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Conclusion: Toward a Reassessment of the Possessed and Dispossesed

This has been a study in the politics of culture. Against this backdrop of a polycultural community, I have sought to show that identity is not static or “one-dimensional.” Rather, as Cohen (1976) has argued, there exists an interdependence between power relationships and symbolic action. Furthermore, the dynamic nature of identity in Ambanja is part of a historical process shaped by such forces as colonialism and voluntary migration. Tromba possession provides a rich terrain for exploring how identity is experienced in private, social, economic, and political realms, since it mediates between the competing categories of tera-tany and vahiny, or insider and outsider. In order to understand the complexities of this problem, this investigation has required, as Apter (1992) advocates in his study of Yoruba religion, an exploration of the “deep meanings” (cf. Geertz 1973) embedded in ritual form. Such meanings reveal the links between knowledge and power: through the realm of tromba possession one may gain access to the most potent formsof local knowledge, which are sacred and linked to the royal ancestors. Ultimately, such knowledge affects personal and collective well-being.

In concluding, I would like to reevaluate a number of assumptions (or questions) that have been critical throughout this work. First, this study has sought to explore the manner in which symbolic power may extend beyond the temporary realm of ritual. Thus, how might religious experience be politically charged (again, see Cohen 1976; also Apter 1992 and Lan 1985) and have long-term effects on everyday life? Second, who exactly are the “dispossessed” members of what some might label a “peripheral” society of the world?

These two questions are especially pertinent to studies of possession and, more specifically, the relevance of social status for determining participation patterns. If we assume the perspective of Ambanja’s inhabitants, tromba possession is not a peripheral experience, but a significant force within indigenous culture. Similar to Giles’ study from the East African coast (1987), the data presented here contradict the assumed impotence of the possessed. This case from Ambanja reveals the manner in which ritual form may be used to manipulate oppressive forces that affect the personal lives of migrant laborers or the collective experiences of Sakalava. In this context, the human body provides a powerful medium for the articulation of problems that characterize urban life.

In this vein, the significance of tromba can only fully be understood if it is explored in relation to indigenous notions of identity, which operate on personal, social, and cultural levels. As this study has shown, tromba mediumship alters identity and may be permanently empowering for tera-tany and vahiny. Today saha for royal spirits maintain considerable control over the production of local knowledge and the manip-ulation of power structures. More recently, they have been able to direct economic development that threatens to alienate them of their tanindrazan̂afa. So long as the sacredness of ancestors is honored in the Sambirano—and by the state—Sakalava may be able to maintain their controlover the use of local territory. Such was the case that Lan (1985) described for Zimbabwe in the 1970s; the questions to be addressed in Madagascar are what roles will new generations of mediums play in this arena, and what will be the future of the Sambirano?

In the popular realm, tromba possession is pivotal for understanding concepts of alienation and well-being. Tromba offers the potential for first-generation female migrants to strengthen their personal networks and become recognized as tera-tany in their own lifetimes. Through this process, mediums gain access to an extensive and locally embedded network of relationships based on equality and reciprocity. These they may exploit to find work, gain access to local resources, and acquire assistance in times of need. As healers, they may also extend their networks to include clients, freeing themselves from the requirements of wage labor. Thus, mediumship offers migrant women a means to overcome the greatest difficulty or social affliction they face. Tromba enables them to become tamana, or content, in Ambanja.

Spirit mediums, in turn, mediate the migration experiences of others in several ways. First, even though tromba mediumship is primarily a female experience, men may also extend or strengthen their personal networks through sisters, wives, and lovers who are mediums. Second, tromba possession ceremonies and, more specifically, healing rituals, have been a central focus of this investigation since they reveal the nature of local power and the problems of the vulnerable. Tromba simultaneously provides a setting for expressing individual and social ills and a means to alleviate them. Polyculturalism and a plantation economy shape the most common forms of affliction—physical, romantic, and economic problems.

Throughout this work I have sought to place women as well as children in more visible positions vis-à-vis migration studies. Migration as a process may involve the active participation of women: not all remain in homesteads for the primary purpose of reproducing labor (Meillassoux 1982; Richards 1951). Many, like their male counterparts, branch out on their own in search of work and economic independence. This is a worldwide trend (Little 1973; Ong 1987; Nash and Fernandez-Kelly, eds. 1983; Schuster 1979) and warrants continued scrutiny. As I have shown, children define an unusual category of migrants who must cope with the challenges of this social process. In Ambanja, njarinintsy may be a pervasive force in their lives, operating as a culturally sanctioned form for expressing the chaos that characterizes contemporary urban life (cf. Taussig 1987). Thus, the experiences of children as well are in need of more careful cross-cultural study.

More generally, I have advocated that analyses of the migration process will remain shallow if symbolic realms are overlooked. Material considerations are certainly an essential aspect of the problems associated with relocation, since survival hinges on one’s ability to find housing, work, and so forth. In addition, kin who remain behind rely on a migrant’s economic success. As this study from Ambanja shows, however, other factors come into play and may be just as significant as purely material matters. The first involves the manner in which identity is defined, since different social categories enjoy different levels of access to local power structures. Second, there are subgroups of migrants, each defined by the manner in which indigenous Sakalava perceive them as well as by their personal, sentimental ties to a particular region. There also are several other key concepts involved here. Land and work, for example, are symbolically charged and are significant concerns for tera-tany and vahiny alike. Put another way, it is not simply access to land or labor that assures well-being or success for the migrant—in Madagascar or elsewhere—but also the sentimental and symbolic values assigned to these and other realms of experience.

In returning to the questions asked above, what I have sought to prove is that ritual form, and, more particularly, healing rituals, supply a rich and varied ground upon which to explore problems inherent to everyday life. Historical analysis reveals the dynamic nature of tromba: as local perceptions of what it means to be Sakalava have changed, tromba has altered in form yet remains a central defining principle for local identity. Thus, in northwest Madagascar, participation in tromba is not evidence of powerlessness or marginal status. Rather, as the work of Protestant exorcists show, it is those who are unable to cope with Sakalava identity and mediumship status who are truly dispossessed.


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