One of the unique complications about traveling in Madagascar is that each region, village, and tribe has its own set of taboos (fady) that visitors are expected to observe. These might be mundane, such as a prohibition against eating pork, but they were sometimes so esoteric, our guides were at a loss to even explain them to us. That could be a problem if you’re traveling on your own, because violating fady, even unintentionally, can disrupt the spiritual balance of a place. You will offend the Malagasy and upset the spirits. In cities and at the most popular tourist sites the locals are forgiving towards ignorant foreigners, but this is definitely not the case in much of the country. Karel and I did our best to abide by the rules, including not pointing at things (to avoid accidentally pointing at a tomb, which is fady). That one is harder than it sounds; we were tourists, after all, and every other question for our guides was “What’s that?” as we drove past something that looked perfectly normal to the guide, and indescribably bizarre to us. Try that without pointing!
There is a saying in Malagasy that translates, “Words make fady.” Or something like that. It means that even the Malagasy recognize that fady isn’t an objective truth about the universe (e.g., eating undercooked pork will make you sick, therefore you shouldn’t do that); rather, something becomes fady because someone says so, and everyone goes along with it. It is utterly subjective and belief-based. Going along may start out of simple respect for the person, but then it becomes tradition and superstition, and gets wrapped up in the cult of ancestry. Fady is used to assert power between tribal groups, to control territory, in political wrangling, and in economic battles over resources.
Our guide Ludo was an environmentalist, and we passed the time paddling down the slow river talking about the rapid, ongoing environmental destruction of the country. In just a few months since Ludo’s last trip down the river, he could see drastic changes. The few remaining pockets of forest were now occupied; the wildlife was in hiding, and slash and burn was well underway. This, in a region that has no roads and can only be reached by boat half the year. Ludo is passionate about saving what little is left, but how?
We talked about the pros and cons of eco-tourism, about science and education, government, corruption, population, poverty, health, and human rights. An honest, well-intentioned government might attempt to preserve some wilderness, but this method won’t succeed unless the population goes along with the plan. In the West, I said, one of our cherished notions is that an educated and informed public can come to some agreement about the right way to proceed, and will choose wise leaders to build consensus and carry out the plan (remember, this conversation was taking place in those innocent days before the Orange Man won the election).
That’s when Ludo said something really interesting. “You can’t tell the people they need to boil the river water to kill the bacteria before drinking it. They won’t understand, no matter how much you explain. Nothing about that explanation will make any sense to them. But! If you say drinking river water that hasn’t been boiled is fady, that they will understand. The trick, then, is to get enough people to believe it.”
Okay. A blanket prohibition against drinking un-boiled river water is better than losing your children to dysentery. An elder chief who is widely respected might be able to pull it off by declaring the fady. But this could accelerate deforestation due to the need for charwood for cooking fires. And what happens when they run out of wood and can’t boil water anymore? What happens when the village becomes a town and gets a water treatment facility (which uses filters, chemicals, and UV to purify water, but doesn’t boil it)? What happens when the wells also become contaminated, and that water must be treated, too? Behavior that’s governed solely by belief has the advantage of getting the people to “buy in” to the program, but it can’t adapt easily to new circumstances and it doesn’t give people a rational framework for assessing risks and changing their behavior accordingly. If you’re going to declare a fady, you’d better get it right, because the consequences will play out indefinitely.This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa