The crowd is joyous. The guest of honor occupies the attention of all. The feast is laid on, sparing no expense. The local minister imparts his blessing. Everyone agrees that it is a wonderful celebration and that the family has done themselves proud. There is just one thing that seems out of place to our Western eyes, the guest of honor is dead and has been for some years. However, in Madagascar this is an important occasion, the exhumation of the dead and their reburial is a renewal of ties to the ancestors and a reaffirmation of the continuity of the past through the present and into the future.(1)
A salient characteristic that confronts the researcher investigating the Malagasy is their respect for custom and tradition. This contrasts with the typical African post-independence model in which the nationalistic forces tended to make a wholesale break with most pre-colonial traditional structures. The nationalists' contention being that their traditional institutions were, by dint of the European conquest, obviously outmoded and backward. While the Malagasy have, in the post-independence era, experimented with socialism extensively (almost to the point of embracing Marxism at one time),(2) they have retained a great deal of the structure that was put in place by the strong, although feudal and ethnically based, government prior to the French imposition of colonial status. Additionally, numerous cultural attitudes stemming from their origins as a Malayo-Polynesian people reinforce this bias for continuity in the structure of society.(3) This is not to say that change or innovation does not happen; just that it must be based on respect for tradition, be able to advance the society within these terms and its proponents must be able to convince the people that it is indeed in keeping with and in the spirit of the past.(4)
In order to more fully understand these attitudes it is necessary to briefly consider the origins and history of the Malagasy. Between 100 and 500 AD a south east Asian people came to Madagascar. Both their cultural forms and their physical appearance are distinct from African types, although there has been contact and intermarriage for many centuries. There is some disagreement as to whether they came directly from the Indonesian area in an epic sea voyage across the Indian Ocean or as the logical progression of a trading people around the rim of that ocean, through India, Arabia and down the east coast of Africa. Whichever way they came, they found an uninhabited island awaiting them. These people then proceeded to spread throughout the island. This intra-island migration tended to segment them by geographic area due to the great diversity of the island's geography.(5)
One tends to think of an island in terms of a small body of a more or less homogeneous nature. This view could not be further from the truth in the case of Madagascar. The island is the fourth largest on Earth, shaped like an elongated oval with pointed ends, it has an area that covers almost a quarter of a million square miles or just smaller than that of the state of Texas. On the east (which is the area of initial settlement) the coast is a long thin strip of land about thirty miles wide with only a few natural harbors. It is abruptly terminated by a steep escarpment that rises in two steps. The first step is approximately 300 meters high and the second varies from 300 to 600 meters in height. These steps lead to the central area of undifferentiated highlands. This region has three different mountain ranges, a number of extinct volcanoes and many valleys. The north is semi-tropical and mountainous. The south is semi-arid to arid and has been the scene of recurrent drought through history. The west, while gently sloping and less rugged has long been considered the frontier and is, as yet, more sparsely settled than the rest of the island.(6)
The effect of this geographic fragmentation was to isolate groups and over time develop separate ethnic identities for each. However, the islanders still maintain a unity of language which can be compared with that of subgroups of Bantu languages, such as the Xhosa and Zulu, which are mutually comprehensible to one another and represent more of a difference in dialect than a distinct language.(7) Moreover, many of the cultural forms remain wide spread, inherited from their common ancestors. Further, there seems to have been little change in customs and traditions in the social arena. By and large the separate ethnicities can be explained more as divergent clan assemblages and geographic phenomena resulting from isolation than as true cultural shifts. Even though there is a tendency for the groups to stereotype each other; i.e., the Imerina as fierce warriors, the Betsimeo as farmers, the Bara as backward and less civilized, etc., this does not seem to be any more than just that, stereotyping.(8) However, there are ethnic rivalries and conflicts which stem from these divisions which we shall address later.
Through the centuries after the island was discovered and as settlement was proceeding, there was some contact with the outside world through the Muslim traders of the African east coast and some African migration across the Mozambique Channel. But, this and the subsequent Portuguese contact in the 16th and 17th centuries seem to have had little long term effect on the Malagasy.(9) By the time the Europeans became really interested in Madagascar the island was almost completely unified under the influence of the Merina kingdom of the central plateau (I shall use plateau as a simplified term for a rather complex geographic area and to ease differentiation between this region and the coastal areas).
In the 18th century there arose in the central plateau a strong and populous ethnic grouping, the Merina. In 1797 King Andrianapoinimerina, after years of effort, united the Merina into one kingdom. He has been called the first Malagasy nationalist by 20th century Merina intellectuals. His son and successor, Radama I, signed a treaty of friendship with Britain in 1810 as a counterweight to French interest and, through conquest, united most of the rest of the island under Merina rule by 1820. Radama's wife, Queen Ranavolona and other conservatives became increasingly distressed by his close ties to the Europeans and in 1828 Radama died under mysterious circumstances. It is believed that his wife either had Radama strangled or actually did so herself. She then succeeded him and threw out all Europeans, outlawed Christianity, brutally suppressed dissent (becoming known as Ranavolona "the Terrible") and, in 1845, handed a military defeat to a combined Franco-British expeditionary force. Her son and heir, Radama II, reopened the island to the Europeans in 1861. But, he was toppled in a coup in 1863 and his successor, General Rainilaiarivony ruled through the next three Merina Queens. The general modernized the government on the basis of European models, although he retained the quality of absolute monarchy, and successfully ran the kingdom until the French invaded once again in 1895.(10)
In 1890 the British and French had come to an agreement on Egypt which contained a provision ceding a protectorate over Madagascar to France. This laid the groundwork for invasion and France was finally able to exert its hegemony, by force, later in the decade. In 1896 Madagascar was declared a French colony. However, it took the French until 1905 to finally stamp out the last resistance to their rule. One item of business was finished by the French that had eluded all the Merina rulers. The empire had never been able to incorporate the entire island into its realm. The French used the groups, in particular the Sakalava, that had not come under the Merina rule to help them in their efforts to defeat the Merina. Thus, when they were ultimately successful, these independent areas were brought into the fold of the colonial government and the entire island was united under the aegis of the France.(11)
The kingdom that the Merina had instituted had some features that have survived the modernization of Rainilaiarivony, the French colonial administration, and the post independence governments. This harkens back to the tradition minded nature of the islanders and is also a paean to the flexibility that Radama I built into his administration. The key to it all is something that the British also used to great effect. As the Merina kingdom conquered their neighbors they did not disassemble the existing governmental structure, but, allowed the rulers of the conquered people to continue ruling as their surrogates. This is a classic case of indirect rule. After the passage of time they made changes in and substitutions to these governments.(12) But, continuity was maintained.
Radama I strengthened several social and political components that his father had instituted within Merina society. Then, with his conquests he extended them throughout the Merina Empire. Some of these institutions have had a considerable affect on the Malagasy society through the years. Among these were the system of provincial administrative areas, a caste system, and a highly centralized bureaucracy. In particular, the development of town councils known as fokonolona, assisted in the administration of the conquered areas. These councils predate the empire that the Merina constructed and their precise origins have been lost in time. However, they seem to have developed throughout the island. They consisted of a number of elders and prominent men of the community. Usually line of descent or clan affiliation had a great impact on influence in the community and this is true even today. These men were ones who had held power in the area to some degree at the time of the Merina conquest and were called upon by the king to remain on these village councils to advise him on matters concerning the locality and, thus, in essence, were co-opted by the king into supporting the imperial government. Radama and his father had recognized the importance of these councils and sought to enhance their prestige while effectively curtailing their power. During the modernization of the government by General Rainilaiarivony the fokonolona were retained and the provincial and central government apparatus was streamlined. When the French arrived on the scene they found a modern imperial structure already in place and simply stepped into the existing governing structure by replacing Merina bureaucrats with French. Furthermore, although today's government is popularly elected and there is a representative assembly, the political divisions on the provincial level still conform to the ethnic divisions which had given rise to the plethora of small kingdoms in the days before Radama's conquest. It was through these divisions that the Merina rulers administered the empire and of which the Merina and the French took full advantage. Additionally, the fokonolona have not only persisted but have enjoyed a renaissance of influence after independence, as the political parties of the emerging nation, particularly the Social Democratic Party (PSD) used them to develop mass support for their programs and candidates. They are also instrumental in the administration of government in the villages today.(13) Thus, it is easy to see the continuity of political structure through at least the last three hundred years. Not coincidentally, the capital, most populous and most influential city today is, as it has been for over three centuries: Antananarivo, the imperial Merina capital.
Another innovation of the Merina was social stratification based on birth; a caste system. This divided society into three categories. The nobility (Andriana) comprised the upper class. From this class came the rulers and their family and clan, the clans that had substantial land holdings and, in general the 'movers and shakers' of the time. The great mass of the people were Hova or free men. And below everyone were the Andero or slaves. With the institution of empire this classification system was extended to the conquered people, so that there was general equality across ethnic lines within a caste. However, after a time it developed that the Merina of a given strata were considered to be of a higher status than the conquered peoples of that same level. A curious arrangement arose from this caste system in the latter half of the 19th century. General Rainilaiarivony was of the Hova and therefore precluded from ruling. He overcame this obstacle by marrying the next three queens. Ruling through his queens, he was able to maintain the legitimacy of his government. This caste system still colors Merina perception of others and creates a wariness of the Merina in the other people on the island. Furthermore, it is thoroughly entrenched in all of today's Malagasy society.(14)
The Merina, of course, suffered the most from the French usurpation of their empire, since they were the ones in power at the time of the takeover. Thus it was that when the colonial rule was being replaced by self-government, they assumed that theirs would be the lion's share of the new regime. However, through the years of the French administration, much of the bureaucracy was removed from the hands of the Merina into the control of a group called the côtiers.(15)
We need to take a moment at this point in order to explain a conflict which has arisen between two areas of the island. This issue is that of the côtiers versus the Merina. First, the côtiers are coastal (as is indicated by the name which is derived from the French côte meaning coast; e.g., Côte D'Ivoire, the Ivory Coast) and catholic (due to French missionary activity). They have been more impacted by African civilization and are more populous than the Merina, although, in Malagasy terms, they are ethnically heterogeneous.(16) The Merina, on the other hand, through British influence, are Anglicans. They are more ethnically homogenous. They reside on the central plateau and almost literally 'look down' on the côtiers as less civilized.(17) Moreover, although they are the largest single ethnic group, having more people than the next two groups combined, they still only account for 26% of the island's population.(18) These two groups are currently at loggerheads over most issues confronting the government.
The Merina were in favor of a federal system of government after the French pull out, because they felt with their superiority in numbers they would dominate the legislature as the largest voting block. The côtiers favored a unitary government due to their control of the bureaucracy and their ability to dominate nationwide elections. The côtiers also resent the Merina for the repressiveness of the imperial period and believe that they would be prone to abuse governmental power. Further, in the initial period after independence the Merina party was in favor of breaking all ties to the West, particularly France, and instituting a severely leftist, if not outright communistic, state. While the côtiers, particularly the PSD under Philibert Tsiranana, took the more pragmatic approach of maintaining close relations with France and the West while gradually turning left. In addition, the Merina were unable to successfully deal with internal divisions resulting from the caste system. Unsurprisingly, Tsiranana and the PSD played on the ethnocentrism, insularity, and the linguistic and geographic unity of the islanders for support.(19) The success of the PSD in dominating the writing of the constitution and its and its successor parties' dominance of the government through the post independence years illustrates the traditional attitudes of continuity beautifully. The Malagasy chose the gradualist approach of the côtiers, thus did not deny change, but allowed it to develop incrementally, preserving continuity with the past.
The Merina had failed to take into account their own traditions and to realize that those traditions contradicted their policy of abrupt and precipitous change. Further, they did not understand that this failure would preclude their success in the new era. Additionally, the Merina did not grasp the concept that a people with a strong reliance on past tradition and continuity would have a long memory. Thus, they were surprised that the other ethnic groups remembered the abuses of the empire, mistrusted the Merina's quest for power, and developed coalitions which kept the Merina from dominance.(20) The Merina contention that the French and the West were the enemy and thus, the people should support the Merina policies, can be understood if one considers our own attitudes, under which both Democrats and Republicans claim to be supporting the ideals of Lincoln or, even more tellingly and recently, of Kennedy, relegating the facts of their particular policies to the nether world, while assuming common heritage. This is not the case with the Malagasy, however. Given their attitudes, it can be seen that, rather than reveling in the light of past glory and uniting against the most recent common foe, they are able to rationally comprehend that while the empire may have been a necessary step or a positive part of their history, it was not necessarily paradise and there would be no reason to repeat past errors, despite one's respect for the past and tradition. For, as I have pointed out above, continuity and respect for tradition does not preclude change, it requires that change evolve out of these precepts, not be enslaved by them.
We have seen that the Malagasy have a highly developed sense of tradition. This is no less true in religious and cultural arenas than in the political realm. Throughout the island the Cult of the Dead (a snapshot of which opened this paper) is predominant and of long standing practice; handed down from the ancestors who first arrived here. Generally, it is believed that the dead are on a different plane of existence and are still able to be aware of and have influence on the day to day activities of the living. They are called upon for assistance, provided with expensive tombs and exhumed periodically for celebrations, replacement of shrouds and reburial. During the time that the body of the deceased is out of its tomb it is treated as if it were a live relative just returned from an extended absence. They are regaled with the successes of the family, the good fortune that has come through their influence and given the place of honor at the celebration. Many times a more elaborate tomb has been prepared for them. Or if they had not been interred in the family tomb for some reason, that is where they will be reburied, in order that the can rejoin the family circle. This Cult of the Dead includes ancestors, the living and the not-yet-born as part of the kin group; all are members of home, tomb and womb.(21) One of the key points of this belief is that the dead are not likely to look kindly on change that does not proceed from tradition, change that comes about abruptly or violently or change that breaks the skein of continuity from the past through the present and into the future. In keeping with this, it is believed that the dead also have a negative side and, if displeased, can bring extremely detrimental consequences to the living. One example of the serious nature of these consequences is the belief that the uprising of 1947 against the French was ill-considered, broke with tradition and continuity and thus, was doomed from the outset. Further, the terrible loss of life, estimated at 11,000 people, that occurred as a result of the French suppression of this rebellion was seen as a confirmation of the ancestors' displeasure with the rebels rather than the brutal reaction of an oppressive colonial regime.(22) Therefore, it is believed, that it is not only a good idea to consider the traditions when implementing change or policy, but it can have significant repercussions if these traditions are ignored and it is, therefore, imperative.
As was indicated earlier, there are a significant number of Christians in Madagascar. Christians comprise about 50% of the population, split more or less evenly between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The Merina of the plateau are predominantly Anglican and the côtiers are Catholic. There are almost no Muslims and the rest of the population adheres to the traditional beliefs exemplified by the Cult of the Dead. The question that arises is how such a large portion of the population could profess belief in religions which were introduced in the recent past when continuity and tradition play such a crucial role in day to day life. The answer to this is that in Malagasy eyes, the introduction of Christianity was not a significant departure from the indigenous religious beliefs.(23) And, upon analysis, there are many parallels between them. So many that the departure from traditional beliefs can be seen as a progression rather than a break and consequently, in keeping with the spirit of continuity. We can see that when we look at Christianity from a Malagasy perspective that it is almost a type of ancestor worship akin to the Cult of the Dead. There is a man who upon his death becomes a god. He is removed from his tomb and walks among the living. He will come again to be among us. We can request his intercession in earthly affairs. We are punished if we do not respect prescribed rules. We are rewarded if we live according to set precepts. He is kin to us, our "brother", our "father" and his representatives on earth are also described in familial terms. It is no wonder that Christianity could be considered an acceptable religion on the island, it speaks in terms that are familiar and respected. And, as I mentioned at the outset, even though it is frowned upon by the church hierarchy, the clergy has been called upon by the celebrants to bless their deceased relatives and has accommodated those wishes. This has bound the church and the indigenous practices more closely together and will continue to do so.
In another vein, a highly valued attribute among the Malagasy is oratory. Most occasions of importance will require many speeches and everyone needs to be prepared in case they are called upon to speak. Great trust is given to a politician who can explain a government policy in terms of how it was developed from past traditions, customs, and history. This explanation also needs to include why that policy is necessitated by the conditions of the present and how it will be able to extend the community's values into the future. Further, they must illustrate how the ancestral ways will continue to be relevant in light of the proposed change. The traditional and customary methods can almost be thought of a set of legal precedents which must be considered before initiating new policy.(24)
The Malagasy are unique in Africa. Their island is part of Africa, but their civilization is very much Austronesian. Their architecture reflects their origins in that it is rectangular and tall, as opposed to the round designs of typical African architecture. Their customs of ancestor worship, animal sacrifice and elaborate tombs, and their art and music reflect a Polynesian heritage from thousands of miles across the ocean, rather than an African one that exists only a few hundred miles away across the Mozambique Channel.(25) Their tenacious, yet passive, reliance on their cultural and ancestral heritage is amazing, considering the proximity of the mighty African cultures. And through it all runs the thread of continuity as an ultimate goal. An almost Zen acceptance that change will come, but that it can be tempered by knowledge, procedures and processes exhumed, like their dead, from the past. A source of traditional knowledge that assures cultural and national survival by relying on continuity and using lessons learned to improve the future.
Today Madagascar is involved in the trauma of the times; high birth rates, which have resulted in over half the country being younger than 15, an unfavorable balance of trade, economic stagnation, and political turmoil. Despite their considered evaluation of the past, Madagascar has not escaped the turmoil of the post-colonial period. The elected government of Tsiranana and the PSD was unable to keep the country economically stable and he resigned. After a period of unrest, Didier Ratsiraka, an admiral, was appointed President. He dissolved the Malagasy Republic, promulgated a new constitution and was subsequently elected under it.(26) He took the country farther to the left than did the PSD. He did release the country from single party rule that Tsiranana had instituted, but his attempt to institute Marxist socialism was unsuccessful. He was forced by deteriorating economic conditions to abandon this socialist, central-planned experiment in the early eighties. He did manage to retain power until recently, simply because no other alternative existed. In 1992 a new constitution was approved by a 3-1 margin. The government is now in transition with Albert Zafy as the newly elected President. But, true to their traditions, the Malagasy's new constitution continues the practice of unitary government that was started at independence.(27)
Since the reliance on tradition, custom, and continuity does not compel a particular path but, can suggest a number of alternative routes,(28) we can only hope that the new course they have chosen will bring stability and prosperity to Madagascar. However, we can be sure that they will continue to try to find the course that their ancestors wish them to follow and that any route that they choose will offer a continuity of purpose, flowing from the past through to the future, and that it will be more than a little concerned with tradition.
(2)United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1987.
(3)Mack, John. "Madagascar, Island of the Ancestors." History Today. (Mar89), Vol. 37, pg.61.
(4)Mack, John. "Ways of the Ancestors." Natural History. (Apr89), pp. 24-31.
(5)United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O. 1987.
(7)United States. Dept. of State. Madagascar: 1992 Post Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1992.
(8)Kent, Raymond. From Madagascar to Malagasy Republic. NY: Praeger, 1962. pg. 40.
(9)United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1987.
(10)Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pg. 12.
(11)Ibid. pgp. 13-14.
(12)Kottak, Conrad Phillip. The Past in the Present: History, Ecology, and Cultural Variation in Highland Madagascar. Ann Arbor, Mi.: University of Michigan Press, c.1980. pg. 88.
(13)Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pp.4-5,9,108,139,141.
(14)Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pp. 41,66.
Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pp.115,175.
Kottak, Conrad Phillip. The Past in the Present: History, Ecology, and Cultural Variation in Highland Madagascar. Ann Arbor, Mi.: University of Michigan Press, c.1980. pg. 110.
(15)"At Long Last." Economist. (8/245/92),Vol. 324, Iss. 7774, pg. 40.
Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pg. 141.
(16)United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1987.
(17)Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pp. 40, 53, 56, 74.
Kottak, Conrad Phillip. The Past in the Present: History, Ecology, and Cultural Variation in Highland Madagascar. Ann Arbor, Mi.: University of Michigan Press, c.1980. pg. 114.
Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pg. xv.
(18)Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pg. 9.
"At Long Last." Economist. (8/245/92),Vol. 324, Iss. 7774, pg. 40.
(19)Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pg. xv, 109, 114-115, 141.
(21)Mack, John. "Ways of the Ancestors." Natural History. (Apr89), pp. 24-31.
(22)Thompson, Virginia McLean. The Malagasy Republic: Madagascar Today. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1965. pg. xiv.
(23)Mack, John. "Ways of the Ancestors." Natural History. (Apr89), pp. 24-31.
United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1987.
Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pg. 74, 78.
(24)Mack, John. "Ways of the Ancestors." Natural History. (Apr89), pp. 24-31.
(25)Mack, John. "Madagascar, Island of the Ancestors." History Today. (Mar89), Vol. 37, pg.61.
(26)Stevens, Rita. Madagascar. NY: Chelsea House, c.1988. pg. 14.
United States. Dept. of State. Background Notes. Washington, D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1987.
(27)Facts on File, 1993.
"Under Slow Notice To Quit." Economist. (7/6/91), Vol. 320, Iss. 7714, pp. 39-41.
"Voting with Their Feet." Time. (8/26/91), Vol. 138, Iss. 8, pg. 34.
"Federal Solution." Economist. (8/24/91), Vol. 320, Iss.7721, pg. 39.
"Going Nowhere." Economist. (7/25/92), Vol. 324, Iss. 7768, pg 44.
"Start Again." Economist. (2/20/93), Vol. 326, Iss. 7799, pg. 42.
(28)Mack, John. "Ways of the Ancestors." Natural History. (Apr89), pp. 24-31.
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