Madagascar's Witch-Doctors Talk to the Dead

Manahira Mahateraka communicates with the dead.

By scattering dried seeds across the ground and arranging them into astrological formations, the 73-year-old regularly calls up ancestral spirits and asks them questions.

If they feel like it, they will answer him.

Using their wisdom he can prescribe a remedy for a serious illness, tell you a good day to build a house, end a run of bad luck or cast a spell on someone to make them fall in love with you.

Manahira is one of Madagascar's numerous witch-doctors -- known as ombiasi -- who still practice throughout the Indian Ocean island but are especially common in its remote South, where Manahira's village of Ifotaka lies.

"The ancestors speak to me through the sikeli (seeds)," he explains, casting a handful of black seeds on the ground and assembling them into rows. "This is how we solve the problems of life."

For the Antandroy inhabiting the vast 'spiney forests' of southern Madagascar, witch-doctors like Manahira are still essential.

Cut off from the rest of the island and the world by poor roads and a dry, inhospitable climate, the Antandroy have held fast to their traditional culture.

Starting with an unknown quantity of seeds in his hand, Manahira scatters and then arranges them according to Tandroy astrology -- a system derived from an old Arabic calendar.

Depending on the month and how many seeds fall on the ground at each throw, the formations dictate messages from the ancestors.

"The astrology tells you on which day you must take the required action," he says. "Medicine for a sickness might only work on a certain day."

Contributions are voluntary but only the foolish fail to give generously to men of such power.

"They usually pay well," says Manahira. "You might get goats or even a cow for a very good job."


Madagascar, a huge island off the coast of Mozambique, houses a unique blend of cultures that has long fascinated anthropologists.

Successive waves of immigrants since antiquity, starting with sea-faring peoples from present-day Indonesia to more recent arrivals from eastern Africa and Arabia, have each left their mark.

Respect for dead ancestors and beliefs that they influence the living are widespread.

The Antandroy live in simple wood-and-thatch huts. By contrast, their ancestors are buried in enormous, elaborately decorated stone-wall tombs.

The witch-doctors are a channel between the living and the dead but are most often consulted to cure sickness. In the age of modern medicine, they have less work.

"When someone has flu or malaria, they go to the nearest doctor for paracetemol or chloroquine," says Remanintsy Tompotany, former mayor of Ifotaka commune. "There is no need to summon an ombiasi."

The witch-doctors are consulted only when western medicines are unavailable or fail.

"There are diseases the doctor cannot cure, like jaundice," Tompotany adds.

"These are for the ombiasi. They prescribe traditional cures where modern remedies have no answer."

Many of the herbs used are species of plants found only in Madagascar, the product of millions of years of evolution since the island broke away from Africa.

If the remedies fail, the patient is taken into the sacred forest while the ombiasi summons spirits using a drum.

Unlike modern doctors, the ombiasis sometimes use their art for mischief.

"Someone can go to an ombiasi to bring bad luck on an enemy," says Tompotany. "They'll do it, knowing that the victim comes back to them to undo the spell. They double their money."


Besides modern medicine, growing Christianity, Catholic and Protestant influence, has eroded the witch-doctors' influence. Half of Ifotaka's 1,700 people are churchgoers.

"If you are Christian, you are not supposed to use ombiasi, though some still do," says Antonette Boa, 63. "I'm a Christian so I don't believe in pagan spirits. If I die, it is God's will."

But with many still believing, a younger generation of would-be witch-doctors waits to fill the shoes of the old.

Lambo Marolahy, 26, has started his training, although he says it's up to the ancestors whether or not he is chosen.

"I want to become an ombiasi because there are only two left in the village. What happens when they die?" he says. "Someone needs to keep our traditions going."