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Home > Island People > Rites Of Passage

For more than a hundred years, Christian missionaries have been converting the inhabitants of Madagascar. Still, the people of this island-nation retain many of their traditional religious beliefs. In fact, many of the 45 percent of Malagasy who are Christian continue to practice many traditional religious rituals.

Madagascar's people are made up of around 20 groups, or tribes, each loyal to its distinct practices. But many religious rites, like the Malagasy language, are shared throughout the island. The most important traditional belief held throughout the country is that the dead play a central role in daily life. A person's ancestors are considered the most important members of the family, sometimes referred to as "living gods," who have the ability to affect the fortunes, for good or ill, of the living. Family burial tombs are sacred; they are often more elaborately designed than the homes of the living. How the dead are honored varies from place to place. For instance, the people of the central highlands of the island practice a unique exhumation ceremony: recently-deceased relatives are moved from temporary to permanent graves and long-dead ancestors are wrapped in new burial shrouds.

Another custom common to all of Madagascar is Kabary, a style of oration practiced at significant family and social gatherings, such as weddings, funerals and burials. This highly stylized speechmaking makes use of Malagasy proverbs and eloquent word play. The speaker approaches the true subject of his address obliquely. Often several speechmakers, or mpikabary, will compete. Today, people sometimes hire professional speechmakers, who are also experts on Malagasy traditions, for special events. Several members of an organization of speechmakers, called FIKAMBANAN'NY MALAGASY MPIKABARY, talked to Dan about Malagasy customs, some still adhered to and others no longer practiced.

Burial Sites
Elaborate tombs and gravestones are a notable feature of Madagascarís landscape.
Life and Death
Three professional speechmakers describe Malagasy customs related to different stages of life. Jemima Radasimalala interprets.

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