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Madagascar Politics, Clothes Linked

May 4, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ It’s a country where a king was once murdered in a revolt that started when he tried to introduce Western clothing. He was strangled with a silk cloth.

Now Madagascar is an impoverished republic where a 21st century event _ a disputed presidential election _ is threatening ruin to a newly booming garment industry that has been selling sweaters and jeans to U.S. retail chains.

Cloth and clothing have long taken a key role in religion as well as politics in Madagascar, a Texas-size island off Africa’s east coast. Many people follow a pre-Christian practice of digging up the dead from time to time and wrapping the remains in fine new cloth before reburial. It placates their ancestors, who have power to bless or curse.

For the living, clothes were considered a kind of second skin. Common criminals were stripped before execution, but nobles were allowed to wear their best outfits. Two uprisings based on clothes were put down under French rule before World War II.

An unintended backdrop to Madagascar’s present political crisis is an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art: ``Objects as Envoys: Cloth, Imagery and Diplomacy in Madagascar.″

It does not deal with today’s situation, which had its beginnings two years ago when Congress passed a law easing restrictions on imports from Africa.

Madagascar has been among the few African countries with increasing industrial exports. More than one-third were in clothing, boosted by foreign investment lured to the island nation by a minimum wage of around $25 a month.

The economy grew last year at a vigorous 6.7 percent. Sales to the United States soared from $12 million in 1999 to more than $208 million by last Sept. 30.

Most of that was clothing made in the garment industry centered on the capital, Antananarivo, about 130 miles by air from the main port, Toamasina.

The capital’s mayor, Marc Ravalomanana, was declared loser in his challenge for the presidency last December, won a recount, and the High Constitutional Court ruled this week that he had won. President Didier Ratsiraka, ruler for a quarter-century, who controls Toamasina, insisted he was re-elected.

His supporters have blocked roads to the capital, keeping raw materials _ mostly imported cloth _ from the capital-area factories and finished goods away from the port. Unemployment in the industry is estimated at 65,000 of the 100,000 jobs.

It’s just the latest incident of politics and apparel making strange bedfellows in Madagascar.

In the 1800s the ruling dynasty imported red silk parasols and English scarlet broadcloth to show their sacred status. Death be to anyone else who used or sold them. One king was buried with 80 expensive British uniforms, complete with hats, feathers and spurs.

The Smithsonian exhibit tells how rulers of Madagascar began exchanging gifts with U.S. government representatives in 1837, including mantles of local cloth usually reserved for royalty. Clothing was woven of cotton, silk, even from the inner bark of trees.

In an exchange of gifts, President Andrew Johnson sent an early sewing machine in an ornamental case. President Grover Cleveland sent an autographed photograph of himself and his wife, with an explanation of how special a gift it was.

Threatened with a takeover by France, Queen Ranavalona III congratulated Cleveland on his second election in 1892.

``(This) is not only a guarantee for the prosperity and welfare of the people over whom you reign,″ she wrote, ``but also for a friendly nation like ours in maintaining our independence.″

The State Department advised:

``The eventual supremacy of the French in Madagascar is a forgone conclusion, which is not incumbent on us to avert or contest.″

Cleveland made no move.

Two years later the French completed their takeover. The queen died in exile in Algeria, and Madagascar remained a French colony until gaining independence in 1960.

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