Madagascar made a rare, albeit unwanted, appearance in international newspapers today with the news that two European men were burnt to death accused of trafficking children’s organs for witchcraft rituals.
An isolated island in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of South Africa, Madagascar is better known for its lemurs and other endemic fauna than any of its people. Yet this incident brings to light some of the issues facing Malagasy society in the lead-up to a crucial general election and how ancient traditions continue to dictate ways of life in the impoverished nation.
Diogo Dias, brother of the more famous Bartolomeu, was the first European mariner to set foot on Madagascar, in the year 1500. Hoping to establish a series of trading posts for the fledgling Carreira da India – the treacherous journey from Europe to India around the Cape of Good Hope – Dias was frustrated in his attempts.
Subsequent ventures by other Portuguese and, later French, traders to establish waystations on Madagascar floundered. The country remained devoid of significant European colonization and thus its people retained many of their traditional cultural practices. This included witch-doctors (ombiasi) and shamans who were thought to play a crucial part in staving off evil spirits and other forms of devilry thought to be rife amongst ‘outsiders’.
Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Madagascar was a haven for piracy. Arabic corsairs, in particular, raided the East African spice and slave markets, operating out of Madagascar, and the unruly reputation of the island further discouraged European colonization. Simultaneously, it encouraged a closer relationship between Madagascar’s rural poor and their spiritual guides, convinced as they were of the practice of witchcraft and sorcery by the foreign intruders.
It was only in the 19th century that the Malagasy came under the control of an indigenous kingdom. The Merina Kingdom had been in existence since the 16th century but only really achieved centralised control in the 1800s. The new royal family, monopolising the national wealth, sought to eradicate vestiges of witchcraft from the island and initiated a purge of all suspected witches.
Dubious enough as this persecution was, it was given legitimacy by the ruling elite who claimed that mosavy – a mystical force of evil – was harming society and preventing its development. In reality, preying on traditional beliefs in this way was a way for the elite to rid themselves of undesirable elements of society and weaken the dependence of the rural poor on their ombiasi and instead pledge allegiance to the crown.
Finally, in 1897, Madagascar became a European colony as the French took over following the brutal Hova War (1883-1896). This occupation was detestable to the Malagasy which had for so long avoided direct colonization. Unsurprisingly, the French did not react well to the traditional ombiasi and when many were imprisoned as the Europeans sought to impose Christianity.
Even so, fears of witchcraft persisted. Writing in 1947, Mary Danielli described how Malagasy villagers told her that “one or more witches would run dementedly to and fro…knocking haphazardly on doors” when a person was nearing death.
French rule finally ended in 1958, by which time the white Europeans themselves had become associated with witchcraft and devilry, whose existence was embedded in Malagasy cultural thinking.
This psychology persists to an extent today for there is a great mistrust of the outsider in Madagascar, which remains fiercely isolated at the expense of social development. Troubles have been more acute since the 2009 political crisis, when Andry Nirina Rajoelina ousted President Marc Ravalomanana. Opposing factions of supporters have fought each other ever since, with the general population suffering the consequences.
Not all witchcraft is evil to the Malagasy, many of whom continue to engage in pagan acts such as the Famadihana – ancestral bone turning – ceremony. In times of crisis, people increasingly resort to familiar cultural practices and outsiders become associated with national ills.
In a nation with a comparatively short colonial history, age-old traditions are yet to be eradicated and acts of violence brutally out of touch with the modern world (such as the burning of the European men) are considered wholly justifiable based on historical principle.