National Geographic Society Newsroom

My Fihavanana Malagasy: At Home on the Eighth Continent

Cara Brook is a Disease Ecologist working in the Andrew Dobson Lab at Princeton. She currently studies the great bats of Madagascar—flying foxes—and the diseases that they carry that could spill over into humans. Capturing and studying wild bats, of course, requires an ability to blend in to Malagasy culture in addition to the environment...

Cara Brook is a Disease Ecologist working in the Andrew Dobson Lab at Princeton. She currently studies the great bats of Madagascar—flying foxes—and the diseases that they carry that could spill over into humans. Capturing and studying wild bats, of course, requires an ability to blend in to Malagasy culture in addition to the environment which, luckily, Cara is quite adept at.

Cara Brook (left) and Yun-Yun Li (right), with Malagasy collaborator, Christian Ranaivoson, and his wife, Avotra Rakotoarijaona, on their wedding day. Antananarivo, Madagascar, August 16, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Princey Ranaivoson)

The Malagasy word, fihavanana (pronounced “fee-hA-va-Na-na”), roughly translates to “family”, though in Madagascar, the concept of family extends far beyond that of kinship by blood. The multitude of people included in the fihavanana of my Malagasy collaborator, Christian Ranaivoson, puts my meager count of two parents, one brother, and three cousins to shame. And as the months slide by, and I learn more and more about Christian’s homeland—both in terms of biology and culture—his fihavanana has come to include me, too.

We’re back in the Malagasy highlands at present, re-sampling fruit bat roosts that we first studied in November 2013, and it feels like a sort of homecoming to me. There are cooks and field assistants who remember me, hotelys which I recognize, bat roosts that recall memories past. In my last post, I talked about Madagascar’s astonishing biodiversity and endemism, but I did not mention that this diversity includes people, too. Here in the highlands, most residents—like Christian and his family—are of the Merina tribe, a subset of Malagasy people of distinctly Southeast Asian ancestry. In the south near Toliara, the largely African Bara tribe is most common, while in Moramanga and Tamatave, metropolises to the east, the region is mostly dominated by the Betsimisaraka people. In Morondava and Mahajanga to the west and Antsiranana (Diego-Suarez) to the north, the wide-ranging Sakalava reign supreme.

Madagascar is home to 18 distinct ethnic groups with a multitude of Asian, African, and even Arab ancestries, as well as a plethora of regional sub-tribes within these groups. In Antananarivo, people speak Malagasy ofisialy, Christian’s language and the lingua franca that I am learning, but there are dialectical variations on this common tongue unique to each region. Nonetheless, it’s astonishing that an island as large and topographically diverse as Madagascar—the fourth-largest island in the world and roughly the size of my home state of California—supports only one language. This topographic diversity has given rise to extensive isolation and speciation in Malagasy flora and fauna, yet not produced the same “speciation” in terms of human linguistics. As a comparison, in Papua New Guinea, where the island is similarly sized and topographically fragmented, the island supports over 700 distinct languages!

Though Madagascar sits approximately 260 miles from the African coast at the Mozambique Channel’s narrowest point, the Malagasy language is Malayo-Polynesian in origin, most closely resembling tongues spoken by residents of southeastern Borneo, located over 4,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean. Indeed, biologist Jared Diamond writes that Madagascar’s Indonesian heritage is “the single most astonishing fact of human geography for the entire world”, which is perhaps an overstatement but not a huge one.

The Asian origins of the Malagasy language have led many to suggest that the first human colonization of Madagascar was Indonesian, as well, though in reality, archaeologists are still searching for answers to Madagascar’s human origins. Most studies date first human habitation of Madagascar to approximately 500 A.D. and suggest near-concomitant colonization by Africans and Asians and subsequent mixing, though very recent work suggests a considerably earlier 2,000 B.C. human habitation of parts of northern Madagascar (Dewar et al. 2013). Either way, the pattern of human dispersal for Madagascar remains as much a mystery as that of its plants and animals. Indeed, biogeographers debate whether my favorite Pteropus genus of fruit bat arrived first to Madagascar by air from its Polynesian site of origin or whether it populated islands off the west coast of Africa (Pemba and Zanzibar, where Pteropus species still exist today) and then hopped over to the Eighth Continent. Archaeologists ask a similar question about Asian human colonization of Madagascar—did people come directly over sea or did they travel along through India and down the Swahili coast and then make their way over? We still don’t really know…

But what we do know—undeniably—is that Madagascar is a special place, and I feel blessed to have a chance to explore some of its manifold mysteries and immerse myself in its enigmatic culture. In between field excursions, Christian’s family has been generously hosting Yun-Yun and me in their Anosibe home for the past two months, further heightening my sense of belonging. Indeed, Christian’s recent wedding to his longtime girlfriend, Avotra Rakotoarijaona, felt like a big family gathering for us. Sadly, Yun-Yun just left me for the start of the new semester at Princeton, and I have moved into my own apartment in a neighboring district of Tana. It feels a bit like the Fellowship is breaking, but really, I know it’s just beginning. The road goes ever on and on, and I’m here for months still to come. I look forward, too, to years of work and play ahead with my fihavanana Malagasy…

Read More by Cara Brook

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Cara Brook
My name is Cara Brook, and I am a postdoctoral fellow with the Miller Institute for Basic Research at UC Berkeley. I study the role of bats as reservoirs for some of the world's most deadly emerging viruses, including Ebola and Marburg filoviruses, Hendra and Nipah henipaviruses, and SARS coronavirus. I bridge field ecology, cellular immunology, and quantitative epidemiology to investigate this question, at both within-host and population levels. I blog from my field site while tracking down fruit bat viruses in central Madagascar. Tonga soa --Cara E. Brook is the recipient of two research grants from the Nation al Geographic Society.