Category Archives: Africa

Dancing with the dead

BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | Madagascar’s dance with the dead

To outsiders dancing with the corpse of a dead loved one, years
after their demise, might seem ghoulish. But as Jonny Hogg reports, to
the people of Madagascar, it is a ritual of respect for their departed
ancestors.

Turning of the Bones in Madagascar

Turning of the Bones is a centuries old ritual

The band, a cacophonous near harmony of tattered trumpets and elderly clarinets, has been has been playing for hours now.

The hilltop is crowded. The entire community has come to this spot, some distance from the village of Vatolaivy.

People talk and smile, many are drunk, most are dancing and a
little distance away from the tomb two entrepreneurial women have set
up a stall selling cigarettes and frozen yoghurt.

But it is the tomb itself that is the centre of attention.

Indeed it is for the occupants of the low, flat brick structure that these festivities are taking place.

Masons chip away, unsealing the small stone door.

Finally, the sepulchre is open. I am invited to enter with Roger, whose family are buried here.

Inside the air is dry, with a strong, almost spiced, graveyard scent.

On either side of the room are stone beds, and on them lie the
bodies of Roger’s parents and his grandparents, wrapped in yellowing
cloth.

Turning of the Bones

He stands proudly amongst his ancestors, introducing me to them almost formally, patting each corpse lightly to identify it.

I emerge once more into the harsh sunlight. Behind me, one by
one and with great care, the bodies are carried out of the tomb and
laid upon the ground, cradled gently by their relatives.

The rest of the village crowd around, spectators to this piece of family theatre.

At last even the band comes to a stumbling halt. A sort of silence descends.

One girl is holding her dead mother in her arms. She makes no noise but tears stream down her face.

Map of Madagascar

This is the Malagasy tradition of famadihana, or the Turning of the Bones.

It is unique to the Indian Ocean island, a ritual carried out
for centuries that may have had its roots in the culture and traditions
of South East Asia, some 6,000km (3,728 miles) away, from whence
Madagascar was first colonised.

For many outsiders the practice, which involves exhuming dead
relatives, rewrapping them in fresh grave clothes and dancing with them
around the tomb, can seem almost impossibly strange, ghoulish even.

But for the Malagasy, for whom ancestral worship remains important, it is an essential way of maintaining ties with the dead.

Jean Pierre, a family member, told me why famadihana mattered.

“It’s important because it’s our way of respecting the dead,” he
told me. “It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the
country, to come together.”

‘Act of love’

Anthropologist Professor Maurice Bloch, who has studied the
ritual, says this idea of reunion, between the dead and the living and
also the family land, is key.

Turning of the Bones in Madagascar

The ceremony is also a chance for a family reunion

It is an evocation of being together again, a
transformation of sorts so that the dead can experience once more the
joys of life. But, most importantly he says, at its heart, famadihana
is an act of love.

But some oppose the practice. Certain urbanised Malagasy find the idea outdated and strange in the 21st Century.

There have also been clashes with Christianity. Early
missionaries to the country tried to stop it and today increasing
numbers of evangelical Christians are turning away from famadihana.

Perhaps surprisingly though, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the country, no longer opposes it.

For his part Jean Pierre stressed that in any case it is not a religious ceremony, but a tradition.

Tears to laughter

Back outside the tomb the family begins to tenderly rewrap the bodies with fresh cloth, called lambas, bought at great expense.

The mood lightens and the band strikes up once more.

The corpses are lifted onto shoulders, and with much laughing and jostling they are half carried, half danced around the tomb.

Every few steps with a whoop, the bearers lift them even higher.

I notice the girl who had been crying earlier is smiling and joking with the rest.

This is another transformation and another purpose of
famadihana. To convert, almost forcibly, by the requirements of the
ritual, grief into happiness.

To outsiders dancing with the corpse of a dead loved one, years after their demise, might seem ghoulish. But as Jonny Hogg reports, to the people of Madagascar, it is a ritual of respect for their departed ancestors.

Turning of the Bones in Madagascar
Turning of the Bones is a centuries old ritual

The band, a cacophonous near harmony of tattered trumpets and elderly clarinets, has been has been playing for hours now.

The hilltop is crowded. The entire community has come to this spot, some distance from the village of Vatolaivy.

People talk and smile, many are drunk, most are dancing and a little distance away from the tomb two entrepreneurial women have set up a stall selling cigarettes and frozen yoghurt.

But it is the tomb itself that is the centre of attention.

Indeed it is for the occupants of the low, flat brick structure that these festivities are taking place.

Masons chip away, unsealing the small stone door.

Finally, the sepulchre is open. I am invited to enter with Roger, whose family are buried here.

Inside the air is dry, with a strong, almost spiced, graveyard scent.

On either side of the room are stone beds, and on them lie the bodies of Roger’s parents and his grandparents, wrapped in yellowing cloth.

Turning of the Bones

He stands proudly amongst his ancestors, introducing me to them almost formally, patting each corpse lightly to identify it.

I emerge once more into the harsh sunlight. Behind me, one by one and with great care, the bodies are carried out of the tomb and laid upon the ground, cradled gently by their relatives.

The rest of the village crowd around, spectators to this piece of family theatre.

At last even the band comes to a stumbling halt. A sort of silence descends.

One girl is holding her dead mother in her arms. She makes no noise but tears stream down her face.

Map of Madagascar

This is the Malagasy tradition of famadihana, or the Turning of the Bones.

It is unique to the Indian Ocean island, a ritual carried out for centuries that may have had its roots in the culture and traditions of South East Asia, some 6,000km (3,728 miles) away, from whence Madagascar was first colonised.

For many outsiders the practice, which involves exhuming dead relatives, rewrapping them in fresh grave clothes and dancing with them around the tomb, can seem almost impossibly strange, ghoulish even.

But for the Malagasy, for whom ancestral worship remains important, it is an essential way of maintaining ties with the dead.

Jean Pierre, a family member, told me why famadihana mattered.

“It’s important because it’s our way of respecting the dead,” he told me. “It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.”

‘Act of love’

Anthropologist Professor Maurice Bloch, who has studied the ritual, says this idea of reunion, between the dead and the living and also the family land, is key.

Turning of the Bones in Madagascar
The ceremony is also a chance for a family reunion
It is an evocation of being together again, a transformation of sorts so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But, most importantly he says, at its heart, famadihana is an act of love.

But some oppose the practice. Certain urbanised Malagasy find the idea outdated and strange in the 21st Century.

There have also been clashes with Christianity. Early missionaries to the country tried to stop it and today increasing numbers of evangelical Christians are turning away from famadihana.

Perhaps surprisingly though, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the country, no longer opposes it.

For his part Jean Pierre stressed that in any case it is not a religious ceremony, but a tradition.

Tears to laughter

Back outside the tomb the family begins to tenderly rewrap the bodies with fresh cloth, called lambas, bought at great expense.

The mood lightens and the band strikes up once more.

The corpses are lifted onto shoulders, and with much laughing and jostling they are half carried, half danced around the tomb.

Every few steps with a whoop, the bearers lift them even higher.

I notice the girl who had been crying earlier is smiling and joking with the rest.

This is another transformation and another purpose of famadihana. To convert, almost forcibly, by the requirements of the ritual, grief into happiness.

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Insights into black family patterns

Class Looks at the Roots of the Black Family
August 12, 2008 — As people of African descent became dispersed all
over the world — mostly to the Americas and mostly through forced
migration as slaves — the definition of “family” by necessity took on
different meanings.

“Black families have been known to incorporate people and create wider
associations,” said Todné Thomas, a doctoral student in anthropology at
the University of Virginia who taught a summer course called “Kinfolks,
Families and Relating in the African Diaspora.”

Black families, she said, can be seen as resilient and flexible in
their cooperation and continuity. A family “is a socially recognized
unit” that is not only biological but also social.

“‘Kinfolks’ is a vernacular term for expressing relationships,” Thomas said.

In the course, students read anthropology, history, sociology and
public policy to look at how Africans who moved or were moved to South
America and the Caribbean, as well as North America, found ways to
maintain an extended family structure. At the time, Western norms of
family arrangement were foreign to them, Thomas said.

Coincidentally, CNN provided a real-time exercise with its two-part
series, “Black in America,” highlighting some of the issues the class
delved into in more depth and breadth.

The class decided to write a letter to the television network
critiquing the documentary — which, for starters, split the episodes
into “The Black Woman and Family” and “The Black Male.”

Although it presented a large family reunion and told the stories of
some of its members, it still relied on the assumption that the
patriarchal nuclear family with mother and father is the normative
family structure.

Another point they discussed was that the show did not capture the
diversity within the U.S. population of black people. Thomas, for
example, is conducting field work on the West Indian Brethren Church in
Atlanta, which comprises people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and
Guyana.

“The students had great insights,” Thomas said of their reaction to the CNN show.

She had her 10 students study not only how slavery hampered that family
unit centuries ago, but also how later social policies unwittingly
undermined that model.

Jumping to the 1960s, the class read about policymakers who based their
welfare programs on the norm of the heterosexual nuclear family and
immutable gender roles. If there was a male in the household, it was
assumed no assistance would be needed, so only women with dependent
children received aid. The stereotype of “welfare mothers” developed,
and the prevalence of female-headed households still is usually
portrayed in a negative light.

Kendall Nicholson, a rising third-year architecture major, said, “I
wanted to take this class because I think it is important culturally to
understand what, socially, people often tend to misunderstand.”

The small group allowed for lively discussion of several related topics
and group projects, Thomas said. In addition to readings, the students
were also exposed to different perspectives through visual media,
including other documentaries.

Chelsea Green, a fourth-year psychology major in the early education
master’s program in the Curry School, said, “Now that we have delved
into some readings and I have learned more about past West African and
African-American families, this class forces me to look at my present
idea and conception of family.”

Myah Marshall, a student in the Rainey Academic Program for incoming
first-years to get acquainted with the University, decided to “test the
waters” with the class.

“It is very interesting to see the different structures of black
families, along with seeing the different ways in which these
structures are made possible,” she said. “Since the class is smaller,
the discussions are much more intimate.”

The class also looked at the emergence of genetic ancestry testing and what it means for racial heritage and identity.

The students’ final project involved using digital media to compare
traditional genealogical research with the new industry of genetic
ancestry testing.

In the past, science was misused to determine or describe racial
identity, Thomas said. She wanted her students to think about the
compelling personal reasons for researching one’s past and to consider
a wide range of social, cultural