Francois is a man of few words. His profession along with its secrets he has inherited from his father, and a lot more! A Oumbiasy or Ta Dara Be (traditional healer) is a key figure in the Malagasy society, they are descendants from royal families and thus are highly respected individuals. Traditions, stories, myth, religion and gossip have warped their image and often downplayed their influence but underneath the surface, they are feared and still in high demand.
A Oumbiasy could be a specialist either in medicine, spirit mediation, or divination and sometimes all three. A client’s request is usually a descriptive monologue of the events that led to the visit and consultation. It could go for a while. Francois’s unwavering attention strikes me. I was warned not to drink or eat anything he offers me, but under the tin roof in Mahajanga, his home clinic heats up. Finally, he interrupts the client, for he ought to fetch a bottle of rhum prior proceeding. Those in need submit unquestionably to the demands of the Oumbiasy, absolute trust.
Word of mouth spreads the name of an Oumbiasy and Francois tells me that customers from the capital do not mind paying his travel bills for important services. He fiddles in his bag and shows me a ‘moara’, a horn of a zebu with an intrusive musky smell. It has been stuffed with a sticky cocktail of grated tree bark and bones. A couple of chicken feather protrude on both sides of the mix while on top, sunk to its hips, a figurine of a black man smiles at me.
The client returns with the bottle. By now, everybody is thirsty, a prayer, a drop of rhum to the ancestors and some to those present. Fanafoudy for gri gri gasy (medicine for curse) is what customers come for. A Oumbiasy, depending on the outcome of his divination, prescribes medicine for the sick, potions for protection and spells on enemies.
Methods of divination vary by Oumbiasy, Francois’s method is called Sikily/Sikidy, the divinatory art by the seeds. It is believed that the origin is Arab, although date of importation and who was the first to use it is still disputed. The Sikily can answer any question: which days to fast, what sacrificial animal (and its color), what cults to be rendered to ancestors, how to heal the sick, how to become rich… Nowadays, it is the most widespread form of divination on the island.
Francois opens an ancient bag that used to be white and empties its content. Voankarabo seeds scramble on the floor. He assembles them quietly in rectangles under keen eyes. A Oumbiasy would use themes drawn from different aspects of the daily life and employ specialized terms to translate the words. One hour later, the remaining seeds reveal the cause and effect. The eighth figure says «enemy» and the eleventh «food», the rest is confidential and must remain so.
Mahajenga, Madagascar 2015 ©