By Samuel Blyth, Independent Researcher, Madagascar
The second village that I worked in was quite a change from the Vezo communities that most volunteers and visitors to the coast spend their time in. Going to Marofihitsy to survey was potentially difficult as past experience with the Masikoro people had shown that many of them are still scared by vazaha (Malagasy word for foreigner). Fortunately, as this village is on the road to the Kirindy-Mite National Park and BV has done some work with them in the past, the people there were not frightened to participate in my surveys and focus group.
The village itself is located half an hours walk away from the mangroves and is well separated from the ocean by the Belo-sur-Mer estuary. The people there are not fishers like the Vezo, but they still rely on the mangroves for their existence. In their own words, “without the mangrove we would all be dead”.
On our first night working in Marofihitsy we were able to witness a traditional Masikoro funeral, fortunately not related in any way to a lack of access to the mangrove. Although I wouldn’t recommend searching for dead people just to experience local customs and take part in the celebration of the life of someone whom you have never met, this was an event that was worth being part of and gave me a few ideas regarding livening up my own passing one day. There is no electricity in Marofihitsy, so you don’t have the throbbing music of the epi-bars of other towns or any lights besides that of cooking fires, the odd lamp and the stars. Under these peaceful conditions we could hear chanting, singing and cheering off in the dry forest to the south and in the company of the local Marine National Parks agent we followed these sounds to investigate.
A few hundred metres from the village we found the funeral celebration in full swing in a clearing under a large tamarind tree. Around the clearing there were scattered fires and here nearly all of the community gathered to take part in the event. At the base of the tree there was a zebu cart on which the body of the deceased was shrouded in a mosquito net to keep away the insects. Around the tree a group of dancers sang and stomped as they encircled the body. The song and dance was guided by two men who sang out instructions to the dancers. With no speakers or instruments, the only sounds were those of the singers, clapping hands, stomping feet and the background murmur of conversation occurring around the fires.
This went on for some time until one man stood up and started to shout at the crowd and in our general direction. Not having a great understanding of Malagasy I took this action as a negative and would not have been surprised if we were unwelcome. However, what he was saying had nothing to do with me and I was surprised to learn that he was announcing a ringa (wrestling) competition, about to occur. Now this is not something that has happened at any of the other funerals I have been present for in my lifetime, not even in Belo-sur-Mer just a few kilometres away. That said, it would add a great deal of excitement to otherwise sombre occasions and could be good opportunity to express life and vitality in the face of death and loss.
At first, boys and young men would dash out into the middle of the clearing, holding their arms in the air and prancing like they had just won Olympic medals. Some would smack their blankets against the ground (Masikoro men all carry blankets, usually plaid, with them wherever they go) or mock pressure the women to sing louder whenever the music dropped off. At one point a group of young men ran across the open space to join the women by the fire and showed them how to sing with more energy, much to the entertainment of everyone present.
After this display carried on for a number of minutes one of the men entering the middle of the clearing wrapped his blanket over his two pairs of brightly coloured shorts (another trademark of the Masikoro men) and removed his shirt, sumo wrestler style. This was the challenge to the other young men that he was ready to fight and within seconds someone of similar size and age was following his lead; wrapping his own blanket around himself, removing bracelets and stepping out from the crowd. The objective of the contest is to flip your opponent over onto his back, relatively similar to any other wrestling other that the fact that this was happening at a funeral in the forest and in the middle of the night. There was no time limit to the fights and many ended before either person was onto their backs as one would leap away and disappear back into the crowd if they didn’t think that they would win after a few moments of contest. Some matches between more determined contestants would go on for some minutes and get quite heated, occasionally forcing the crowd to move out of their way and at one point nearly causing the combatants to crash into the zebu cart holding the body.
During my time here I have learnt that my study and research into mangroves does not have to only consist of sinking up to your knees in mangrove mud; there are a great number of things to enjoy. To work here is to be part of a celebration, whether it is the daily enjoyment of watching the lakas (pirogue fishing boats) return in the sunset, honouring the life of a respected member of the community or taking part in the birth of a new ship that will take Belo with it by wind and wave up and down the coast.