Religion in Madagascar
When it comes to religion in Madagascar, the country is a very tolerant one, with the freedom to practice and register different religions provided by the constitution. One of the good things about religion on the island is the different belief systems are practised together without much conflict and there may even be a bit of crossover between them.
About 50% of the population follow the system which honours the god Zanahary. This deity is neither male nor female and is believed to be all empowering with the ability to bless those who do things to favour the god and punish those who offend. This is where the term fady or taboo comes from in Malagasy culture. Different regions have different taboos and I learned that it is fady to point when you are among members of the Bara tribe. It is also fady to eat lemur meat in most parts of Madagascar and some members of the Bara tribe don’t hunt and eat wild pigs either.
According to myth Zanahary created the earth but left it barren after which Ratovoantany or the ‘self created one’ sprung up from the ground in the form of a plant. On visiting the earth Zanahary came across figures of man and woman made of clay drying in the sun and made an offer to Ratovoantany to give them life if they could be taken back to heaven. Ratovoantany refused this offer but as a compromise it was agreed life would be given to these objects but when they died their spirits would ascend to heaven with Zanahary and their bodies remain on earth.
For believers of Zanahary there is a very close link between the living and the dead. Ancestors who have passed on are the link between the living world and the supreme deity and rituals are carried out to show respect for the dead. For the Bara tribe in the southwest part of the country this involves initially burying the body in a provisional tomb at ground level with final burial taking place off the ground in tombs located in rocks or higher up on cliffs. The ceremony of moving the body to the final tomb is a great celebration and normally occurs about five years after death.
Religion in Madagascar in places like the deep south is evident in the presence of the large permanent tombs which can be seen at ground level. These tombs are often decorated with paintings of Zebu around the walls, and usually have Zebu skulls placed on top of the tomb itself with the bigger plots indicating a person of greater importance.
Christianity in the form of Protestantism and Catholicism accounts for over 40% of the religious demographics in Madagascar, with 25% being Protestant and 16% Catholic1 although it sometimes feels more than this when travelling through the country. The finest new buildings in the countryside and best cared for colonial buildings belong to these forms of Christianity. On my bus trips south covering the 930km between Antananarivo and Tulear on the southwest coast it was not unusual to see large elegant brick buildings spring up almost out of nowhere with no obvious large town or village nearby. Even in the capital, Antananarivo, the most detailed and impressive building from a design point of view is the immaculate conception Catholic cathedral high up on the hill in the old town, overlooking Lac Anosy.
The roots of Protestant Christianity on the island can be traced back to the early 19th century when the London missionary society arrived on the island. Their missionaries erected churches and went about converting the Malagasy people. Under the reign of queen Ranavalona II from 1868-1883 Protestantism became the religion of the royal court and nobility.
Catholicism was being preached by French missionaries and diplomats long before it was annexed as a colony but this is when it gained traction as a mainstream religion in Madagascar. During the French colonial period from 1896 to 1960 churches and cathedrals were built many of which are in use to this day.
Islam, Hinduism and other religions make up the remaining 10% of religion in Madagascar, with the mosque in the city centre of Antananarivo representing the most prominent evidence of religious diversity in the capital.
Men of god are held in high regard in Madagascar and get discounted bus tickets and access to areas where it would be prohibitively dangerous for anyone else to go. I got first hand experience of this when I went with a pastor I met on the route between Fort Dauphin and Antananarivo to some of the poorest areas of the capital. The pastor makes a yearly Christmas visit there to preach and hand out small offerings and invited me along to assist him in December 2018. Before entering the area, which is beside the main government administration buildings, he gave me run down of how dangerous it is as well as a reassurance that I was safe with him because he is a man of god. He was as good as his word and I came to no harm even though if I went in alone I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes without being robbed.
I found the Malagasy to be a very spiritual people with the vast majority I came across believing in a spirit world of some sort. This however being Madagascar the people were tolerant of each others beliefs and I was left with the impression that whatever religion you are there is space for you on this Island.