A Year in Review: Fomba Sakalava


October 2015:

Things were much easier in October. In October I had the opportunity to attend “Fomba Sakalava” in Vohemar with all the other volunteers in my region. This ceremony only occurs every four years. To attend the ceremony we were required to have our hair braided into 14 braids. 7 braids on each side of the head, a style I am quite certain I didn’t pull off. We were told to wear traditional Lamba wany sets- which is one sheet of fabric sewn into a circle which you can wear as a dress and another sheet of fabric that you can wear as a sash, or headdress or whatever way you wish. We were told that we should wear nothing underneath the Lambas. And women who are on their periods are not allowed to attend the ceremony because they are viewed as unclean.

My friend getting her hair braided for the ceremony

My friend getting her hair braided for the ceremony

What does this ceremony entail, you may be wondering. Well, purpose of the ceremony is to give sacrifice to the ancestors. For this ceremony, 100 zebus are killed in the ocean and the ocean runs red. Summer had come early in Vohemar, so the day was very hot. We went to the beach early in the morning because in typical Malagasy fashion, no official start time was named. We quickly realized that the zebu slaughter would not start for hours due to extremely low tide. This offered some great tide pooling and revealed thousands of spiny starfish covering the ocean floor.

Malagasy Child holding one of the many starfish

Malagasy Child showing off a starfish

Dress code was taken very seriously and I was yelled at to take off my flip-flops. While we waited we were granted entrance to the burial mounds of the ancestors. To enter, everything but Lambas need to be removed, this included the elastics from my braids. The burial mounds were giant piles of coral on which family’s sat and took in the scene. The area extended far back into the trees. The trees provided a very welcome shade and were even dark enough for a sleeping bat that I spotted above my head. There I sat and chatted with the locals in my broken Malagasy, until the chaos began. I decided to leave the tombs to check on a friend on the beach and about half way to my destination it started.


Zebus waiting in the ocean for the tide to rise

With 100 zebus in the ocean, there were probably 50 men to get the job done. Originally, I mistakenly believed that there would be one man per zebu and perhaps as a bell rang they would quickly slit the throats of the beasts all in one foul swoop. I was completely wrong. Instead I witnessed what can only be described as “all hell breaking loose.” The beach was packed with men women and children watching on, terrified, as zebus broke free and swam toward the beach. The men just hacked at the Bulls with no precise aim. Some men jumped on top of the zebus and rode them as they tried to swim away. At least two zebus made it to the beach inciting panic and a human stampede. I was pushed around, forced to run with the crowd and saved by an elderly Malagasy women from falling into a cactus bush. As abruptly as it started, it was over. All the zebus were killed, their carcasses washed up on the beach.

A red ocean

A red ocean

The zebus were decapitated and hacked up for meat. Some carried the meat by hand back up to town and others placed their portion in wooden canoes to row back home. There would be a feast that night. We were invited to eat at a Malagasy families home, that evening. We sat around in a circle chewing on our ocean-salty, crunchy from the sand, zebu meat and discussed highs and lows of the day.


My thoughts on the ceremony:

I felt really honored to have been allowed to witness this ancient ceremony. We had to receive special permission to watch and to enter the tombs, so being given the opportunity was really exciting for me. The scene felt incongruous with my picture of Madagascar, sure things are different here, but the hacking up of the zebus was very gruesome and violent. It felt as though I ventured back in time hundreds of years ago. From my experience, Malagasy people are a very peaceful folk. Some unpleasantness: it wouldn’t be fair to just tell you about the ceremony without including one of the most striking features. There I was, in a swarm of Malagasy people dressed in traditional garb, but all I could see was a sea of cell phones and cameras pointed at me. Everywhere I turned, someone was taking a photo of my friends or me. I understand, I looked ridiculous and it isn’t everyday you see a white girl wearing a Lamba and sporting traditional Sakalava braids, but still. It became difficult to soak in the traditional event when every turn I made and every step I took I saw a flash of a camera. However, I am sure I will discuss this type of difficulty in another post. Two more unpleasant results: one of my closest friends was trampled by fleeing Malagasy people and broke his toe. Also, certain parts of my scalp that had never been exposed to the sun became quite sun burnt and resulted in some strange peeling during the weeks following. But witnessing such a big cultural event made it all worth it!

Hope you enjoyed reading this post!



One thought on “A Year in Review: Fomba Sakalava

  1. Halia, dear, I’m glad I didn’t know all those details for your first months. With a year behind you, I am thrilled that you have learned so much, have so many friends and have weathered many unusual experiences! Bob and I miss you and love you,
    Oma and Bob

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