The Desecration

Published in Africa Geographic, November 2005

Then

When I first started leading trips to Madagascar in the 1980s we always visited Berenty. This lemur-haven in the south of the island was one constant in an island of mishaps. Perhaps because it was a private reserve so run on established commercial principles, Berenty lived up to tourists’ expectations. So once a year I would make the drive there from Fort Dauphin and stop at a tiny settlement beside the road to see The Tomb of Ranonda. The village was a scattering of stick and mud huts, seeming barely large enough to house one person, let alone a whole family. It was like every other village along that road except for one thing: the collection of wooden carvings commemorating the dead. Unlike their more famous neighbours, the Mahafaly, the Antanosy people rarely use figurative carvings or paintings in their memorials. They prefer to mark the burial place with a cluster of concrete cenotaphs lurking like missiles in the thorn scrub. So this was a rarity, but what set it apart from any other tomb I’ve seen was the exquisite craftsmanship. We even know the sculptor’s name: Fiasia. Ranonda herself was evidently a religious young woman – she holds a bible and a cross – but much livelier is the man losing a leg to a crocodile and an expertly carved boatload of people, their expressions tranquil except for the helmsman who poles his overloaded canoe to its end: the vessel sank and all on board were drowned. His face shows some anxiety as he looks round, perhaps at the oncoming waves.

The boat-people were the most famous but my favourite was a group of three zebu. These animals, destined to be sacrificed to the ancestors, are usually portrayed in a stylised form with an exaggeratedly large hump. So it was with the two bulls but among them was a cow and her calf. Here the sculptor has moved away from symbolism and used his chisels with real affection for his subject. Like all southerners, he will have lived with cattle all his life, and his knowledge is revealed in the way the cow’s head is turned as she licks her suckling calf. The youngster responds by flicking its tail across her muzzle. Towering above them was their protector – a wooden herdsman.

For seven years I stopped my bus-load of tourists and showed them the carvings. The first year the children were too shy to approach us but peeped, bright-eyed, from the dark doorways of their huts. As years passed they became bolder and eventually tried the “bon-bon?” question but without much hope. Tourists didn’t linger, and no-one thought of giving anything back to the village whose beautiful memorial provided so much pleasure. And these children were starving. Literally. I’m haunted by a photo I took of a sombre little girl with matted reddish hair, about six years old, carrying her little brother whose distended stomach and stick-like arms and legs show the classic signs of malnutrition. I used to fantasise about somehow persuading the Peace Corps, or similar NGO, to set up a health clinic at the village which would be funded from the income generated by tourists visiting the tomb. But I did nothing.

In 1989 I stopped as usual and led my group to the tomb. Where the carved cattle used to stand under the watchful eye of their guard, only the herdsman remained. The cow and her calf, and the two bulls, had been ripped away leaving only the jagged remains of their wooded plinth. In their place was a row of fresh zebu skulls, their horns sprouting fungi as they decomposed in the humid air. I asked our driver what had happened. “A tourist stole it.” The skulls were from the cattle slaughtered by this impoverished village to calm the ancestors’ rage at this desecration.

Now

Buses no longer stop at the village. There’s no point. The tomb is surrounded by a high fence of sharpened stakes. To take a photograph, tourists must pay $5.00. “Not worth it” they mutter after peering though the fence with binoculars. “Not worth it” I agree. The carvings have deteriorated, the wood has darkened and split, and lichen blotches the formerly smooth features of the boatpeople. Somewhere, in a private collection of “Primitive Art”, the cow still licks her calf. Their wood retains its original grey smoothness, denied its destiny to grow old and return to the earth. And I ache for that village and its loss. Which is worst, its loss of trust or the loss of something that was not Art but the tangible soul of an ancestor?

© Hilary Bradt

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