Madagascar is one of the last major landmasses on earth to be colonized by humans. The island’s earliest settlers arrived from present-day Indonesia between A.D. 350 and 550; migrants from Africa arrived around A.D. 1,000.
By the early 17th century, the island attracted Arab and Persian traders, which led to it becoming a pirate stronghold until the 18th century! After serving as a slave-trading center into the 19th century, the island’s native Merina Kingdom was conquered and colonized by the French in 1896. Madagascar regained its independence in 1960.
Located off the southeastern Africa coast, Madagascar is slightly less than twice the size of Arizona and ranks as the world’s fourth-largest island. Its natural resources include graphite, chromite, coal, bauxite, rare-earth elements, salt, quartz, tar sands, semi-precious stones, mica, fish and hydro power.
With a narrow coastal plain and mountainous center, most of the island’s agricultural land is pasture, leaving little arable land (around seven percent) for crops to feed its 24.4 million population (75 percent of which lives below the poverty line). Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo, has a population of 2.6 million.
French and Malagasy are the official languages of Madagascar. The majority of its multicultural population (composed of 18 main ethnic groups) practices Christianity or an indigenous religion; a small share of the population is Muslim. Madagascar’s legacy of hierarchical societies continues today in persistent class tension, with some ethnic groups maintaining a caste system. Historical distinctions also remain between central highlanders and coastal people.
More than 60 percent of the population is under age 25. Many young Malagasy girls are withdrawn from school, marry early (often pressured to do so by their parents) and soon begin having children. A high fertility rate of more than four children per woman ensures that the population will continue its rapid growth trajectory for the foreseeable future. Forms of arranged marriages in which young girls are married to older men in exchange for oxen or money are traditional. If a union does not work out, a girl can be placed in another marriage, but the dowry paid to her family diminishes with each unsuccessful marriage.
Source: CIA World Fact Book