Preferred Citation: Sharp, Lesley A. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

The Social World of Children

9. The Social World of Children

Children are often invisible in migration and urban studies. Much of the literature assumes that children do not live on their own, but under the care and watchful eye of adults, who may be kin, foster kin, or neighbors. As a result, their experiences are shadowed by those of their caretakers. When children appear as a discrete category in studies of African societies, most often the themes that frame their activities are economics and health. Schildkrout (1981), for example, describes the manner in which urban Hausa children assist their mothers who are confined, through purdah, to their homes. Others focus on the more insidious qualities of the institutionalization of child labor cross-culturally (Mendelievich, ed. 1979; Minge 1986). Studies in maternal and child health demonstrates that the young are the most vulnerable in times of scarcity (UNICEF-UK 1988; see also Scheper-Hughes 1987, 1992, and other essays in Scheper-Hughes, ed. 1987). Throughout the Third World, children are portrayed as passive victims of poverty whose parents (or other kin) struggle to care for them against a myriad of obstacles. Among the most vivid portraits of the effects of urban squalor on children in Africa are those found in fictional accounts drawn from authors’ firsthand experiences (see, for example, Emecheta 1979). Other studies by Mead (1939, 1961 [1928]) and, more recently, those falling under the direction and editorship of J. and B. Whiting, explore the meaning of adolescence cross-culturally, or, more generally, the experiences associated with growing up in different societies (Burbank 1988; Condon 1987; Davis and Davis 1989; Hollos and Leis 1989; see also the annotated bibliographies of Gottlieb et al. 1966). Only a few studies have explored situations where urban children live alone and care for themselves, but these focus on the extreme margins of life, where children are the victims of abandonment, famine, warfare, or the untimely deaths of kin (see, for example, Ennew and Milne 1990; Reynolds and Burman, eds. 1986; UNICEF 1987).

Northern Madagascar provides a striking contrast. Village children who have successfully completed their studies in rural primary schools and who show promise for more advanced learning sometimes come to Ambanja voluntarily (and with their parents’ encouragement) to continue their schooling (for a similar case from Melanesia see Pomponio 1992). They are, essentially, young migrants: since there are no dormitory facilities available, they live in town without adult supervision. Many children, as young as thirteen, live alone or share a very simple one- or two-room house with a group of other students. These children must cope, on their own, with the complexities of two realms of experience. First, they must be able to make the shift from rural to town life. Second, they must face the problems that characterize the transition from youth to adulthood. Typically, they are the children of Sakalava tera-tany or non-Sakalava settlers who live in rural areas of the Sambirano. Such children experience problems characteristic of migrants in general, yet they are more vulnerable because they are children.

Outbreaks of njarinintsy possession have accompanied this recent trend. Within the last two decades outbreaks of mass possession have occurred in local schools, and the most common victims of these reckless and dangerous spirits are adolescent girls. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, as many as thirty students became possessed at one time. In several instances, school officials closed down the schools until the spirits could be appeased. Although the frequency of njarinintsy possession in Ambanja has decreased in recent years, several cases are reported annually in at least one of the three local junior and senior high schools. Unlike tromba possession, which is established and ordered, njarinintsy possession is erratic and disordered, and its victims exhibit behavior that expresses the chaos inherent to their daily lives.

Reports of similar outbreaks of group or mass possession appear elsewhere in the anthropological literature and, typically, these occur within such institutional settings as schools (Harris 1957) and, more recently, factories (Grossman 1979; Ong 1987, 1988). An assumption underlying these studies is that issues of power and powerlessness are central to mass possession movements. As with earlier discussions of tromba in this study, the significance of power for njarinintsy possession must be investigated in reference to two axes, one defined by a historical development from past to present and the other including different levels of social experience: the community, the family and the schoolyard, and the individual. Elsewhere I have argued that conflicting moral orders in this community give rise to an anomic state (Durkheim 1968) in these children, which may have severe psychological consequences (Sharp 1990).[1] This chapter will illustrate, first, that children and adults have very different possession experiences, and thus njarinintsy provides additional information on the structural significance of tromba in this community. Second, the dangers associated with njarinintsy possession uncover other dimensions of disorder in this community which, in turn, have implications for the future. These children’s experiences reveal the hidden underbelly of town life, deepening the understanding of problems associated with gender, polyculturalism, and colonialism which have thus far been explored only through adults’ eyes. In order to resolve these children’s problems, adults of diverse origins and backgrounds pulled together, drawing upon Sakalava authority to surmount chaos and reestablish social order.

The Possessed Youth of Ambanja

Although tromba possession was the main focus of this research, my attention was often drawn to the njarinintsy, volatile and unpredictable spirits whose most frequent victims are adolescent girls. No mass outbreaks occurred during 1987; thus, this discussion of njarinintsy possession in the schools is based on interviews with more than one hundred informants, including spirit mediums, schoolchildren, their parents, other family members, teachers, and other school officials. The data collected focused on three areas: informants’ accounts of mass possession occurring one to six times a year between 1975 and 1980, involving anywhere from three to thirty students; interviews with five established mediums who, in the past, had experienced possession sickness and four women who had recently been struck by possession sickness (see Appendix A); and my personal observation of five cases of njarinintsy in 1987.[2] Although tromba possession is an experience shared by many adult women, the following generalizations can be made about njarinintsy: the majority of its victims are between thirteen and seventeen years of age; they are school migrants who have come from Ambanja from neighboring rural villages; and they are female and, usually, pregnant and unmarried at the time of possession. The stories of Angeline (chapter 5) and Monique (chapter 7) are typical of njarinintsy victims. Sosotra’s story, which follows, provides yet another portrait.

Sosotra and the Njarinintsy

One afternoon, while my assistant and I were interviewing a medium in her home, we suddenly heard the sound of wailing coming from a small house made of palm fiber which was located directly across the yard. Two women who were sitting with us exclaimed simultaneously that there was a njarinintsy (“misy njarinintsy é!”) and so we all quickly stood up and went outside to see what was happening. It was Sosotra, a young Sakalava woman of nineteen who lived next door. She had joined us on previous occasions while we discussed tromba and other forms of possession. At these times she was generally quiet and sullen and often complained of nightmares(nofy raty), headaches, and dizziness. Although my informant had counseled her to consult either a moasy or a tromba medium for these problems, Sosotra did not pay much attention, often rising abruptly (and rudely) in the middle of conversation and walking home without saying goodbye. Neighbors often commented that she was odd (adaladala), but they pitied her because she was clearly troubled by possession sickness. During the last month or so it had also become clear to all of us that she was pregnant. No one had any idea who the father was.

On this afternoon Sosotra behaved in a manner that was very different from what I had witnessed previously. She suddenly burst from her house and fell on the ground, thrashing about, wailing and then shouting fragmented words that were impossible for any of us to understand. When we tried to get near her to calm her down she only became more violent. Finally, a friend of hers, along with two older women in their fifties, lept upon her and held her down until she became quiet. Eventually her aunt (MoSi), with whom she lived, came home, and she immediately arranged to take Sosotra in a taxi to a nearby village in order to consult with a tromba medium who specialized in possession sickness. She also sent for Sosotra’s mother, who arrived the next day, accompanied by two young children. Two days later I saw Sosotra and she appeared quiet, but still sullen, unwilling to talk to me or my friend, who was her neighbor, about what had happened.

Sosotra’s aunt then gave the following account, while Sosotra’s mother was at the market buying food for the evening meal: “These last few months have been very difficult, very hard [sarotra be,mafy be]. Sosotra lived here in town by herself for two years, sharing a room with two schoolmates. She started to get in trouble, staying out all night and skipping classes. When I moved here last year she came to live with me.…Her parents had hoped that she could finish her schooling this year but she soon became very agitated and unhappy in school. Her teachers and neighbors said sometimes she would refuse to go to classes at all; on other days she would come home by late morning.…She wouldn’t eat all day and then she’d go to the disco with her friends and stay all night. Three months ago the njarinintsy started, and she had to drop out of school a month before the term ended. I haven’t known what to do.…Njarinintsy is very difficult and it is dangerous.…We took her to a tromba [medium] and the njarinintsy came out [miboaka] and spoke to [the tromba spirit]. The tromba said, ‘My grandchild [zafiko], why are you bothering this girl? Leave her alone, leave her in peace! What do you want from her?’ I was frightened [mavozobe] for her, but now it all seems pretty funny…the njarinintsy said he wanted Sosotra for his girlfriend [sipa]! but when he saw how unhappy we were, he promised to leave if we gave him some presents. We promised to leave some honey and soda pop near a sacred madiro tree for him, and then he departed. Then Sosotra fell on the ground, delirious but calm, and in the past few days she has slept soundly, without any signs of possession.”

Sosotra’s story parallels that of many other njarinintsy victims: she is under twenty, a school migrant from a village, and pregnant. Her story also parallels those of other girls who were involved in outbreaks of mass possession.

Schoolyard Posssession

Today njarinintsy possession is most common at home; it assumes its most dramatic form in the schoolyard, however, where it also has widespread impact on the community. This is a relatively new phenomenon in Ambanja. The earliest report that I have recorded from northern Madagascar occurred in 1962 in a school in Diégo. Most informants say that they first heard of njarinintsy in the 1970s and that it was brought by Tsimihety migrants. Of the seventeen teachers and school officials interviewed who had either grown up in the area or who had come to Ambanja within the last ten years, all but two reported that they had never heard of this type of possession elsewhere. Of the two who had, they both said that njarinintsy behavior has changed considerably: fifteen to twenty years ago njarinintsy were, for the most part, clowning spirits. As one teacher, who grew up in the north, said, “When I was much younger I would occasionally see [students possessed by] njarinintsy sitting outside a school and playing guitars, calling to passersby to come and sing and dance with them.”[3] In more recent years, however, they have become increasingly violent. Within the last decade, possession in Ambanja’s junior and senior high schools has become so commonplace that two of the three school principals have formulated policies for handling it.[4]

A typical scenario[5] reads as follows: a teacher asks a student to perform a task, perhaps an assignment at the board. The student, instead of responding, will suddenly start to wail. Eventually the sound will grow louder, and she will sob, scream, or yell obscenities. She also might stand up or run about the room. As one teacher who witnessed a case in class explained: “I had asked this girl to read a passage from a French book. Instead she started to cry and then scream! I didn’t understand what was going on—I come from Antananarivo and I had never seen such a thing. When she stood up I became scared.…Two students ran out of the room and a third told me to come, too, so I left and went to look for help.” Often four or five boys will struggle with the njarinintsy victim in an attempt to hold her down. Word travels fast when such an outbreak occurs, so that usually a school official will arrive to help. A school principal explained: “If the girl fails to answer any questions and it is clear that she is possessed, sometimes the only thing to do is to slap her across the face.…I remember I had to hit one student three times! Then she was suddenly quiet and confused, calmly asking me where she was and why she had just been struck.”[6] After the incident is over, or at least once the girl is under control, a group of friends will escort her to the home of her parents or other close kin (who most often live in the neighboring countryside), so that these family members may take over. Even though the girl may appear calm, the spirit will stay with her, shifting from dormant to active states until a healer coaxes it to leave.

Njarinintsy is thought to be very contagious, and from 1975 to 1980, mass outbreaks of njarinintsy possession were common. When a njarinintsy victim starts to wail, other students will run from the classroom or be ordered to do so by a well-informed teacher or school official. On several occasions fifteen to twenty students became possessed at one time. Sometimes up to four boys were affected, but in all cases the outbreak was initiated by a girl, and girls always formed the majority. Angeline (see chapter 5), for example, became possessed four times in one month, and during two of these episodes as many as ten other students also became possessed, including one boy. At the height of these outbreaks in Ambanja, njarinintsy spread from the junior high school and moved across the street to the primary school.

After attempts to treat njarinintsy possession on an individual basis failed to eliminate this problem in the schools, a group of concerned parents responded by requesting that school officials also become involved. This group of adults decided to call in a powerful moasy to visit the school and determine the causes of mass possession. He said that local ancestors (tromba, razan̂a, and other spirits) were angry, for when the school was built by the French no regard was paid to the sacredness of ancestral ground. During construction several tombs had been moved, and a few were destroyed. This specialist insisted on the necessity of performing a joro ceremony to honor these ancestors. This decision was an unusual one, for school grounds were hardly considered an appropriate setting for this ceremony. Nevertheless, school officials consented. An ox was sacrificed and members of the community gathered to sing to and praise the ancestral spirits, asking forgiveness and permission to continue to work at the school. A photographer was also hired to take a series of pictures to commemorate the event. Following these actions, the frequency of njarinintsy possession dropped considerably that year, with only a few students still experiencing possession fits. Eventually school officials, the possessed students, and their parents met once more with a kalanoro medium, this time in secrecy at night in one of the classrooms, to appease the njarinintsy one last time.[7] This collective response came from adults of diverse origins, including Sakalava and vahiny parents and schoolteachers and officials, several of whom were from the high plateaux. Their chosen course of action reinstated social order and cohesiveness in the schools. It also led to the reassertion of local Sakalava ritual authority over domains previously usurped by a foreign colonial power.

Njarinintsy Possession and Social Status

As discussed earlier in chapter 5, the causes for, behavior of, and responses to tromba and njarinintsy spirits are quite distinct. Njarinintsy is a form of possession sickness that requires immediate action. Kin must step in to care for the victim before serious harm befalls her. They may need to take her to a series of healers in order to have the spirit (or spirits, since njarinintsy may occur in groups of seven) driven from her. She must be watched closely, and great care must be exercised to ensure that the spirit has departed permanently. If not, she may go mad or die. Most often njarinintsy posssession is caused by fanafody raty or bad medicine. As a result, it is necessary to determine whether possession was brought on by an adversary or if the victim accidentally came into contact with fanafody that was intended for someone else. Another cause may be that the njarinintsy has been sent by a tromba spirit because the victim has been resisting possession (as was true of Angeline). If this is the case, additional steps must be taken to instate her as a tromba medium.

A comparison of the qualities of tromba mediums and njarinintsy victims reveals that gender, age, and other aspects of social status vary for these two forms of possession. Adult female status in Ambanja is defined by crossing thresholds marked by marriage (common law or otherwise) and childbirth. Women who have attained this status form the majority of female tromba mediums. Marriage also provides the idiom for describing tromba possession, since a spirit is said to be the medium’s spouse. Furthermore, through tromba possession a woman’s social ties are enhanced, so that she joins a wide network of other mediums of diverse ages and backgrounds. Also, if she chooses to become a healer, her status in the community is elevated.

The majority of njarinintsy victims, however, have never been married and have had no previous possession experience. Instead, many of these girls are single and pregnant at the time of possession (as was true with Angeline, Monique, and Sosotra). In addition, unlike tromba, njarinintsy possession is a temporary, incomplete form of possession. It is a type of possession sickness in which the possessed is a victim who requires assistance from others at a time of personal crisis. Njarinintsy spirits are not accepted companions of their victims, nor do they assist them in times of need, as do tromba spirits. They are malicious and destructive.

The data recorded in figure 7.1 (chapter 7) and Appendix A reveal several trends regarding njarinintsy. Common themes emerge in the histories of women who have experienced both possession sickness and tromba mediumship and those who have experienced only the former. These two groups can be compared in terms of age of onset of possession, schooling, tera-tany or vahiny status, and history of fertility-related traumas.

First, five of the eighteen female tromba mediums (Angeline, Leah, Marie, Beatrice, and Mariamo) have been afflicted with possession sickness (two of them have experienced it twice). In the case of all five women, possession sickness precipitated mediumship status, which followed shortly afterward: all five have Grandchildren spirits, and the fifth and oldest (Mariamo) has a more prestigious Child spirit. Leah and Marie have each been struck a second time since instating tromba spirits. Year of birth is another determinant for this group: possession sickness has not been experienced by mediums who were over the age of thirty-four in 1987, reflecting that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in Ambanja, that it affects younger women, and that recently it has begun to precede tromba possession.

Age, school experiences, and problems involving romance and fertility also affect the timing of episodes of possession sickness among these (now) established mediums. Angeline, Leah, and Marie were first struck with possession sickness between the ages of seventeen and twenty; Beatrice and Mariamo at thirteen and twenty-six (or thereabouts), respectively. Marie experienced possession sickness three months after the difficult birth of her first child. Angeline was struck after falling in love with her teacher, who left to continue his studies elsewhere while she was expected to stay behind and finish school. Finally, social status is a factor. The women in this first group are either tera-tany or the children of settlers: Angeline, Leah, and Beatrice are Sakalava from a village near Ambanja, Ambanja, and Nosy Be, respectively. Marie is the child of Tsimihety settlers, whereas Mariamo was born of a Comorean father and Sakalava mother in Ambilobe. Four of these five women have completed at least some level of junior high school and the fifth completed primary school.

The second group (Vivienne, Sylvie, Victoria, and Sosotra), composed of women who have been struck by possession sickness only, are predominantly Sakalava: Sylvie was born in Ambanja and Victoria and Sosotra are from nearby villages. Vivienne is the child of a Sakalava mother and Tsimihety father and originally came from Ambanja.[8] The ages at which njarinintsy episodes occurred for this second group of four women range from fourteen to early thirties; two out of four (Vivienne and Sosotra) were in junior high school. In reference to fertility, Sylvia was struck by njarinintsy one week after a miscarriage, Victoria following an abortion, and Sosostra following her first pregnancy by a secret lover when she was still single.

Several themes emerge if these two categories of women are compared. First, three out of five mediums (Angeline, Leah, Marie) were first struck by possession sickness while they were adolescents enrolled in junior high school. Among those affected to date only by possession sickness, two out of four (Vivienne and Sosotra) were also in junior high school. For all five women questions surrounding female adult status or fertility were important issues at the time. If the specific school experiences are compared between these two groups, three of the five students were what I refer to here as “child” or “school migrants”: Angeline, Vivienne, and Sosotra each came on their own from villages to continue their education in Ambanja. As will become clear below, the relationships between school migration, adult status and fertility, and possession sickness are part of a larger picture framed by historically based national and community forces. Likewise, the responses to these possession episodes are linked to the internal logic of local culture, in which Sakalava customs provided an appropriate response to problems that arise from powerlessness.

The Disorder of a Fragmented World

The members of this community, be they tera-tany or vahiny, young or old, must struggle at some level to cope with forces that challenge notions of cultural and, ultimately, personal identity. The combined forces of colonialism, polyculturalism, and subsequent métisization have led both to the erosion of Sakalava cultural values and to a blurring of ethnic boundaries. Newly arrived migrants must become enmeshed inlocal networks, seeking out friends and relatives who come from the same region of the country. Others attempt to become Sakalava through changes in behavior, dress, and dialect and by participating in such Sakalava institutions as tromba ceremonies. The dilemmas associated with economic survival and social integration frustrate many vahiny. As earlier descriptions of settlers’ stories show, even those who feel content (tamana) in Ambanja continue to be regarded as outsiders by local tera-tany. The most vulnerable group in this context consists of children living alone, since they have neither adult guidance nor the skills to solve the problems associated with town life. The young girls who become possessed by njarinintsy are the most visible victims of this process because they suffer the consequences of unexpected (and unwanted) pregnancies.[9] They are faced with a complicated and tangled set of desires and expectations; in their possessed states they mirror the problems inherent to schooling on the coast.

Colonial Policies and National Trends: Educational Dilemmas

Problems associated with education characterize the lives of children. In Ambanja, they run beyond those associated merely with high performance in school. In recent times, severe constraints levied by political and economic forces have imposed new frustrations on students. These problems are rooted in changes that occurred during the colonial period. A comparison between today’s schoolchildren and those of past generations illustrates this.

Under the French, schools were built to serve Malagasy students. Primary (FR: primaire) education was mandatory, and the first school for Malagasy in Ambanja was built in 1908, only a few years after the town was founded. An extensive network of primary schools was established throughout the island, with schools located even in the smallest villages. A few students were able to continue on to junior high (collège), high school (lycée), and, ultimately, to professional schools. These children joined a privileged group of students who were groomed to form a future elite class of civil servants. In the Sambirano, special preference was shown for the children of local royalty and others whose parents already worked for the colonial administration (see Crowder 1964, and Gifford and Weiskel 1974, for discussions of French colonial education policies elsewhere in Africa; see also Fallers 1965, especially chaps. 5 and 7ff).

Junior high and high schools were few in number and were generally located in urban centers so as to serve the region. As Malagasy children moved beyond primary school they left home to live in the provincial or national capitals. They were housed in dormitories, where they were placed under the strict supervision of members of a French ruling class. The school was regarded as the primary arena for the application of colonial assimilation policies, whereby French values were promoted and local culture was undermined (cf. Crowder 1964). The education of girls, for example, was comparable to that of French finishing schools, for they were taught homemaking skills and became well versed in the manners that were thought to be essential for women living in a cosmopolitan French society. As Alima, a member of the Bemazava royal lineage explained:

When I was a young girl I was sent to Antananarivo to complete my studies there.…My father was an important man in Ambanja because he was in the direct line of succession.…They were very strict with us at school: we had to learn to sit and act like ladies, dressing and behaving like proper Parisian women.…Our studies were very rigorous, too. In addition to learning how to sew and cook French cuisine, we were instructed in math, geography, French, [and other subjects].…We were both raised and schooled by French matrons.…I hated it there, though. We Sakalava did not like living in dormitories with borzany [derogatory term for Merina]; they are not like us: Sakalava like to bathe three to five times a day, but the Merina girls were very modest, and so they only bathed on the weekends. It was so cold there, too—we had to wash with ice cold water in the winter.

Alima and her peers are now the better educated parents and grandparents of many of the children who live in town today, filling local and provincial adminstrative posts. In spite of the difficulties she faced as a student, Alima’s education served her well in the early days following Independence: under President Tsiranana she was appointed to a ministerial position and was highly regarded in the province of Antsiranana as someone who kept a watchful eye on the needs of people in the north.

In some ways, the policies established under the French have continued since Madagascar’s Independence in 1960 and throughout the period leading up to the Socialist Revolution of the early to mid-1970s. Primary education has remained mandatory, and additional schools have been built in an attempt to accomodate the increasing numbers of children in both urban and rural areas. A characteristic of this French-based educational system is a series of standardized examinations that students must pass if they are to proceed to the next level. Failure and subsequent repetition of school years is not uncommon, and the numbers of enrolled students decrease dramatically as one moves up in the grades into junior high, high school, and the university.

Funds earmarked for education are limited. Schools are unable to accomodate an ever-increasing population of youth, since they lack the funds to cover costs for teachers’ salaries and the maintenance and construction of buildings. As a result, schools remain overcrowded and many students are turned away. The rate of construction of new junior high and high schools continues to be slow. When they are built, they are centrally located in the larger towns. Village children are still forced to leave home if they are to continue their schooling beyond the primary level. In Ambanja, the first public junior high school was built in 1960, the year of Independence, and since 1981 there has been a high school (a new building was completed in 1987; see chapter 6). There is also a private school run by the Catholic Mission, which now extends through high school, with a small men’s seminary attached. Under the French system, there was dormitory housing, but this is no longer provided except for seminary students. When teachers are asked about the problems faced by Ambanja’s youth, the lack of housing is the most commonly cited factor.

The problems that confront Ambanja’s youth are complicated by the contradictions between their aspirations and the political and economic realities inherent to Madagascar today. Because of the difficulty of progressing through the system, success in school is regarded with great pride by adult kin, and so students may stay enrolled in school to please their parents. Nevertheless, employment opportunities are extremely limited in Madagascar. Positions for the better educated, when they are available, often go to those who live in the capital or who have strong connections there. Well aware of these circumstances, students in Ambanja often mock their teachers publicly, asking why they should work hard when there are no jobs to be had. They often state that their parents, the peasants of the Sambirano, are rich because they own land, while the teachers, who hold university degrees, do not make enough to care adequately for their families. Should they wish to attend university, coastal students have a much lower chance of passing the national exams. In addition, it is difficult for coastal students to acquire decent scholarships because of the favoritism that characterizes the educational system. Attending university often is a painful experience because of the hostility between highland and coastal groups.

Children and Polyculturalism

As Gifford and Weiskel state in their review of French colonial educational policies in Africa, “Both in imagination and in fact, the colonial period brought into being a civilisation m[é]tisse: a jostling, a juxtaposition of values. The indelible education, imbedded in the mind and felt through the senses, was a blend of contrasts” (1974: 710). The emphasis on French values continued during the first administration of the government of Madagascar, from Independence until the Socialist Revolution. After the Revolution it was no longer appropriate to strive to be French. Schoolchildren experienced—and suffered the consequences of—the transition during the early years of new malagasization educational policies. These were implemented in Ambanja by 1975 (they will be described in more detail below). It was during this year that the first outbreaks of mass njarinintsy possession occurred.

I have discussed elsewhere (Sharp 1990) the manner in which mandatory education in Madagascar gave rise to adolescence as a new category of experience (cf. Ariès 1965; Lasch 1977: 12ff; Minge 1986), and how this is relevant to the moral education (Durkheim 1961) and subsequent experiences of Ambanja’s schoolchildren. In essence, their preparation for adulthood, which occurs in the village, is cut short as they move to town to continue their schooling. As students under the present state system, they lack the socialization that their predecessors, such as Alima, had, for they are socialized neither by kin nor French school authorities. Instead, they fall between the cracks. Amiability between teachers and students is often blocked by interethnic hostility and prejudice: the majority of their teachers are Merina, whom many Sakalava tera-tany regard as their enemies. This prevents school teachers from being guardians, caretakers, or agents of socialization for their students.

As noted in chapter 6, malagasization has become a cornerstone of government policy following the Socialist Revolution of the 1970s, advocating the supremacy of Malagasy customs (fomba-gasy) over those of foreign origin (fomba vazaha). The effects of malagasization on education, however, have only exacerbated local tensions in schools. Whereas in the past all subjects were taught in French, today this is only true of the last year of high school and at the university. Students enrolled in public schools learn all subjects in official Malagasy, which is based on the Merina dialect, and study French only as one of many subjects. The sudden switch to an all-French curriculum is overwhelming for most students and has led to strikes throughout the country at high schools and the university. Teachers are handicapped as well. As members of the last generation that was schooled in French, they often do not know the technical terms in official Malagasy relevant to the very subjects they are trained to teach. The problems that arise through the use of different dialects can also be severe. Many teachers in Ambanja are not Sakalava (see Mme Razafy in chapter 4, for example), so that not only do teachers and students experience severe communication problems, but coastal students are at a disadvantage when compared to their counterparts in the high plateaux who are familiar with this dialect. Sakalava students also resent having to learn what they perceive as being the Merina dialect. In turn, their own values and experiences often conflict with those they are expected to advocate to the younger generation of students.

Beyond the borders of the schoolyard, these children from the villages face additional problems associated with urbanization and polyculturalism. Like adult migrants, who have come to Ambanja temporarily or permanently in search of work, students from rural areas are responsible for such basic needs as their food and shelter. Some children manage to live with extended kin (this most often involves staying under the care of maternal classificatory mothers and grandmothers). Those without relatives in town must rent a room or a small house made of palm fiber that is paid for by their absent parents, since townspeople are very reluctant to take non-kin into their homes. For example, a friend of mine had such a dwelling in her backyard which she had rented to students for three consecutive years. She explained that the boy who lived there in 1987 was quiet and studious, but he rarely had much to eat. Losing a pad of paper or set of pens could be a severe hardship. When I asked if she fed him or helped him sometimes in other ways she said flatly, “Oh no, he’s not my child, he’s not kin [tsy tsaikiko,tsy havan̂ana izy]…why should I feed him? I have five children of my own to care for.” Thus, these children often live without direct adult supervision, unlike those of a previous era, who were supervised by the teachers of a foreign regime.

Today, many of Ambanja’s children are, in essence, child migrants faced with adult problems. In addition to keeping up with their studies, they are responsible for housekeeping, cooking their own meals, and carefully maintaining monthly budgets. They often face severe economic pressures, since the present constraints of the Malagasy economy on individual households make it difficult for many parents to give more than the bare essentials to children living away from home. If parents own land, it is easier for them to supply their children with rice and other staples. Nevertheless, these students may need to have a supplementary income to pay for extra food and school supplies, and so some turn to stealing to support themselves. In addition, since they have been freed from the constraints that would normally be set by older kin, many of these children fail to resist the attractions available in town. These include going to the cinema, drinking, dancing, and early sexual experiences. In practical terms, not only does their schoolwork suffer, but it is also a severe drain on their pocket money. Girls face the additional problem of pregnancy. Through their involvement in adult town life, Ambanja’s children are often faced with dilemmas that can seriously affect their chances for higher education.

Self-Advancement and Fanafody

Just as Ambanja’s adults are in competition with each other for scarce resources—work, money, and lovers—students, too, compete with each other in the schoolyard and in the classroom. For them, as with adults, fanafody is a major source of control. As mentioned above, the most frequently cited cause for njarinintsy possession is that the victim has come into contact with fanafody raty. Fanafody is acquired by consulting tromba mediums or other specialists and is usually prepared for use with a specific individual in mind. It is placed either where the intended victim will touch or walk over it—on a doorknob, on a personal item, or in a doorway—or it may be put in food or bathwater. Fanafody may affect anyone who comes into contact with it. When attacks of njarinintsy occur in school, those concerned must determine where the fanafody was placed and whether it was prepared by an adversary of the child or child’s kin, or if, perhaps, the afflicted inadvertently came into contact with something that was intended for someone else. Another explanation was illustrated by the 1980 outbreaks of mass possession cited above. When possession continued even after repeated individual consultations with healers, eventually human forces were ruled out and angry ancestors were identified as the direct cause.

As described in previous chapters, fanafody is used by adults to control their own lives; they also use it to assist their children. On numerous occasions I watched worried parents consult tromba mediums for problems related specifically to their children’s performance in school (see, for example, the case of Fatima in chapter 8). Examination time in particular is one of great worry for many parents. This is not very surprising, since the performance and success rates for Ambanja’s students fall well below the national average. Class rank is an important indicator of a child’s success, so that parents may use fanafody not only so that their children will succeed, but so that others will fail. Following patterns set by adults, children also use fanafody against one another, but in a setting particular to their own experience: the schoolyard. For children, the use of fanafody raty is very closely tied to jealousy and fear of one another. As one young informant said when asked about tensions between students and their patterns of association, “I have no friends, I only study. The students in Ambanja are not nice people—if you do well they accuse you of using magic [magique] to succeed and then they use magic against you to make you fail.”

In addition to scholastic success, social competition is also a major preoccupation of young students. Village children who have come to town for their schooling and live alone, unhampered by adult supervision, are likely to be more socially active than their town-based counterparts. Such children, in general, form the majority of those seen out at night in the streets on promenade (mitsangantsangana) or in bars and discos. Ambanja’s youth are also sexually active at an early age—for girls this may mean as early as thirteen, whereas boys lag behind by a few years. Young students and teachers both report that competition among girls for male attention can be fierce. Teachers agree that when fights occur in the schoolyard they often center on disputes of this nature between two girls. The frequent use of fanafody raty on school grounds accounts for the common occurrence of njarinintsy attacks in school. As proof of this, informants point out that it is the “prettiest girls” (tsara tarehy) who most often become possessed. One of two reasons is generally given to support this observation: other students are more likely to be jealous of them and wish to cause them harm, and njarinintsy prefer them because they are so attractive (thus Sosotra’s spirit wanted her to be his girlfriend or sipa). School officials are also quick to point out that, in almost all cases, it is later learned that these girls, like Sosotra, were in the early stages of pregnancy when they became possessed.

Coping with Pregnancy

Pregnancy among these girls throws the nature of these children’s dilemmas into high relief, since it is an obvious sign of participation in the adult world. Cross-cultural comparison reveals that Ambanja’s students share experiences with children in many other countries, where changing social patterns affect the rates of premarital pregnancy among adolescent girls (cf. Lancaster and Hamburg, eds., 1986; Worthman and Whiting 1987). In recent years, this topic has also become a concern for such international agencies as UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and Planned Parenthood International (Kulin 1988).

In Ambanja, girls tend to become sexually active before boys their own age do, sleeping with older boys or men. In addition, these village girls who live alone and unsupervised in town are more likely to become involved in the town’s nightlife than town-based girls, whose relatives monitor which boys they see. Although students interviewed insist that it is unlikely that a girl who is sexually active is working as a prostitute (makarely), it is likely that she is someone’s mistress (deuxième bureau). A sign that a man treats his mistress well is that he buys her expensive gifts, such as perfume, imported fabrics, and gold jewelry. He will also be expected to take her places, such as the cinema or discos, or to the more cosmopolitan centers of Nosy Be or Diégo. A schoolgirl who receives such attention is thus easy to recognize. She may become an object of envy, either for other girls who wish to have a similar relationship or who are fond of the same man, or for boys whose attentions go unrequited.

Responses by kin to adolescent pregnancy are often marked by severe sanctions. As one girl explained, “My parents were very angry and refused to speak to me for weeks.” For Malagasy, a refusal to speak to the injuring party is an extreme response in moments of great anger or sadness. This can, literally, go on for weeks. It is a form of social death for the transgressor, since a refusal to communicate serves as a denial of the other’s existence. In most cases, the parents will eventually accept the pregnancy, for Malagasy value children very highly. Also, this response from parents is not that unusual when viewed more broadly and historically. It parallels patterns set by adults in Ambanja, among whom short-term marriages are common.

For children in school, however, pregnancy adds special hardships for girls and it is regarded as a very serious matter. Village parents are often reluctant to send their daughters away to school, because they worry that if they live unsupervised in town they might become pregnant. A decision by parents to allow a daughter to attend school away from home is proof of their confidence in her. If she does indeed become pregnant, it is a breach of this confidence as well as a disappointment. Furthermore, school policies and economic constraints will force her to end her schooling prematurely, since it is the policy of all schools to expel the girl if officials discover that she is pregnant. Youth of Ambanja say that school officials rarely look for the boy who is responsible. (I understand, however, that at the new high school these girls may finish the term, but it is generally assumed they will leave school after the baby is born.)[10] A pregnant girl undergoes extreme hardship if the father of the child refuses to support her and the child. In response, close kin—especially the girl’s mother—will usually step in and help raise and care for the child. The girl, in turn, may choose to remain in town where it will be easier for her to make a living.

As the data shows, njarinintsy spirits attack their victims in times of personal conflict. Most often they are associated with an incomplete transition to womanhood and, more specifically, with problems of fertility. Possession provides the idiom and the human body the vehicle for expressing such conflicts. From a Sakalava point of view, tromba mediumship marks a sanctioned transition to adult female status: typically it occurs among women who are in their twenties or older and who have already borne at least one child. In contrast, njarinintsy occurs at thresholds where this transition is incomplete. These experiences parallel Boddy’s descriptions of northern Sudanese women who are possessed by zar spirits (1988, 1989). Njarinintsy occurs at junctures where fertility is sudden and problematic: njarinintsy victims are adolescent girls who are confronted with unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. They have not been issued into this status by supportive kin. Rather they are alone in town, and this event carries serious consequences for them. Thus they stand on the brink of adult female status without having achieved it in culturally sanctioned ways. Were they in the village, a mate would be expected to declare paternity and support the child. They, however, are schoolgirls, sent to town to complete their studies, and they are expected to postpone motherhood. Contrary to their parents’ expectations, they have become involved in the town’s nightlife, sleeping with men who treat them as mistresses but not as wives.

Children and Social Change

The victims of njarinintsy possession comprise an unusual group, whose status is defined as marginal from a multiplicity of angles. They are caught in limbo between childhood and adulthood, forced prematurely to become adults before they have been fully socialized. This has the most severe consequences for schoolgirls. Should they choose to participate in the sexual realm of town life, they risk becoming targets for scorn, jealousy, and fanafody raty. If they suddenly find themselves pregnant, they must face the anger of their parents, often, abandonment by their lovers, banishment from school, and, finally, the economic necessity of finding work so that they may support their children. These dilemmas—which result from recent political, ideological, and economic changes—may be overwhelming, since these girls are young, inexperienced, and alone.

Displaced Sakalava and Invading Spirits

Themes of displacement and disorder are reiterated in concrete and symbolic ways in the context of njarinintsy school possession. As Feeley-Harnik explains (1991b, chaps. 4 and 5), the movement or displacement from village (antsabo, “at the crops”) to town (ampositra, “at the post”) is a disturbing aspect of recent history for the Bemihisatra-Sakalava of the Analalava region. Among the tera-tany of Ambanja, however, those who move frequently are not so much adults in search of work, wealth, or spouses (Feeley-Harnik 1991b: 279), but children who are sent on their own to further their educations and hope to draw on their training to assist their kin financially in the future. Thus, these children define an unusual category of migrants. Most often they are tera-tany or the children of settlers; but while their parents may feel established and content (tamana) in rural villages, these children must cope with problems similar to those of other newly arrived migrants in town, including the shortage of housing and the high cost of living. Their problems are compounded by those that exist at school, most notably involving the consequences of malagasization.

Marginality is a central aspect of njarinintsy possession. By contrast, to become a tromba medium, one must be well integrated into the community. Young women like Basely (chapter 7) can not become mediums unless they can afford to host the appropriate ceremonies and situate themselves within a locus of supportive kin and close friends already familiar with tromba possession. Such a status shift is not possible for adolescent schoolgirls, first, because they have not yet achieved adult status in a socially sanctioned way and, second, because they live isolated in town, far from kin. The responses to individual cases of njarinintsy possession—as with any form of sickness—reflect the necessity of collective action, in which family and friends congregate to care for and socialize with the afflicted. The responses to repeated cases of group possession were a bit different in that they involved participation that went beyond kin and friendship networks. The cooperative actions of parents and school officials eventually stabilized these girls’ social positions and reintegrated them into a community of caring adults.

Disorder and fragmentation are concepts that are communicated symbolically through njarinintsy possession (cf. Lambek 1981; Ackerman and Lee 1981). Again, a comparison between tromba and njarinintsy clarifies this. First, although dialogue is a very important aspect of tromba, direct communication is not characteristic of njarinintsy. During fits of njarinintsy possession, a message of chaos and dysfunction is conveyed through the actions of the victim’s body. Njarinintsy spirits express rage, taking the form of insults and physical violence directed at people and objects. The spirits’ actions are sporadic and unpredictable and the words they utter consist of incomplete phrases and swearing, so that their messages are vague, fragmented, and garbled. There is a dynamic at work here between communication and power. Tromba mediums may wield much control through their words, both in a household and in the community at large, but the power of njarinintsy possession is short-lived, leading only to the temporary closing down of schools while parents and authorities seek explanations for the causes for these events. In addition, njarinintsy is an incomplete form of possession: the lifetime training and self-exploration so characteristic of tromba is not part of the njarinintsy experience. Instead, njarinintsy is a temporary state that is frightening and confusing for both victims and witnesses. This type of dangerous spirit must be driven from its victim; only then perhaps may she anticipate becoming a tromba medium sometime in the future.

In addition, njarinintsy spirits, like the displaced children they possess, are in some sense migrants themselves. They are viewed as being a problematic and marginal category of spirits in Ambanja (and, more generally, in northwest Madagascar). Most mediums state that njarinintsy are either like tromba, referring to them as “little tromba” (tromba hely) or “bad tromba” (tromba raty). Others (such as the medium who assisted Sosotra) view them as the “children” or “grandchildren of tromba.”[11] Local concern over the effects of polyculturalism and métisization are reflected in njarinintsy as well. As described earlier, Bemazava royalty are emphatic in their statements that njarininintsy are of foreign origin, brought by Tsimihety migrants from the south. From a purist stance, these are invading and troublesome spirits that belong neither in Sakalava territory nor in Sakalava royal lineages. In essence, they are perceived to be a threat to the continuation of Sakalava power and succession.

Displacement and confusion also characterize the geography of the schoolyard, the locus of outbreaks of njarinintsy possession. Here the “jostling” and “juxtaposition of values” to which Gifford and Weiskel (1974: 710) refer take on a more disturbing tone. Eventually the cause of mass outbreaks was identified as angry ancestors whose tombs had been displaced by French colonial officials. The subsequent use of the schoolyard by the community continued this disregard for Sakalava sacred space. This breach of local custom was in turn exacerbated by the presence of non-Sakalava students, Merina schoolteachers, and the programmatic curricular changes that occurred through malagasization. Thus, as indigenous and proper ancestral spirits were displaced, these njarinintsy of foreign origin began to dominate the schoolyard, sent by the ancestors to harm the living.

Additional actions by schoolchildren themselves complete this image of displacement in the schoolyard. In this setting, children compete with each other for success in school; they also compete for romantic partners. Whereas the use of fanafody is a factor of everyday adult life in the town at large, the frequency of use is especially high in the schoolyard. This is compounded by the fact that the space is small and its borders clearly demarcated. Thus, potentially everyone runs the risk of being affected. Victims of njarinintsy are often those who accidentally come into contact with substances left to harm someone else, and so, like these children and their spirits, the dangerous effects of fanafody raty may be displaced onto an unintended victim. Anger and frustration underlie this world of children, who must cope with interethnic hostilities and the problems brought on by national educational policies. Their powerlessness is aptly expressed by their frequent use of fanafody raty and through the volatile actions of the njarinintsy spirits.

In this setting, njarinintsy possession has not assumed a static form. Instead, it has changed in response to localized social and political forces. Whereas in the 1960s these were mild-mannered and clowning spirits, by the mid-1970s they had become violent and uncontrollable. Njarinintsy possession communicates marginality, as young, displaced migrants are seized by foreign entities whose erratic behavior operates as an expression of their fragmented world. Ironically, it is the actions of these marginalized children that led to the reassertion of Sakalava power. Such an outcome, however, was possible only through the active participation of adults.

Responses to Schoolyard Possession: Sakalava Revivalism

There is no question that njarinintsy disrupts the social order in school and even in the community at large. The solutions chosen were varied. At first, kin were responsible for ensuring that individual children were treated by a local healer. By 1980, however, mass possession occurred with alarming frequency in the junior high school, involving at least one outbreak each week for over a month. The more intensive solutions that followed were embedded in a local, dominant cultural logic, prompted by the actions of a culturally and socially alienated group of youth. In essence, Sakalava traditionalism provided the appropriate responses at a time of acute personal and community crisis. Prior to these mass possession events, schools and other buildings constructed by the French or the state were not viewed as appropriate settings for joro ceremonies for honoring ancestors. Thus, the boundaries of sacred space were broadened as a result of these events.[12]

Malagasization played an important role in the incidence of and responses to outbreaks of njarinintsy in ways that at first appear contradictory, since, in part, malagasization may be viewed as the root or cause of the problem—but it also provided appropriate responses and solutions. Mass outbreaks of group possession coincided with the institutionalization of malagasization in Ambanja. This policy was formulated at a national level to foster a sense of national identity and culture among all Malagasy speakers. Those students who were affected by njarinintsy were members of the first classes that took their exams in Malagasy, and their possession can be viewed in part as a form of symbolic protest against this new educational policy. Yet another aspect of malagasization, however, is an emphasis on the need to respect local customs, and so the hosting of a joro ceremony on school grounds was a logical application of this policy. By 1980 this aspect of local Sakalava culture provided the appropriate answers for children struggling with the problems of urbanization and state education. Since it involved the participation of adults and school officials, tera-tany and vahiny (among whom there were Merina) came together to honor and recognize the authority of local Sakalava ancestors.

The effects of this decision were eventually felt beyond the confines of the town’s schoolyards, since it set in motion a chain of events that led to the institutionalization of Sakalava authority and power over the local tanindrazan̂afa. When the decision was made to build a new high school in Ambanja, living and dead royalty held sway over all major decisions. Similarly, the approval of the royal tromba spirits was—and continues to be—required if state-owned boats wish to fish in the sacred waters off Nosy Faly (see chapter 6; for an interesting contrast see Ong 1988).[13] Thus, it was a fragmented, incomplete form of possession, involving non-Sakalava spirits, which led to the reintegration of alienated youth and the reassertion of local Sakalava power.

The question that remains is what form njarinintsy possession will assume in the future. Njarinintsy has begun to become an integral part of tromba, often preceding mediumship among the younger women of Ambanja. It already appears to be taking a dominant role in ushering girls into womanhood in cases where their female social status is problematic. In addition, the playboy Grandchildren—whom some say were at one time njarinintsy—now frequently possess Ambanja’s children. Perhaps they will replace the royal spirits of Nosy Faly in dictating the direction of local culture through this future generation of mediums, who must make sense of new tensions shaped by this ever-changing world of urbanization and polyculturalism.


1. This chapter draws in part from the descriptions and arguments presented in an earlier article: for more detailed discussions on the moral dilemmas faced by Ambanja’s schoolchildren and the subsequent anomic and psychological consequences associated with town life and adolescence see Sharp (1990).

2. For simplicity’s sake, in this chapter njarinintsy will serve as a blanket term for all forms of possession sickness described in chapter 5.

3. Njarinintsy, like tromba spirits, love music.

4. Feeley-Harnik reports that njarinintsy possession has existed in the Analalava region since at least the 1970s, and it continues to be deadly and chaotic in form.

5. This scenario is a composite drawn from the descriptions given by school officials, teachers, and other observers.

6. During the 1970s corporal punishment in schools was made illegal. This is the only circumstance I know of in Ambanja where striking a student is still permitted.

7. The responses to njarinintsy which are detailed here are those of public school administrators, the majority of whom grew up in this area of Madagascar. Although the Catholic church in Ambanja is far more accepting of Sakalava cultural practices than are Protestants and Muslims, Catholic school officials have refused to hold a joro. As a schoolteacher said, “This is, after all, a Catholic school.” In 1987, however, I learned that the Catholic church did perform joro for newly constructed village churches. This conflict in policy may be a result of the fact that the head of the Catholic school is from the highlands and there are many Europeans teaching there. The monsignor of Ambanja, who supervises the building of the churches, is himself Sakalava and therefore is more respectful of local traditions. His actions also reflect the enculturation policies of the Church following Vatican II.

8. More detailed descriptions of Victoria’s and Vivienne’s stories appear in chapter 10. Vivienne, although she was only fifteen when I met her in 1987, had moved around considerably in the last few years. That summer she was living in Ambanja and was enrolled in school in Ambilobe, a town to the north.

9. Abortion is illegal in Madagascar, and for this reason it was very difficult to collect data on it in Ambanja. There are indigenous abortifacients available. In addition, there are a number of skilled M.D.s in the northern province who do a lucrative trade in performing abortions, and many of their clients are adolescent girls.

10. In 1987 I heard that an important school official in Ambanja gave an address at a national teachers’ meeting where he argued that boys are equally responsible for pregnancy; members of the audience, however, did not show much interest in this idea.

11. Feeley-Harnik (personal communication) notes that in the 1970s in the Analalava region the spirit “Be Hondry” (Be Ondry) was considered a deadly and chaotic njarinintsy, but as of 1987 he has been elevated to the status of tromba and is recognized as having healing powers. A similar process may have occurred in Ambanja, where a few informants described Be Hondry and other Grandchildren spirits as njarinintsy.

12. As noted earlier in chapter 8, the concept of the traditional or traditionalism is highly problematic. I have chosen to use this terminology here since it underscores that this response among local Sakalava was unusual and marked a break from contemporary custom.

13. Today, throughout Madagascar, it is common practice to host a joro ceremony (or its equivalent) prior to the opening of a new state-owned building. Evidence of a past joro frequently can be seen in Antananarivo, for example, where the horns of sacrified zebu cattle may rest atop fences and walls surrounding a factory.

The Social World of Children

Preferred Citation: Sharp, Lesley A. The Possessed and the Dispossessed: Spirits, Identity, and Power in a Madagascar Migrant Town. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.