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Bard College

Publication Date

Spring 2007

Program Name

Madagascar: Culture and Society


There was a time, long ago, when a small lake or reservoir had formed in a remote area whose location still remains a mystery today. One day, a king was passing through this region. He desperately needed water and searched and searched, but to no avail. Finally, he found this lake and was able to quench his thirst, and thus prevented himself from dying of dehydration (Avimary).

This story is one of many that are present within the canon of oral literature in Madagascar today. It originated from a small town called Ampanihy, which lies in the southwestern region of Madagascar, about 250km from Toliara (Tuléar). The Mahafaly, who predominate the region, live in an extremely arid and dust-ridden climate that is marked by stretches of land harboring cactus and sisal. The environment thus greatly influences the culture of this ethnic group, which manifests itself in their oral literature. It is a fundamental feature of how stories are created amongst them, for it provides the components that constitute a tale.

This research project aims to explore the relationship that exists between Ampanihy’s arid, desert locale and Mahafaly oral tradition, particularly with the genre’s emphasis on water, nature, and symbols. I will look at how the direct relationship between the existing desert surroundings affects how the Mahafaly express their desire for water through the verbal art of storytelling. In so doing, however, the project does not attempt to define or categorize their identity; rather it shows an aspect of their culture that succeeds in giving a glimpse into a world of a unique ethnic clan. Additionally, it is a project that aims to reveal an ongoing social and economic conflict of living in such extreme dryness and isolation that the Mahafaly continue to face to the present day.

An interesting element that is essential to understanding how Mahafaly oral tradition distinguishes itself from others is the reason why Ampanihy is dry. The first portion of the paper discusses the historical and political history of oral literature in Madagascar. Foreign influence and its relationship to literacy have played important roles in the evolution of Malagasy oral literature. I will then present both past and present definitions of oral literature in Madagascar. The variety of styles and dialectical differences that exist within Malagasy oral literature will be paralleled to the ethnic diversity, which greatly affects the way stories are transmitted. The current dialectic concerning this subject can be viewed in two main divisions. There are those who feel that identifying a more unified picture of Malagasy oral literature is needed. Others see that these variations and differences already constitute that picture. I will then examine how these differing opinions panned out amongst the oral culture of the Mahafaly in Ampanihy. Lastly, the paper delves into the location and research methodology of the project.

The next portion of the project delves into the varied explanations of Ampanihy’s desert climate and how such notions induced the Mahafaly to deem water as a prized, sacrosanct symbol. Specific rituals, public ceremonies, and objects within their community will be provided as examples of how they exhibit their reverence for water. Five stories, each told by a different storyteller, are then presented to exemplify how these traditional beliefs and practices concerning water and the environment are conveyed through the art of oral literature. I then examine how one can contextualize such stories and the art of storytelling within today’s dialectic of oral tradition’s evolution in Madagascar, and thus in Ampanihy. Understanding how modern technology and the various changes that came with the colonial area affected Mahafaly oral tradition situates this genre as a present, ever-changing social process. As Lee Haring explains: “Folklore performance in Madagascar is ‘a dynamic process evolving through space and time’” (Haring 16). Finally, the paper concludes with an analysis of the findings and how studying oral literature can be an effective means of approaching development.


Anthropology | Cultural History | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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