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My Trip to Madagascar, Famadihana

Posted by Cecile Raley on

As I reported in my previous blog post, I got a very intimate sense of living in Madagascar when I was invited to an exhumation.  The locals call it 'Famadihana': Turning of the Bones.  This is the tradition of exhuming the bodies of the dead, which takes place every 3-7 years, depending on the family's wishes.  The body is removed from the mausoleum or dug out of the ground.  Bodies are wrapped in white cotton sheets for burial, and after the dead have spent an afternoon among the living, the sheets are renewed and they are buried again.  The spectacle takes place with a lot of music, dancing, speeches, food and beer.

They let the dead participate, in other words, in their world and their daily life for a day.  Many tears can be shed during that day and the dead are kept in close company, they are hugged and "introduced" to the children.

The exhumation we went to took place near the town of Betafo.  Paved roads are few and far between in the area as well as elsewhere in Madagascar, and the mausoleums we went to were located in the countryside near an old Catholic Church, that was erected by the French, of course.  We drove several miles on a nearly impassible dirt road with the jeep and the rest of the way we had to climb on a small path uphill.  Near the hill top, we were greeted by the extended family (about 100 people as far as I could make out), as well the town population that had helped to set up the festivities.  The kids had never seen white people (they call them "Vazahy") close up so they crowded around me curiously while I took photos, and then came even closer to see their images captured by the camera. 

Rice Terraces near Antsiraabe

Surrounded by Kids in Madagascar
The set up had begun the day before with 'tents' made of tarp, wooden benches and tables for food, the rice was cooking on charcoal piles in the back.  Beer, rum, and water had been carried up the hill.  Since there is largely no electricity, life takes place during daylight only.  The day starts at 5 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.  People go to sleep at around 8. Running water is also rare, so the washing is done in nearby lakes and rivers, it is dried in the grass, and the washer women carry it back to town on top of their heads.  This means that festivities like a Famadihana start early and end early.  No late night parties, in other words.  And they are a lot of work to prep. A generator had been lugged up the hill for this one, so that music other than live instrumental music could be played on a stereo.

Rice Cooking for the Festival



Our lunch shift was at around 11:30.  Since we were considered part of the closer family - a great honor - we were seated with them to eat.  Feeding 200 people on a hilltop requires a bit of organization, so it was done in sets of 50-100.  The aluminum dishes had to be washed between shifts and the giant aluminum cups with rice water were shared among several people.  Everyone got seated on the wooden bench, rice and pork stew were ladled out from a plastic bucket.  The stew was extremely tasty but also extraordinarily fatty. Irene's family, who is fairly well off (in part because of the business Jochen brings), can eat meat once a week.  Others may not see it for months.  Maybe never.  So fat, when available, is much appreciated.  Except by us rich people, who get too much of it and try to eat less!

Lunch - Rice Water for Sharing in the Big Pot



For me, eating that much fat is consequently less of a good idea.  It's not like I'm lacking in calories.  Plus all the extra money I spend eating out then costs me extra personal trainer sessions to lose (what a waste, when you really think about it that way).  Anyway, Jochen gulped all his down because he really loves it, but that turned out to be a mistake.  It all came back out the wrong way that same evening.  I guess not everyone can eat gobs of fat without some form of either remorse or punishment, or both. 

After lunch, the official ceremony began. Along with the enthusiastic "music" played on old and half broken trumpets, clarinets and drums, we trekked a half mile across the mountain over to the mausoleum.  The clan all wore the color orange as it had been decided that it was the representative color for the event and the men wore hats in addition (so they could be removed for the anthem, as far as I could follow).   Incidentally, hiring musicians is expensive for the Malgasy, and since July and August are the months of the exhumations, they have to be booked ahead of time (at least one year).  The late "summer" months are the winter months in Madagascar, with dry and sunny days, 80 degrees during the day and around 40 at night.  It is very comfortable and dry weather. 

The Straw Mats are Used for Carrying the Dead




These are the Mauseloums where the Dead rest
The mausoleums are made of brick, painted white, with a cross on top.  The majority of the population here is Catholic, but as everywhere, local traditions like the exhumations, are mixed in.  Not everyone can afford those, however, so most dead are buried underground - which does not stop the tradition of exhumation, incidentally.  Families pool their money to build a mausoleum, in this case, about a dozen people were housed in the same grave.  The doors are locked of course, and only the clan leader has the keys.  Opening the doors requires official permission from the local government.  There are no graveyards per se, you can find the mausoleums together in groups of five or six, on the outskirts of town, close by for people to see and to visit.




The Bodies are being Carried Outside
Before the mausoleum is opened, there is a lot of dancing, and during the unlocking of the gates, official family leaders climb on top of the mausoleum and make speeches about the dead person. The tomb can only be opened with official permission of the park authorities (more correctly, the public officials in charge of the land).  The key is kept by one of the elders.  In this case, that was an older uncle.  

After the tomb is opened, the family members, and anyone else who wants to, can go inside to visit.  Then the anthem is played and the dead are carried outside, rolled up in straw mats that are carried up the hill for the occasion.  Immediate family members are put together into the same burial cloth.  One of the cloths, I was told, contained four or more people.  There were a total of four cloths being carried into the sun.  There was a bit of a mishap with one of them (Irène's father, who passed away 17 years before) - the roof of the tomb had been leaky and the burial cloth had gotten moldy.  This caused a few tears among the immediate family, but it was decided just to leave the bodies in the sun a bit longer to dry it up. 






Children and Relatives are Spending Time with their Ancestors
After a couple of hours, more music, more dancing, and a lot more beer, a fresh layer of cloth was wrapped around the bodies and closed up with a single rope which, for reasons that escaped me, is not allowed to be cut.  Everything is done with great care.  The family gathers very closely around the bodies, laying next to them and holding them at times.  The children are shown their relatives and are allowed to touch the silk.  Everything is very respectful and loving, and very natural at the same time. There is no awkwardness around the dead as there usually is in the West.  I was allowed to take photos but Gael, who had hijacked my camera with great pride and had taken dozens of photos of the event (later posted on his facebook page), gave it back to me when I wanted photos of the bodies.  Too emotional for him, he said.

Gael, Our Driver
As the day grew to a close, the bodies were brought back inside - again with lots of music and dancing - and the festivities ended.  I don't think a lot of white people are ever invited to these events.  That's what I was told anyway.  Not many Vazahy there or anywhere else for that matter.

Back at the hotel, I calmed my own nerves with some South African white wine and Zebu steak with fresh vegetables, salad and foie gras sauce to the background sound of Western music. Creme caramel for dessert.  A bizarre contrast to the day! 


A Difficult Ride Home




Work started early again the next morning.  The broker women began lining up at 7 a.m. - after all, we were only gem buying for 5 days and one of them was taken up with the festival.  I woke up to the excited chatter in the yard and Jochen brought me a cup of coffee made in his room with filtered coffee.  Ready for another day of buying....

More about my final purchases, photos and prices in my next blog entry.

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