Digging up the Dead

Reporter: Marion Mayer-Hohdahl

Camera: Jean-Pascal Bublex

VT Editor: Danny van Vuuren


Nr 3. at 22.14


1.00 Pictures start


Early morning in Madagascar. This Indian Ocean spice island is a melting pot of peoples. Malays, Polynesians, Chinese, Arabs and Africans live and have intermingled here.


It's the fourth largest island in the world - but also one of the poorest countries.  Eighty-five percent of the population are rural.  And, their traditions are deeply rooted.

1.35 - 1.45 TITLE  


It looks like a festival. But it's not. The Rakotondrazaka family, have gathered together from all over the island to honour their dead.


In Europe, cemeteries are quiet places.  In Madagascar, people let themselves go.  Family members dance, sing and celebrate. They're happy to see their dead again.


The family grave is opened, and left for one hour to breathe.  Poisonous gases must dissipate before the men can climb into the grave.


This custom is called FAMADIHA (pronounced Famadie-a) and is common in the highlands of Madagascar, when people can afford to pay for it.  The Madagascans open their graves at regular intervals.  Strangers are not usually allowed.  We were lucky. Up to 100 skeletons, bones and remains of the dead are laid to rest in graves like these. The dead of the Rakotondrazaka family have lain together for the last 30 years.



Small bottles with names found in clothing identify the dead.  Everyone has his or her correct place.



The dead are lifted from the graves in mats.



Family members vie to carry the remains.



The dead are shown to the family anti-clockwise. They believe this helps to confuse the evil spirits, so they can't find their way to the village.



For Madagascans the dead are not really dead. They are ancestors.  They are a part of the family. Their souls live on.  They are thanked. They have helped the family with the harvest or by blessing them with children.  New family members are introduced.  The ancestors are informed about everything which has happened since they passed away.



Everyone looks at the remains to convince themselves that they belong to their branch of the family.



Fourteen dead are taken from the grave and handed over to their relatives.



It was probably the Indonesians, who migrated to Madagascar betwen the ninth and 13th centuries, who brought this tradition to the island.



One of them died shortly after landing and was buried. The family moved further up into the highlands.  Later, they collected the body to place him in a family grave. The soul, they believe, can only find peace when resting in a family grave.



The return of the dead is a joyful occasion - even if some of those present are overwhelmed.



At the Famadiha - the bone turning ceremony - money is no object.  Musicians are always present. Cattle are slaughtered.  Relatives and friends are invited to eat.  Often, more than a years' income is spent.



The remains of the dead are cleaned, turned, and wrapped in a fresh shroud. For Madagascans, the dead are worth more than the living.



The new shrouds are made of silk.  It's believed the souls of the dead are in the land of the shadows from where they observe their descendants. Despite the fact most Madagascans call themselves Christian, they strictly adhere to their pagan traditions.



Pieces of old shrouds are often taken by the women. They put the shreds under their pillows - to bring luck, and the blessing of many children.



Madagascans believe that at the moment of death the spirit and soul separate from the body. Both become immortal. Independence from the family in the world of the dead is not possible. Expulsion from the family  or a refusal to be buried in the family grave, is the worst punishment that a Madagascan can imagine. Worse than death itself.



original sound

Rodolphe Rakotondrazaka, farmer

For us, the soul never dies, even when you are dead or turned to dust. The soul floats around us. It's everywhere. Even when you are at home. It has a huge importance in our life.



After the dead have been shown to all those present, they are placed back in the grave.



Famadihas were banned during the French colonial period in Madagascar.  But the population stuck to their traditions - even if it led to punishment.



For thirty years the Rakotandrazaka family has been unable to hold a bone turning ceremony. They didn't have enough money.



Now, they want to have a Famadiha every seven years.  Many Madagascans consider seven a lucky number.



The stone slab closes the grave until the next ancestor ceremony.  Madagascans don't believe in reward or punishment in the after life. They have no paradise nor hell. This belief often brings them into conflict with the established church.




The rural population saves every penny for an appropriate grave stone. They don't want to annoy the spirits of the ancestors by trying to save money.



A new grave, like this one, costs 25 million Madagascan francs - about 4'500 US dollars. For most people here, this is a fortune.



Everyone in Rodolphes family has to help out.  The daughters look after the animals.  All three are still going to school. Every penny is considered carefully before being spent.



The economic situation in the country isn't exactly rosy.  Nationalisation at the end of the 1980's led to a reduction in investment.



Everyone tries to survive as best they can.  Rodolphe makes bricks which he sells. They're just a few kilometres from the capital of Madagascar, but there's no electricity supply.  Water is hauled from the well.  The roads are in a terrible condition.  The World Bank has invested millions to improve the roads, but it's hard to see where the money has gone.



Everyone complains the money has disappeared into the pockets of the politicians. Not much is left for the rest of the population.



original sound

Rodolphe Rakotondrazaka


The time to have a Famadiha, is defined by the purse.

When someone has millions, it's childs play.



original sound

Solo Rakotondrazaka

It was very difficult for us to get the money together.  School costs a lot. But it was wonderful to see my father again.



Madagascans still have a deep feeling of belonging - to the family, as well as to the village.

Rodolphe is the village musician. After work, the villagers often come together to sing.





We're on the way to one of the most impressive ceremonies held in Madagascar. As well as the Famadiha there is the Ancestor festival of Fitampoha - the ceremony of Eternal Rest. It's particularly important for the Sakalaven clan.  It's a religious event and only takes place every five years.




Our two day journey from the east to the west coast is an adventure. We end up stuck in a river.  Our film cassettes are soaked, but luckily still usable.



We're in Belo - a small village in Tsiribihina. The Zomba (stress Zum - ba) is the house where the holy relics of all the Sakalaven kings are kept.  Every five years it is cleaned, newly painted and decorated with red ribbons.



The Sakalaven, who believe in the reincarnation of kings, meet in the house of the current Sakalaven queen. The women feel deeply moved by the spirit of the king and often fall into a trance.  Their clothing is similar to those of the kings and their servants hundreds of years ago.

The queen and all the Sakalaven women wear a traditional hairstyle for the Fitampoha ceremony.



original sound

Colette Kamamy

Queen of the Sakalaven

The young don't respect our traditions these days. It's not like it was earlier.  But, the Sakalaven support me, and give me everything that I need to live.



The Sakalava clan is one of about 20 population groups in Madagascar.  Their area reaches almost over the entire length of the west coast -approximately a quarter of the area of the whole country.



For the Fitampoha - the bath of the royal relics - a village is created. Huts are built on holy places on the river. The Sakalava live here for eight days.





Members of the Sakalava clan come together from all over Madagascar. According to them about five million people belong to the various Sakalava groups.  In Belo thousands of believers have gathered together.  It is the most important event in the life of a Sakalavan.



The door of Zomba - the holy place - opens.  Carriers of the relics appear with the precious remains of the kings. They are stored in cases made from crocodile leather and decorated with metal.






Every part has a meaning. The hair of the king symbolises his wisdom.  The fingernails show the direction to his people. A piece of the skull symbolises intelligence, a part of the ear the readiness of the king to listen to the people.



The procession leads from Belo to the temporary holy village, seven kilometres away. After a week, the remains of the 10 kings will be washed there.



The queen leads the procession over the last kilometres to the tent of the relics. They will remain there until they are washed in the river.



The next day the people move and take everything with them.  At the holy place of the washing there are special laws which everyone - including foreigners - have to respect. Shoes cannot be worn. At a temperature of 35 degrees in the mid-day heat, that makes treading on the sand virtually impossible. It's also forbidden to wear any kind of head covering.  Eating pig or poultry is also forbidden. So are plastic objects.



Magloire Kamany

Son of the Sakalava Queen

The Famadiha is to honour one's ancestors, the ancestors of every family. In order to have the blessings of their family, they do the Famadiha. The Fitampoha is different. The Fitampoha is to get the blessings of the god of creation. Because we believe that the dead kings are placed just after demi-gods in the hierarchy of the world of the dead.



But this time, the gods were obviously unhappy with the Fitampoha festival. On the third day half of the village burnt down.  Some said the toilets and showers which had been installed put a curse on the tradition, and that's why the fire had broken out.



During the festival, the Sakalava wear their finest clothes and jewellery.  Many lost everything in the fire.



The spirit of the kings overcomes some of his people. They go into a trance and ask the reason for the fire.



original sound

Chantal Kamany

I thought of the relics.  We couldn't do anything about the fire. But the Fitampoha festival has to continue.



Chantal Kamany

member of the royal family

We didn't respect the tradtion.  The relics signify the purity of the ancestors.  We have sullied them by building toilets and showers. They have to be removed. Our culture is more important.



Because the traditions haven't been adhered to apologies are performed at the royal graves. The carriers of the relics which undertake this task. They are shown a great deal of respect. The honour goes from father to son. For Vazahas (pronounced Vasahs) - strangers and foreigners - visiting the royal graves is generally tabu. The relic carriers first have to ask the spirits of the dead for their permission.



The Madagascans trust the wisdom of the ancestors.  The Sakalaven request the spirits of the kings to protect the Fitampoha festival from further disaster.



The first slug of local rum is to placate the ancestors. The relic carriers commit themselves to maintain all the traditional laws from now on.



original sound

Misara Mahagina

relic carrier

The ancestors always help us. We hope, that they are also doing it now.  They give us children, wealth and good harvests. We have requested them to let the Fitampoha festival continue without any further mishaps.



It's not only the spirits of the kings that should help.  One hundred kilometres north of Belo is the Tsingy National park. Many lemurs live here, and here the graves of the Vazimbas can be found. They are supposed to be the oldest residents of Madagascar.



The oldest grave site in Madagascar can only be reached by river. It requires special permission to visit.



Magloire Kamany (pronounced Magloir Kamaam), the queen's son and other family members are trying everything to put the spirits of the ancestors in a good mood. Hence this journey.



The graves lie in rocks high above the water.  According to traditional law, the Fadys,  the way must be climbed without shoes.



The ancestors are soothed with prayers and rum and are promised the Fadys will continue to be observed. Only the wisest of the clan is entitled to lift a prohibition. That didn't happen this time at the Fitampoha festival. So, now they have promised that the toilets and showers in the village will be removed.



 The Vazimba grave site can no longer be visited by foreigners. In the past they took too many bones as souvenirs.  The gods are asked to pardon this.



original sound

Magloire Kamany

son of the Sakalava Queen

Visitors have come from the five continents to the Fitampoha festival.. We want to show our ancestor festivals and the best that our country has to offer.  But our traditions must be maintained. That's why we are here.



A few days before the holy washing of the royal relics special branches are cut.  They must be straight and strong enough to hold the relics.



In anticipation, many women, overcome by the spirit, fall into a state of ecstasy.



Today is also the day when the women have a free rein.  They can chose men they want to sleep with. It doesn't matter whether they are married or not. It's only the men who are punished if they show signs of jealousy. This so-called Valabé night is one of the high points of the Sakalava festival.



Every day, the queen and her followers sit under the sun shade.  Traditional music and songs are played in the afternoon. They sing of the feats of the kings.



Those who have been possessed by the spirits of the ancestors sit at her side. Through them the spirit of the dead communicates his wishes.



original sound


I got sick and no one could help me.  It was as if someone had caressed my body.  In royal Zomba (pronounced Zum/ba - silent ba) one of the dead Sakalava kings spoke to me.  He told me about our earlier misfortune and said we had to maintain our traditions. He continues to live through me.



The spirits are appeased.  Huts are built again. The modern installations have disappeared.



Whoever wants to go to the toilet now has to go in the bushes, just like their forefathers did. Washing now takes place in the river.  The days roll on in the same way.  Every afternoon the Sakalava get together.  The morning belongs to the traders. Many people in the region hope to make a lot of money during the eight day festival.



Belo is usually a sleepy village of around 25'000 residents.  During the festival this number increases dramatically.  This family is hoping to make some extra money by selling fried fish. They also offer face masks made from dried plants to protect against the sun's rays.



original sound



We live well together with the Sakalava. Now, we can earn some additional money. That's why we like the Fitampoha festival.



This family comes from the steppes of the south. Because of drought they came to Belo. They grow cassava, maize and millet.  Madagascans live in large families - from 70 up to 100 people. Everyone cares for each other.



For Madagascans, Zebu cattle mean wealth - also rice. Whoever owns rice, is held in high esteem.


Top grade rice is exported, poorer quality rice is imported from Pakistan and India. The rural population sells everything they grow. The staple diet is rice - three times a day.  And, when there's money, they have it with meat or fish.  In many parts of the country, the people are suffering from malnutrition. Medical care leaves a lot to be desired.  There are not enough schools. Over 60 per cent of the population are illiterate. Madagascar limps behind other developing countries.


Poverty and backwardness don't spoil the mood of the festival. Finally, the long awaited day arrives: the washing of the royal relics.


The carriers take the relics from the tent. Those possessed by the spirit of the forefathers are concecrated with rum.


As happened every day during the celebrations, a Zebu cow is slaughtered. The meat is taken care of by the royal family.  Apologies were made to the spirits of the animal earlier.



It's believed the  blood on the sword brings luck to the Sakalaven youngsters.



Traditional drumming with always the same beat, gets the crowd into the mood.



The relics are carried past the queen. This festival has been in existence for over 600 years. It was only banned during the French colonial era. Afterwards the festival was celebrated every 10 years. But since 1988 it takes place every five years, so the beliefs and traditions are not lost to the young.



The relic carriers and the members of the royal family go into the river.  For the last 24 hours, no one has been allowed to wash in the river. Any disturbance of the water was forbidden. Even boats couldn't go on the river. The water has to be pure.


The relics are washed. Now, it's another five years until the next Fitampoha - the highest religious celebration of the Sakalava.


After eight days of the ancestor festival, it's time to go back to the capital of Madagascar.  Near the coastal city of Morandava we discovered, old, erotic grave sculptures.



A large part of the sculptures have disappeared. The locals accuse tourists of stealing them.



The wooden sculptures show the fertility of women and the virility of men. In Madagascar, a large family means wealth.



Today, new graves are built from cement. There are no sculptures. The tradition has come to an end - out of pure greed.



original sound

village resident

Our grave stones have been damaged.  People here don't want foreigners coming and taking photos anymore. That way other people will know that there are still sculptures here.



But in the village, people tried to sell us old grave carvings.



Lack of money makes people try to sell the sculptures.  Madagascans live frugally and simply.  But for the dead and their grave stones, nothing is spared.



In the highlands of Madagascar, many houses are decorated with flags in the months between July and September to show they are celebrating their ancestors.


This is the Ramamonjisoa. Two pigs have been slaughtered, 100 kilos of rice cooked. Eating takes place in shifts and even the neighbours are there.



Everyone gets a plate of rice with meat, before the dead are carried through the streets.


The sister, the oldest member of the family, who died far away is now carried home for the farewell.


During the celebrations, the living have the opportunity to tell the ancestors about their troubles and needs. The ancestors have more power in the hereafter than they ever had in their real life, to help them.



Hundreds of people do this. Their belief in the power of the ancestors is deeply rooted.



The dead are generally put in the family grave a year after their death. Until then, they are placed next to the grave until the family has enough money to open the grave stone. That happens on a precise date.



original sound

Louis Rakotovao

astrologer for ancestor festivals

We are even respected by the government.  When we fix a date, and the family chooses another date, a disaster could happen to them.  They could even die.



This old man is an Mpanadro (silent M - pronounced Panandru). He's highly respected in the village. He is the one who selects the most favourable day for ancestor festivals and weddings. The Madagascans believe in the spirits of people, animals and the dead.  The instructions of the spirits of the ancestors are strictly followed even when outsiders consider them absurd. For the Madagascans it is a rule of life, and they've been following them since childhood.


It's a sad event when a relative dies far from home and cannot be brought back. When this happens the family erects memorial stones to remind them eternally of their ancestors. The material life of a Madagascan has now come to an end - a new life in another form can begin.





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