Cow Horns, Tree Bark and Beads: Traditional Healers in Southern Madagascar
With my head lowered and back bent, I entered the doorway of the small hut made of sticks. I took two steps toward the far corner of the room. It wasn’t until I sat down did I realize that I had already committed a big cultural faux pas, just in seconds of being inside.
In the center of the traditional healer or ambiasa’s home were a collection of wooden spoons, an assortment of tree bark and a bowl of water arranged on a straw mat. In Antandroy culture, it is taboo to step over these healing tools. Upon realizing my mistake, I profusely apologized for my careless oversight.
My apologies were met with a gentle smile from an elderly man sitting in the corner of the straw mat. His face was soft, his cheeks dusted with freckles. He assured me, “Tsy magninogne” No problem.
He began to show me his tools he used to heal his patients. Ranging from month-old babies to grown adults, people visit him from across the countryside seeking his healing powers. A mother with her six-month-old child in her arms entered the small hut. She complained that her son’s stomach and head hurt and she faithfully passed the oracle a 100 ariary note.
With a piece of tree bark in one hand and a spoonful of water in the other, he began making his remedy for the young child. He poured two spoonfuls of water into a rock that had an indent, serving as a small bowl for the liquid. He rubbed the piece of bark, vigorously against the rock, for a few minutes until a pale yellow substance was formed. Dipping his fingers into transparent liquid, he lifted the shirt of the baby, revealing his stomach. He drew lines down the baby’s stomach while his mother held him. He did a similar design on the baby’s forehead.
While the oracle offers an option for many Malagasy people living in the outer villages of Ambondro that seek medical attention, there are many people who do not accept his healing powers. A majority of the people that live in the center of the rural town attend church regularly, either at the Lutheran, Protestant or Catholic churches. Those that pray do not visit the oracle in the countryside and opt to visit a doctor, if funds permit them.
Though, sometimes the oracle serves as a last resort. That was the case when the son of the elderly oracle became deathly ill and multiple visits to the local doctors proved unsuccessful. It was his father who he gives credit to for saving his life. After his recovery, he began to follow his father’s footsteps and now practices traditional healing when not farming corn and sweet potatoes in the fields.
The son invited us inside his home, very similar to his father’s, though this time it was full of visitors. Next to the doorway was a man who played a handmade guitar, along with another man who made a beat with two shakers.
From a small cabinet, he pulled out two intricately decorated cow horns. Inside each were beads, roampolo and dimampolo (twenty and fifty ariary) coins. Bracelets dangled from the top. As he heals his patients, he holds the cow horns in his hands, he said.
A collection of tree bark, similar to his father’s, were arranged in front a wooden cabinet, which held other tools, including a book, a mirror and different rocks. He grabbed a red cloth, embroidered with colorful designs, and wrapped it around his waist. Then, he put on a pink, green and white shirt with a matching hat that had long pieces flowing down his back and over his face. Finally, he put on sunglasses.
After he was wearing his proper attire, he lit a small fire, took out his book and placed a mirror on top. As the music began from begin him, he began talking quietly. His body shook and his voice grew as he thanked the spirits he said he was communicating with. While he did not ask for any healing, he thanked the spirit for our company. Half a dozen of his neighbors and I sat together on the ground of his home, curiously watching.
After thirty minutes, the music stopped and the fire was put out. He took off the shirt, hat and sunglasses and greeted us, as if he had left the room and just returned. We welcomed him back, thanked him for letting us observe his work and headed toward home on the winding, sandy road.