Bring out yer dead!

27 Nov

Out first week at Beza had been going really well. We set up our tents, started purifying water to drink, and I began training my team in the data collection methods we would be using. I had shown Joach and Vola the forest and we were fortunate enough to see many groups of both maki (ring-tailed lemurs) and sifaka (the other lemur species I am studying). Even on our first day in camp, there was a large troop of lemurs that came through, emerging from the trees just beyond our tents and looking for water and food scraps.


One of the first things I had to do was to choose which lemurs we would study. The lemurs are dense in the forest here and I am only looking at ten animals of each species for my research project.


With the help of some of the local forest guides, Enafa and Elahavelu, I planned to survey the different groups around the reserve over the next few days. At lunch, I was informed that this would not be possible as the entire staff of Beza Mahafaly would be going to a nearby village the following day for a funeral. Unable to hire my guides and begin the pivotal first step of choosing focal groups, I decided it would be hard to get much work done and that we should go along with the staff and enjoy the cultural experience of a Malagasy funeral.


The local ethnic population has a very interesting ritual concerning death. When someone dies, they quietly inter the body in the ground without too much of a fuss. Months or years later, after the family has saved up enough money and the deceased has been reduced to little more than fleshless bones, the real funeral begins.


The bones are dug up from the earth and placed in a specially built annex adjacent to the family’s hut. They believe that it is best not to have any bad blood or leave any arguments unresolved with the dead and so people who knew the deceased in life can go clear the air by talking to the bones.


Outside of this bone shack, the rest of the funeral is not so solemn and contemplative. Outside, there is a party raging, with a live band, an impromptu market, freshly slaughtered goat meat, and enough beer and togogash to keep the guests well hydrated.


We walked over to the funeral in the nearby town of Mahazoarivo (pronounced Ma-ha-zo-reev) with a couple of the Beza guys, Mianditsoa and Fanameza. After about 30 minutes of walking north through the forest, we emerged through the thick canopy cover and the noise from the funeral blossomed. Cutting through the warm air were the sounds of a base drum beating rhythmically, the electric guitar and its high-pitched melody, and an occasional series of loud pops.


We crossed the river, met up with the rest of our Beza contingent, and entered the heart of the party with Munja (pronounced Moon-za) at our lead. The obligatory first step was to greet our hosts, in this case a large gathering of the men from this village. Arrayed in a semicircle under the shade of a huge tamarind tree, we sat down facing the men and Munja spoke with one of the village elders. He gave our condolences for their loss and handed over a large wad of cash, collected from all of us in the Beza group, worth over $50 USD. This money would help cover the costs of our food and the entertainment we were about to enjoy.


Having paid our entry fee and been warmly welcomed, a pair of large woven straw mats were rolled out nearby and we all sat down to enjoy the entertainment. For us, the entertainment consisted of a band, with a guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, and a female singer. The music they played was nothing you’ve heard before unless you’ve been to this region of Madagascar, but it evokes flavors of the tropics and reminds me a bit of the music of the Caribbean (minus the steel drums). The bass and drums are just there to give a good foundation with their beat, but the real star of the band is the guitarist. Watching him play is amazing as he just flicks his fingers up and down the steel strings, unlike the familiar chord strumming or single-string picking. The music coming out of the ancient metal loudspeaker horns, mounted on wooden poles around the drummer’s awning, is certainly lo-fi, but not gritty. There’s an indescribable energy to this music and it just gets under your skin and makes you want to dance. I couldn’t resist and had to sway and bop back and forth to the beat as we sat huddled on our mats.


Accompanying the band was a single male dancer. He performed traditional local dances, one of which involved a lot of rather explicit pelvis thrusting. Another local dance has you just lift one or both of your shoulders up and down as you shuffle around to the music. You come across looking a little like a chicken, but it’s a fun dance nonetheless. With all of the young children dancing around in front of the band, it looked a bit like a hen house, but they were very serious about their dancing (and damned good too). At one point the dancer came out with a bunch of horns around his neck, dangling from leather straps, symbolizing vitality and virility.


So the entertainment we enjoyed was the music and the dancing. For the throngs of local children at the funeral, WE were the entertainment. There was a ring all around us, three-children deep, with their eyes watching our every move in rapt fascination. They seemed to especially like my head swaying and toe tapping to the music. Once I took out my camera, the kids would pose endlessly for photos. If I pointed my lens to the right to take a picture of some oblivious child, four others would see where I was looking and photobomb my shot as fast as they could.


Several people from the local village came by with food gifts for us. Some brought large baskets overflowing with rice, some brought THB beer and lemon fanta soda, and others still brought us giant hunks of bloody meat, recently harvested from it’s livestock donor. Someone brought over an entire haunch of meat, which must have been goat judging by the size and shape of the limb. Lastly, we were given a goat, a live goat. Munja pointed over to a nearby tree and told me that the goat tied up tightly by the neck was for us. We all shared the beverages, with some of the Malagasy men preferring instead to seek out Togogash (sometimes called Malagasy rum, this locally made spirit from fermented sugarcane is much more akin to moonshine and tastes and smells not unsurprisingly like gasoline). Some of the rice and the smallest chunk of lamb flesh disappeared along with Lala, our camp cook, as she began preparing lunch.


We had arrived and taken up our central position on our straw mats by late morning, relatively early in the party, and had a prime view to see many more groups of people arrive and meet with the village elders throughout the day. The greeting for most of these groups was similar to ours, but with one very noisy addition. As the group of visitors approached, a few of their men stepped to the side, pivoted their rifles from the hip and took aim at the ground in front of them. BANG! The shots rang out and clouds of dust and gunpowder mingled as the next shots went off. BANG BANG! As quickly as they could, the shooters reloaded their single barrel weapons, shoving a stick as a ramrod down the barrel of the gun to expel the empty bullet casing, fitting another slug into the chamber, closing the barrel, and immediately pulling the trigger without the slightest glance upwards. BANG!


Across from them, flanking the men of the village, three local shooters performed the same actions: firing and reloading, firing and reloading. The mounds of spent shell casings piled up in front of both groups of gunmen, in case anyone wanted to keep count. It was a wonder no one was hit, but my suspicions were later confirmed that they were all firing blanks. I was told that the purpose of this ritual was to show the power of the groups. Whoever had more ammunition and was able to keep firing longer was said to be more powerful.


This explosive welcome tradition as seen from our front row seats was interesting the first few times we saw it, but after hours of group after group arriving it became quite annoying. Every time a new group entered, we would plug our ears with our fingers and look away to avoid the large clouds of gunpowder that rolled our way.


Eventually, we were saved from the dust and noise when our lunch was ready. It was mid-afternoon by now and we were all very eager to chow down. Our posse got off of our mats and sauntered a little ways out towards the periphery of the party to a small stand of huts where another mat and a huge pot of rice awaited. Along with our rice was a bowl of assorted goat meat chunks, with a little bit of juice to soak into the rice. The butchery here in Madagascar is quite different from the cuts that you would find in your local supermarket, and every chunk of meat held its own surprise. Some had a hunk of bone inside, some thick ribbons of fat and connective tissue, but the most disturbing ones had thick blubbery layers of skin along one side, the charred remains of the goat’s burned hair adding an ashy bristling of stubble (after slaughtering the goat, they put the entire carcass on a fire to burn off the hair, before dividing up the animal).


With our bellies full of rice and the occasional morsel of meat, we went back to the center of the party, collected our remaining rice and meat, took our goat by it’s lead, and began the hot walk back to Beza Mahafaly. Rest in peace.


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