepted here. And though this may be an effective way to endure hardship, it does not provide the strongest platform for transcending it.
This is not to blame Malagasy people for their poverty or their place in the world. It is instead to argue that in order to understand a culture, one has to concede paradox and allow for a certain level of complexity. Simple and sweeping terms (e.g. “fun-loving island folk”) refuse to access a culture or the shared worldview it provides its people.
And in certain realms, notably that of aid and development, such lack of cultural insight can have a crippling effect.