'Birth is our Spear Battle': Pregnancy, Childbirth and Religion in a Northern Malagasy Port City

Nourse, Erin, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia, Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Ray, Benjamin, Religious Studies
Schmidt, Jalane, Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Laviolette, Adria, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

“‘Birth is our Spear Battle’: Pregnancy, Childbirth and Religion in a Northern Malagasy Port Town,” is an ethnography of the religious practices around birthing and infant care in Madagascar. I focus on newborn infants as a point of departure for understanding how Malagasy use the birth of a child as an opportunity to articulate and ritually construct various historical narratives and religious identities. Through an observational study of the rituals and special objects Malagasy parents use to protect the newly born from spiritual illnesses, I highlight the particular processes by which Malagasy introduce their children to the sacred by way of haircutting ceremonies, rituals of baptism and circumcision, and through the use of “growth medicines” (aody be), teething necklaces, and special jewelries meant to embed the newly born in the powerful legacies of their ancestors.

The setting for this research is the northern port city of Diego Suarez, Madagascar and thus offers a window into the rich religious diversity prevalent in Madagascar’s urban spaces. I examine ancestral veneration, not at the time of death, but around the most quintessential of new beginnings – the birth of a child. I contend that an investigation into the prevalence of ancestor spirits and ancestor related customs around the birthing and blessing of children has the potential to change our understanding of the importance of ancestors in Malagasy religions and in African religions more broadly. For it reveals that Malagasy peoples invoke their ancestors, not because they are preoccupied with death or overly concerned with a remembrance of the past, but also, and perhaps primarily, because they are invested in the future.

This research contributes to our understanding of the centrality of ancestors in Malagasy rituals and also to the dynamic medical and religious atmospheres in which parents are bringing children into the world. For with the rapid growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic religious practices on the island, some Malagasy are beginning to question the role of ancestors in their and their children’s lives. The birth of a child is a particularly salient moment for the construction of historical narratives and religious identities. Through Malagasy mothers’ stories, the complex religious and cultural influences that shape how parents deliver and welcome children into their respective ethnic and religious communities, come to life.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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