The Betsimisaraka, literally “Those who do not separate”, make up an important Malagasy ethnic group occupying the east coast of the island, from Mananjary to Vohémar. It is the second largest tribe in Madagascar.
Living in a humid tropical climate, these warm and welcoming people draw their culture of nonchalance and joie de vivre from the rich natural setting consisting of dense forest, lush vegetation and long white sandy beach.
Birth of the Betsimirasaka Kingdom
It was around 1720 that Ratsimilaho, son of the English pirate Thomas White and the Malagasy Rahena, conquered Fenoarivo or “the city of a thousand warriors” with the help of the northern peoples called the Antavaratra. He then would have made a blood pact with the allied tribal leaders to strengthen their alliance forever. Thus was born the first Betsimisaraka Kingdom on which this conqueror ruled under the name of Ramaromanompo or “the one who is served by many people”.
The Betsimisaraka people
This large ethnic group is made up of about 1.5 million Betsimirasaka spread over approximately 72,000 km² of Madagascar’s eastern coastline. They are a sedentary people who live mainly from slash-and-burn agriculture and fishing. This part of the island is dependent on a social organization based on a principle of chiefdoms called tanky.
A chiefdom gathers the descendants of the same lineage having in common an ancestor and a lônjobe or main tomb, and is governed by a set of fady (prohibitions). A lineage can be divided into sub-lineages called taranaka and lead to the creation of a secondary tomb called tranomanara.
The life of the Betsimisaraka
In large cities like Toamasina and Mananjary, the lifestyle is strongly influenced by the western culture, but apart from that, traditional way of life still exists. Many Betsimisaraka still live in stilt houses made of plant materials, known as trano falafa, live from agriculture (including slash-and-burn rice farming), fishing and animal husbandry.
Collective mutual assistance or the famous firaisankina (a derivative of fihavanana) is still very present in Betsimisaraka villages. At every possible opportunity, they celebrate: collective singing and dancing, characterized by hip swings reminiscent of Polynesian dances.
Man and Woman in Betsimisaraka society
Women wear lambahoany (long fabric with patterns) and masonjoany (beauty and sun protection mask) on a daily basis, otherwise a shirt or akanjobe and a pencil skirt or saimbo. Men sometimes wear lambahoany, if not shorts and a shirt or T-shirt.
Even if the man is the head of the household and the village, the woman is the mistress of the house and her opinions are always seriously taken into account. The woman keeps the property she inherited or received and in the event of divorce, the common property is shared equally, contrary to the custom of the Highlands.
As in all Malagasy societies, the ancestors influence the daily life of the Betsimisaraka. Famadihana or tsaboraha (turning of the dead) and joro (communication with ancestors) are two very important ceremonies. The tombs are always built far from the villages, in the depths of the forest, and are sacred places. Nosy Antafana, one of the islets of the Marine National Park of Mananara Nord was once a burial site.
The Betsimisaraka and the forest
According to the Betsimisaraka belief, the forest is a sacred place where the dead are buried and where supernatural beings also inhabit, including tsiny and kalanôro. It is a dangerous place where the metamorphosis of death takes place. People never enter it without their dog or a knife.
To cultivate rice safely, it is therefore essential to burn all the surrounding trees. That’s how slash-and-burn farming is explained! However, economic difficulties and the arrival of new migrants tend to change attitudes and ‘eclipse’ some of these beliefs!