By Sandra Evers
Journalist Arlette Kouwenhoven introduces the different regions of Madagascar to the reader by giving a description of the environment and its inhabitants. Throughout the book the information is brought to life by pictures of the Malagasy photographer Toussaint Raharison. What does make "the Red Island" different from two other recent publications on Madagascar: "Memo Madagascar" by the Belgian journalist Fred van Leeuwen, a anecdotal report of his travels in Madagascar, and "Madagascar", a more scientific publication that focuses on history and politics, by the Madagascar specialist Pierre Vérin?
After the historical introduction, Kouwenhoven recounts the immigration history of the Malagasy population that started around the first century AD. Before the settlement of the first immigrants Madagascar is said to have been uninhabited. In her reconstruction of the past Kouwenhoven highlights the Asian and African migrations to Madagascar. The origin of the Malagasy people is still a point of controversy among many Madagascar specialists. Above all a debate rages among linguists on the question of where in Asia the ancestors of the Malagasy came from and how they settled the island. Did they come directly to Madagascar or did they settle first on the African east coast? Kouwenhoven is not interested in engaging in this discussion because she describes the history of Madagascar from a journalistic perspective. She evades the immigration debate by choosing the theory that Madagascar was the last stop on the immigration route for Southeast Asian migrants. According to this theory they settled first in Ceylon, the African east coast and the Comoros. Whether further research on the Malagasy immigration history will reveal the origin of the Malagasy population remains to be seen. At the moment we can be sure of two facts. The Southeast Asian origin of the Malagasy people is underlined by the national language, Malagasy, which is an Austronesian language that is spoken all over the island. The African influence in the Malagasy population stems mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, in which period many slaves from Mozambique and South Africa where transported to Madagascar.
The migrants who settled in different parts of Madagascar developed their own, social economic, and cultural systems, in which traces of the Asian and African past are still to be found. Today Madagascar has 18 official ethnic groups, but whether the use of the word ethnic is correct in the Malagasy context or whether we should speak rather of 18 different population groups are other burning points of discussion. I do not really want to walk a tightrope here by joining in this discussion and, as I can conclude from her book, Kouwenhoven has not chosen this path either. In her "the Red Island" she takes the 18 officially acknowledged ethnic groups as reference points in the descriptions of the various parts of the island.
The central theme of the book is the cultural life of the Malagasy, which comes most strongly into its own in their rituals. Kouwenhoven bases her information on a literature study of both published and unpublished material. Besides such armchair studies, she visited Madagascar four times in the past seven years to travel over the island. To conjure up her experiences before the reader's eyes, "the Red Island" is furnished with more than 300 photos taken by Toussaint Raharison.
After reading the book the reader will know a lot about the so-called mysterious life of the Malagasy. But how disappointed he or she will be when he actually sets foot on Madagascar. None will ever be disappointed by the breathtaking Malagasy landscapes, but discovering the treasures of Malagasy culture is quite another story. The traveller will be confronted with enormous poverty as the island today is one of the poorest countries of the world. And the hyperinflation of the most recent years has been a heavy burden for the Malagasy to bear. For many Malagasy trying to survive is their first priority. This fact of life takes a huge toll on the cultural life of the Malagasy. Most rituals require at least one zebu to be offered to the ancestors. The lack of money makes this ancestral rule very difficult to fulfil. In the highlands, where the reburial (famadihana) of the ancestors is a focal point of the cultural life of the Merina and Betsileo, many families are struggling to collect the money for the famadihana. Some families eventually succeed in finding the funds, but even more do not. Officials note a reduction of the number famadihana held in the highlands. Economic problems did and still do impoverish the cultural wealth of the Malagasy. This has escaped Kouwenhoven, she does no more than mention that the Malagasy only eat meat during rituals. This may have been true in the past but nowadays the abstention from meat is more from economic than cultural reasons.
It is obvious that the potential tourist -- Madagascar is trying to develop tourism -- is not interested in the other side of the coin. But despite of this, it would have been elementary in a book on Madagascar to dedicate some space to the explanation of its current economic (and political) situation. Kouwenhoven did not choose to do so and focuses on revealing primary elements of the cultural richness of the mysterious island. She has been successful in achieving this goal and this makes her book, in combination with the elaborate visual material, a unique document.
Arlette Kouwenhoven and Toussaint Raharison
Madagascar, the red island. 159 pp. ca. 300 colour illustrations. Cloth.
Dfl. 69,50. ISBN 90-802656-3-2
The book is also available in a Dutch and a French edition and can be ordered
WINCO Publishing Breestraat 113a
2311 CL Leiden
Tel: +31-71-51434 552
Fax: +31-71-5141 488