Madagascar Fall of 2008. Everybody likes a good party, so the saying goes, and some people can always think of a reason to party. In Madagascar's central highlands they take this idea a big step further. There, it is customary to make a party with the guest being a deceased ancestor that is exhumed from the crypt for the special event. Called a Famadihana, this very unique custom has managed to survive meddling missionaries' attempts to stamp it out and looks to stay on for a while longer. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of much of that which makes Madagascar such an amazingly biodiversity wonderland.
Not worrying, for the moment, about the rapidly disappearing wonders of Madagascar's nature, I was getting ready to dig into the morning feast at a Famadihana celebration for two deceased men. The two "guests of honor" for the party were brothers that had both died over the prior five years. I was in a small village outside of the important Madagascar Central Highlands town of Antsirabe. It was around 9 a.m. and the big event was just commencing. Being the only foreigner in attendance, I felt like the other guest of honor at the party.
I arrived in Madagascar the week before this Famadihana celebration. I had been traveling in Uganda, Zambia and parts of South Africa for the past few months. After what had been a fascinating journey, but also a slog at times, I was ready for some fine Malagasy French cuisine in Antananarivo, Madagascar's almost unpronounceable capital, which is called Tana for short. I was also looking forward to seeing lots of the cute and lovable, but highly endangered, lemurs that Madagascar is famous for.
It was an interesting and tough time in Madagascar. One of the poorest countries in the world, the country had been rocked by a huge cyclone earlier in the year that left hundreds of thousands homeless. Politically the country was also quite unsettled. There was widespread frustration at the government that had promised much, but--big surprise--seemed to be more interested in using repression and keeping power than aiding the people.
Tana the capital, however, could be quite pleasant. The heart of the city retained much of its old French colonial buildings and architecture. Adding to the general agreeable ambience of Tana were its friendly people and high quality food and drink, which included some delightfully flavored rums. While there, I confess to taking advantage of the great French cuisine on offer at several cafes and small restaurants, all at a fraction of the price one would pay in Paris.
Of course, as in any place of such poverty, the city could be hazardous to presumably more affluent foreigners. Being out every night to do my culinary feasting, I was due for the requisite stop by corrupt police.
I wasn't disappointed. . .
My taxi was stopped at a police roadblock one night around 10 pm after leaving a popular ex-pat hangout. Demanding my passport, which I did not have with me as it was in my hotel safe, the police officer indicated that a fine was then to be paid, on the spot. However, in my zeal to be as cooperative as possible with this prime example of Madagascar's Finest, I quite eagerly motioned to the officer to join me in the taxi and come to my hotel to inspect my passport. "Si'l vous plait, mon hotel" I remonstrated with a big smile (roughly, "Please, my hotel"). After going back and forth with the officer in our silly pantomime routine, since he did not know any English and my French was limited to basically what I just said, the officer for some inexplicable reason declined my polite request and waved me on.
I left Tana after a few days and arrived in Antsirabe. It was a bumpy all day ride. My first activity once in Antsirabe was to go down to the local market area near the town center to see what I might turn up. I was especially hoping to hear of a possible Famadihana that may have been happening soon. I have found in much of sub-Saharan Africa that it is impossible to stay alone if you are "white", as you stand out as a foreigner. People want to talk to you, help you, sell you stuff, take you places, etc. In markets this is especially so and sometimes a visit to one actually turns up something interesting. And, in this case, it did.
Sure enough, in a short period of time at the market, I was found by a local fixer and guide who told me of a Famadihana the very next morning. My new helper was a tall, skinny and straggly looking man with an ebony complexion, slight beard and appeared to be in his late 20s. His fee of $10 to bring me to the celebration was very reasonable, and he assured me that the family would more than welcome me to the event. This was especially so since I was coming for the whole event, and not just the small part where the body(s) are exhumed. It wouldn't hurt if I donated $10 or $15 to the family to help cover costs, he added, something which I was quite happy to do.
Antsirabe is a small city by world standards, but the 3rd biggest in Madagascar. It is considered an industrial center, producing food, beverages and textiles, and is also an important agricultural center. Sitting at an elevation of around 1500 meters (4900 ft.), Antsirabe has a mildly cool climate, and is a rather nice place with some charming old colonial and early twentieth century structures. For me a notable aspect of the city was the proliferation of human foot powered coaches. I had read that this form of transport was disappearing a few years ago when Calcutta (India) banned this form of transport as being an affront to human dignity (and a source of competitive irritation to taxi drivers in normal cars). Called a "pouse-pouse", this old and crude form of transport for people is alive and well in Antsirabe, and other places in Madagascar as I would find on my journey.
I arrived at the Famadihana around 8 am the morning of the event. It was being held in a small agricultural village with a dirt main road, lined by neat little shops, about a 15 minute pouse-pouse ride from Antsirabe. As mentioned at the beginning of this story, the two "guests of honor" at the event were brothers. One had been the former headman of the village and had died five years earlier. The other deceased honoree was his brother who had died three years earlier. Both had lived long lives, each dying at a ripe old age of well past 90.
The celebration began with a big feast of freshly slaughtered and boiled pig served with white rice. The pork was awful to me, sort of like tasteless rubber as there was little seasoning. But I grinned and smiled at everyone in the tent in the backyard of the main house where we were all gathered. I didn't want to betray my dislike of the food as I was made to feel very welcome and at home by everyone.