The Zebu in Malagasy Culture
The Zebu in Malagasy Culture:,a subspecies of domestic cattle, Zebu play a huge role both culturally and economically in rural Madagascar. I was unaware of this until my two week trip to the Makay massif in the south west of the country. Here the significance of these easy going animals to the Bara tribe, who live in and around the area, cannot be missed. The Bara are not he only people to place this level of importance on zebu either and this happens right throughout rural Madagascar.
They are a source of wealth, importance and have many customs associated with them. Members of the Bara tribe regard Zebu in Malagasy culture as above other material possession such as houses or jewellery and a man with a few hundred head of zebu may stay in a in a small hut and live very simply.
For me one of the most fascinating parts of the culture around zebu is the practice of stealing them. I first heard about this on the way to Makay and got more information from the driver of the 4×4 on the second day, whose other job is as an undertaker.
“Zebu theft is very common within the tribe and it is seen as a test of courage. Before a man can marry, he must ask the permission of the would-be bride’s parents and they are sure to ask if he has stolen Zebu. If the answer is no, then the chance of acceptance of the man’s proposal is slim,” he told me.
“But it is illegal to steal zebu,” I commented.
“Yes, but that is not important for marriage proposals. If the man has stolen Zebu the question then is how many and how often have you stolen them? The answer to this question can greatly improve the possibility of acceptance,” he explained.
“So, there are Zebu stealers in Makay?” I asked.
“Yes, I have seen them on the trail when I have taken tourists out there, but the important thing is to just say nothing and never take pictures of them,” he said emphasising never.
“I would be afraid to take any photos of them,” I replied, truthfully.
“You have to understand that wealth for the Bara tribe is measured in number of Zebu a person has with things such as houses or other possessions not as important. The houses they build are functional as they may be burnt when there are cattle raids. Clothing and jewellery are also not that important here and a man with 500 head of zebu might live in a small hut. That’s the way of the tribe.”
“You seem to know a lot about this?” I questioned.
“Yes, because I am from the village of Beroroha but moved away for university in Tana (short for Antananarivo). I studied marketing there for four years.”
During my time in Makay I came across both zebu stealers and others protecting herds from thievery. On one of the first days hiking we encountered an armed man driving cattle down river. It turned out he was moving them for their owner and didn’t mind when I got my camera out. The following day two men who were also armed came into the camp where we were having lunch. As they approached it was obvious they almost had a buzz about them as they walked. I wanted to get a photo but Hery, my guide, said it would not be appropriate this time. They had actually spent the night helping to steal a zebu and were all going to meet again under the cover of darkness to share out the meat, hence their level of excitement.
Hery is married to a woman from the Bara tribe and custom dictates that he needed to prove his mettle by stealing a zebu. However Hery’s position being what it is means he couldn’t exactly head off into Makay and round out a zebu to prove his bravery so he bought one instead and gave it to his bride’s parents. Stealing zebu seemed to me almost like a game and is certainly not done just for economic benefit but is really important in the life of young men as they reach adulthood.
The significance of Zebu in Malagasy Culture even stretch into the afterlife and there are many tombs in the southern half of the country decorated with paintings of zebu. Some of them are quite large, with the 4 walls forming a square 4-5 feet high and 10 feet long for the larger tombs. On top of the tombs there can be many zebu skulls with horns still in place and the bigger the tomb the more important the person was.
Zebu have a place in death rituals also and can be seen on boxes used to carry bones during reburial ceremonies before they are placed in their final tomb. These zebu models or carvings are decorated black to signify the animals are grieving for their owner.
Zebu are very common in rural Madagascar and they play a very significant role in everyday life. If you ever end up in the countryside I suggest asking about their importance locally up as it is sure to be an intriguing story.