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Sunday, 17 March, 2002, 01:01 GMT
Madagascar's quiet revolution
Madagascan people
Madagascar's people are guided by their unique culture
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By the BBC's Alastair Leithead in Madagascar
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Madagascar is a truly unique country - it is close to Africa, but certainly not African, and this uniqueness goes some way to explain the quiet revolution that has changed the country in two incredible months.


Malagasy people are double-faced - one side is very sweet, smiling and charming people, but underneath there is a volcano

Elie Rajaonarison
An island of more than 18 different tribes, Madagascar has an astonishing mixture of different faces - Indonesian, Asian, Polynesian, African and European - but despite the variety, Malagasy people share one language and one fascinating culture.

For eight weeks, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Antananarivo to force their incumbent president from power and to install a new president.

And for eight weeks the mass demonstrations have been peaceful, almost carnival-like, setting aside a few isolated incidents.

It was a quiet revolution - a coup.

Malagasy girl
Malagasy people are charming with a fire inside
Administrative power is now in the hands of Marc Ravalomanana, the self-declared new president, backed by the people of Antananarivo and many tens of thousands of others around the country.

Incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka is reduced to blocking the road from the main port, also his heartland, to the capital to starve the city of fuel - an act of desperation after declaring martial law saw him mocked, as the military failed to impose its authority.

Hidden fire

"Malagasy people are double-faced - one side is very sweet, smiling and charming people, but underneath there is a volcano," says Elie Rajaonarison, an expert on Malagasy culture, a poet, and an advisor to Marc Ravalomanana.

Marc Ravalomanana, the self declared president of Madagascar
Ravalomanana declared himself president last month

"There is fire - a good fire, the fire of passion, but there is a time when Malagasy people are fed up of something and this fire comes to the surface and erupts like the volcano."

Erupt it did, but not into violence - only once did people turn to fighting in the street, and there was much evidence that this was stirred up deliberately.

The Malagasy people are very peaceful people, but not averse to voicing their opinions. The basis of the whole culture is the "ancestors".

Guided from the past

"People believe in God - it might be the traditional God or the Christian God, but they still believe in the power of the ancestors which is the link between living people and God," said Agnes Joignerez who has studied the history of the massive tombs to honour the ancestors which stand proudly on every hill.

Madagascan tomb
The Malagasy people try to please their ancestors

They are even more grand than the houses people live in while alive - massive stone structures with a little house on top to keep possessions and gifts.

Everything that is done is done with the ancestors in mind.

"The ancestors are the centre of not only Malagasy belief but Malagasy life. Life and death are very tightly linked in Malagasy thinking - death is only the continuation of life," said Elie Rajaonarison.

"That is why we try to be good all the time and this building of 'ancestorness' is the main goal of all the Malagasy people."

Rules for living

And the way to this goal is governed by "fadys" - essentially taboos which guide Malagasy people in the way the ancestors would have them behave.

Agnes Joignerez
Agnes Joignerez: Power of the ancestors is strong
It can be as simple as no pointing at graves, or rules about which way visitors enter a village, and these things give a structure to Malagasy life.

Forest ecologist Pierre Berner has spent years with Malagasy people and understands the way people live their lives.

"To understand the fadys - which are what you must not do - you have to understand what you should do. The right behaviour is given by the 'fhumba' which is the correct way of doing things - the traditions and the way of life."

Religion has a lot to do with the peaceful nature of the people's protests - it has always been tied up with politics in Madagascar, but has reached the stage where every Marc Ravalomanana speech is preceded by a religious service.

The presence of nuns and religious leaders has constantly been a calming influence whenever it has looked as if a situation could get out of control.

Self-belief

But perhaps the most significant feature of this whole crisis has been people's determination.

Graveyard in Madagascar
Graveyards are subject to fadys, or taboos
For so many people to persist with their protests for so long is quite incredible - it is clear that they really wanted change and truly believed in what they were doing.

Despite the wealth of different tribes and their rivalries - especially between the highland and the coastal people - this country is a peaceful one and a united one.

It is an island with deep and complex cultural influences and a unique character.

All the twists and turns of this quiet revolution were impossible to predict and astonished all but those who really know Madagascar.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Africa
Madagascar talks resume
05 Mar 02 | Africa
Madagascar 'rival capital' named
04 Mar 02 | Africa
Madagascar army 'switches sides'
28 Feb 02 | Africa
Martial law imposed in Madagascar
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