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We live among the Tanala. Tanala [Tah-nah-lah] means people of the forest. The forest has provided trees for the Tanala for centuries for firewood, for building homes, for making furniture, and for crafting handles for their blades. It has also provided them an essential talon/charm they use to call on their ancestors, the “hazomanga” [ha-zoo-mahn-gah].
The hazomanga, or as some may translate ‘the good wood,’ varies in form across the red island. For some people groups it is found in the center of the village made of posts or an actual tree; for the Tanala it is not so obvious. Tim visited a new village being formed on a mountain top several years ago. An old man explained that that the one who will carry the hazomanga will seek the help of a witchdoctor from another village and journey into the forest to find a particular type of wood to carve out the talon. Blood will be shed from a cow and poured over that block of wood after it is carved out of the tree and thanks will be given to the ancestors at the place it is found. The old man explained that the ritual gives that block of wood power and a connection to the ancestors.
As Tim visited other villages he knew that the hazomanga was present in the village either being kept hidden in the lappa, the central meeting house, or tucked away in someone’s shirt pocket for protection. Even after six years in Madagascar he has never seen one among his people. For an object that has great power it still needs a guardian.
When the Tanala call the razana [rah-zah-nah], “the ancestors”, typically a cow is sacrificed, the blood is collected, an altar is built and the hazomanga is placed on the alter. In typical Old Testament fashion the blood is sprinkled on the hazomanga as prayers are called out to the ancestors. Prayers could include thanks, petitions for protection over crops, livestock, their health, or petitions to curse another.
Great emphasis on remembering the ancestors and communicating with them exists because the Tanala believe that the spiritual world and the physical world are virtually inseparable. The spirits of the dead are near, have power, and that power can be called on for a blood-price. The exchange between the living calling on the dead for blessing requires of the living a ceremonial expectation that the bodies of the dead, the bones, will be cared for properly and not disturbed.
Unfortunately, the bones of the Tanala do not always lay at rest in the forest. Grave raiders come in the cover of darkness and are not interested in worldly riches. The next part of the series will discuss more about the graves, the importance of its location and what it may signify is happening in the spiritual realm near their village.