Exploring Madagascar
Interview with Malagasy anthropology student Lolo

From the Substack post on November 19, 2021, by Stone Age Herbalist.

You can find Lolo’s twitter account at @aintsoa_ny, please do follow and support

Thanks for agreeing to a discussion, I’m a big fan of your twitter account. You’re definitely unusual for being an anthropological poster focused on and hailing from Madagascar. How did you end up on twitter?

I’ve been on twitter for a long time now, maybe five years? I originally had a very personal account just for friends and family. But once I started studying anthropology last year, I made a separate account for posting about it. I deleted that account a few months ago and then restarted fresh with this one.

Madagascar is one of those parts of the world which most people know very little about. Give us a very quick history of the island?

Some thousands of years ago the first Malagasy arrived in Madagascar from multiple waves of migrations out of the Sunda Islands. According to some archaeologists and geneticists, it could have happened at the beginning of our era or hundreds of years prior, specifically between 500 and 200 BCE. In around 600 CE they started to move inland and became the Vazimba.

From the 7th century, contact with Omani Arabs occurred and trade between Omani and Malagasy people began. The spread of Islam happened in the northern part of the Island and many Sakalava sub-tribes and the Antakarana tribe today still practice a syncretic form of Islam and traditional beliefs.

In the 8th century, another wave of Austronesians arrived and also moved inland, where they came across the Vazimba, intermarried with them and formed the Merina. These new arrivals also went on to form the Andriana of other tribes, mainly the Zafiraminia, Zafikazimambo, Antaisaka, Antaimoro and Antambahoaka and Maroserana kingdoms.

There is some evidence of Bantu or Swahili sailors arriving in the 7th century, but most evidence suggests the bulk of them arrived during the Muslim Period of the Indian Ocean Slave Trade. Specifically between the 9th and 11th centuries.

European contact started in the 1500’s, when the Portuguese started trade with the Malagasy and pirates also settled. This was all centered on the eastern part of Madagascar, where the Betsimisaraka reside, and this allowed a lot of European cultural diffusion and intermarriage to occur. The zana-malata are the result of these intermarriages and mainly live on St. Marie island.

After the Portuguese and the pirates, the French arrived, then the English, and then the

Norwegians. At this time, slavery was still being practiced in Madagascar and was headed by the Sakalava and the Betsimisaraka. And when they noticed how interested the European slavers were in them, a new period of slave trade began, but this time with Malagasy people being enslaved. They were mainly sent to other Indian Ocean islands, but a few hundred thousand were sent to Latin America, and around 3000-4000 were sent to the US.

After this, a lot continued to develop in Madagascar. The Sakalava and Merina continued to spread across the island, with the Merina eventually taking over. The Sakalava retaliated by allying with the French, which led to the colonization of the island and the eventual fall of the Merina kingdom. Multiple revolts led by Merina Andriana were organized which eventually worked and granted us independence, only for the French to set up a proxy government with the cotiers as the leaders. And now here we are.

On our strange corner of twitter there is a fascination with the Austronesian Expansion and the maritime travel between the East African coastline and the Indian ocean archipelagos and islands. It still blows my mind thinking about how people with Neolithic level technology sailed across the Indian Ocean.

I’ve always mainly wondered what inspired them to expand so far and for so long when there wasn’t any obvious need to.

Is there any sign that the Austronesians may have coast hopped across the sub-continent and the Middle East down towards Madagascar?

As far as I know, there is none. But it is believed that the Austronesians used the coast of East Africa as a base for their trade in the Maritime Silk Road before eventually settling the island permanently.

What effect did that expansion have on the demographics of the country? There seems to be a bewildering number of ethnic groups in Madagascar?

The Malagasy viewed ethnicity very differently than we do today, which resulted in many different tribal affiliations. Many ‘ethnic’ groups in Madagascar are, more or less, the result of different political, cultural and religious differences. And sometimes, are the result of simply living in a certain place or working a certain occupation. For example, you are Vezo if you know how to freedive, Mahafaly if you are a farmer, and Merina if you live in Imerina.

After colonization a focus on ancestral descent was placed, but even then some people of a certain tribe will still avoid moving to certain areas or joining certain occupations so they don’t “lose their ancestors” and accidentally join another tribe.

What has been the legacy of European colonialism for the country?

I would say the legacy of colonization can still be seen by our use of French. It’s the language of business and education here, and the government bounces between Malagasy and French spots to ally. This makes it really hard for anyone who does not know French, which is around 96-98% of Malagasy, to receive an education and work.

The government also had deep ties to France post-independence, and at one point nearly every minister in the government was French.

Like lots of remote parts of the world, there are a number of legends of pygmies or little people in Madagascar, specifically the Vazimba and the apparently extant Beosi. What’s your view of these stories?

I believe the Vazimba are the descendants of the first group(s) of Austronesian migrants to the island, who later on assimilated into the Merina.

The Beosi myth is most likely the result of invented ancestries though. After slavery ended, the Mikea (as well as European anthropologists at the time) were constructing their own ideas of indigeneity that revolved around the Vazimba myth. Since they were both described as foragers, it was fairly easy for them to assume descent from them and become the Beosi, or inheritors of the land.

One thing you rail against on twitter is the appropriation of Malagasy and other Madagascan groups by African-Americans, who maybe see skin colour as creating a connection. What’s your feeling about this phenomenon?

It annoys me. Mainly because it completely ignores Malagasy ideas of belonging and our own history. In Madagascar anyone that was not born in the tanindrazana (ancestor’s land), is not considered Malagasy, no matter what tribe they descend from. So it is exasperating seeing people with 1-3% Gasy ancestry claim my identity as their own, when even people with 100% Malagasy ancestry are not even considered Gasy sometimes.