Antakarana Tribe of Northern Madagascar

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This is an ethnographic survey taken of the Antakarana tribe of Northern Madagascar. Note: The presidential elections mentioned below have already taken place and Marc Ravalomanana appears to be the early leader.


  • Population figures range from 80,000 to 100,000.

  • Generally all the Antakarana are concentrated in the north, in the area bounded on the south by the Tsaratanana mountain massif, which geographically separates the Antakarana from the rest of the island, and by the ocean on all other sides. The central village is Ambilobe located approximately 75 kilometers south of Antsiranana. The king resides in the village of Matsaborimanga on the East Coast. The Anglican diocese of Antsiranana where the Antakarana reside is approximately 183,000 square kilometers.

  • The language of the Antakarana is a dialect of Malagasy. Malagasy belongs to the family of Malayo/Polynesian languages. The Merina dialect of Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar and does differ from the Antakarana dialect. The people of Madagascar welcome foreigners who have learned their language, even if it is not their individual tribal dialect. However, there are enough differences between the tribal dialects and the official language to require targeted language acquisition of the dialect after learning the official language.

  • French is spoken by many, particularly in the 'urban' areas. English is not widely spoken.

  • There are two types of schools, the French lycĂ©e and the Malgache school. In the French schools, French and English are both taught while only Malagasy is taught in the Malgache schools. The French schools are more expensive and therefore are not that accessible to most people.

  • The education level of most of the Malgache is relatively low due to the cost of the better (French) schools. However there are schools that teach vocational skills which are more available.

  • Most Antakarana are farmers with some zebu breeders/herders. It appears as though there is access to rosewood and there are furniture makers in Ambilobe that specialize in making items from rosewood. One craft that the Antakarana specialize in is basket making.

Mission Efforts

  • There have been many missionary efforts in the past, most recently by CMS (Church Mission Society) and USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel). CMS started in the north but due to some difficulties with other mission agencies, they left and the work was taken up by USPG. Some Lutheran medical missions have been successful in the north, receiving support from the Antakarana king.

  • Islam (from the Comoros islands) is working to convert the Antakarana but has been successful in converting them in name only. The Antakarana tend to be syncretistic in their conversion to Islam.

  • Generally speaking, the north has not seen many missionaries nor mission agencies. Christian missions work started on the southeast coast of the island but stopped before crossing the Tsaratanana mountain massif. There is a story of a northern tribal chief asking a missionary why they never got to the north. When told that there were many difficulties getting to the north and that there was a fear by the missionaries of the Muslim influence, the chief told the missionary that all of that was none of his business. The chief made the point that it was the missionary's business to give the people of the north a choice between Islam and Christianity, until then, they would have no choice.

  • There is an old translation of the King James Version of the Bible that was completed and printed in the late 1870's. This translation was written in the Merina dialect and has been the only Bible available to the Malgache. A newer translation of the New Testament has been completed and the Old Testament has been sent to the printers. This translation is also in the Merina dialect and there is no translation planned in any of the other 17 tribal dialects by the International Bible Society. However, the Luke project is working on oral (taped) versions of the Gospel of Luke in some dialects and may include the Antakarana in the year 2003. Also Campus Crusade is working closely with the Luke Project to translate the Jesus film in additional dialects.

Worldview and Religion

  • The Antakarana people are basically animist; those that have converted to Islam are part of the Sunni sect. There are some Shiite Muslims in Antsiranana, but they are mostly foreigners from Pakistan.

  • The core belief system of the Antakarana (and most other Malgache tribes) is animism and includes ancestor deification. Once an ancestor dies, he is considered a conduit to God and is prayed to and revered as such by the people. On a regular basis (determined by income of the family) a famadihana is performed. This is a ritual where the dead are disinterred, rewrapped in burial shrouds and carried through the streets to be placed back in the tomb. This is a large and joyous celebration for the Malgache.

  • Basically, no matter if the Antakarana is Muslim or animist, there are no real differences in their core beliefs. The good news is that Islam has given the people some exposure to the God of Abraham. Additionally, most Antakarana that become Christian make major life changes and turn mostly from their animist beliefs. Ancestor worship however, goes very deep and some of those beliefs get carried over into Christianity.

Social Structure

  • The basic social structure is tribal with heavy emphasis on family.

Social Conditions

  • The Antakarana are a rural, tribal people.

  • Madagascar was formerly an independent kingdom. Madagascar became a French protectorate in 1896, an autonomous state in the French community in 1958 and gained its independence in 1960.

  • The government of Madagascar is a democratic republic. Didier Ratsiraka, the current president, is politically a Marxist. Ratsiraka was also the political leader prior to the first free presidential elections in 1992-1993. The national elections are coming up in December 2001. Marc Ravalomanana and Albert Zafy, among 4 others, are challenging Ratsiraka. Zafy was president prior to Ratsiraka, but was removed due to reported corruption. It is believed by some that Ratsiraka engineered Zafy's removal.

  • A king rules the Antakarana tribe. The king became a Roman Catholic before he was king, but afterwards converted to Islam. There appears to be an understanding that all Antakarana kings must be Muslim.

  • The economic conditions are poor; the gross annual income per capita is approximately $700 to $800. The division between the rich and the poor is great with virtually no middle class. If this is taken into account, it can be seen that the majority of the Malgache make much less than reported. However, this figure does include the non-monetary trading system that occurs rurally. Thus, outside of the cities, the people are living based on trading their skills and/or products for someone else's goods and/or services.

  • Within Antananarivo, there are many Malgache that are obviously malnourished and in relatively poor health. The Antakarana appear to be better nourished and healthier than most Malgache seen in the capital. Approximately two years ago there was an outbreak of cholera coming in from Africa. The government used the military to distribute and force the use of cholera preventative. There is an additional concern for those people bathing in the rivers in the rural areas. Schistosomiasis, a parasitic infection, is found in fresh water.

  • Literacy rates are very low, particularly outside of the large cities.


  • Self-image appears to be high, all the Malgache encountered were hard workers and there appears to be a high amount of pride in their culture.

  • All regions and some tribes of the country were represented in the museum in Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar) with the exception of the northern region and the Antakarana tribe. This may be due to their geographical isolation or it may be due, in part, to the lack of importance this tribe has in the country.

  • Both the Sakalava and the Merina conquered the Antakarana. Every five years, the Antakarana king and many of the people celebrate the time when they had been besieged by the Merina and the French responded to their call for rescue.

Felt Needs

  • Education, particularly in terms of literacy and vocational skills.

  • Agriculture, specifically a method of rice cultivation that does not involve the 'slash and burn' technique.

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