Tsimihety people



The Tsimihety are a Malagasy ethnic group who are found in the north-central region of Madagascar. Their name means "those who never cut their hair", a behavior likely linked to their independence from Sakalava kingdom, located to their west, where cutting hair at the time of mourning was expected. They are found in mountainous part of the island. They are one of the largest Malagasy ethnic groups and their population estimates range between 700,000 and over 1.2 million. This estimation places them as the fourth-largest ethnicity in Madagascar.

Location. Tsimihety are located, in the central part of northeastern Madagascar. Because they are seminomadic, however, their boundaries change constantly. Tsimihety territory is bounded on the east by that of the Betsimisaraka, on the south by that of the Sihanaka, on the west by that of the Sakalava, and on the north by that of the Antankarana (but with forest between the people to the east and south and with the Massif de Tsaratanana between Tsimihety and the Antanakrana).

Tsimihety people map

The northern uplands of the Massif are uninhabited, but vanilla is grown on the lower slopes, around Andapa. Otherwise, Tsimihety country comprises well-watered narrow valleys separated by low ridges. Temperatures range between 19° C and 23° C, except in the highlands. The hottest months are between November and March; the rainy season lasts from October to March, and there are dry southeast winds from April to July.

Demography. Population statistics are hopelessly inaccurate, but Tsimihety have been estimated to number between 340,000 and 700,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tsimihety is a dialect of Malagasy, which is a Malayo-Polynesian language. The nearest related language to Malagasy is Maanjan of Borneo.


History and Cultural Relations

Tsimihety are immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants from Betsimisaraka villages of the east coast. A small autochthonous population, the Vohilava, received Betsimisaraka immigrants who were fleeing from Merina oppression in the early nineteenth century. Before that, the Vohilava had allied with Zafinfotsy Sakalava fleeing from Zafinmena Sakalava coming from the west. Radama I, the Merina king, conquered the Tsimihety in 1823. The Merina put down numerous small rebellions, but were themselves conquered by the French in 1896. Some Tsimihety rebelled unsuccessfully against the French. Tension between Tsimihety and Merina is never far below the surface, even though Tsimihety avoid all outsiders as far as possible. Tsiranana, a Tsimihety from near Mandritsara, was the first president of the Malagasy Republic, which gained independence in 1960.



Traditionally, Tsimihety prefer to live in small villages of about a dozen houses. There are a few larger villages, however, which are relics of the French policy of amalgamation. These villages have survived because they are located near particularly rich soils. Although their houses are built of semipermanent materials (mud, dung), Tsimihety are highly mobile; consequently, villages grow and decline constantly. Homesteading is not uncommon. Rice fields surround the villages, and pastures rise above them, on the lower hill slopes. All houses are built in parallel rows, oriented on a northeast/southwest axis. Granaries are on the perimeter.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Dry rice, interspersed with occasional wet-rice paddies, is the subsistence base; it is supplemented by male gardens (maize, yams, plantain) and female gardens (vegetables, herbs). Wild fruits are gathered, and occasional small game (lemurs, civets, guinea fowl, fruit bats) is hunted. Large numbers of cattle ( Bos indicus ) are kept, but meat is eaten only ceremonially, and milk is rarely drunk. Chickens are kept in all villages and are eaten regularly. Few villages keep pigs. Tsimihety avoid commercial activity, but they are sometimes forced by circumstances to buy and sell rice, raffia, kapok, and meat. Near the small towns, Tsimihety cater to European demands and sell food in the markets. A barter economy is maintained between villagers and forest dwellers (rice in exchange for tobacco, honey, and vegetable salt). Around Andapa, vanilla is grown as a cash crop.

Industrial Arts. Women weave raffia into cloth, hats, and baskets. Blacksmithing, using piston bellows, is traditional. Some individuals make their own furniture, knife handles, and sandals, but this is rare. The making of musical instruments is almost a lost art.

Division of Labor. Young boys and adolescent males herd cattle. Males prepare the rice fields and tend male gardens. Men build houses and cattle byres; they hunt and work wood and metal (occasionally). Women weed the rice fields, winnow and store rice, tend female gardens, prepare rice, and cook; they also do laundry. Both sexes fish and gather fruit. Men divine and cure; women monopolize the possession trance ( tromba ). The division of labor is not hard and fast, but generally holds true.

Land Tenure. Land is held by the ancestors who are buried in the family tomb ( fasana ) and by their largely patrilineal descendants ( zafintany ), who are understood to be an indivisible group. Individuals are allocated rights of use, according to need, on an annual basis. Land cannot be bought or sold but can be loaned to "guests" ( vahiny ). Land left unused reverts back to the common pool.



Several grades of bilateral kinship are recognized: havana are kin in general, havana lavidavitra are distant kin, and havana akaiky are close kin. Fianakaviana are close kin who are intimate and in constant contact; tokontrano refers to a group of kin living as neighbors; ankohonana is a household, the intimate family group. Especially close relations are also recognized, for example, mianaka, parents/children; mianadafy, siblings; and miafy, grandparents/grandchildren. The term for the relationship is also used by the two parties to refer to each other. For jural purposes—such as title to burial in the tomb, right to the use of land, and claim to "ownership" of land and living sites—patrilinal ascent ( fokondray ) is dominant. Primary claimants to a particular tomb are united by patrilineal ascent into a named association ( foko ). As associations of people with proprietary rights to land, they are known as zafintany. To describe the situation in which one is living as part of a zafintany, a person is said to live ambenilahy (in the father's line).


Marriage and Family

Marriage. The dominant form of marriage that is followed today is virilocal, often patrilocal. A bride-price ( miletry ) of up to five head of cattle and money is usually paid. This custom has been modified, however, by the popularity of trial marriage ( diajofa ), in which a couple lives together for a year before the miletry is paid. The woman brings a dowry ( meomeo ), which furnishes the house and remains her property. Probably a large percentage of couples now settle without ceremony or miletry. Divorce is informal and immediate. Although polygamy and polyandry are permitted, instances are rare. Levirate is practiced according to circumstance.

Domestic Unit. Villages are small and cooperative. Households (ankohonana, fehitry ) are based on—but not limited to—the nuclear family. Neighboring households whose heads are close kin (brothers, father/sons) formerly worked and ate together as a unit ( jao ), but this custom is less frequently observed nowadays. Larger villages are divided into sections ( fizarana ) that are loosely based on the common foko identity of male heads of households. Work groups ( asareky ) are loosely based on these sections.

Inheritance. Land is generally the common property of ancestors and their descendants and is not owned individually. The right to use land that is continuously worked may be claimed by patrilineal descendants ( zazalava ), but this right lapses if the land is left idle. Cattle are owned individually; most are sacrificed in a commemorative feast at the owner's death. Personal items (clothes, tools, plate, cutlery) are buried or disposed of. Inheritance is negligible.

Socialization. Except for blows struck in anger, corporal punishment is seldom seen. Relative age—hence, respect for elders—and male precedence are the principal practices and instruments of socialization. Males and females are generally separated.


Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Madagascar is an independent republic. Mosst Tsimihety live in the province of Majunga, principally in the districts of Marotandrano, Mandritsara, Befandriana, Bealanana, and Andapa. The administration is further divided into cantons, quartiers, and villages. Tsimihety may become chefs de quartier and chefs de village, but they do their utmost to avoid participation in central, or imposed government. Elders ( rayamandreny ; lit., "mothers and fathers"), under the leadership of the senior male of the senior generation ( soja ), manage village affairs. A chef de village may formally convene the whole village for discussions ( fokon'olona ). Tsimihety shun large political gatherings or amalgamations; tricky situations are best resolved by disbanding a settlement and migrating to another location.

Social Control. The central government maintains police stations in the district and provincial centers. The Parti Sociale Democratique (PSD) is dominant in the region and maintains a network of agents throughout the villages. Effective social control is maintained through family and kinship solidarity, public meetings ( kabary ), divination ( sikidy ), and the strong but covert influence of diviners and general advisers ( ombiasa ). Many difficulties are blamed on various types of spirits ( zanahary, zanambatrotraka, kalinoro ) and ancestors (razana), but are resolved through taboos ( fady ), offerings, and promises.

Conflict. Tsimihety have made themselves past masters at avoiding open conflict with outsiders, preferring evasion, stonewalling, dissembling, and other tactics of frustration. Alcohol is not widely available, and people are not aggressive. Open discussion of disagreements is the preferred way of finding solutions to domestic problems. Historically, Tsimihety have been defeated whenever they resisted invasion, and this has led them to hide in the hills from any outside threats. Resentment of outsiders—in particular, of Merina—suggests constant tension.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practitioners. As is the case throughout Madagascar, Tsimihety have a vague belief in a Supreme Being (Andriamanitra) who presides over a spirit world in which the most important inhabitants are the ancestors. Ancestors occupy the world in general but retain a specific presence and influence in the area ( tanindrazana ) that surrounds their particular tombs. So strong is the sense of the presence of ancestors that it would be accurate to suggest that the living are a part of the world of the ancestors and that life is just the pathway to death. Tsimihety tombs are undecorated natural caves in the hills. Although Christian missionaries (Protestant and Catholic, English and French) have been present among Tsimihety for more than a century, only a small percentage of Tsimihety are Christians. These are found mostly in the small towns, where the missionaries have educated children in church schools.

Arts. Tsimihety are extraordinarily nonaesthetic, and their crafts are entirely functional. Little if any decoration is applied, music is rarely played, stories are hardly ever told, cooking is plain boiling with only salt added, special costumes are absent, and dancing is occasional and no more than a shuffle. Cattle are the entire focus of aesthetic attention. Sometimes they are branded; otherwise, each clan designates its cattle with a special earmark. Cattle are admired for the shape of their horns, the size of their humps, and the combinations of colors in their coats.

Medicine. Traditional medicine, utilizing plants and prophylactic amulets, is predominant and is prescribed and administered by specialists (ombiasa). Healing by shamans (tromba) is common but less sought after. Most adults have some knowledge of medicinal plants and treatments and treat themselves and their children for minor ailments. Mandritsara has a hospital, and other district towns have medical centers and private pharmacies owned by Merina or other vazaha (outsiders, including Europeans) who sell Western medicines. These are used widely by the town dwellers, including Tsimihety.

Death and Afterlife. Life is measured as a progress toward death and ancestorship, but this concept does not prevent death from being treated with apprehension. First burial is usually beneath a large rock. The corpse is bathed and dressed, attended constantly by close kin; other mourners grieve or put on a show of grief in a special construction, fondra ratsy ("bad place"). A large feast for all kin, friends, and neighbors is held, at which most of the deceased's cattle may be slaughtered. Some years later (the government decrees a minimum of three years), there is a secondary burial ( famadihana ): the bones are exhumed, wrapped in a special winding cloth ( lamba mena ), and placed in the ancestral tomb. Famadihana is usually the occasion for a feast, but Tsimihety engage in very little ritual during such observances.