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close this bookThe Courier N 156 - March - April 1996 - Dossier: Trade in Services - Country Report : Madagascar (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentCulture and tradition in Madagascar

Culture and tradition in Madagascar

The poetry of death and anxiety

If there is one Malagasy word which the visitor is almost certain to remember - because it is heard all the time - X is 'fady'. It translates as 'prohibited', 'taboo' or 'forbidden'. A place, a gesture, a word, an object, an animal or a food, throughout the country or in a particular region, may be 'fady.. This is not something that is open to discussion nor does it require explanation. It must simply be accepted. Nothing and no one is able to lift the fady, apart from, in very rare cases, an ancestor; that is to say a dead person communicating with the living.

Two key notions in Malagasy culture make it possible to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of the spiritual worid in which the inhabitants of that great island live. They owe more to a philosophy than to morals and the words used to denote them - tsiny and tody - are difficult to translate.

Tsiny corresponds to a type of reproach or chastisement of someone who has committed a sin, whether against God or the ancestral spirits, against a mere mortal or in violation of traditional standards. The result will be just retribution and the punishment may be severe, affecting the wrongdoer in terms of his assets, his close relations or his very life. According to popular wisdom, the tsiny is 'like a hoar frost: You are unaware of it until it has gripped your body'. Nothing can stop it, not even God (who is above it all), for free agency has been conferred on Man and he finds himself enclosed in his solitude, in tense anxiety. It is no coincidence that the Malagasy word 'fanahy', which is usually translated as 'soul', etymologically means 'the tool or ability to suffer anxiety'. The soul is viewed essentially as a tool in the service of the body - an idea that is in contrast to Christian philosophy which characterises it as a component part of the human being but one which is detachable from the body.

The art of the spoken word

The only protection against the tsiny is to exorcise it by means of the spoken word, preferably before committing the sin. An example of a wrong committed against another person may be the simple act of speaking in public. By speaking, in all probability one is claiming precedence over someone who is superior in the ethical hierarchy. This hierarchy ranges from God down to oneself and includes in between, one's ancestors, the dead, the King or Queen, persons of higher rank, the authorities, older people and so on. All these are deemed more 'qualified' than you to address an audience. So to exorcise the punishment due for this sin, you must confess it - and not just in any way you please. You must use ritual formulae - not to be confused with magic formulae - which are arranged and improvised upon depending on the speakers talent. Thus, no one can speak in public unless they have mastered the rules for exorcising the tsiny. The spoken word is a sophisticated art known as the kabary and when the formulae are used in such circumstances, it is not, strictly speaking, an excuse that is being offered but rather a self-accusation designed to ward off evil.

Under certain circumstances, for example, when a man is seeking to marry a woman, the task of making the request will be given to a specialist in the field. A kabary for asking for someone's hand in marriage is an exercise in balance, in which pretence, arabesque, surprise and tact combine, touching lightly upon one another and interweaving, forming infinite variations on a theme. Throughout, the speaker teeters on the brink of anxiety and insecurity. To paraphrase the formula used by the police, 'anything he says may be used against him and his close relatives'. There must be no flourishes and no raised voices, for one of the primary qualities of a Malagasy must be discretion in all things. It is interesting to learn that the Malagasy word which equates with 'just' in English, has no moral connotations. Etymologically speaking, it means 'the happy medium', 'level' or 'equilibrium'. This implies that an excess of good, like an excess of evil, is not right. By extension, the evil to be found in Man is not necessarily put there by the devil.

The 'tody' is even more curious than the 'tsiny'. This may be described loosely as 'fate' (although not as 'random chance'). It is the reaction to your actions or the 'inevitable return of things': in short the logic of destiny which may unknowingly fall upon you as a result of an action committed, consciously or unconsciously, for good or for evil, which has harmed another person. Unlike the tsiny, which can, if necessary, be warded off, there is no exorcism against the tody.

This constant fear of doing wrong, even in one's thoughts and judgement explains the existence of a unique word, 'tsara', which loosely encompasses the 'fine' and the 'good'. To judge by the dread of the tsiny, Malagasy ethics are not a vision of what is fine but, rather, the aesthetic, which is subject to moral judgement. Moreover, linguists liken this word tsara to a phoneme close to the sanskrit and which means 'conforming to tradition'.

Fear of the tsiny and of the tody, alongside respect for God and for the voice of conscience, constitute the four cornerstones of Malagasy morals or ethics. The consequences of this are paralysis of action, anxiety and permanent guilt, mistrust of oneself and a fear of one's weaknesses. This has led one researcher to conclude that Malagasy people are afraid of speaking aloud and are even afraid of their thoughts. This philosophy of anxiety also engenders respect for others and promotes the spiritual side of life and a great artistic sensitivity. It helps furthermore to guarantee social cohesion which is governed by a code of life as a society and mutual assistance - the 'fhavanana'. Here is an example of the elegance of this code. The pardon conferred by an entire community on a wrongdoer, after the latter's repentance, may be such that anyone who subsequently refers to the sin commits a 'fady' act and has to make reparation through offerings. On the occasion of a theft, in certain cases a ceremony is organised at which everyone deposits a
crumpled ball of paper on a heap. The thief thus has the opportunity to give back the stolen article whilst retaining his honour and obtaining this near sacred pardon.

Living well after death

Without doubt, some of the finest structures on the island are the tombs and funerary monuments. These are much more than the sad private chapels which usually fill cemeteries. Indeed, the very idea of a cemetery is a relative one in this country. Family tombs can be found practically everywhere, sometimes isolated, sometimes in small 'communities' and sometimes in the form of mini-towns where the people 'live out their death well'. Entire villages are reserved for the dead where they are said to speak, sing and be entertained.

The bodily remains Iying underground regularly receive offerings. Rarely, however, are strangers able to identify tombs at first glance, so great is their resemblance to ordinary small dwellings. Sometimes, they are even large houses surrounded by gardens containing ornate sculptures. And the sculptures are not necessarily pious: in some parts of the south, one can find works of an erotic nature. The people converse regularly with their dead. This may take place in front of the family tomb or anywhere in sacred places, such as a river bank or by a tree trunk in the village.

Death is the passage from one part of life to another and is therefore endowed with special qualities. The deceased is promoted to the rank of sacred ancestor, but this does not mean that the way in which the dead are addressed is one of veneration. There may even be a scolding if the deceased is slow to reply to the requests put to him.

When death occurs, it therefore gives rise to ambivalent reactions: sadness in the family, of course, but, at the same time, pleasure at having a close relative gain access to the ranks of ancestor and thereby become capable of offering protection and assistance - provided, of course, that the deceased is pampered somewhat. Hence the incantations and offerings. However, the strangest phenomenon in the eyes of visitors is the 'famadibana', the'turning-over of the dead'. This takes place from June to September on the high plateaux where families go 'to turn over the beds of stone' (although some of the populations along the coast do not do this). This is when they clean and embellish the inside of the family tomb. At the same time, they exhume the dead for a day and share their intimacy, cleaning them, changing their shrouds and showing them to the children - who handle the revered remains without a hint of disgust or repugnance.

This ceremony is the occasion for a big celebration and it takes place as often as the family can afford. Three years after death, the corpse has to be reburied in the final shroud. These practices are not classed as traditions but are part of everyday life. Malagasy civilisation has merely placed death amongst the living.

This closeness to death is probably unique, although much attention has been given to the case of Mexico, where close relatives tenderly touch, the bodies of those who have just died, posing beside them for a photograph. Although the Day of the Dead is a special celebration there, particularly for children who receive unusual gifts linked to the cult of the dead, such as little coffins or sugar skulls, the degree of familiarity does not extend beyond the funeral services.


It is fady for a father to use the familiar form of address to his daughter. A mother may do so to reprimand her, but this must never be done in public. In a particular town, the tamarind tree may be fady. It may be forbidden in some places to expose part of one's finger. Taboos and prohibitions abound, although they are not always coercive in nature, and they can lend rhythm to a strange spectacle.

The most enchanting region of the Malagasy Republic is probably Antakarna, in the North-East. One of its most striking legends is that of the crocodile men. Near the town of Ambilobe, the hottest place on the island, underground rivers flow through a mountainous massif and there are countless hidden lakes in which innumerable 'reptiles' splash about. You are not likely to be attacked by them because they are men in reptilian guise, although one of them may touch you to warn of the approach of a 'real' crocodile. They are said to be the last remaining battalions of the army of a Sakalava king who, encircled by the forces of the Merina king, Ramada 1, preferred to drown themselves rather than surrender. These caves are formally off limits (fady) to the inhabitants of the high plateaux. Another captivating site in the same region, where the mountains continually flirt with water, is the Andranamamofona falls. It is said that at one time, the river was no more than a small stream but that it widened miraculously. Two lovers who were gazing at each other across the water perished in the process and two rocks have been erected at the places where they stood. In the Malagasy language, these are called 'the man's side' and 'the woman's side'. It is fady to visit the underground waters in this region if one is wearing any garment that slips on over one's feet (such as trousers or pants). The pagne (loincloth) is de rigueur and all guides must be of royal blood. Street traders in the nearby town of Ambilobe do not deal in drugs or gems but in the fossils of baby coelacanths found in places regarded as 'fady' to strangers - a good way to protect the trade.

Desperation produces beautiful songs

Malagasy poetry has inherited a language of astonishing sensitivity, if the foreign linguists are to be believed. This can be seen in the musicality of the words, the length of which (on paper) often intimidate foreigners. They are invariably surprised by the softness of the corresponding sounds and by the brevity of the words in spoken form. This is because transcription into the Roman alphabet by English and French speaking scholars resulted in the insertion of vowels which are not pronounced. Traditional Malagasy writing, which is similar to Arabic, gave a better impression of the true sounds. The final syllable is almost never pronounced, while the vowels of the last two syllables are frequently silent. Thus, Tsiranana, is simply 'Tsira'n', while 'fady' becomes 'fad'. Verbs can have a third mood in addition to the active and the passive, allowing for unusual inversions in the Malagasy language. For example, in addition to the active 'I play swing with my guitar' and passive 'Swing is played by me with my guitar', the relative or adverbial mood will give something which roughly translates as 'My guitar is that with which swing is played by me'. It must be stressed that this is no more than an inelegant approximation. It sounds much better in the original to those who can understand it. A wide range of words exists to denote each action according to its direction, intensity or the position of the speaker. For example, there are about twenty words that translate the verb 'to look', depending on whether one is looking at a certain distance, whether one's head is raised or lowered, whether one is looking through something, revealing only one's eyes, and so on.

Literature is full of melancholy. Even modern literature tends to concentrate on nostalgia or subjects such as death. Researchers believe they can place the source of this poetry of nostalgia in the very make-up of the Malagasy population, which is the product of immigration.

Music is also melancholic, particularly on the high plateaux. Cire Rabenoro, President of the Malagasy Academy, is a scientist and jurist by training, a career diplomat and passionate musician. He explains that music on the plateaux is often sad, arising from the relatively cold mountain climate. On the coast, in Mahajanga, it is somewhat more African in nature. Music further south, in Antananarivo, is seen as exuberant. In fact, a tropical music lover would find a slightly rhythmical chant. The national instrument, which can be seen throughout the country, is the valiha. This is a kind of harp reminiscent of instruments from the Malay-lndonesian region, which has a shrill quality and a soft, muted resonance. As such, it lends itself wonderfully to the anxious and sad Malagasy chant. The Mpihira Gasy, the musical, dance and kabary groups, are to be found on the high plateaux, among the Merina and Betsileo populations, but they are appreciated throughout the republic.

Apart from traditional music on the plateaux, there is also scholarly music inspired, initially, by European operettas. It is also full of languor. Christian chants, particularly those of the Protestant church, have also influenced Malagasy song, feeding the melancholy which is intrinsic to this culture. In regretting the European failure to appreciate scholarly Malagasy music, given that it is of European origin, Professor Rabenoro is resigned: 'Perhaps you have to be a Malagasy to experience melancholy like this.' H.G.