Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island and somewhat of a crossroads between Africa and the Indian Ocean, is best known for its endemic plants and animals. However, if you plan on volunteering or traveling there, you’re sure to discover Madagascar’s unique but diverse cultural characteristics as well. To make your experience a bit smoother, here are a few do’s and don’ts from a former Madagascar volunteer who had to learn a few of these things the hard way…
Do bring a small, plain envelope with money in it if you are invited to a funeral, wedding, famadihana (turning of the bones ceremony where ancestor’s remains are put in their final resting place), or circumcision to give to the family.
How much you give depends on how well you know the family.
Do support local organizations, schools, hospitals, and orphanages.
Currently, crucial public institutions like hospitals and schools aren’t getting sufficient funding from the government to pay all of their employees a proper salary. Donating money or supplies to a reliable organization is a much more responsible way of helping local communities than giving individual handouts.
Do learn a few words of Malagasy.
French is an official language in Madagascar, but outside educated urbanites, it’s hard to find anyone who knows more than “bonjour” and a few numbers. Greetings vary between regions, but “salama” is a safe all around hello, “azafady” means excuse me and please, “misoatra” is thank you, “veloma” is goodbye, and if you use any of these words, you’re likely to hear someone say “mahay!” which means to be good at / know (something). In this case, it means you know some Malagasy and have effectively wow-ed them.
Do expect to eat a lot of rice — “vary” in Malagasy.
Malagasy are the largest per capita consumers of rice in the world, which means if you’re eating local, you’ll get a heaping pile of plain, boiled rice three times a day. If you get absolutely tired of rice, try asking for “misao” (pasta with vegetables and ground meat), “compose” (a mix of potato salad, carrot/cabbage salad, and pasta), or “lasoupy” (soup). Oh, and watch out for rocks in your rice.
Do be adventurous and explore!
Every one of Madagascar’s regions has it’s own personality, so even if you end up volunteering in say, Antsirabe, it’s worth the time and effort to head out to the coast and soak up a totally different vibe (and maybe hunt down some coconut rice and crabs…)
Do sing karaoke with the locals but don’t be surprised if it turns into a duet.
Don’t step over anyone’s feet or belongings.
If you pass in front of someone, it’s polite to say “azafady” (excuse me). The response to this is “andao” but if you don’t remember this, it’s OK. Most people are understanding about foreigner’s blunders and are more likely to laugh it off than be genuinely offended.
Don’t be put off by people staring, pointing, poking, or shouting at you.
While it’s not always well intentioned, it’s usually just people being curious, and 100% socially appropriate for you to stare on back.
Don’t point directly at a tomb.
Don’t forget to ask about local taboos, or “fady”.
Especially in more rural areas, people really do abide by them and it’s respectful if you do as well. Usually, it’s something along the lines of “no eating pork in Andringitra National Park” or “no swimming on Tuesdays” or “no eating lemurs” and other fairly simple rules.
(Note: One of the more unusual taboos is twins. Especially on the east coat of Madagascar, twins are considered taboo and several orphanages exist to take care of twins whose families still strongly hold on to this belief.)
Don’t encourage begging by giving children money or candy.
It’s a problem in larger urban areas, and often a scam used by children to pickpocket people in Antananarivo (especially on the main Avenue de l’Independence). Usually, these kids will beg with a hat, while reaching in to the unsuspecting pedestrian’s pocket underneath. Taking the hat away is usually a good way to get them to stop.
Don’t have high expectations for public transportation.
Most long distance busses are old, small, and cramped — especially if you are a taller individual. National busses tend to squish their customers less, giving each one their own seat, buy for shorter distances, you’ll have no choice but to take a Regional bus, which can sometimes put 4-5 people in one row, plus children (which, apparently aren’t considered full passengers until age 12 or so).