June 8, 2016 / 1:42 AM / a year ago

Factbox: Forget lemurs - Eight things you didn't know about Madagascar

Madagascar's old colonial church on top of the hill is pictured among other buildings in the capital Antananarivo, in this October 22, 2013 file photo. Madagascar Prime Minister Jean Ravelonarivo and his cabinet have resigned, an official at the president's office said on April 8, 2016 without giving an explanation.Thomas Mukoya/Files - RTSE6O0

ANTANANARIVO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Madagascar is suffering a third consecutive year of drought and its poorest rainy season in 35 years. More than 1.1 million people are unable to feed themselves.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a major donor to the country, calls the crisis a "silent emergency" requiring more international attention.

"Madagascar is really seldom in the news," said Willem van Milink, head of the U.N. World Food Programme in the African island nation. "People know very little about Madagascar ... It is isolated."

Here are some facts about the country:

1. WORLD'S FOURTH-BIGGEST ISLAND

Lying in the Indian Ocean, 400 km (250 miles) off the coast of mainland Africa, Madagascar is the fourth-largest island in the world after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo.

It is home to about 5 percent of the planet's plant and animal species, of which 80 percent are endemic to the country, including seven types of baobab tree, the ploughshare tortoise and the fossa, a carnivorous relative of the mongoose.

Madagascar is perhaps most famous for its lemurs, acrobatic primates with big round eyes that are only found on the island and nearby Comoros. Scientists attribute Madagascar's unique biodiversity to its long isolation from neighboring continents.

2. "NOT AFRICAN"

The same isolation means that few of the island's more than 23 million inhabitants regard themselves as African, even though Madagascar belongs to the African Union and is closest geographically to the African continent.

Madagascar was settled more than 1,500 years ago by migrants from Indonesia and Malaysia. The country's 22 ethnic groups speak a common language, Malagasy, which borrows from Malaysian, Indonesian, Swahili, Arabic, French and English - reflecting a rich cultural heritage from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.

3. MONEY CAN'T BUY YOU LOVE

Diverse though it is, Malagasy society is bound together by the concept of "fihavanana", denoting kinship, friendship and goodwill between people. Summing it up is the proverb "Ny Fihavanana no talohan'ny vola", which translates loosely as "the relationship is more important than the money".

4. PLAGUE AND PESTS

Madagascar is subject to recurring droughts in the south, cyclones in the east and locust infestations. Plague - known as the "Black Death" during the 14th century - is endemic in Madagascar, and linked to poverty and unplanned urbanization.

5. DEVELOPMENT "DISASTER"

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a gross national income per capita of $440. It has one of the planet's highest rates of chronic malnutrition. One in two children suffer from stunting. "This is a tragedy for individuals and a disaster for development," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to Madagascar in May.

Only three in 10 children complete primary school. About one in three young Malagasy cannot read. Water access is among the lowest in the world, most communities lack health clinics, and malnutrition costs the economy $1.5 billion, or 14.5 percent of its GDP, each year. "The human toll is immeasurable," Ban said.

6. COUP CRISIS

Successful elections in Madagascar in 2013 marked the end of a political crisis triggered by a coup in 2009, which saw DJ-turned-statesman Andry Rajoelina helped to power by the army.

The coup prompted wealthy governments to cut vital aid and drove away tourists and investors. Donors have since resumed lending to Madagascar under President Henry Rajaonarimampianina who took office in January 2014.

7. TWINS - AND OTHER TABOOS

Dead ancestors are revered in Madagascar, and their beliefs are clung to in a wide range of cultural taboos - "fady" - which vary from one region to the next.

For example, it might be "fady" to hold a funeral on a certain day or work the land on another, or eat a particular food. Some "fady", however, are harmful, such as the taboo against twins - which has resulted in babies being abandoned.

A taboo against drying sweet potato, a much-needed source of nutrients, can hurt families trying to get through periods of hunger. And in some parts of Madagascar, it is considered taboo to defecate in the same place twice, so newly built toilets have gone unused, hampering efforts to improve sanitation.

8. DEATH DESTROYS WEALTH

In rural areas, zebu - cattle that are distinctive for having a hump on their backs - embody wealth. A herd of zebu is the equivalent of a flashy car or a big house elsewhere.

Traditionally, when a man dies in parts of the drought- and hunger-prone south, his cows are slaughtered and served at his funeral. The horns adorn his tomb, which is usually built from cement or stone, and is at least twice the size of his mud and thatch house.

"The economic impact of that on the family and children is disastrous," said a food security specialist working for USAID in Madagascar.

Sources: Reuters, United Nations, WWF Madagascar, World Bank

Reporting by Katie Nguyen; editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories

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