Madagascar: Les Ancetres Au Quotidien: Usages Sociaux Du Religieux Sur Les Hautes-Terres Malgaches. (Book Reviews: Anthropology of Religion)

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RAKOTOMALALA, MALANJAONA, SOPHIE BLANCY & FRANCOISE RAISON-JOURDE. Madagascar: les ancetres au quotidien: usages sociaux du religieux sur les Hautes-Terres Malgaches. 529 pp., bibliogr. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2001. 280 FF (paper)

Visitors to Imerina, the central region of Madagascar, immediately notice the prevalence of churches and tombs. Merina religion has been largely described with respect to the legacy of the Protestant missionaries, on the one hand, and the famous tomb-entering and bone-rewrapping rituals (famadihana), on the other. This valuable book charts an original and timely course by uncovering a whole series of rites, shrines, and pilgrimages devoted to royal ancestors and nature spirits in the countryside and even within the capital itself.

The book is a collaboration between Raison-Jourde, the pre-eminent French historian of Madagascar, two anthropologists, and a number of research assistants. The result reads at times like a compendium of diverse reports choosing breadth of regional and temporal coverage over sustained analysis, but the pieces come together, notably in Raison-Jourde's magisterial synthesis of social history, as a common argument about the various uses of the past, discerned historically, geographically, and, most interestingly, along lines of social class. In Imerina, class has an historical dimension as it is intertwined with the traditional status groups and complex ranking system of the Merina kingdom. There also unfold several sympathetically written ethnographic analyses of discrete phenomena like the practices of individual healers and clients and an extraordinary ritual against hail in which specialists in neighbouring villages play a kind of meteorological football to push the bad weather into each other's territory.

The book builds slowly and at times presupposes a certain familiarity with Madagascar, but for those who persevere there is some really interesting material about the competition among descendants of various status groups (nobility, commoners, and slaves) over historical sites and tombs and hence over historical consciousness itself. Where members of the urban and rural poor look to these sites as sources of healing, crop protection, or anchorage for landless or ancestorless former slaves, and interact with the royal ancestral figures there through forms of subjection (service and possession), other groups use the same sites to reinforce their claims to land (often as absentee landlords) or even to establish the reintroduction of the Merina monarchy, removed at the onset of French colonial occupation well over a century ago. Hence, as the title to one chapter aptly puts it, the struggle is over the privatization or sharing of the ancestors. …