The Sambatra is a ritual of group circumcision practiced every seven years by the Antambahoaka tribe of Madagascar. Sambatra is the Malagasy word for “happy”.
The Antambahoaka is one of the 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar, they live in the South East of the island, chiefly in the city of Mananjary. Estimated at about 50,000, the Antambahoaka are known to be the smallest ethnic group in the island. They split from the Antemoro tribe (believed to be descendants of Arabs) in the 15th century under the leadership of King Ravalarivo who is said have come from Mecca and is still highly regarded.
While the Antambahoaka are famous among Malagasy for the practice of Sambatra, they are also known for believing that having twins is a curse and therefore they kill one of the babies right after birth.
The Sambatra ceremony has multiple meanings. Beside the physical act of circumcising all the boys born in the past 7 years, the ritual consists of transitioning the boys from the childhood to an adult male and welcoming them as a true Antambahoaka man. Thus, they can be called Zafiraminia (descendant of Raminia).
The ritual is also part of an initiation to the ancestor’s history which relates that Raminia, an Arab, circumcised his son Ndohaina on a Friday, the reason why the Sambatra always starts on a Friday. According to the beliefs and traditions, Friday is the day of the kings. The ceremony also includes a reenactment of a war between soldiers led by generals from each clan. The roles are played by the boys’ fathers opposed to the mothers’ brothers.
The Sambatra is a special day not only for the boys but for the whole community. It is an opportunity for the members to gather; even those who live outside the country would try to come home for the festivity. It is also the ideal moment to settle disputes between friends, family members, spouses… and resume or reconnect relationships.
The Sambatra is a moment of joy and cannot be disturbed. In case of death during the Sambatra, which may occur as it lasts for one month, the body will be buried as quickly as possible, and no one is allowed to cry. During the war staging, the violence may result in injuries, but no complaint can be done.
And of course, just like many Malagasy traditions, the Sambatra is a moment to ask for blessings from the ancestors. During the whole month, twice a day, at 5AM and at 5PM, women led by the king’s wife sing the Mirary (a special song for the ceremony), going around the “tranobe”, and ask for blessings from the ancestors for the clan and for the smoothness of the Sambatra. The Mirary ritual follows the path of the sun because the sun brings life.
The last Sambatra occurred in 2014, and the next one is expected to take place in October of this year.
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