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View the documentRitual, religion and development in Madagascar

Ritual, religion and development in Madagascar


Bernard Nkuissi’s article on traditional religion in Africa appeared in no 123 of ‘The Courier’. In this issue, Cne Ratovoson uses J.B. Pratt’s definition of religion (a formal and social attitude of individuals and groups to the force(s) which they believe to have an ultimate hold over their destiny and interests) in her explanation of traditional faiths in her country. These beliefs, she suggests, can often have a negative economic and social effect-which suggestion will probably upset some established ideas.

Madagascar has beliefs- which can be complex and contusing and difficult to understand. The island, it is generally agreed, was only relatively recently peopled by its diverse inhabitants-’the people of Madagascar have a basic faith of Indonesian origin with borrowings from Arabia and Africa’, as H. Isnard puts it.

In this article, we shall concentrate on the effect of traditional religions on the development of Madagascar, a society which is 85 % rural with a fairly strong structure of authority (king, chief, god). Practical examples from the east coast, the Merina region, the north west and the west show that traditional beliefs affect development in at least two ways.

Economic and social effects

The first typical example of tradition and ancestral custom is spirit and ancestor worship. Madagascans live in villages and the oldest villager is both chief and elder, he who can serve as intermediary between the living and the dead-for villages also contain those who have passed on and, in Merina territory in the central highlands, their graves may well be among the dwellings of the living. People in Madagascar usually believe that the dead can still act in the world of the living, that some form of reincarnation is possible, and so the dead must be honoured and pleased. Ritual exhumation (famadihana) is practised in some parts of the island. The dead, people think, can appear to the living, in dreams for example, to bring them messages- hence the need for exhumation. And festivities, ostentatiously expensive ones, are organised for this purpose and shrouds costing anything between FMG 100000 and 150000, depending on quality and finish, are bought. On the east coast, especially in the Faritany de Toamasina, this ritual ceremony is called rasa hariana (a share of the fortune brought by members of the defunct’s family) and the remains of the departed have to be re-arranged in the specially prepared family tomb. In Imerina (the highlands) and Betsimisaraka country (on the east coast), the ceremony costs an immense amount, for cloth and a rosewood coffin must be bought. Every area has its ritual requiring consultation of an omblasy (or soothsayer) and the help of specialists (mpijoro). And to honour both the village community and the departed, the festivities are organised at the tomb itself. Tradition has it that a couple of zebus are sacrificed, spirituous or fermented drinks purchased and rice cooked- a feast for the whole village.

A family in one Betsimisaraka village in the former sub-prefecture of Soanierana-Ivongo spent at least FMG 500 000 on the rasa hariana ceremonies, buying a good, fat zebu, betsabetsa (a fermented rice drink), rum and rice for the guests from the Fokontany to which the defunct belonged. The village community is a religious unit as a rule and none of the tribe could avoid these customs. Sometimes, families get into debt if they have no ready money at the time, for evil may befall if the rituals are not carried out and the threat of moral sanctions by the village community is there to ensure that they are.

The second example is the doany of the north and north west. This is the place where the holy relics of the founder of a kingdom and his main dignitaries are buried. After death, the king becomes a god and his relics are worshipped by the Tsimihety and Sakalava in a gathering of 3 000-6 000 people every five years. Typical examples of this are at the holy lake of Andranova at Diego-Suarez and at Lake Kinkony near Katsepy-Mitsinjo vhere ceremonies are organised round the sacred waters where the spirit of the dead king is said to live. Often, the body is ‘buried’ in the water in a silvercoated coffin and the spirit is reincarnated in the caiman lizards of the lake-what is called dady. And sometimes even, a serpent may come out of the water, to be honoured and venerated, but never killed, by the people. In 1973, G. Rabearimanana said that gifts to the doany of Mahamavo-Najunga amounted to something like 350 oxen, more than FMG 3 million in cash and various other donations (rice and honey, for example) in kind. All the delegates of the Mahamavo peninsula led by King Doda himself offered 15 oxen and 100 litres of honey.

Such festivities cost the village concerned a great deal and, as the villagers themselves often have a very poor standard of living, they are forced to run up debts that take years to pay back.

The third example is the feast of circumcision, or Sambatra, which the Antambahoaka tribe in the former subprefecture of Mananjary organises on the River Manaujary every five or seven years. At this ceremony, a group of at least 50 and as many as 200 children are circumcised on the same day, with a joro (ritual invocation) and the sacrifice of a number of zebus at the mouth of the river -and a contribution from every family.

Briefly, the idea of all these festivities is to strengthen the ties between relatives and villagers and indeed they are an opportunity for people in villages and hamlets to enjoy themselves, although they lead to arguments and disturbances of all kinds.

Health-wise, the irrational consumption of cane wine or rum causes drunkenness on these occasions and cases of sickness and accidental death are common.

Economy-wise, the rituals require ostentatious spending, which is sometimes ill-planned, and families are forced into debt to honour their gods, ancestors and customs. The different tribes still maintain the traditions in good and bad years alike, despite the present economic situation, and they are all the poorer for it, as a lifetime’s savings may well disappear in two or three days.

Tavy-itinerant scorched-earth farming

This is tied up with fomban-drazana? or ancestral customs. The peasants of the eastern central coast, who live in a closed society . are anxious to cling to ritual and avoid the wrath of invisible, threatening powers and the stamp of religion on the farmer’s timetable is very strong as a result. So basically, tavy is not seen as an economic activity, but as a way of expressing ancestor worship. The system is conditioned by the observance of taboos and farming methods are based on respect for the ancestors and when, say, deciding which piece of land to clear, the peasant has to:

- adhere to various rituals and customs;

- consult a soothsayer to decide which is the best day to start work ( on selecting, clearing or burning the land etc);

- perform the rites before the different stages, i.e. fire tavy (clearance), oro tavy (burning), mitorona (weeding), fiangaviana (ody tavy prayer) and petrandango (lango ceremony).

The point of all these prayers, in fact, is to ask the local gods for a good harvest and: all the ritual gestures are thought to be a guarantee of getting on in a good and neighbourly fashion with the ancestors and invisible gods.

A short study of the different kinds of tavy shows the strength of religious customs and ancestor worship by the ‘tavysts’-who have taboos (or fady) to obey if they are to avoid a poor harvest.

An omblasy has to be consulted in cases of tavy on old forest land (called teviala) and he tells the farmer to take one or two clods of earth from the future field before a final choice is made. If land clearance is imminent, the potential user of the field has to offer special prayers, or ala-dike, to the gods, followed by a burnt offering of chicken or betsa (fermented drink ).

In the case of ancestral tavy (jinja finomana or simbontrano), at the site of the ancestral tomb, two or three zebus (according to the area of the tavy) have to be sacrificed. Immolation of the beasts signifies respect {or the ancestors, because by clearing the land immediately round the tombs, the farmer is apparently removing the ancestors” protective covering. People in parts of the former sub-prefectures of the north east were still sacrificing two or three zebus when clearing or weeding land or performing the jinja abandoning rite in 1972, but the practice is gradually dying out now because the economic situation is difficult.

The land of the finimana is a property tied to the extended family (4-15 households). Land rights are handed down from father to son and no outsider may set up without the permission of the head of the line. The ancestral tomb and the land around it, an area of 10-16 ha perhaps, can only be cultivated if the forest has reached maturity (7-15 years) and then only by the whole family which owns the tomb.

Lastly, common or ordinary tavy (dinja tamana), in which each villager is free to choose the plot, involves a simple prayer plus various offerings (a zebu, a chicken, rice, honey etc) to suit the means of the people clearing the land.

We shall end this section by pointing out that the choice of land carries with it the of observance of various taboos and obligations throughout the different phases of work. Such bans may be territorial (fadin-tany) or local (during the growing period) or they may be attached to just some of the plants (pulses, for example, such as voantsiroko, which kills the souls of the dead).

Lastly, Tuesdays and Thursdays are generally taken to be taboo and harmful to any work on the land - these are decrees from previous times (didin-tany) which apply solely to rice and not to dry crops (hanin-kotrana).

Cultural and psychological effects

A look at some of the simpler and less complex rituals will show what the cultural and psychological consequences are.

The first example is tavy or itinerant, scorched-earth farming as practised by the people on the east coast (see box).

The second is joro-tany, the prayers said to exorcise a piece of land it is hoped to develop but thought to be inhabited by inimical or ill-disposed spirits. There are special prayers on the land itself and burnt chicken and betsabetsa (fermented drinks) and toaka gasy (spirits) are offered to the gods.

These two examples, we firmly believe, show that divine practices make the individual psychologically and morally dependent on bath the soothsayer and the gods.

The soothsayers prescribe taboos and talismans. Individual and local taboos prevent the individual from doing particular things and, as H. Deschamps says, there are many of them ‘strewing the people’s lives with countless inhibitions” encouraging poverty in some places and hampering social, cultural and economic progress. This obviously makes it difficult to get schools and hospitals accepted, as the villagers prefer to remain ignorant and keep traditional remedies for some diseases, with superstition and witchcraft thriving as a result.

Developing a region means pushing up its output, but it also means reducing areas of poverty and pauperism by bring in a modern attitude.

The essential thing in rural society in Madagascar at the moment should be the individual’s material development (self sufficiency in food, basic needs and a proper psychological balance), and cultural development-i.e. gradually and gently transforming a hidebound outlook by suggesting modern, but rational alternative solutions.

The manifestations which form part of the rites and beliefs interfere with the proper development of the individual. Although man is a being who needs security, although he is ‘fallible, he is also social and cosmic and religious in his being and his life is a battle against a cunning evil emanating from all places and all things’. So he has to wage a perpetual campaign against pessimism, for if he allows himself to be pessimistic, his ability to react to life’s problems will be neutralised.

The sikidy or geomancy of the Madagascar dictates ‘the future and the way to behave, whatever the object’ (H. Deschamps). It plays an all-important part in social! life, certainly, but the prescriptions which go with it and the prayers said during the joro are ill-founded because they are often based on superstition and routine. The consequences are obscurantist in nature and hostile to the spread of instruction and culture among the people -as ill-founded bans such as the one on working on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the one on eating pork or chicken or the one on building latrines in the villages show.

These cases of individuals bowing to or depending on mysterious forces are clear illustrations of a critical social situation, but Madagascans have tended never to realise the fact and lock upon it as something entirely natural.

Ritual exhumation and the rites of the doany, the tavy and the sambatra merely perpetuate ancestor worship. They are a kind of reaction making it possible to counter everything that is foreign to the life of the group.

Ultimately, traditional religions, with all their different facets, are phenomena of ‘human misery’ and they create a social system - the ‘servile society’ - to support them.

But despite being social phenomena, they are by no means cultural, for ‘man fights nature and all evasive behaviour enables people to live together, helping them to live, but not authorising them to be’, as D. Guignard puts it.

However, if we are to understand the Madagascan, we must take him with his religion, his traditions, his habits and his customs. If development in fact means the individual evolving on the basis of his own potential and involves transforming and changing the relationship between society and the space around it, there is no reason why all development schemes should not also transform Madagascar’s traditional religions. But how?

Harsh measures should be avoided and skill and tact are called for. A persuasive, indulgent approach will help people gradually distance themselves from rigid custom and adapt to new ways in a ‘materially and spiritually better’ world. Lastly, it will take tolerance to create a climate of safety and serenity for the individual - which will help him strengthen his personality and do away with that lack of ease which is an expression of human failing.