Jump to Content or Main Navigation

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Water and Culture: Madagascar

Water in Africa

Africa, Madagascar

by Clare Sandy, Andranomena, Madagascar

At first glance, water doesn't seem to figure very greatly in the culture of the Menabe, the region of Western Madagascar where I live. However, when you realize the importance of farming to all Malagasy people, especially rice farming, which depends on water, and how little water there is in this region, you realize how important water really is. The rainy season lasts about three months here, and during the rest of the year, ponds dry up and Andranomena River shrinks to a tiny stream. Like many other places in Madagascar, my village is named after a body of water: "Andranomena" means "at the red water."

Eating rice three times a day is so ingrained in Malagasy culture that people often say they won't be able to sleep if they have not eaten rice that day. In Marofandilia, a village north of Andranomena (where Daniela Raik, another Peace Corps Volunteer, lives), there isn't enough water to grow rice, so people grow corn and peanuts as a cash crop. Eating rice has become a status symbol for them, and they dread having to resort to eating corn when they run out of money to buy rice. When people first migrated to Marofandilia, there used to be enough water there, but in the past half-century, the ground has dried up and the rains have diminished. No one knows why, but some think it is because so much of the area has been deforested since people moved here, while others think it's a punishment from the ancestors because taboos were broken.

Though many Malagasy are Christian, many still follow traditional practices of asking for blessings from, and addressing thanksgivings to, the ancestors. This is done in a ritual called a tso-drano or tsipi-rano, in which the elder or parent sprinkles water on the person or thing being blessed with his hand, or with a branch of leaves for many people being blessed, and says the appropriate words. For example, this is done to ask for success on an exam; health, wealth and success, when getting married; safe travel; or for the successful completion of a new project, such as a new house or a new well.

by George Ritchotte, Andranomala Nord, Madagascar

Last December, when the rains were late, the men in my village conducted a special prayer to the ancestors. Wearing only loin cloths they hiked to the top of a sacred hill east of the village to a spot where the sacred stones stand. They carried with them two bottles of toaka gasy, the powerful sugar cane rum that accompanies every special occasion in this country. The bottles were placed at the foot of the stones. With everyone facing east the elders took turns praying to the ancestral spirits, asking their intercession with God to provide enough rain for the all-important rice crop. Once the prayers were finished, the bottles were passed around and, feeling good, the men returned to the village. Two days later, a powerful storm swept through the area, drenching the fields and ensuring a bountiful crop.

by Robin Larson Paulin, Andranofasika, Madagascar

Catholicism and a traditional Malagasy religion exist in my little village of 300 people and both use water in a very similar manner during ceremonies. Each calls for water to be poured on the foreheads of participants, even though the meaning of this act is different in each religion.

by Jina Sagar, Ambalahenko, Madagascar

Rice is life in Madagascar. All inhabitants of Ambalahenko are self-described rice farmers. They eat rice three meals a day and any food that goes along with it is a side dish. I find rice hulls in the children's hair. I find rice growing in the vegetable gardens. The sound of villagers pounding rice forms the backbeat of my waking hours. Burned rice water is an after-dinner drink. The growth of a rice plant is described in the same words as a woman becoming pregnant and giving birth. Rice pervades all facets of daily life, language, and tradition in Ambalahenko. The coming of rain in this Southern Hemisphere summer means planting can begin and the circle of life continues.

by Mark Danenhauer, Namoly, Madagascar

I live in the valley of Namoly, which is adjacent to the National Park of Andringitra where I work. The two most prominent features of the park are the granite cliffs of the Andringitra massif and two towering waterfalls. The first time that I saw these waterfalls, both about 60 meters high and a few hundred meters apart, I was hiking with my friend, a local guide. When I told him how enchanting I found it, a little spark flashed in his eyes. He told me that there is a story about the waterfalls.

The story takes place back when there were kings and queens in Madagascar. One king and queen badly desired to have children, but were unable to. They went to talk to an ombiasa, a witch doctor, about their problem. The ombiasa said that they needed to find a clean, unpolluted waterfall. First, they should both bathe in water. Then they should sacrifice a cow to the Razana (ancestors), who would grant them a child.

The king and queens saw the waterfalls from Ambalarao, 50 kilometers away, and came to Namoly. They performed the rites prescribed by the ombiasa. The king bathed in the west waterfall, now known as Riandahy. The queen bathed in the east one, now known as Riambary. The Razana blessed them with a child.

World Wise Speakers

Invite a Peace Corps volunteer into your classroom to share what it's like to live a global life by sharing stories, cultures and knowledge.