September 17, 2005

Belief in Spirit World Governs Life in Madagascar

MAHAJANGA, Madagascar -- Like other mediums at the annual "Fanompoana" festival in northwest Madagascar, Zo Andrianikenindraza is believed by the Sakalava tribe to be capable of hosting an ancestral spirit.

Gripped by faith in the influence of the departed, he believes he has been taken over by the spirit of an ancient Malagasy monarch.

"I want to speak with my people," Zo says, using words understood by villagers to be the king's. "I have come back to bless the Sakalava tribe and wish them prosperity."

Taking a swig of cheap rum, he says he is not pleased with the progress the people have made since the king's reign.

"It makes me sad to come back and see that my people are suffering from the lack of money and material goods," he shouts, followed by a crowd of children. "I want things to go better for them."

Respect for dead ancestors and belief that they influence the living are paramount for the people of Madagascar, a vast, poor Indian Ocean island off the coast of east Africa.

Once a year, at the approach of a full moon in winter, the Sakalava people pay respect to their past monarchs in a ritual of rum-drinking, chanting, dancing and spirit possession.

The festival lasts a week and takes place at the entrance of several royal tombs in different parts of the north and west, where the relics of ancient Sakalava kings rest.


This celebration, on the outskirts of Mahajanga on the northwest coast, is for four kings whose dynastic rule in the 18th century came to be known as the Boina kingdom.

As the ceremony begins, two cows are killed in sacrifice outside the royal tomb holding the kings' remains.

Outside the burial grounds, crowds of mostly women wearing brightly-coloured dresses with kaleidoscopic patterns sit together, taking turns to enter the gates of the sacred tomb and pay their respects.

Musicians beat drums, strum guitars and play accordions as men and women begin dancing. As the drums beat louder, the crowd begins to chant.

They are led by men and women wearing white face paint, red hats, and black tartan shawls. These are the royally-appointed spiritual mediums.

"Often the spirits possess us when they answer the call," says Zamanirady, a medium, pointing to a colleague behaving in an odd, jerky fashion and talking in a strange voice.

As the crowd grows increasingly excited, the mediums shout and shake their wooden staffs at them, as if casting a spell.

The drums throb louder, the mediums shake their staffs and give out swigs of rum, and the crowd goes into a manic state, electrified by the heady mix of local brew, music and shouting.


Madagascar is home to a unique mix of cultures that has long fascinated anthropologists.

Successive waves of immigrants since antiquity, starting with sea-faring peoples from present-day Indonesia to more recent arrivals from east Africa, Arabia and the Comoros have each left their mark.

Historians say the Sakalava people were the first on the island to develop political groupings wider than just a village, often under kings with semi-divine authority.

They have traditions that are closer to mainland Africa than any other Malagasy tribe.

Some believe the Sakalava people's rulers arrived in the Middle Ages from the then-powerful kingdom of Zimbabwe, using its famed gold to establish their dynasties.

The cult of royal funeral rites and spirit possession are similar to rituals in many parts of the African continent.

"It's just like church," said Zawany Randriakoto, 33, a modern day Sakalava prince. "The Catholics have Christmas; the Sakalava have the Fanompoana."