Early December, I had the awesome opportunity to experience a FAMADIHANA as a family member. A famadihana is a 3 day celebration of the deceased here in Madagascar. It is not practiced by all of the tribes on the island, but by many, and each tribe has their own special take on the “fomba” (culture) of the event. My friend Tina, invited me to be a part of her family and attend, and of course I was thrilled and honored to attend. (Sakalava famadihanas are known to be exclusive at times…)
Step one of the event: get your outfit! The day after I was invited, Tina came to my house with 2 meters of fabric and we went to the Mpanjitra (tailor) to have a dress made. For about $9 dollars, fabric and sewing, I had a new dress that I would match the rest of the family and it was ready in about 4 days. I joked with Tina and said that had she picked blue instead of pink fabric, I wouldn’t have gone. She laughed.
Day one of the fety: Dine and dance everyone you know. Tina’s family invited 800 people to dinner at her sister’s house…so at 2pm we walked down to the house, tied on our salovanas (big pieces of fabric women wear) and got to work cooking rice and beef, traditional famadihana food. My favorite part of the cooking venture was where we put the rice once it was cooked…it was shoveled into huge gunny sacks to wait until dinner time! I had a good time, cooking and chatting with the women. One thing I really love about Tina is that she doesn’t treat me like a “vazaha.” She has no issue telling me to wash something or get some water, whatever. She just treats me like a friend.
Once everything was cooked, and people started arriving I just sat back, and played with kids mostly. Of course the two terribly drunk men couldn’t stay away from me and I didn’t end up staying for the “Ball.” My patience was low…and I decided to rest up for the days to come.
Day two of fety: Dancing, dancing and more dancing. My sort of event but I didn’t actually make it. Very sadly, one of my friends, Mampihava, lost her mother the week of the famadihana. Friday, they held the funeral in Marovoay, and I really wanted to go and support her through her loss. It was heart wrenching. Needless to say, when it was over and I had cried my eyes out for my friend’s loss, and I wasn’t in the mood to party all night long. So I conserved my energy for the final day of the fety.
Day three of the fety: I met Tina’s family at her house at 6 am to trek out to Antanimora, a little village about 12 k from Marovoay. We hopped in the back of a pick-up that provides local transport in the area and were there shortly. The morning involved more cooking and eating. By 7am when we arrived, the cow had already been killed, slaughtered and was cooking…of course so was the rice. I spend most of the day lounging around and eating copious amounts of rice and beef. It was all very gasy. After everyone was voky be (very full) around mid-day, we changed into our “complete,” matching pink outfits, to prepare for the real party to begin. The DJ started up, and the dancing commenced. (well, actually it started again, a band had arrived at about 10am and played until about 2…the people never stopped dancing!)We danced and danced…and then we took the show on the road!
For the actually famadihana, everyone dances all the way out to the fasana (tombs), we left the town, went down various dirt roads and hiked across numerous fields to arrived at the family tombs. Seven bodies we exhumed, remembered and celebrated. People here are buried with just cloth wrapped around their bodies, so they decompose quickly. Every seven years, or so, family’s exhume the bodies and re-wrap the bones in new clean lambas (large clothes). I attended a famadihana during training, and there they just placed new lambas over the old ones. In my region however, they unwrap the bodies and separate and sift out the bones. Some of the “newer” bodies were just transferred to new lambas as there were still clothes and the bones we not “ready.” But another body, which was buried in 1960, was just a few chards of bones. Everyone watches the process of separation, and when the body is finished and re-wrapped, it is hoisted above everyone’s head and the whole family dances and rejoices before it is reburied.
The famadihana is a really fascinating custom. “Fady” or taboos, are a huge thing here. There are many and they change between regions and sometimes cities. Moving bodies in my culture is extremely “fady;” we very much believe in letting the dead rest in peace, undisturbed forever. Whereas here, the famadihana is another chance to get the whole family together again! Everyone comes, eats, and enjoys each other for 3 days and then they visit the rest of the family, and celebrate together again. I was really surprised how unaffected I was by seeing the bodies and bones so close up. I had worried that I would be bothered or upset by it, but the mood of the event is so light and joyous. People view the bones as what they are, they are not scary or gross, they are natural and they are family. The attitude was definitely transferred to me. I really enjoyed myself. It was an amazing view into Malagasy culture and I feel so honored to have been welcomed so openly by the whole family! After that weekend, I have gained a truly large Malagasy family here, and they a vazaha…
I'm in Tana with fast internet so check out all the pics of the event below!