With every crunch of a branch under the sole of my flip-flop, Mbola's head jolted back at me with cautious eyes directed toward my feet. After the fifth warning to be wary of the thorns, I let out a sigh and assured him that I was fine and that he shouldn't worry. Mbola deftly led the way, while I dragged my feet in the thick sand, trying to keep up. Toera patiently trailed behind me.
From across the sweet potato fields, we heard chanting and whistles. The funeral celebrations had begun. Mbola turned to Toera, seeking a possible shortcut. We stood in the middle of a field fenced in by cactus. With little hesitation, Toera reached his hand under his shirt, revealing his small frame. He pulled out a silver knife, the size of his head, from the elastic band of his shorts and bent over the cactus. While I hysterically laughed at the predicament we were in, and then the unexpected solution, Toera joked and told me not to tell the farmer. With a few hacks of the knife, we had a new path.
The casket was covered in a vibrant quilt and rested in a wooden oxcart. Inside, laid the body of an unmarried, childless 29-year-old Antandroy woman. Behind the casket, dozens of men squatted on the ground with the support of spears that stood perpendicular to the sky. I lowered myself to their level and handed them basimena, a monetary gift customary at Antandroy funerals.
A woman arranged a straw mat on the ground for us to sit and watch the traditional dances. Women and girls kneeled closely together, clapping their hands to different beats. Some grunted as they pushed their chests forward. They kept a steady rhythm as each dance crew, typically grouped by family, rushed toward the center. Quickly forming a semicircle, the men curved their backs and raised their knees to their shoulders, while their sticks and spears remained high. The women slowly stomped their feet with precise rhythm while waving their hands in the air, their elbows protruding. Their feet disappeared in the cloud of dust below them. The dancing continued until a sudden blast of a gun, and instinctively, the men threw their sticks and spears and then tumbled to the ground. Seconds later, they all cheer and run back to the sidelines for a swig of moonshine.
Families alternated performing and I squatted and clapped next to the women, until I was invited to join. I danced until we got the signal that the cows were coming — a custom called troboke, when every cow owned by the funeral attendees is showcased and passes through the event. Hundreds of cows passed through the path, some trampling others. A twelve-year-old boy shoots a gun (a blank) to startle the cows. As the little shepherds — typically ranging from five to thirteen years old — brought their herd through, they performed a traditional dance in front of the rows of women and then continued on their way. In the background, there was a man who stood up to give a speech. He announced his name and then rattled off how many cows, children, wives and land he had. "Tsy mahita ty kere raho!" he yelled. "I don't see the famine." Others that yearned for similar attention from the crowd stood up to make their voices and possessions heard. Needless to say, the Antandroy are very proud people.
As the last cow passed through, the women circled the casket. They pulled the cloth worn around their bodies up to their eyes and crouched on the ground. They began to harmoniously wail in unison, weeping for their daughter, sister, aunt, friend gone too soon. As they mourned, two cows pulled the casket away toward the tomb. The cows were later killed at the tomb and it is taboo for the family to eat it's meat.
Mbola, Toera and I began our walk home, passing many of the funeral attendees and recent dance partners as they walked in the opposite direction toward their home, further into the countryside. They carried sticks over their shoulder, slabs of meat dangling from them. In return for attending the funeral, each person is typically given a piece of beef or goat meat to take home. We joked with the people we passed, "Where's my meat? The biggest piece is mine!" Mbola and Toera told me that this is the classic joke said to people "on the road" coming from a funeral. We begged for some meat from a middle-aged man and he responded, "Well, where's your knife?" with the assumption that wewould not have a knife. He thought we would continue in our way. To his surprise, Toera pulled out his knife as he became giddy with excitement. The man's eyes grew wide and he chuckled. Though amused, he did not give us a piece of his meat but instead, pointed us in the direction where we could get some. We grabbed the freshest price of meat — they were cutting the cow as we arrived — and head home.