The Sakalava people

Madagascar is a large island populated by ethnic groups of diverse origins. There are the Betsileo, Merina, Bara, etc., currently numbering 18 ethnic groups. The Sakalava are among the island’s largest peoples, occupying most of Madagascar’s western coastal fringe. The Sakalava Boina and Sakalava du Menabe are the main groups, stretching from Tuléar in the south to Sambirano in the north. In this article, we explore the history, culture, beliefs and way of life of the Sakalava.

The origins of Sakalava :

Sakalava history dates back to the Bantu and Austronesian migrations to Madagascar many centuries ago. In the 17th century, the Sakalava established two powerful kingdoms: the Kingdom of Menabe and the Kingdom of Boina. These kingdoms were known for their political and economic influence, controlling the trade routes along Madagascar’s west coast. They maintained their independence until the 19th century, when the Merina, another of Madagascar’s ethnic groups, conquered most of the island.
The name Sakalava is subject to various interpretations: some suggest an etymology linked to the word “slave”, passing through Arabic “Saqāliba” before reaching Malagasy. Others prefer the popular interpretation “Those of the great plains”.
The true founder of Sakalava power is said to be Andriamandazoala, followed by Andriandahifotsy, who extended the kingdom’s authority as far north as Majunga.

Sakalava culture and tradition :

Like the majority of the Malagasy people, Sakalava culture is rich and diverse, marked by ancestral oral traditions, arts and ceremonies. This rich and diverse aspect plays an important role in the island’s heritage. Here are some key aspects of their culture:
Language: The Sakalava speak a dialect of Malagasy, Madagascar’s national language. Their dialect has distinct variations from other Malagasy dialects, with a particular coastal accent.
Music and dance: Sakalava music is mainly based on traditional drums and string instruments. Traditional dances, such as “kilalaka”, practiced mainly in the Menabe region, and “jihe”, are often performed at ceremonies and festivals.
Handicrafts: The Sakalava are renowned for their handicrafts, notably woodcarving, basketry and jewelry-making. Their wood carvings, often depicting human figures and animals, are particularly prized.

Their beliefs and spirituality :

Traditional Sakalava religion is based on the worship of ancestors and spirits. The Sakalava are one of the ethnic groups that still attach great importance to this practice in Madagascar. They believe that the spirits of the ancestors, called “razana”, continue to influence the world of the living. Tromba ceremonies, where ancestral spirits possess the bodies of the living to communicate with them, are important events in Sakalava life. There are also various forms of practice that put Sakalava in direct contact with their ancestors, mainly former kings or princes who have a great influence on the community, such as the Joro, the Tsikafara, and many others.
The best known are the tromba, ceremonies of spiritual possession in which mediums enter a trance to allow the spirits of ancestors to express themselves. These rituals play a central role in Sakalava religious and social life, strengthening community ties and the continuity of ancestral traditions.

Way of life :

The Sakalava live mainly from agriculture, fishing and livestock. Rice, manioc, corn and sweet potatoes are the main sources of subsistence. The breeding of zebus, a local type of livestock, is also important and represents a significant source of wealth for the Sakalava. However, in the northern part of Madagascar, due to the arrival of the Antandroy, another ethnic group migrating from the south because of drought, Sakalava territories are under threat and theft of livestock and seeds is very frequent.

Today, the Sakalava people, with their rich history and deeply-rooted traditions, continue to play a vital role in Madagascar’s cultural diversity. Their ancestral practices, crafts and traditional way of life offer a fascinating insight into a society that has preserved its identity through the centuries. As Madagascar modernizes, the Sakalava remain a living testimony to the island’s cultural heritage.

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