The Malagasy peoples of the south talk in a range of dialects of Malagasy, united (like the English language) by the one written version. Even more than in other parts of the island, these ethnic groups managed to avoid domination by the highland Merina in the nineteenth century, and even retained much of their autonomy during the six decades of French rule in the twentieth century.
One of the country’s most distinctive ethnic groups, the Bara range across the dry interior of the southwest. In this region, three traditional kingdoms strongly resisted French rule, mounting a ten-year rebellion, crushed by the execution in 1907 of one of their kings, Lahitafika. By tradition exclusively cattle herders, with a strong claim to African origins, Bara herders are often seen moving their livestock along the RN7 between the sapphire town of Ilakaka and their de facto capital, Ihosy. The inter-clan cattle-raiding that once characterized Bara society, in which every young warrior was expected to participate, has also earned them a reputation as restless bandits (dahalo), preying on vehicles when herds aren’t there for the taking.
To the west of Bara country and scattered all along the southwest coast – mostly between Morondava and Tuléar – live the Vezo, whose name literally means “Paddle!”. They are fishing people, and tend to live in villages right on the beach, using their dugout canoes (with a single outrigger of light wood) to take their nets out to the fishing grounds. While their ancestral origins are linked most closely with those of the herding, farming and trading Sakalava, Vezo identity is tied so closely to the seafaring, fishing and seafood-selling lifestyle that those who cease these activities stop considering themselves Vezo. At the same time, Mahafaly or Antandroy incomers who paddle and fish are soon assimilated as Vezo.
In the far southwest interior, the Mahafaly (literally “the fady-makers”) were little influenced by Merina rule, instead seeking French protection to keep control of their main town, Tuléar. Cultivators and pastoralists, they are also traditionally adept craftspeople, renowned for their woollen rugs and woodcarvings. They’re particularly famous for their funerary sculptures known as aloalo. These intricately detailed and painted posts, depicting the life and times of the deceased, used to feature mostly naked figures, and were all about the world of the ancestors: today they act as carved obituaries, full of cattle, cars and symbols of achievement.
In the remote far southeast, in the hinterland of Fort Dauphin, live the Antandroy (“People of the thorns”), with a closely related group, the Antanosy, forming a large part of the population of Fort Dauphin itself. Traditionally livestock herders, they now also eke out a living from rice and cereal farming, and as seasonal migrant labourers. The Antandroy are renowned weavers, and build large whitewashed concrete tombs, elaborately painted and decorated with tiles.