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The art of speech: Kabary

Famadihana

In Madagascar time often plays no role, but talking to each other extensively does. One form of speech is particularly popular on the Red Island: the Kabary. Kabary is the word for a speech for which many people are together in the same place. At the same time, it is a very traditional form of oral history that can be used on a variety of occasions.

The Kabary probably goes back to the early kings of Merina in the Malagasy highlands. King Andrianampoinimerina already liked to make excessive speeches to the people at the beginning of the 18th century. As the vast majority of the citizens were illiterate at that time, these speeches had to contain as much of the kingdom’s news as possible. Such a Kabary was accordingly long. Under the French colonial rule, the Kabary was pushed back, but with the independence of Madagascar, it found a new upswing.

Famadihana
The village elder during a Kabary on a Famadihana, the turning of the dead

Still today, the Kabary is applied in many places in Madagascar. It is particularly important in celebrations and ceremonies, for example at a funeral or Famadihana, the turning of the dead. For festivities, there are even professional Kabary speakers, the Mpikabary. At weddings in the highlands, it is common to hire such a speaker to accompany all conversations between the families of the couple and to provide linguistic support for the entire ceremony. The festive setting of many celebrations is based on how good the speaker is. Those who excel and demonstrate high rhetorical skills can even become Tompon’ny kabary, a “master of  Kabary”. A master of Kabary must not bore his audience but must be able to captivate them with his eloquence. A Malagasy proverb says that with a good Kabary, people would “not even notice the fleas that sting them”.

But what makes a speech to a Kabary? In a Kabary, care is taken not to name central points of criticism or discussion directly, but always to ensure in many words and in a very polite way that the listener can draw his own conclusions. Above all, this involves a very careful, well-considered choice of words. In English, you would call it “talking around the bush”, but Kabary is much more than that. The Kabary is the high art of adult, humorous, and wise speaking. The use of blunt criticism, hate speech, or exposing words is not appropriate in a Kabary. Instead, a Kabary adorns stories with many metaphors and Malagasy proverbs (ohabolana), making them come alive. Cleverly interspersed riddles let the audience actively participate in the Kabary. A good Kabary can settle disputes, teach lessons for life, but also convey legends and link the world of today with that of the ancestors, who are highly respected in Madagascar. The Kabary is considered a special form of social art in Madagascar. Tompon’ny Kabary enjoy a high reputation in society and are respected as authorities. However, the style of a Kabary is also chosen to give special weight to a speech in a smaller circle. A Kabary can also be a farewell to guests after a successful trip or a decorated political speech if the speaker wants to make the situation particularly ceremonial. It should be understood as a special dignity to be honored with a Kabary.

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