Exorcism

Published in Africa Geographic, November 2004

Then

In 1982 I led my first tour to Madagascar. The “group” consisted of an American couple who were aspiring members of the Century Club, bent on ticking off as many countries as possible to achieve the magic hundred that would gain them entry to this exclusive organisation. It took only a few hours for me to discover that they were not really interested in Madagascar, and certainly not Madagascar as it was then. “Why don’t they make separate roads for ox-carts?” commented Mr Tourist, his words muffled by the mask which protected his lungs from dust. Later he shook his head at the bemused waiter who had opened the bottled water before reaching the table. “You can’t trust these guys. They’ve probably filled it with water from the faucet.” Each mealtime they taught me about the dangers of travel in the developing world, and how to deal with the local people.

We were driving the now popular route between Fort Dauphin and Berenty reserve, passing the little mud-and-stick houses of the Antandroy people, when we noticed that something important was going on. A large crowd of people were gathered outside one of the huts, a group of drummers kept up a rhythmic beat and there was some unchoreographed dancing. At our request the driver got out to ask what was going on, and we learned that a village woman had become possessed with an evil spirit. The dance was the first stage of a three-day exorcism which would culminate with the sacrifice of a goat. This sounded interesting and we arranged with our driver to leave Berenty in time to see the closing stages. Two days later the dance had become a shuffle, but a surprisingly energetic shuffle. Permission was asked, and graciously given, for us to stay and observe the proceedings and even to take photographs. We were objects of mild curiosity, but the villagers were much too involved in their ritual to pay us much attention.

After an hour the Americans began to get restless. It was very hot in the sun and nothing new had happened for some time. No sacrifice, no escaping evil spirit. Suddenly I heard a commotion: one of them had produced a packet of balloons and was busy blowing them up and distributing them to the nearby children. “Kids always love these things” he chuckled. They did indeed love them. Soon we were surrounded by first a pleading, then irate group of mothers and wailing children who either had not received a balloon or whose ephemeral new toy had burst. The dancers kept up their exhausted shuffle and the young woman who was the centre of attention continued to stare at them with blank eyes, but most onlookers had now turned their attention to us. We had transformed a private and solemn occasion into a public squabble.

Now

The tourists poured off the cruise ship into zodiacs and on to the little island of Nosy Komba. The islanders were ready for them: rows of women sat behind their arrays of souvenirs, young girls paraded with painted faces hoping to catch a photographer’s eye, and children ran to greet the visitors clutching shells that they wanted to sell or with hands outstretched for gifts of sweets and pens. The tourists either ignored them or told them crossly to go away. The human inhabitants of the island were irrelevant to these visitors: they had come to see the famous sacred lemurs. But one tourist was different. She had learned a smattering of Malagasy in preparation for her visit and was in no hurry to see the lemurs. When a little girl tugged at her hand, demanding a bon-bon, this tourist stopped and met her eyes. Gently extracting her hand from the child’s grasp she asked “Iza no anaranao?” The little girl stared. “Iza no anaranao?” the tourist repeated. A huge smile spread across the child’s face. “Ny anaroko Nivo”. “Ny anaroko Janice” said the tourist. Janice and Nivo smiled at each other, no longer tourist and beggar, but two named individuals. Two equals.

© Hilary Bradt

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