Entitled “Madagascar Travels”, the author describes in detail her four month journey through this incredible country on foot and by zebu cart. She stays sometimes with local friends and much of the time in villages, and exposes herself to traditional ways of life, truly seeing the way Malagasy live their life by their beliefs in fady and the spirits.
Below is an extract from her book “Madagascar Travels”, where she describes the celebration of Alahamady – the Malagasy New Year, traditionally celebrated in March.
If you are as fascinated as we are with Madagaskar and would like to search for this book, you can locate it on Amazon. ISBN 0-340-62563-5
“As the moon waned the celebration of Alahamady, the Malagasy New Year approached. On the eve of the new moon I linked up with my girlfriend Freddie again in Tana and we went to the sacred royal hill of Amboimanga where we became part of a vast crowd thronging an ancient stone slab lane. Despite the midday sun the sunken lane was mossy and cool, shaded by leafy trees. The whole hill is covered with trees which are protected as this has been a sacred place since the beginning of the nineteenth century when Amboimanga became the ritual centre of a united kingdom of Madagaskar.
The brightly dressed crowd streamed up the hill in high spirits. Food stalls along the lane were selling bananas, rice-cakes, noodle dishes and yoghurt. The lane climbed for another long kilometre. Finally we mounted a flight of old stone steps and entered the great open ceremonial area in front of the walls of the queen’s summer palace. Accordion music, rattles and a bongo-style drum jigged out a fast rhythm and made the mood lively.
The centre of attention were two zebu due for sacrifice the following morning. A wrinkled woman with a trident was pushing back the crowd from the bulls. By now Freddie and I were in the thick of a surging mob, allowing ourselves to be pushed by the eddies and counter-eddies like a tidal flow in a rocky inlet. We were trying to avoid being pushed out on to the great flat sacrificial rock, stained with old blood and bits of withered intestine.
On the upper terrace stood the current King of the Sakalava tribe and some elders, and speeches were being made. Freddie told me that the most senior man present was sure to be the most toothless one.
“There’s the King of the Betsileo,” said Freddie pointing to a white-bearded man with a white ceremonial lamba round his shoulders. “He lives south of here near Fianarantsoa which is an ancient centre of literature and learning. Most of the kings are still recognised as kings but they don’t live in palaces and have no political power. When I had some business to do in the north I had to inform the King, out of respect for him.”
The King of the Betsileo made the next speech while holding up a long ting pipe-pumpkin with sacred water in it. “The water in that pumpkin can heal sick people. If you drink just a few drops of it you will be miraculously cured,” whispered Freddie.
To find out which king will hold it in the ceremony a spirit manifests itself to one f the kings in his dreams, and the spirit appoints the chosen king.” Freddie’s tone turn dubious, “Any king could say he had the dream, couldn’t he?”
Although she was a shy young woman, Freddie was being a superb help by translating what was happening and if she did not know about a custom she asked the people around us, using my presence as an excuse. In fact a great many of the city-folk had no idea what was going on, and a woman attendant was sent to instruct the crowd to remember the fady that forbade the bringing of alcohol or umbrellas and the one about removing their shoes. Shoes are fady because the signify superiority. The ancestors’ seniority comes with age not wealth. It used to be fady for a man to wear shoes if his father had none. Another woman attendant was marking the foreheads of certain individuals with a white chalky substance.
This ceremony had not been held for a hundred years, the last time was in 1895, and now it had become part of a move to bring tradition back to those who had lost touch with their roots. It acknowledged the modern world’s need of the past. Perhaps the island’s increasing economical problems we because the ancestors were displeased.
The invocation of the ancestors began with the words of the time-old formula and sacred water in pottery urns being ritually offered in front of the bulls. Musicians worked with gusto on drum, rattle and accordion. Guards in red headbands and red and white lambas, carrying three-pronged spears, lined up beside the bulls which swung restlessly towards the crowd. As one we recoiled, somewhat frantically as the bulls tangled in their ropes. A guard sorted these, while the red bull kicked out and tossed its horns.
The second bull was red and white with a white blaze and white legs with regular brown splotches. These were sacred markings which meant it would automatically belong to the royal family, regardless of the original owner. As Freddie explained, “When you have something like that which is so great, you cannot own it, you may only be its guardian. We have a proverb which says “You can never possess that which is priceless.” This rare bull is sacrificed to gain the love of our last king, asking him to look after us. It represents religious power; the red bull represents political power.”
The bulls were now securely tethered each by one back leg to a tree’s roots that trailed solidly down the terrace wall and made rich mossy patterns on the stone.
The invocation of the spirits of the ancestors was followed by music to conduct them back into this world. A man in front of us went into a trance, trembling and shaking his limbs, head lolling and eyes closed, possessed by a spirit animated by the music, and other spirits began to manifest themselves in people all around us. One girl with thick black hair was throwing her head and torso from side to side, jerking with frenzied spasms. An attendant tied a red scarf around her head and the crowd cleared a space in case she ell. After five minutes she collapsed in a heap on the ground and her scarf was taken to out on someone else. The scarf is to protect dancers in a trance. Without the scarf, I was told, they could vomit blood and die.
Suddenly individuals were pushing their way through the packed but friendly crowd, like mad fishes wriggling through waterweed to reach the open space where they danced into a trance. The woolly-haired girl revived, still in a trance, put a pot of sacred water on her haed and danced on. The pot was seized by a man who sprayed water on her and doused her hair, then she flicked her head in every direction showering everyone around.
Only the person in the trance and some of the elders know which spirit has possessed a particular dancer. But people said Rakotmadit was the spirit who had taken the girl. He had been a favoured soldier of a Sakalava king.
“What are these spirits?” I asked.
“They’re zanahary, messengers,” answered Freddie, “Spirits that can communicate. When the spirit is in you, you are a slave to it. During the trance it will talk through you and people can ask you their private requests, like how shall I pass my exams? The spirits have to tell the truth.”
As soon as someone was fully in trance the women attendants hurried up t try and ask for messages, and Freddie said, “Only the person in a trance can understand what the spirit is saying. Suppose someone had done something very wrong, he can ask the trance slave what he can do to obtain forgiveness, and the slave has to ask the zanahary. You can’t choose your zanahary, you have to deal with the one that takes you over. It’s different from Christianity in that you can’t make a direct approach to the supreme being. You can’t speak to him unless you go through the ancestors.” She was logical about the ancestors. Dead people are closer to God, they know more about what is right and wrong, so the living must listen and learn from the dead people.”
I asked a girl we got talking to if she had ever been in a trance, but she giggled and said that she would be afraid. Freddie explained, “It would be all right at an event like this. But if a spirit just decided to manifest itself in me whenever it liked, when I was at the office, say, I’d be scared of it, too. Just think of carrying a spirit around inside you that can come out when it likes, and you have no control. Each time you hear lots of music it could manifest itself. How embarrassing”. She was also nervous today because the trance spirit could make its host person point out someone else for it to go into. So no one was safe from its power.
This day was a preparation for the morrow, and the crowd was swelling continually. There were now about a thousand people present and a wonderfully dramatic atmosphere. The ritual washing of the bulls began in utter silence, then the accordion stated while a couple of children were selected to walk forward and throw sacred water over the bulls. Afterwards many people took turns to splash them with sacred water, but respectfully. They were not being baited. A man stood before the bulls and told them to be calm, which was difficult for them when it came to lassoing their legs to tether them for the night. The red bull was fighting and kicking fiercely.
No alcohol meant no drunks and, despite the huge crowd, there was a superb atmosphere of kindly togetherness. Women were signing, lightning flashed, but without rain.
A procession formed in a semi-circle round the bulls, with candles in coloured paper lanterns. Drums began to beat and the vast crowd clapped rhythmically.
An orgy was scheduled for the night, when all sexual taboos were allowed, even supposed to be broken, particularly those fady concerning cross-caste sex. It was time for us to leave.
Be eight a.m the following morning I was back with the crowd, and orderly mix of families from the villages and townies out from Tana, now swelled to about two thousand, in front of Amboimanga’s palace. In contrast to the unrestrained build-up of the eve, New Year’s Day celebrations began with a Christian hymn, and praying hands, beseeching God’s presence on this heathen day, followed by somewhat blasphemous amens. On stage, a man swung a goose over his head, offering it to ancestors north and south. Someone marked my forehead with chalk. He said the mark was the same as on the zebu’s forehead, and it was a mark of special welcome. A procession of women approached, their heads laden with sacred water, bananas, bottles of pale brown honey, sweets, and a plate of white clay balls.
A build-up of anticipation rippled through the crowd. Spearsmen kept the numbers back and the guards with tridents lined up once more in front of the bulls. The goose was still being tossed to and fro above us at the top sacrificial stone but a moment later its neck was wrung. The bulls would be killed at the big lower stone.
The action was just below where guards wearing red headbands untied the red bull first and two men grabbed a rope trailing from its back leg, pulling it to the ground.More men hurried to secure the ropes. Everyone wore something red which is the royal colour and a symbol of power. They held the bull down on the ground and freed the ropes from its horns; their hands, faces and backs were now covered in white chalk. We watched a slightly gory sacrifice with blunt spears, and waited for a sign that God was with the people. The Chef de Ceremonie danced crouched under a sheet with a large red heart embroidered on it, representing God’s love.
The Chef de Ceremonie under the sheet took an urn of sacred water and offered it aloft to the bulls. Sacred water comes from a particular spring on the hill. In the old days there was a private source fr the king or queen, and their bath was filled with water carried by virgins. It is best to draw the water before four or five a.m, before the first bird flew across the stream because that is when water is at its most pure.
The dead bull was sprawled on the stone; the other waited its turn; people were selected to be marked with chalk dots, and an old man wearing trade beads and a blood-splattered white robe was rubbing his finger in blood and marking people with a red line from forehead back into the hair. His other hand held aloft a ceremonial blade decorated in geometrical motifs. People hurried around with spears and empty buckets amid a sea of bodies dancing with hands fluttering and waiving in the air.
Beside me an elder stepped up onto the small sacrificial stone. I thought maybe he wanted a better view, but he bowed his head and closed his eyes. A man carrying a full bucket of blood stopped in front of him, lifted the bucket and emptied it all over the elder’s head. He seemed to be pleased.
Everything today was to be directed and carried to the palace as a sign of respect. The Zebu are the path to the palace and the carriers and all servers carry the blood as a sign. Blood drinking had started by the bull’s body, with quick handfuls scooped out of its jugular by the bodyguards. Various important people were given marks of blood smeared on their faces and hair. Then much of the crowd rushed up to be marked on face, head and tongue. One brought a jamjar for takeaway blood. After the sacrifice, someone reached down inside the bull to find its heart and liver, then both bull carcases were flayed open by men who sharpened their knives vigorously on the stone. A man with a cup filled it from the beasts chest and drank it all. Plastic cups and jars were being passed forward. “Why are they taking the blood?” I asked a man with a knife. “To put on your own head”. Near me someone launched into a shopping list of prayers saying, “My house has fallen down, my wife’s sick, someone has stolen my land, and I need money”. Whether or not the people believed their prayers could be answered, they could do no harm, and revealed the naïve Malagasy optimism combined with resignation which makes them a nation of dreamers. Freddie admitted that she found Christianity confusing, with the different practices of Catholics and Protestants, but as a Malagasy she was in no doubt about certain things. “Before we do anything important we have to consult our ancestors.”