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Madagascar, officially the Republic of Madagascar and previously known as the Malagasy Republic, is an island country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Southeast Africa.
The nearest mainland state is Mozambique, located to the west.
To the west of this ridge lies a plateau in the center of the island ranging in altitude from 750 to 1,500 m above sea level. These central highlands, traditionally the homeland of the Merina people and the location of their historic capital at Antananarivo, are the most densely populated part of the island and are characterized by terraced, rice-growing valleys lying between grassy hills and patches of the subhumid forests that formerly covered the highland region. To the west of the highlands, the increasingly arid terrain gradually slopes down to the Mozambique Channel and mangrove swamps along the coast.
The combination of southeastern trade winds and northwestern monsoons produces a hot rainy season with frequently destructive cyclones, and a relatively cooler dry season. Rain clouds originating over the Indian Ocean discharge much of their moisture over the island's eastern coast; the heavy precipitation supports the area's rain forest ecosystem.
The Malagasy language is of Malayo-Polynesian origin and is generally spoken throughout the island. The numerous dialects of Malagasy, which are generally mutually intelligible, can be clustered under one of two sub-groups: eastern Malagasy, spoken along the eastern forests and highlands including the Merina dialect of Antananarivo; and western Malagasy, spoken across the western coastal plains. French became the official language during the colonial period, when Madagascar came under the authority of France.
Each of the many ethnic sub-groups in Madagascar adhere to their own set of beliefs, practices and ways of life that have historically contributed to their unique identities. However, there are a number of core cultural features that are common throughout the island, creating a strongly unified Malagasy cultural identity. In addition to a common language and shared traditional religious beliefs around a creator god and veneration of the ancestors, the traditional Malagasy worldview is shaped by values that emphasize fihavanana, vintana, tody, and hasina, a sacred life force that traditional communities believe imbues and thereby legitimates authority figures within the community or family.