Torches emblazon the narrow dirt road on the outskirts of a market town in the middle of nowhere in Madagascar. The small, sputtering bus slows to a halt as a pack of slow moving zebu cattle stroll at a maddening pace across the way, their bony rear ends prodded by equally skeletal cattle herders humming an enigmatic tune. “We stop here,” the driver shouts unconcerned by the delay.
I gaze out the window transfixed by the lively scene before my eyes. Despite the dusky evening hour, the market is buzzing with activity. I have never seen such a chaotic and colorful display of sights, heard the cacophonous melody of foreign sounds, or smelled the pungent olfactory alchemy that arises when animals and humans coexist in small spaces. Street vendors line the unkempt sidewalks hawking tiny aluminum airplanes and kaleidoscopic arrays of tropical fruits. Vibrant red and blue tiled stalls abound with cuts of meat so intact that it is entirely possible for the laymen to name not only the body part, but also the animal from whence it came. My attention shifts to the children darting inconspicuously among the market stalls; a flash of a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, a pair of too large Levi’s strung on bony hips with a piece of twine. No doubt handouts from the missionary-proffered clothing that circulates through third world countries like a trail of fabric breadcrumbs.
Madagascar is the juxtaposition of an ancient nation grasping for a new identity while remaining deeply entrenched in its venerable culture. This, the fourth largest island in the world since its earthquake-induced detachment from the African mainland eons ago, is a land of timeworn religious traditions, curiously exotic creatures, and fairytale-inspired scenery that has enchanting mankind for generations.
While I wait for the cattle to make their way across the road, I decide to meander around the outskirts of the village; I gaze at the horizon toward the Merina Highlands, a nascent region nearly two hours south of the capital city Antananarivo. Blinding white structures dot the brick red dirt of the countryside: an unbroken constellation of tombs. The Malagasy people bury the dead in the family’s tomb; a resting place unmoved for centuries even as the country sprouts up around it. As I walk, a quiet melody breaks the silence, chimerical musicians seemingly playing an entire orchestra of brass instruments unlike any known to Western ears. It grows louder the farther down the path I walk until I see a festive gathering taking place next to a freshly whitewashed tomb. Dancing, clapping, singing, the celebrants are on fire—filled with a seething energy.
As I watch the scene unfurl, a lanky 20-something man strolls over. “Call me Ben,” he says, in perfect French, a verbal remnant from colonial times that is spoken as a second language by the more educated islanders.
As Ben explains that the intent of the ceremony is to pay homage to one’s ancestors, the tune becomes more haunting—whether in actuality or because I now understand what is taking place before me, I cannot be sure. This is the anniversary of his grandmother’s death, and this famadihana or “turning over of the dead” ceremony – in which she is moved from a temporary tomb to a more permanent resting place – must take place in order to bring good fortune upon the relatives that are still living. The people clap and begin to chant as the tomb is opened. I hold my breath, eager to watch, yet hesitant, as though I am observing an intensely private act.
A rolled-up straw mat emerges from the crypt carrying the skeletal remains of a decomposed body. The crowd suddenly raises the mat over their heads, dancing and twirling while holding their precious bundle somewhat precariously in the gyrating fracas. Ben explains that the remains will be taken to the home of a nearby relative for a macabre after party where dust from the bones is sprinkled into the ceremonial rice to be consumed by the living. Then the body will be taken to another more permanent tomb where it will be interred. “By consuming a part of your ancestors, they will always be with you,” Ben says in a matter of fact way that though at first categorically unsettling, seems to be a logical way of affirming the afterlife.
Ben says “Au revoir,” as he follows the rest of the party down the path, the straw mat containing the grandmother bouncing steadily out of sight. It is then that I realize I have been holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the mundane act of breathing when I have just witnessed a famadihana.
As I hike back to town through the meandering fields of grazing zebu and wild chickens, I can’t help but wonder what people will say back home when they hear of the event I have just witnessed. It is likely that they will be appalled at the idea of exhuming the dead, let alone consuming them. But as I think of Ben and his earnest desire to be closer to his grandmother, I can’t help but feel envious that the Malagasy are the ones who have reconciled death in ways many of us westerners may never be able to.
Photos courtesy of redtailhawk.us, neatorama.com and gailotravel.blogspot.com