We disseminated around the perimeter of the room, an imagined séance taking place. The only light source came from the sole window cut from the clay wall opposite us. Three beautifully handcrafted raffia bowls were placed at our feet, overflowing with sticky rice tinted reddish-brown, as if prepared in dirty water. Next came the meat, a carnivore’s delight, glistening in its silver bowl, a comically large spoon used to distribute the precious commodities. We ate. They stared; surely intrigued by the strange way we took our meal, abandoning the communal sharing of meat-broth, not out of purpose, but instead out of naivety. Especially perplexing was the vazaha (foreigner of European descent) who avoided meat by her own volition, an odd concept in Madagascar. Rice bowls were continually refilled, never allowing the eater to reach the bottom—a never-ending portion betraying gluttonous motives.
It was a famadihana. Arguably one of the most revered traditions deeply rooted in Malagasy heritage, a celebration like no other passed down for generations. Practiced by those who follow Catholicism, forbidden by identifiers of other faiths—and certainly the social event of the year. A four-day celebration where sleep evades the party-goers and the toakagasy (essentially Malagasy moonshine) runs freely. The word famadihana means “the act of turning something over”. In this context however it means, quite literally, “the turning of the bones”. After the souls of loved ones depart this world, their bodies are placed in the family tomb. Venerated ancestors are honored during a famadihana, where their bones are exhumed, the cloths used to wrap them are changed, and they are once again rolled up in hand-woven straw mats. By caring for the earthly remains, the family is asking the departed soul in heaven to protect them and their possessions, blurring the lines between the living and the dead. Respecting the bones is, in turn, showing respect for the soul. These events, complex and intimate social gatherings, require years of planning and may quickly deplete a family’s savings. Men work for years to accrue, not material possessions, but instead to show pride in hosting the biggest party their fiscal state will allow. Many will travel on foot for miles to attend the festivities, and depending on the resources of the family these will occur every five, seven, nine, or twelve years. Very few foreigners will ever be blessed enough to witness, let alone participate in this sacred ritual. I am one of the lucky ones. Channeling my inner-anthropologist, this is the account of the day I was Malagasy.
It was a famadihana to be held in honor of eight ancestors of Renee, our guide-turned-gracious host, and his wife’s family. We were given the invitation to attend the events of this long-planned celebration–an American, an Argentinian, and a city-bred Malagasy*. A curious combination! We heard the party before we crested the hill to take in the scene below us. The cacophony of sounds that reached our ears was reminiscent of a marching band gone rouge. Trumpets, clarinets, flutes, and drums all profoundly out of rhythm and tune. But by its own right, beautiful. As we neared closer to the house, a six-room structure plopped on the barren hillside, we finally gazed upon the vibrant scene before us. Nearly 300 Malagasy, dressed in their best clothing, already dirty—a combination of the inescapable dust that coated everything (including lungs) and three previous nights of feasting and dancing. We joined the party just as breakfast was occurring and almost immediately the invitation came to partake. Joining the attendees in the darkened, furniture-less room, we were served as if primal hunger was our sole reason for attending, the meat-broth casting an oily yellowish-hue on the silver spoons used for shoveling heaping mouthfuls of rice. Next came le grand tour, led by Renee teeming with pride. It was unclear whether he was boasting to us about the famadihana he managed to pull together, or showing off his vazaha friends (or was it our cameras?) to his family. As if by some gravitational pull children swarmed us, excited by the prospect of having their photograph taken, possibly the sole occasion in their lifetime**. We were ecstatic to oblige, but reduced to dizzying pulp by being pulled every which way for a photo op. Masking inherent asociality, we allowed ourselves to be dragged to the dance floor (or mat-covered packed dirt, rather) by the young girls. As it turns out, this dancing was enough to necessitate an alcoholic beverage at 9 o’clock in the morning–not my first time, and probably not the last. We sat sipping our sun-warmed THB, Madagascar’s premier hoppy beverage, on the hillside absolutely bereft of any grass even remotely resembling anything alive, taking in the glorious spectacle. Everyone looked completely and utterly exhausted. And for good reason. This was day number four of the festivities that started off with the ceremonial killing of the zebu, Madagascar’s version of the domestic cow. The men, ramped up by heightened testosterone and blood-lust, use the primary means of rushing the bull to nearly exhaust it to death. This process may take hours, but is followed by a quick and humane death via blood-letting. When all is said and done, zebu meat along with matavy (fat) of two fattened pigs and nearly 100 kilos of rice will fill hundreds of hungry bellies for the duration of the ceremony. Meat claims the starring role of a famadihana, this fact highlighted by goliath vats of it boiling over a wood-fire, smoke billowing like a volcano threatening to spew its contents. The music was an ever-present, headache-inducing force, a distinctive blend of traditional Malagasy music played by the band in their matching jackets, coupled with popular music CDs played over the sound system speakers, strangely out of place in the landscape, next to a house devoid of electricity.
Like most timed proceedings in Malagasy culture, speeches scheduled to take place at 1:00 pm were delayed until two hours later. When the time finally arrived, the elder, respected men of the party delivered what I gathered to be awe-inspiring eulogies, paying homage to their ancestors. Cheers erupted from the crowd and the band mercilessly played on. Under some unspoken command, the bones were removed from their transitory home on the upper level of the house (where they were continuously guarded during the duration of the party to protect them from sorcerers who would steal them for black magic), and everyone stumbled forward to help transport them to their final resting place, safely back in their tomb to await the next famadihana.
You would be hard-pressed to unearth many traditions in Western culture that intertwined as much pride and deep-rooted heritage of a famadihana, a uniquely Madagascan experience. We, outsiders, were welcomed with such open arms and hospitality (and plenty of curious stares), that I felt truly honored to be part of it. Reflecting on the day’s events I realized that scraping off the outer visible layers and apparent differences between Malagasy and Western culture, basal similarities emerge from their hiding places. In fact, attending the famadihana made me nostalgic for the annual family reunions that take place in my own family–a weekend’s worth of copious amounts of food, drink, and games where we celebrate kinship and remember those who are no longer with us. Was this really any different?
It’s a jungle out there!
*This city-bred Malagasy was Natacha, Marina’s student in training. I am forever indebted to her for serving as an excellent translator and graciously dealing with the barrage of questions I accosted her with regarding the details of a famadihana.
**I took over one hundred photos throughout the day. These will be printed off to be distributed to the family as keepsakes. Additionally, because my attempt at vivid language cannot even begin to accurately describe the actual experience, I am dedicating a whole post as a photo journal of the event. Stay tuned!