Madagascar – taboo and not to boo

Posted by on Feb 27, 2016 in Snapshots of Africa | 0 comments

Madagascar is many things – boring is not one of them. Their intricate taboo system is so difficult to fathom that foreigners are thankfully pardoned from it.

By Keri Harvey

The Red Island of Madagascar is one of my favourite places on the planet. It has plenty of rough edges, the friendliest people with landscapes and wildlife straight from a Sci-fi movie. Their intricate system of fady or taboos by which they live may not be visible, but they remain titillating to foreigners.

Sakalava grave with erotic sculptures

Sakalava grave with erotic sculptures

All 18 official tribes on Madagascar place absolute importance on the ancestors and their involvement in daily life. I now understand that the dead run life for the living, through a seemingly bizarre system of fady or taboos. These fady vary between different tribes, even between different families and individual people. Yet the Malagasy are quick to point out that “fady doesn’t interfere with happiness at all; it improves daily life.”

Patric Niaina belongs to the ruling Merina tribe, who practice bone turning ceremonies to honour and commune with the ancestors. He also believes it’s fady to sing while eating, because your teeth will grow long. Or to hand someone an egg – it must be placed on the ground first. Funerals are not held on Tuesdays because it’s a bad omen. But the Tsimihety tribe believes Tuesday funerals are fine, though working the land is not. At a meal, the Merina give chicken legs to the children, but the Antankarana tribe reserve these for the father – and they also believe a girl should never wash her brother’s clothes.

Erotic funery art by the Sakalava tribe

Erotic funery art by the Sakalava tribe

Then there’s the Antandory tribe where children may not call their father by name nor refer to any part of his body by name. So they will talk of ‘the top of him’ and not his head. Still others believe you shouldn’t ask for salt directly, but rather request ‘that which flavours the food’. And spades used to dig graves should have loose handles, so as not to have a direct connection with the dead.

Pregnant women in the Antanosy tribe may not sit in doorways, talk to men or eat brains. And childless people may not overnight with a pregnant woman either. This tribe won’t eat meat at funerals and they have the curious practice of only allowing naked men to open tombs. When corner posts for a new house are being dug, it must be done sitting down.

A more complex system around destiny also operates, called vintana, and it governs time – when it’s a good or bad time to do certain things. Because Sunday is God’s day, any work done will succeed; Monday is not a good day for working, unless you’re building a house of course; Tuesday is an easy day – too easy for burials but good for exhumation; Wednesday is appropriate for funerals and Thursdays for weddings; Friday is for enjoyment but also the very best day for funerals, and Saturday, well, it’s a noble day so it’s appropriate for weddings.

There’s more: each day of the week is also governed by a colour. Monday and Thursday are black. So people avoid black objects and don’t eat dark coloured food. Tuesday is multi-coloured; Wednesday is brown; Friday is red and Saturday blue. Again, there’s more: tody and tsiny which are similar to the principle of karma – for every action there is a reaction or retribution. This system shapes Malagasy morality and is laid down by the ancestors. Any breach spells trouble.

No surprise then that Malagasy tombs are always better built than homes, because it’s the dead who are large and in charge. The Sakalava tribe don’t build tombs, but bury in graves that are uniquely decorated with erotic wooden sculptures. They believe that when the wood disintegrates the soul is finally freed – to again rule the living.

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