View from inside a shop in South Madagascar

People of Madagascar

Friendly, and sometimes liable to extraordinary displays of hospitality.

Far more African in appearance than I had imagined, the Malagasy's Malay and Polynesian ethnic heritage seems at first glance to have become largely diluted during the centuries spent in the cultural mixing-pot. But the distinctions are there, with the country's 18 tribes very much aware of where they stand in the social hierarchy.

Street scene in Antananarivo

At the top of the pile are the Merina (people of the highlands), the descendants of the Malay-Polynesian settlers who began arriving in Madagascar about 2000 years ago. At the bottom are the côtiers, a collective term for the people of the coast. Completely off the scale are the members of the 19th tribe - the vazaha, the white foreigners. If you're one of these and you travel to Madagascar you had better get used to this term.

The kids like to have a laugh

While tribes do form the basis of the Malagasy social system, to the casual observer there is no overt evidence of tribalism, and certainly no suggestion of the type of inter-tribe antagonism and violence frequently associated with continental Africa. Although this is not to suggest that there is no crime or injustice in Madagascar. The country is one of the poorest in the world. Corruption and cronyism are bound to be widespread.

Their parents are sometimes not quite so amused

Overall though, the Malagasy are one of the most peaceful and laid-back people you could ever hope to meet. Aggression doesn't appear to be part of their national character, and nor does intolerance.

Men, women and children all move freely and openly through the society and all make valuable and valued contributions. There is no overt evidence of sexism or religious discrimination and no sign of zealotry.

Only five strings between them (two on the bass, three on the mandolin) but a great sound

The Malagasy are instead curious, friendly, handsome and proud. It is even possible to get the impression that despite the poverty and disadvantage that is their everyday lot the average Malagasy feels a little sorry for all those without the good fortune to have been born and breed on their island. If you travel to Madagascar you are bound to experience their kind and generous hospitality.