Visiting Madagascar? Leave Red Swimsuits (and Lemur Recipes) at Home


Behavior in Madagascar is governed by thousands of cultural taboos, or fady, that may seem random and superstitious to outsiders.

Leif Parsons

If you visit a certain beach in northeastern Madagascar, don’t wear red and don’t even think of speaking French. Across most of the island nation, be very careful where you point, lest your finger accidentally find an ancestor’s grave. And in certain areas of the country, do your best not to defecate in the same place twice.

Behavior in Madagascar is governed by thousands of cultural taboos, or fady (pronounced FAH-dee), many of which involve food (don’t eat goat or eel), days of the week (no funerals or farming on Tuesday) and objects (don’t use shovels with firm handles to bury the dead).

Specific places associated with ancestors, who are revered, also carry a lot of fady (no playing of a game similar to kick-the-can near a tomb). Some of these prohibitions apply only in a single community, or even to a single family, while others are followed regionally.

Breaking a fady invites both social shame and even direr consequences from the ancestors believed to enforce them. The repercussions can be as specific as the taboos: Sing while eating and your teeth will grow uncomfortably long.

If a fady is considered overly onerous — say, a travel restriction that interferes with a promising business opportunity — a ritual negotiation can be held with the ancestors.

To outsiders, fady can seem like a long and random list of superstitious rules, some silly (don’t build verandas, and don’t pass an egg directly to another person), some environmentally beneficial (eating most species of lemurs is fady, as is fishing in certain parts of the sea, to the benefit of coral reefs) and some harmful (among the Antambahoaka, an ethnic group in the southeast, a fady against raising twins led to a practice of abandoning them in the forest, and a fady against eating dried sweet potato has contributed to malnutrition).

But Sarah Osterhoudt, an anthropologist at Indiana University, said fady are crucial to the identity and worldview of the Malagasy, as the people of Madagascar are known.

“To the Malagasy, the idea of bringing together all different parts of life — the past and the present, the social and the political, the spiritual and the mundane” — is very important, she said. “Fady do this beautifully.”

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