Circumcision ceremony in Madagascar

Circumcision in Madagascar: an essential custom

Photo : Flick user Jérôme Boivin

Circumcision in Madagascar: an essential custom

IThis tradition is compulsory for young boys in Madagascar. After being circumcised, the boy is considered a man. It is forbidden to bury an uncircumcised in the family tomb of certain Malagasy ethnic groups and the uncircumcised may not have a chance to find a wife. Circumcision is and remains a tradition rooted in Malagasy culture, but it is becoming more and more modern with new technology.

Nicolas Madagascar expert

Winter in Madagascar is often a time of celebration, and it even becomes a tradition: Famadihana (exhumation of the dead), Fisemana (a purification ceremony specific to the Antakarana ethnic group). One of the most important winter celebrating tradition is the “Didim-poitra” or circumcision. Even though the winter is harsh, the Malagasy do not forget to cultivate their enthusiasm for the holidays. Indeed, we feel the festive spirit awakening from July until October.

What is the known name of circumcision in Madagascar?

Circumcision is a ritual that aims to remove the foreskin and this is practised by all Malagasy people except certain Antandroy ethnic group. There are several names to give to this ceremony according to the tribes: “Didim-poitra”, “Famorana” or “Fahasoavan-jaza” in the central highlands, in the South-West region we call it “Savatse” and  in the region of South East it is called “Sambatra”.

Boys from Madagascar

Photo : Flick user Stéphane Le Saos

Of course, the rituals vary depending on the region and the ethical group, but the process are often the same. Among the Antambahoaka, for instance, “Sambatra” happens every 7 years in October while it is practiced annually in the other regions of Madagascar.

How did this practice come about?

Ancient stories tell that an ancient king called Andriamanelo is the first instigator of this ancient rite. It should be remembered that this king of the 16th century, qualified as a civilizing man, is at the origin of innovations of all kinds such as the forging of iron and the eating zebu meat.

During the reign of King Andrianampoinimerina this custom was celebrated as a national holiday. It was the peak of this custom and it was during the latter’s reign this practice experienced its last improvements. Thus, the king established a mandatory seven-year circumcision (every 7 years) in the  kingdom.

Little malagasy boy

Little malagasy boy

You are probably wondering the reason for the 7 years. That’s because it’s only every seven years that the first of the month of the year is a Friday. However, circumcision usually takes place in a year where the 1st day of the year begins with a Friday in Madagascar, which is considered as a holy day. To this day, this rite is still held in great honour among the Antambahoaka of Mananjary.

However, this celebration was abolished in 1869 in the region of Imerina, under the reign of the queen of Madagascar Ranavalona II, because she abandoned the traditional Malagasy religion in favour of Christianity. Since then, this ceremony has become a ceremony that takes place in private.

How does a circumcision take place in Madagascar?

For the “tonom-bitana” translated as destiny of the little boy to be favourable and also strong. The circumcision must take place during the rising moon. The full moon is not recommended, as it will favor bleeding.

Usually,it is in the house of the boy to be circumcised where circumcision takes place in Madagascar. The circumcision operation is always done at dawn, ideally before 5 a.m., but the day before, at dusk (somambisamby), a young boy whose parents are still alive (velon-dray aman-dreny, zaza tsy kamboty), will be in charge of collecting sacred water called “rano mahery” at the foot of a hill or mountain. The traditional healer also called “rain-jaza” will use this water to clean his hands, the knife (or a bamboo) and the wound left by the operation.

Old-fashioned circumcision - Madagascar

Old-fashioned circumcision – Madagascar

Sugarcane stalks (in order to wish for a “sweet” or lucky and happy life) and  bananas (to have male offspring) are also put in the house. The family members will be delighted throughout the evening where they will feast, sing, dance and drink “toaka gasy” that will be served in abundance. The men who are going to participate in the ritual will have to fast 8 days before circumcision. They will also have to do all the housework and various jobs in the house otherwise the little boy will be cowardly according to belief.

During the D-Day of the ceremony, only men composed of the grandfather, the father and the uncles are allowed to participate. The healer or “rain-jaza” is responsible for performing the operation by cutting the foreskin with bamboo or a knife. The blood that is shed on the ground for the Malagasy is a symbol of unification of the land of the ancestors with the little boy.

It will be the grandfather or the maternal uncle (zaman-jaza) to swallow the foreskin with an accompanying banana but this depends on the ethnic group. Then a cheerful crowd welcomes the child and gives him gifts. The phrase “Arahaba Ririnina e!” is told to wish happiness and congratulate the boy that has become a man and the parents.

The healer or “rain-jaza” is paid at the end of the celebration by the family with a rooster or chicken and money.

This tradition is still practised by the Malagasy people. Today, parents are opting for more modern methods, especially those in the central highlands such as American circumcision or cauterization for hygiene purposes.

Read the Madagascar Travel Guide by Nicolas

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