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Colby College

Publication Date

Fall 2007

Program Name

Madagascar: Culture and Society


I don’t know much about hainteny. It’s an elusive form to me still, for by nature it’s only a foggy representation of a culture that I can never truly be a part of. And anyway, even many members of the Malagasy population are uncertain of the plethora of possible meanings behind this literature, as I was told on more than one occasion when I discussed my plans to study these mysterious verses.

Luckily, though, I do know poetry, and while hainteny may fall outside any Western parameters set up to define this medium, it nonetheless exists in the same way: it is a manipulation of words intended to represent a certain experience of time and place. The old creators of this Merina poetry must have known this too when they called their collections hainteny, loosely translated as “art of the word,” for after all, art is often little more than our attempt to manipulate life into something tangible, something we can classify more easily than the enigmas of our own human nature.

It didn’t take me long in the course of my study to figure out that for the Malagasy this “something,” didn’t reach much further than – literally – their own backyard. Nearly every example of hainteny that I encountered felt heavy with a unique sort of nature imagery, one that, for all its vagueness and tangles, always succeeds in transporting the reader to the vast landscape of Madagascar’s highlands, also known as Imerina, or land of the Merina, at one time the most prominent and powerful ethnic group on the island.

It takes a good deal of digging to even get down to the first layer of meaning behind these descriptions, but by recognizing the attempts within hainteny to first of all describe things that are inherently human, things that any reader should be able to wrap their finger around, the meaning becomes more clear.

For example, the most common form of hainteny is actually the love poem, which might as well be the most common form of the entire world’s poetry for the infinite amount of times it has been re-created, the subject over-analyzed while remaining elusive. The unique thing about hainteny, however, is that it uses the imagery of animals, plants, landforms and even natural processes to describe that most intense of all human emotions, or on a literal level, the contracts and negotiations of marriage.

The scope of this craft is a powerful one. These descriptive techniques work to shine a rare light on a culture that is truly unlike any other in the world. From it, we can at least begin to understand the literal roots of the Merina. With hainteny, suddenly the strange idea of ancestral worship becomes something we can grasp, while the indisputable importance of the homeland seems no more than a given.

This study will attempt to show, through analysis and emulation of hainteny, how this rare glimpse into the rich heritage of the Merina is achieved not only in the creation of these original verses of those wise old orations, but also how it influenced the work of the most famous and respected individual writer of Madagascar, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Ultimately, I have placed myself in the same position as these long-gone poets to create my own emulations of this poetry. And as I happen to be looking over the same panoramas of Imerina, I hope to be able to share a new understanding of the way inspiration is drawn from this majestic land, this place where mornings are full of promise while sunsets sing only of sadness and regret.


African Languages and Societies | Creative Writing


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