Only a quarter million tourists visit Madagascar each year. The busy season, such as it is, starts in July and continues into February. We started our tour there in early July, which meant that most of the people in the little villages we passed through hadn’t seen a vazaha in nearly half a year. Karel and I got used to the fact that we were as much of a spectacle to the Malagasy as they were to us, and we did our best to return the waves and smiles like visiting celebrities.
As we passed through one small town, Stella pointed out a young child with a v-shaped tattoo joining her eyebrows. “That’s a sign of spirit possession. Either the person is already possessed by a spirit, or the family is inviting a particular spirit, or one of a particular nature, to do so.”
“Why would they do that?”
“It could be for many reasons. The spirit could bring a certain quality that is needed or helpful, for instance.”
I digested this information. “So, possession is a good thing?’
“It can be, but not always,” Stella replied, and then she told me the story of her grandmother. I got Stella’s permission to retell the story here. (Stella, if I’ve got any of the details wrong, please let me know so I can correct them.)
Stella’s grandmother was a young mother of six small children when she came to be possessed by an ancestral spirit. These spirits are well-known to have an aversion to dirt, which can make them intolerant of young children. Stella’s grandmother was unable to overcome the strong influence of the possessing spirit to provide the proper care for her children, and one by one they died until only two, a boy and a girl, remained.
At last, the family intervened, taking drastic measures to save the two children. They were sent far across the country to be raised by distant relatives, and their names were changed to prevent the spirit from finding and attacking them again.
The plan worked, and the brother and sister survived to adulthood and eventually had families of their own. One of them was Stella’s father.
In the West, we might have a diagnosis of depression or mental illness to explain this tragedy. Even if western medical facilities and expertise had been available to the family some 40 or 50 years ago, the outcome might not have been better. Mortality among young children was very high back then (rates are much lower now), and dysentery was very common, so it might have taken just as long to see a possible connection to the mother. A diagnosis of a mental condition might have resulted in a prescription for sedatives or anti-depressants, along with a possible stigma of illness. Very few Malagasy have the financial resources to treat a chronic condition, and the focus on treating only the patient does nothing to ensure the well-being of the rest of the family, nor does it address the life circumstances that could be at the root of the problem.
The Malagasy explanation of spirit possession brings the family or community together to address the issue. Stella’s grandmother isn’t blamed or punished (although it must have been terrible for her to send her children away); she agrees to the plan, and she remains within her support network of family and friends, while the stresses that led to the problem are removed. The children are safe and protected. Even the possessing spirit isn’t seen as malevolent, but merely acting in accord with its nature.
Some spirit possessions are very beneficial, Stella told me, resulting in a person of extraordinary abilities to heal, teach, or lead.This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa