A Celebration of Life: A Look Inside Madagascar’s Atandroy Funeral Customs
“Deda,” Mbola said as he waved the giant sand-covered snail in the air for me to see.
“Deda," I repeated. After a rainstorm the night before, the snails left their hiding spots in the dewy grass for the damp, sandy road leading to the small village of Tsimankiaraky. After a 70-year-old woman died, we were headed five kilometers outside of Ambondro to attend her havoriane, or funeral.
We arrived to a cluster of homes made of sturdy sticks and straw. As I walked through, I was invited inside each one of them.
“Mandroso!” the friendly strangers greeted me, offering a serving of their cassava or rice.
“Mazotoa!” I politely declined and instead took them up on their offer to sit on their straw mat for a few minutes of conversation. They stared at me, examining every inch of my body with concentrated curiosity. I smiled and took pictures. They were happy to pose and eager to see what they looked like on the camera screen.
I borrowed traditional lambas or cloths to wear, one around my body like a dress and the other to tie around my waist. Once I looked the part, we continued on our way to the family of the deceased.
Raising their spears high into the sky, the men skipped through the sand. They sent triumphant screams into the air. I walked behind them with the group of children. Girls, as young as 5-years-old, carried babies on their backs, shifting their weight every few steps. The others walked next to me, diligently alerting me of every fateke or cactus thorn they saw, making sure I wouldn’t get hurt. I felt the sun getting stronger, but I was eager to witness my first Atandroy funeral.
For the Atandroy people – those living in the Androy region of Madagascar – funerals are typically not somber occasions. When an elderly person dies, their long-lived years are celebrated. As we got closer to the celebration, I could hear the beating of a drum, clapping and rhythmic chanting. I was immediately engulfed by the women, each with braided hair and clothed in colorful lambas. They signaled me to clap and move my body to the beat. It was a warm welcome.
Under one of the few trees in sight, the men squatted low to the ground with their spears held upright. The son of the woman who had died sat in the center. It is tradition to give “basimena” or an amount of money to the family who had lost a member. The men held sticks with ariary or Malagasy money attached and presented the offering to the woman’s son. I watched until it was my turn and handed the man my basimena. My gift was met by a roaring cheer and a handful of men began to jump on one foot as if gravity seemingly did not exist.
We walked to a dirt field, bordered with towering cacti, and squatted next to each other, in big clusters. The Malagasy are exceptional squatters and can stay in the position for hours. They placed a tihy or straw mat in the dirt for me to sit on, knowing that I had not mastered the skill quite yet. The extended family of the deceased woman brought out bowl after bowl, each overflowing with rice and beans, for each guest to eat. They passed out spoons and we all dug in.
I found my way back to the tree’s shade, accompanying Mbola and the rest of the men and their spears. The woman sat under the other tree in close distance, singing and beating an empty water container, used as a drum. In turns, men would leave their squatting position from the one tree to dance under the other tree with the women. Men would shoot a Davy-Crockett era shot gun into the air (filled with blanks) to signal the end of each performance.
Guests continued to make their way to the funeral. While some gave money, others gave cows. As they herded the animals to the center of the celebration, men shot their guns into the air repeatedly, making the cows run frantically. As I curiously watched the events unfold, an elderly woman suddenly handed me a gun. Confused and nervous (I had never held a gun before), I took her lead and made my way over to the other women. They told me to dance while holding the gun high in the air. I mirrored their movements to the best of my ability – the gun was heavy! –all while a smile plastered was on my face. They told me it was an honor to have me.
Despite my friend’s efforts to keep me in the shade, I could feel my skin slowly roasting under the strong rays of the southern sun. But before making our way home, the same elderly woman who gave me the gun, came over to my side with a small goat. I looked at her confused, for a second time. Mbola told me to say thank you, explaining to me that she was giving me the goat, in return for my basimena.
“Misaotse betsaka,” I said thankfully, though thoughts had already begun scrambling though my head. I didn’t have a clue what to do with a goat. In an effort to reassure me, Mbola said that someone would escort the goat to my house later in the day. He suggested that we head home before the others, as my skin progressively turned a darker shade of pink.
As I stood up to leave, I giggled to myself, still thinking about my new goat. As I waved goodbye, hundreds of eyes watched the no-longer-white-but-red-skinned girl start the sandy path home. And while my sun-burnt skin couldn’t be a bigger giveaway of how different I was to these people, they did nothing but to remind me how much I belonged.
Especially, in thinking that I knew what to do with a goat.