National Geographic : 1978 Dec
This Malagasy boatman steers from here to eternity He stands over his crew and looks back. He sees a life spent at sea, lightering cargo from ships. And that is his epitaph, sculptured in wood and placed above his grave. Such Madagascar "tomb stones" celebrate life in the Malagasy Republic. One depicts a man beating a drum, another a herdsman tending his cattle. A carving of an airplane denotes that the person entombed once flew. Malagasy chieftains rate a tomb post suggestive of a totem pole. It may be 30 feet high, a panorama of life told in tiers of carvings that show him hunting, protecting his family, slaughtering a zebu, even making love. Though nominally Christian, the Malagasy cling to ancient beliefs, holding that ancestors dictate health, wealth, and fertility of descendants. From tombs half above ground and half below, the departed are brought into the sunlight every four or five years and wrapped in new silk. Not a sad occasion, the reunion with an ancestor marks a time for singing and dancing. Celebrants joyfully toss the body into the air and catch it again. Cattle are sacrificed, their horns left to adorn the top of the tomb. The body is re-interred, there to rest until the next famadihana, the turning of Sthe dead. Despite the nearness of Africa, the ancestry of Madagas car's peoples is predominately Malayan and Polynesian. Migrants, historians theorize, sailed across the Indian Ocean in outrigger canoes to colonize an island home like no other on earth. Here they found night marish forests of cactuslike Didierea. Here roamed monkey like lemurs with bat's ears and flowing foxtails; primitive tenrecs pincushioned with quills: and aepyornis, the now extinct flightless bird that weighed half a ton and laid 20-pound eggs. Independent of France since 1958, Madagascar carves a niche in world society uniquely its own. To follow its saga of development, as well as that of other emerging nations, readers turn each month to the pages of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.