Caring for water in Madagascar


en years after the inception of the water project, Marofarihy village has 20 hand pumps. Currently, all of them work. Of course, they do not always work, or all the time. But most of the time they do. In order to understand how they work, and – more importantly – how they are maintained, we need to understand an essential part of the lifeblood of the Malagasy culture. This is encapsulated by the notion of fihavanana (solidarity, social bonds, reciprocity) and prescribes that people take care of water by sharing it collectively. It has to be noted that fihavanana is a very fluid concept, which has changed over time and has a somewhat different significance across different regions. Yet, our intention is not to carve its meaning in stone, because that would miss the point completely. We pondered a different course to talk about fihavanana.


At some point during our fieldwork, we were sitting in the car and Carole began to tell us the in Madagascar well-known Malagasy water myth. We realised that this is a beautiful entry point for storytelling that gives insight into an entangled set of issues, and captures how fihavanana - and the related taboos - relates to caring for water in Madagascar.


In order to do so we want to share with you “the legend of the sacred lake Anivorano”. It is important to note that this legend stems from oral history and many versions of the myth exist. Here is one artistic interpretation in the form of an animation from Mike Pitman. For a narration from one of the elders from the Anivorano region, see video and the translation below. Thanks to Carole Rabemenantsoa for travelling all the way there and filming the storytelling.


Interpretation of the legend


According to Malagasy custom, it is taboo (fady) to refuse any person water. It is important to point out that no uniform or essentialist meaning can be attached to the complex notion of fihavanana, and it has to be understood within a specific regional context, as it has varied over time and gained new meaning in the wake of the colonial and postcolonial state etc. Indeed, just like the hand pump itself; it is an immensely fluid concept.


In the next video, the legend is narrated by an elder man from the Anivorano region.

  • Click here for the written version of the legend as told by an elder from that region


    The origin of Antagnavo, in the beginning, it was a village where there were people who came from the South, the Zafitsimanito, and those who came from the North who are the tompon-tanàna (owners of this village) to whom the first asked for water:


    ''Give us water because we are going to drink ''.


    Those from the far north answered,


    "But there is no water."


    They had asked for water at the southern end of the village where there was a woman, the only person who had given them water. They quenched their thirst and told this woman (inaudible) on the south side:

    ''When it gets dark, go away from here. When your children cry, go away from here because that water, for which they were stingy, will fall upon them ".


    When the night came, their children cried, and when their children cried, as was the practice of the old days, they had to be taken to the traditional practitioner to arrange things. And then they went to join this person where they settled. So, 'pouh' ', the water was pouring and flooding the village. The woman and her children had been spared. When they came back, they had seen that all the earth was water. This village was flooded. They had then left this place to migrate to the North where they had settled. When night came, they had a dream. The dream was that those who were under water would come out and say to them,


    "When it's a Saturday, kill a mazavaloha zebu (cow with a black skin with a white patch on the face and feet) to give us our share of wealth. Do the jôro (ritual sacrifice). You are few, (inaudible) but we want to be many, we want to have wealth and have a lot of money for our children and grandchildren. You will make these two requests: to have a lot of money and to have many children.”


    That's what they did after that dream. They had gone to look for a place where there was an ampanjaka (traditional king) to talk about this task:


    Saturday, we will do a jôro, and give a rasa hariagna (sharing of wealth) and you had to inform your ampanjaka.

    Ampanjaka replied that it was ok. When he came on Saturday, he spoke to his right arm:


    "Go and get some people (who came here) because we are going to do a job, we are going to have a jôro Saturday. And you will represent me.”


    The right arm had been there and we had done the jôro .. They had killed a zebu. The women dressed up in salovana and the men in kitamby and washed the meat of the zebu. Who had fallen and they had washed. Once washed, they had wrapped themselves in white cloth and sat behind the zebu. The women had touched the zebu's stomach while the men were applauding. Women touching the belly of zebu said,


    ''died today .....(inaudible) tomorrow”

    and men clapped twice. When that's done, they did the jôro. When they practiced jôro, the zebu's head was set aside, there was also rum, there was also incense. Then, they were saying:




    and when her jôro was over, suddenly, crocodiles went back and came towards them. People were dancing. As the women applauded and danced, the crocodiles moved forward and approached them. People were dancing on one side and crocodiles were also celebrating on the other, like humans. One of these crocodiles stood out by his dancing. Humans wondered,

    "What are we going to do?"


    Meat was in large quantities so humans wondered if crocodiles would eat it if they gave it to them? They had cut pieces of meat on the right side, they threw the meat with crocodiles and they had eaten it. On the left side they cut out some pieces too and threw them out, the crocodiles had eaten them too. And all that was on the right side again, we had given them, the crocodiles had eaten everything. What was left had not given them everything, and once everyone had eaten, the rest of the left side had been given and shared between humans.


    Then the humans went home. The jôro was accomplished. The humans had gone home. Ampanjaka's right arm had gone to see him when he was going home. He reported and said there was something amazing. He told the ampanjaka that during the completion of the jôro, the crocodiles were rising from the water and that they numbered eight (8). When they went up the banks, they were given meat and they ate. And beside all the women who had danced, the crocodiles had also partied. Ampanjaka asked if the crocodiles had partied with the people, and his right hand answered ‘yes’. Ampanjaka then said that ‘if it was like that, it was Jao. It was Jao who was your companion (the one who stood out). The meaning of Jao, for us, is a name Anjoaty, and that moved a lot that means it was Jao Marengarenga. Hence the origin of the name Jaomarenga. Misimotro ...... say the woman and Jaomarenga to refer to the man’.


    About fady (taboos), we cannot do the jôro on a forbidden day: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, but only on Friday, Saturday and Monday.


    When we go there, the women wear the salovana and the men the kitamby, we take off the hat and we do not wear shoes. We do not dive in the water, we do not wash our feet with water. And when you go, you have to bring an ampijôro because they were once the grandmothers of our ancestors and it is our grandmother who owns it. So when you want to go there to do the jôro, you have to come and see us knocking on our door, we their grandchildren.


    This status (to be ampijôro) is also a successive function since the times of our grandmothers and that if it is not the eighth, I am the tenth successor and when I leave, it will be my child who will succeed me. So you have to come and see us before you go to see or ask for good things, but not for bad things or witchcraft; but to ask for success in studies, or to ask for promotion in work, fame, to ask for a lot of money, to have children, etc. That's why we go there. So, this is the origin of Antagnavo.


    Previously it was Antagnambo, a village above, because it was a high ground. About a date like in 19 ... (inaudible), I do not know, because it is a legend that was told to me by my elders.




Yet a few common principles of this “ethos of goodwill” are pointed out by several scholars, as a widely shared principle that binds the Malagasy together. In order to understand what caring for water means in Marofarihy, we need to appreciate what this means both as a system of belief, and as an enacted reality or lived experience that shapes day-to-day life. We invite those readers who are interested in the notion of fihavanana to read our more detailed research findings.


There is a lot of academic literature written about fihavanana that explain different components (e.g. a Christian fihavanana and a narrow one that refers strictly to family bonds), but there are also commonly shared principles of what it means more generally:


Fihavanana involves practices of solidarity, compassion, goodwill, friendship, giving, care, kinship, and togetherness. It also seeks to build a bridge between the rich and the poor, the haves and the not-haves, the living and the dead and the elders and the youngsters. Fihavanana is a unifying notion that all Malagasy identify with as a way of being and caring and what it means to be a ‘true’ Malagasy.


In practice, this means that a lot of the work is done collectively rather than individually. Isn’t it much more enjoyable to work on someone’s land together, and then move on the next day to work on someone else’s land collectively, as opposed to working on your own land alone every day?

  • Click here for a description of fihavanana


    As many (Malagasy) authors have argued, the concept of fihavanana is untranslatable. Yet, while being well-aware of its partial and non-exhaustive meaning, several translations and definitions of Fihavanana have been proposed.




    Fihavanana: solidarity, agreement, consensus; very varied ethos of kinship and friendship at all levels of social units in Madagascar up to the national level (Peter Kneitz 2016)


    To capture its emotional dimension, common translations involve words like: Mutual love (fifankatiavana), sympathy (fifankahazoana), mutual aid (fifanampiana), being a union (firaisana) etc. However, these translations are all partial, and their meaning is attributed also to other words.


    What’s in a word?


    The vast majority of authors acknowledged that the word fihavanana was formed on the havana root, which means parent or kinship. Furthermore, each individual is the product of the units of the higher life (and at the same time older), called aina, from which it descends and depends, valued as a sacral unity.

    Havana = parent/ kinship

    Aina = unity of life/ ancestors


    "[...] the term Fihavanana has three elements: FI-HAVANA- (A) NA: the root word HAVANA, nominal lexeme, the prefix FI (or FA) and the suffix ANA (or INA) which are nominal derivatives determining in Malagasy the way of doing or acting” (Raharilalao 1991: 130)


    However, while much attention has been paid in the literature to its ideological underpinnings very few studies have been carried out that focus on the enactment or lived experience of fihavanana. Only recently a few authors have suggested that, perhaps, in order to avoid generalizations and essentialism then, a wiser course is to take a phenomenological approach and gain insight into its manifold lived experiences. This is the line of thought that we wish to follow. In other words, we propose that the pump, as a material-semiotic assemblage, or indeed a meeting of all sorts, forms a fertile entry point to understand the lived experience of fihavanana, not as an a priori set of rules but as a continuous enactment.

Villagers see the pumps as places of fihavanana, where they can socialise and reinforce solidarity. But the question how people maintain and repair the pumps is yet explained by another notion, the so-called adidiy.

How to keep the pumps running?


In the literature three different types of barriers have been identified to achieving progress toward universal and reliable water service delivery in Africa:

1.    Institutional barriers

2.   Geographical barriers

3.  Operational barriers (frequently cause hand pumps to remain unrepaired for an extended period of time, discouraging users from paying) (Koehler et al. 2015).


In Marofarihy, payment schemes have fully emerged from the communities themselves for almost all pumps (except two, which have rarely been broken). Because of the great user-friendliness of the Canzee hand pump, we found less operational barriers than geographical ones that are inevitable for some remote pumps. At the institutional level - here defined as ‘any non-random human organised pattern of behaviour’ - we found that cultural values such as fihavanana and adidy allow for a great flexibility in user payment schemes. In a context of poverty and hardships not everybody has money to contribute all the time as peoples’ affordability ebbs and flows seasonally.





It is important to understand how the adidy functions as a positive mechanism to sustain the pumps because, as Koehler et al. (2015) have observed:


“Community management of water services has been widely identified as a dominant but failing model in rural water service delivery in Africa with growing evidence that improved payment systems promote hand pump sustainability”.


In other words, for the pumps’ sustainability it is very important that there is some sort of continuity in the payments schemes that have been put into place. We argue that these payment schemes should not be understood through a rational choice model or through a narrow economic rationale alone,  but have to be approached culturally - and thus underpinned by collective guiding principles - as well. Furthermore, individual preferences (per committee and pump) and economic motives also play a part in people’s decision-making processes and the way in which payment schemes have been organised.

Please wait. Page loading...

Caring for water in Madagascar