Bara people



The Bara people are a Malagasy ethnic group living in the southern part of the central plateaus of Madagascar, in the Toliara Province, concentrated around their historic capital at Ihosy.

The Bara are the largest of the island's zebu-herding peoples and have historically lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, although an increasing proportion are practicing agriculture.Bara society is highly patriarchal and endogamy and polygamy are practiced among some Bara tribes. Young men practice cattle rustling to prove their manhood before marriage, and the kilalaky musical and dance tradition associated with cattle rustlers has gained popularity across the island.

Bara people

Historically the Bara were organized into numerous affiliated kingdoms ruled by nobles of the Zafimanely line. They were largely united under a single king in the late 18th century before again dissolving into competing kingdoms.

Over the 19th century, Bara participation in slave and cattle trading and raids into neighboring territories saw their wealth and power increase despite the group's fragmented political organization.

This economic power enabled the Bara to maintain independence from the expanding authority of the Kingdom of Imerina and resist French authority for nearly a decade following colonization in 1896. Andre Resampa, a powerful political leader in the transition to independence for Madagascar in 1960, hailed from the Bara ethnic group. There were an estimated 520,000 Bara in Madagascar in 2000 constituting roughly three percent of the population, and they remain the island's predominant zebu herders and traders.


Ethnic identity

The name Bara is of Bantu origin and means "those of the interior". Along with Sakalava, Bara are one of the two Malagasy ethnic groups of clear Bantu descent. They live principally in the southern part of the central plateaus of Madagascar, in the Toliara Province, especially in the Ihosy-Betroka area. They numbered an estimated 520,000 in 2000.



Bara are located in the South central, Ibara, south of Betsileo, west of Tesaka, east of Masikoro, Anosy area and north, Mahafaly (Source: Ethnologue 2010).

Originally a nomadic people, the Bara of Madagascar, as might be expected, have a wide domain. Their principal cities are Beroroha, Ankazoabo, and Sakaraha to the West; and Ihosy and Betroka to the East. The Bara, however, are not city people and prefer to live in
small villages which are far from one another. In certain Bara regions, virility, courage and ability to marry was connected with halats’omby (institutionalized cattle theft”).



The Bara people speak Bara Malagasy, a dialect of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.



The history of the Bara begins along the Ihosy River in the Arindrano region of southwest Madagascar, near Toliara. Little is known about the earliest period in Bara identity formation, beyond that it coincided with the formation of the Maroserana dynasty of the Sakalava people and that certain Bara nobles had Maroserana origins. This early kingship-based social structure is believed to have had weak or nonexistent rules of succession. Around 1640 a noble of the Mahafaly people invaded Bara territory and installed his family as rulers under the dynastic name Zafimanely. This was an imposition to which many Bara were unwilling to submit, leading them to simply migrate internally to new territory. Zafimanely power became more firmly established after the death of the Mahafaly nobleman in 1653, but competition and ambition led these newcomers to engage in an ongoing struggle for power until around 1680, greatly disrupting life in Bara territory (Ibara). A major driver of this instability was the absence of a tribute system, leading Zafimanely nobles to engage in cattle raiding and issuing costly fines to law breakers that sparked internal and external tensions alike.

Around 1800 there emerged a Zafimanely king called Raikitroka who put in place new regulations that greatly eased these tensions and ushered in a reign of relative tranquility and harmony. After Raikitroka's death, the ruling line fractured into multiple kingdoms and principalities; by 1895 the Bara were organized into at least three major kingdoms, two mid-sized ones and more than 24 minor kingdoms. This shift was linked not to economic causes—the Bara as a whole grew richer from international trade and the raiding of Imerina in the late 19th century—but rather because of the gradual dispersal of the growing Bara population into the relatively underpopulated plains of the west and south and subsequently growing distance of the scattered population from the traditional center of Bara power. Although Queen Ranavalona I successfully established a Merina military installation at Ihosy, the 19th century military conquests of the Kingdom of Imerina never succeeded in entirely subjugating the Bara. Working from their base at Ihosy, the Merina garrison attempted to exert some degree of influence over the Bara by providing support to stronger Bara kings over their challengers in an effort to maintain friendly alliances with powerful leaders capable of exerting the control over the territory that the Merina could not. Despite the dispersed nature of Bara power, by the end of the 19th century the Zafimanely constellation of ruling nobles ranked alongside that of the Sakalava and Merina as the most powerful political forces on the island.

The Zafimanely Kingdom was dissolved after the island was colonized by the French in 1896. The king of one of the most prominent Bara kingdoms, a leader named Ramieba, was arrested by the French for leading Bara participation in the Menalamba rebellion against French rule in 1897. This consequently soured Bara perception of the French, who otherwise might have been welcomed as conquerors of the widely resented Merina sovereigns. After the French conquered Madagascar they attempted with great difficulty to impose administrative authority in Bara territory, with frequent Bara insurrections between June 1897 and the general southern uprising of 1904–05.

Bara politician Andre Resampa became a leading figure in the establishment of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in the run-up to national independence in 1960. When PSD figurehead Philibert Tsiranana was elected Madagascar's first president on 1 May 1959, Resampa became the party's Secretary General; in this role, he spearheaded the revival of the traditional body of local government, the fokonolona, and led a successful effort to dramatically increase party membership.



Agreements were traditionally formalized through a blood pact (fatidra).[3] The Bara live in rectangular earthen houses that are colored red by the high iron content of the soil. In the winter, space beneath the eaves is used for hanging and sun-drying maize to be stored, sold or planted the following year.

Demonstrating courage is fundamental to masculinity in Bara culture. Historically, kings were required to lead the advance in combat, placing themselves in danger first; the others were not allowed to protect him or come to his aid unless he was injured or exhausted. Cattle raiding is a major feature of Bara culture. Traditionally a rite of passage for young men to prove their worth and courage to a prospective wife's family and the larger community, the practice is currently outlawed but remains widespread throughout the southwest and south-central Bara territories. Young men could not expect to marry respectably without first having successfully stolen at least one or two cattle in a raid. Today, cattle rustlers (dahalo) are increasingly armed bandits stealing cattle for wealth rather than social prestige. Zebu wrestling is a sport practiced by Bara communities and involves Zebu being penned into an arena and whipped into frustration. Once the zebu is angry, players sneak up behind the Zebu and jump onto its hump, attempting to 'ride' as long as possible without being injured by the beast. It is seen as a rite of passage for young boys.

The Bara have a rich oral storytelling tradition. Their myths and stories are distinguished by an especially stark and terse use of language. The comparatively simple structure and symbolism that predominates in Bara storytelling is used by some linguists and anthropologists as a starting point for analyzing the evolution and variation of oral storytelling traditions on the island. The dance traditions and sculpted artwork of the Bara are well known across the island. Their wooden statues are unique in having long eyelashes made from real hair.

Traditionally, Bara women would weave local cotton to make clothing for themselves and their family members. Cotton continues to be hand picked, ginned and woven using a high-whorl drop spindle. Raw cotton yarn is typically dipped in a softening solution before weaving; prior to softening, the yarn is called fole velo ("living yarn") and is believed to be imbued with magical powers; ombiasy (village wisemen) may tie this yarn around the wrist for protection or wrap it around the bodies of participants in circumcision ceremonies. Less commonly, clothing was made of silk (landy) produced by the local silkworm that fed off indigenous tapia trees growing in the Isalo area. Although this silk was more coarse and uneven than that produced by the Merina or Betsileo people, throughout the island it was the most prized type of silk because of its durability. In the far eastern part of Bara territory, clothing was most commonly made from beaten bark cloth or mats of harefo (Eleocharis plantagines). Women wore tube dresses made of two to three mats stitched together and tied at the shoulder or belted at the waist, often in combination with a bandeau style top of woven mahampy reeds. Men wore beaten bark cloth loincloths with jackets or tunics formed from stitched woven mats; older men's clothing included sleeves. The wearing of charms is common among the Bara, as elsewhere in Madagascar; charms called tsimokotra were historically crafted from the bones of lemurs' feet to relieve fatigue.



As elsewhere in Madagascar, social life among the Bara is strongly guided by fady, ancestral taboos that often vary by class, by village, or even by family. In some Bara villages, it is forbidden to carry a load alone; at least two people must carry it together. A common prohibition throughout Bara communities forbids serving food or drink to someone with the utensils, plates or cups that were used to serve another. It is also fady to step over someone seated or lying on the ground, lift or carry an item over another person's head or body, brush another person with one's lamba, or sit on or lean against another's bed.

Numerous fady surround the Bara nobles. Among the Zafimanely royal clan, for example, it is forbidden to ever kill a relative, even as punishment for a serious crime. Historically it was taboo to speak to the wives of chiefs or enter their houses, and there were specific locations restricted to everyone but them for gathering firewood and collecting water. A particularly strong taboo forbade speaking the name of a chief after his death or any word that formed part of the name. The deceased leader was given a new name after death that all were required to use, and specific synonyms were selected to replace the words composing his name for use in regular conversation; anyone who spoke the forbidden words would harshly punished or in some instances executed.


Funeral rites

The Bara entomb the dead in natural mountain caves, particularly in Isalo National Park, an area they consider sacred; they have buried their dead in the caves here for centuries. Where such natural formations are not available, the Bara build tombs covered in stones at a site away from the village. Mourners visit the bereaved in a special building called the "house of many tears" where the women engage in ritual wailing and expression of sorrow. The bereaved family members cut their hair to express mourning. Among many Bara, wives were not buried with their husband and his children, but were rather buried with their father or in a separate site. It is believed that the spirits of the dead linger as ghosts, which historically prompted villages to relocate after a death.

Those associated with a recent death are seen as imbued with a kind of contagion for a short period of time. When bilo or salamanga healing rituals are being conducted, the ombiasy may erect a special barrier (kiady) in front of the entrance to the house where the ceremony is being held as an indicator that anyone whose family member has recently died (as well as any foreigner or stranger outside the community) is forbidden to enter for concern about breaking the power of the healing spell.


Dance and music

Dance among the Bara is influenced by the movement of the zebu they have traditionally herded for centuries. The karitaky dance in particular is a movement inspired by a zebu kicking. The most popular contemporary dance, called kilalaky, is performed in a line and originated among Bara cattle rustlers. The specific style of musical accompaniment, also known as kilalaky, is performed on djembe, kabosy, electric guitar, bass guitar, drum kit and keyboard. Bagzana and Tsiliva are considered among the most popular performers of kilalaky. The most typical musical instrument among the Bara is the lokanga, a fiddle with three strings made of goat gut or vegetable fiber.



Raising and selling herds of zebu is the principal economic activity of the Bara. In recent decades they have increasingly adopted agricultural practices, including the cultivation of rice, cassava, millet and maize. The rice planting season was traditionally timed around the arrival of a local migrating quail (coturnix communis), known locally as kibodolo. The Bara and Sakalava were Madagascar's principal international slave traders through the early part of the 19th century. Historically the majority of slave raids were conducted in the dry winter months. Beginning in the 1870s, in response to increased cattle demand in South Africa following a series of blights and disease that had decimated local herds, the Bara began exporting their cattle internationally through southern coastal ports including Toliara, Saint Augustin, Belo and Soalara. The development of economic activity independent of the regulation of the Kingdom of Imerina, as well as the arms they received in exchange for cattle, enabled the Bara to strengthen their autonomy and resist Merina authority in the later 19th century, even to the extent of launching cattle and slave raids into the heart of Imerina - an activity that increased particularly after 1882. The Ankandrarezina Bara also cultivated tapia, a mulberry upon which the indigenous silkworm fed; the silk they produced was both woven locally for cloth and exported in raw form to Imerina.



ATR is practised by a good percentage of the Bara people — one of the major tribes of Madagascar. The religion is far from going into extinction. It will not disappear, they say, until the last survivor of the Bara tribe is gone. Thus, ATR, "source of ancestral customs", constitutes an important element of the identity of the tribe. The Bara man lives in a religious universe. The main stages of life are marked with religious ceremonies in order to maintain the harmony between the world beyond or the "extra-natural" and the human being in the world. In traditional prayer, there is always invocation of Zanahary (Creator God), and the ancestors and of Tansy Masyt (the sacred land, the land where for generation upon generation, is buried the raza, that is to say, the placenta). This attachment to the ancestral land (the tanin drazana — the land of the placenta) becomes as such a visceral attachment to all the customs inherited from the ancestors in the land where the past generations received life.

Religious practices / ceremonies: The Bara pray to "Zanahary who made hands and feet", and numerous sacrifices are made for the living and the dead. The hazomanga velona or mpisoro officiates during rituals at the hazomanga (sacrificial altar place; also refers to the person who officiates, the patriarch). The ombiasa (divine, witch-doctor, traditional healer, astrologer) also leads some ceremonies.

Only members of the same hazomanga can sit down before the sacrificial post and participate in ceremonies. The hazomanga is found a few metres to the north-east of the patriarch`s house (tra`on-donaky). The house is easily distinguishable from others, as it is often the highest of the village and is built in the north-east, while the other houses in the village are built to the south and the west. The importance of this house is shown by the slaughtering of a cow during its inauguration. The sacred objects inherited from the ancestors are kept in the north-eastern corner of the tra`on-donaky and consists of the long knife (vy arara, verara, vy lava, vy mengoky) for cutting the victim`s throat, the tin beaker (fanovy) for sprinkling water or a water-blood mixture and the marine conch shell (atsiva) for the convocation of the blood relatives. These objects are hidden and only brought out (in some areas by a special little door) when a sacrifice is to be made.

There are varieties of interpretation of the hazomanga. Among the Zafindrendriko, the Bara Iatsatsa and the Bara Imamono, the word hazomanga has a wider meaning. They do not erect a sacrificial post, but keep a special space swept and clean for the purposes of sacrificial ceremonies. To them hazomanga refers to the person of the patriarch, to his house (also called fatora) and to the three sacred objects. Fauble (1954:68) mentions that the Bara Vinda have a hazom-b`to, which commemorates circumcision and serves as sacrificial post.

Rites practiced by the Bara include the bilo (a type of healing through exorcism of the helo), savatse (circumcision), different sacrifices (soro and saotse), funeral rites and divination (sikily). The soro is sacrificial prayer offered to Za`ahary and the patrilinear ancestors, and can only be officiated by the patriarch. This is done on behalf of the whole lineage or family at the hazomanga. In the case of the bilo, sacrifices for marriage or when there has been a serious fault committed - such as incest or breaking some taboo - the required sacrifices to prevent any disastrous consequences from such transgressions are not made at the hazomanga, but somewhere else in the village.

Anybody can call on superhuman powers, especially on the helo, which are spirits of living nature, spirits of life, to make a vow (sareky) and ask a favour, in exchange for the sacrifice of a chicken or a sheep, for which the patriarch`s intervention is not required. In some cases a person becomes a medium for the helo and is then consulted by those in need. The helo are small dark spirits who live in particular trees or in particular water spots, or in particular creatures such as eels, that get fed with locusts, frogs or meat from a sacrificed cow. They sometimes haunt a person and sometimes show their favour of a child, who is then consecrated by abstention from certain foods and other soiling elements. Usually veneration of the helo concerns sterility or wealth or a guilt offering for having offended them by desecrating their dwelling place. This type of prayer is called saotsy.

Three elements are present in all sacrificial rites (Elli:93), namely tata (prayer, calling on Zanahary and the ancestors, explaining the reasons for the occasion and the request made); soro (the sacrifice of the victim, usually a cow; or some rice and honey in the case of a pregnancy); and tsipirano (blessing - sprinkling with water during the tata, or with a mixture of water and blood after the soro). The three terms are used interchangeably to indicate the total rite.



Bara are also known as dancers and sculptors. Their wooden statues have long eyelashes that are implemented using human hair.

Madagascar – Feast of life and death

In the south of Madagascar live the Bara, a cluster of 18 ethnic groups that share language and culture. They live in a arid land, where agriculture cannot thrive, and so they developed an economy based on husbandry. They also developed an interesting relationship with death and the deceased. The Bara claim that death is a passage that allows a person to become an ancestor, that allows to influence the life of the whole clan. This passage is celebrated in three stages.

When a person dies, the corpse is cleaned and wrapped in a shroud. The morning after, relatives and friends come to visit and condolence the family. The morning of the third day, the body of the deceased is interred in a solitary location, often in a cave which is then sealed. It is left there to rot for months, at times for years. In the meantime, the family prepares for the second step of this complex rite.

The second stage of the funeral requires large amount of goods and money. The family will have to plan carefully, and this may take long. If a family has no enough means, they will agree with other clans and organize a common festival, sharing the expenses. Once all the preparation is done, the family of the deceased will inform the chief of the clan. He will go to the formal sepulchre of the family and offer a libation of rum to the ancestors. After that, he will decide when the funeral will take place. This is always sometimes between June and September, the dry and cooler time of the year.

When the time approaches, a group of people go to the provisional tomb and exhume the corpse of their loved one. These are always the head of the family plus some adults of the same sex of the deceased. The old shroud is removed and a new, colourful one wrapped around the remains. Then everyone returns to the village in procession. Those who pass along the way will stop what they are doing to pay their respect and murmur a prayer. The remains are taken to the sacred land of the clan. This is always a piece of land with a sacred tree. No one would ever dare desecrate these spots, which are always free from litter and where animal cannot graze.

It is here that those invited to the feast gather. They are the members of the clan plus friends and people who live in the area. A bull is brought under the tree and sacrificed. This must be a large animal. The animal is offered to the ancestors to ask them to bless the ritual. Those who arrive to the ground start the feast buy dancing, while food and beverages are offered to all.

In the morning of the second day, another animal is sacrificed and its meat prepared for lunch. This is the time when the last guests arrive, while all participate in dancing and singing. The remains are brought around for people to touch and embrace them. This ritual goes on until midday, when people stop dancing to rest and eat. Once the food is finished, all go in procession to the sepulchres. These are usually built far from the village. From outside, they look exactly as other house, only they are sturdier and well cared for. This is to honour the ancestors and keep them happy.

Once at their final destination, those carrying the remains go around the sepulchre seven times. Those in charge with putting the remains in their final resting place take off their shoes, and enter the house. Men are placed on the right side of the house, women on the left. The sepulchre is cleaned; old shrouds are replaced with new ones. People might fight over who takes home the old shrouds, considered important relics of the ancestors. Once all is back to order, the sepulchre is locked. The elders have a few words of leave-taking and then all go back to the village using a different route. This is done to confuse the souls of the ancestors who will not follow the people and remain happily in the sepulchre. Once back under the sacred tree, a third animal is slaughtered as a thanksgiving. All present receive enough meat to bring back home.

The third stage of the ritual is celebrated only by the members of the family. At dawn on the third day, all meet in the house where the deceased lived. An elder sings a hymn while blessing people with water. A calf is brought in the courtyard, it does not have to be big, but he must be red. The calf is sacrificed and the blood put in a container. The elder will asperse it on the walls of the house. Once this is done, the elders and some women of the family have a meeting to discuss family matters. The meeting ends with the sharing of food and dancing, which last until dark. The last morning of the rite, the family goes together to the river to have a ritual bath. This ends the ritual and the deceased is now an ancestor. While all return to their daily chores, the ancestor will watch over and bless them.