From Oliver Houston
Last week the entire group of staff and volunteers from Blue Ventures were invited to attend a fomba in the nearby village of Ambalarao. A fomba is where people who contain the spirits of ancestors release those spirits, and it must be carried out every year to keep the ancestors at rest (or something similar). Volunteers were asked who would like to attend and after breakfast on Friday seven of us plus a Malagasy staff member climbed into zebu carts for a 45 minute journey to Ambalarao.
Now the zebu cart is an experience in itself. A wooden box atop a 4×4 axle, with a shelf at the front for the driver and one at the back for a “mechanic”, a boy with a water bottle of machine oil. You can fit 4 people into the box cosily and it’s nicer to ride the handrail (more legroom). The 2 zebu are basically cows with big horns and a little hump at the base of the neck, and they are tied onto a crossbar at the front to pull the cart. Needless to say the road is really just a sand-track with rocky patches, so it’s a bumpy journey and after 45 minutes we all jumped out, desperate to stretch our legs.
Arriving in Ambalarao at about 9:30 we were greeted by the fomba already in full swing. Women from Andavadoaka had set out at 6am to be there to start the ‘exorcism’, including a member of BV staff and staff from Coco Beach hotel, so we’d already missed that part of it. After respectfully removing our sandals we danced our way into the village and took centre stage for about 10 minutes, much to the amusement of the congregation who had come from far and wide for the fomba. We then sat down to watch what the usually sensible and hard-working Vezo people did when they were half-cut by 10 o’clock in the morning, and we were not disappointed. There was music, dancing and drinking rituals. One concoction was put together by mixing the drinks of the women who had been exorcised: Fanta, rum, tea and togagash (a locally distilled spirit that is found everywhere in the region). One of the themes of the ritual seemed to be the exorcised women dancing while resting wooden ducks on the back of their necks; the ducks were then dropped in bowls of togagash, much to the joy of the huge audience sitting on the floor around (men on one side, women on the other).
After not too much beer and togagash, we were fed a substantial lunch of excellent goat stew, beans and rice, before taking a walk to the nearby baobabs. When we returned, the party was winding down and people who were looking a little worse for wear were starting to make their way home. We hopped back in our zebu carts and took the journey back with the news that for two of the women the spirits hadn’t come, so they were going to do it all again the next day. We arrived in Andavadoaka just in time to grab a drink at the “supermarket” and meet up with the rest of the volunteers who had just finished for the day.
It was probably my most interesting day in Madagascar yet and I’m sure that for the rest of my life I will be proud to say I’ve been to a fomba.
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