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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Publication Date

Spring 2008

Program Name

Madagascar: Culture and Society


In 1990 a woman named Nancy, a Peace Corps worker in southern Madagascar, received a marriage proposal from a man she did not know. It was Easter Monday, a national holiday for the Malagasy, and the man had been drinking; his proposal included a dowry of a very substantial number of cattle, an animal of tremendous cultural and material wealth in this part of Madagascar. Nancy—not knowing the man—declined.

The man was what is known there as a dahalo, a cattle thief, and took this rejection as a serious blow, especially given the magnitude of his offer. It was known that she would be traveling by bicycle the next afternoon to a village some distance away. She had a meeting there. He gathered several fellow dahalo and, while she was en route to the village, they ambushed her. The men raped and then murdered her.

I heard the story of Nancy’s death some 15 years later. By that time this dahalo had been brought to trial and imprisoned; escaped, and been imprisoned once more. He died in jail of tuberculosis. His crime, like all such, seems startling, almost incomprehensible, the kind of thing no one should have foreseen. But there emerges in this story a connection between marriage, terrible violence—and dahalo. Dahalo are still a strong presence in cattle-raising Madagascar (and indeed throughout), and in this paper I will ask why people become dahalo, and hope to further explore and tease out this connection.

It seems vitally important not to lose sight of the fact that it is people who become dahalo; not characters, not actors, and not a priori or de facto dahalo. Nancy’s story—the story not of her life, but of her death—is only one such story. There are others. During my fieldwork I met a religious man who had, in his youth, had a close friend who was a dahalo. They would sit around at night and swap stories: the dahalo would tell the religious man of his raids, and then my friend in his turn would tell his friend of the religious life. These are people, with agency, that bring this violence, and they could choose otherwise. I like to imagine that it is a choice they may not have made, given different circumstances. Perhaps by better understanding the choice and the circumstances, we can imagine a social environment in which becoming a cattle thief is no longer the best choice. That is the hope with which I began this research.

To trace out this phenomenon of dahalo—what I will turn soon to calling the phenomena of dahalo—I took as my starting point a hypothesis informed by the field of evolutionary psychology. I will turn first to exploring the theoretical underpinnings of this research, which draws primarily from evolutionary psychology. This informs the questions and methodology I followed. I will then sketch the context in which people become dahalo, and outline in broad form the many phenomena of dahalo and their interrelationships. Then we’ll dive into the explicit and implicit support for my hypothesis: that men become dahalo to increase their reproductive outlook, given an environment (in the broadest sense of the term) in which they have little chance otherwise to become reproductively competitive.



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