Once a year on the Madagasy East Coast, the inhabitants of the Andranokoditra fishing village congregate on the shores of Lake Ampatibe for the Tsaboraha festival. A sacrificial ceremony in which a cow or Zebu is slaughtered, bled into the water, cut up by the men and cooked by the women on the beach. All in a bid to appease the gods and ancestors. In the hope of bringing more fish to their waters.
Forever intrigued by local customs and always seeking out authentic experiences whilst travelling, I headed to the beach to join the crowds. Appreciative that my visit coincided with the occasion.
Beach. Food cooking on open fires. Chatter and bright coloured clothing.
The area is inhabited by the Betsimisaraka people, the second largest tribe in Madagascar, who’s name directly translates to “The-Many-Inseperables”.
Influenced by Europe and pirates alike, the Betsimisaraka maintain a strong custom and hold many superstitions. With tangalamena their official religious right, they believe in mermaids (-so do I) and ghosts, as well as kalamoro. Little wild long haired men of the woods, who like to slip into homes and steal rice from the cooking pots.
The Tsaboraha Festival is an extension of this and far removed from any traditions with which I grew up. It has been hard to find written word, but from what I was told by my guide and Sylvain at the Palmarium Hotel, as well as from what I saw, this is my understanding.
A Tsaboraha Festival is a ceremony to the gods and can be held for two purposes. Either to offer a protective blessing whilst exhuming and moving a body. Or to ask for, or wish for something. This can be a good crop, help to a childless couple or in the case of the one I attended, more fish in the waters.
This fishing village survives on catches by the men in the ocean, and by the women in the lake. It’s their way of life, their livelihood and survival. Yet as we know, fishing stocks in the Oceans around the world have never been lower. With fishing trawlers, foreign companies and countries ever guilty of taking all that they can from the Ocean. There is little regard for sustainability. Even less for the subsistence fishermen found in villages such as this.
Sadly, the residents are not aware of this exploitation, both legal and illegal, and have interpreted the lack of fish in the waters to something completely different.
That the gods must be angry.
True to the region, the Madagasy practice the veneration of ancestors and account any misfortune and bad luck to having ‘upset’ the gods. Their gods, their ancestors, need to be appeased by offering up a sacrifice. That they may remedy the situation.
The Tsaboraha Festival is born for just this wish.
Annually the community leaders select a Zebu, which they parade for all to see. It is taken down to the water’s edge where the crowds gather to watch a game of trying to ‘tame’ and ride it. One of its achilles tendons are cut to add to the ‘conquest’, before it is thrown to the ground, held down and its throat slit. Bled into the waters until its last breath, it gives its life so that the gods may find favour. Fill the waters with abundant stock and take away the threat to the people’s survival.
I arrived just after the Zebu had been slaughtered. It’s head lay to one side, eyes open, staring back at the crowd. Hoping I’m sure that the gift of it’s life would appease the gods and bring about necessary change. I saw beauty in its surrender. Soon it would join the horns of years before.
Men held the body flayed, machetes in hand, as they debated the best methods to cut the meat into pieces appropriate for the pot. I watched in wonder, keeping a distance.
An earth advocate and animal right’s spokesperson who hasn’t eaten fish or red meat in years, my heart burst raw for the animal. But as much so, for these people who’s hope – and survival, lay in the success of this sacrifice.
Without intruding, and equipped with respect and calm for man and beast, I captured these images to share. Not for sensationalism. But rather to encourage understanding.
The men crowd around the zebu and cut it open.
Emptied and open, the zebu is cut up for the pot, with all residents in the village wanting a taste of the meat and blessing.
Ironically, one of the men was wearing an Obama sponsored t-shirt, the irony of the moment was not lost on me.
Here I was, in a very remote part of a country that most of the world knows only as a result of an animated movie. A country rich with custom and tradition. Yet poverty stricken and faced with innumerable challenges. One that suffers, out of sight and mind, the decisions made by the superpowers of the world. The US included. This very ceremony set to undo the damage done.
I did smile to myself and wonder. What would Obama say if he saw his face hovering over the sacrificial zebu. The one that paid the price to right the wrongs of ocean quotas, money based decisions, greed and rivalry. Personally, I hope he’d be intrigued and take heed.
Americans were here.
To the side, fresh fish caught by the women are symbolically cooked on the beach.
I never stayed to eat or dance the night away. Which is customary. I felt that my voyeuristic nature had been sated. My eyes opened and my objectivity fuelled. I was oddly, exhausted.
That night from my room, I had the rhythmic drums and song find me across the tranquil waters. Humble me. Make me an advocate for the Betsimisaraka people and their Tsaboraha Festival.
I felt terribly ashamed that I fall into the category of people that knows the truth about why there is a lack of fish in their waters.
That knows that their gods are not angry.
That this is our doing.
Drifting off to sleep I wondered what more I could do to right our wrongs. On these beautiful undeserving people. And the once abundant creatures of the Ocean.