Fieldsite in Western Madagascar

Rita Astuti

Primary Site Researcher

Rita Astuti

Dr. Rita Astuti teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics. She has worked with the Vezo in Western Madagascar since 1987. Much of her recent work has been interdisciplinary research undertaken with developmental psychologists. In this work she has looked at how Vezo children and adults categorise the social world, how they conceptualise the distinction between “us” and “them”, and at the the acquisition and development of religious concepts and concepts of biological life and death in Vezo children.

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Betania, Western Madagascar, south of the administrative town of Morondava. The village is separated by water from Morondava, and is reachable by outrigger canoe. There is no electricity and no running water.


About 1,000 in August, 2004.


Malagasy, Vezo dialect. Very few people speak more than a few words of French.


Group Identity / Ethnicity

The villagers, like other people who reside on the coast, call themselves Vezo. I have argued that the label “Vezo” does not denote an ethnic group, since Vezo identity is regarded as a property that people acquire by practicing a certain type of livelihood and by adopting certain customs, rather than a property that is inherited at birth. Although the village comprises people who have come from different parts of Madagascar and whose ancestral origins are distinct, all the people in the village regard themselves as Vezo because they follow the “customs of the people of the coast”.

Jira with fish

Economic Activities

the majority of people depend on fishing for their livelihood (net fishing with dug-out canoes and line fishing with outrigger canoes). The fish is sold at the Morondava market for immediate consumption or at tourist outlets in Morondava; it also enters long trading chains that carry it to inland settlements. There is a minority of adults who earn wages in Morondava or further away in the region (e.g., in the shrimp industry to the north of Morondava; in the crab-processing industry in Morondava; as teachers). The difference between fishing and wage labour is articulated locally in terms of the unpredictability of fishing versus the reliability of wages. Typically, people whose livelihood relies on fishing have very erratic consumption patterns and no savings, while people who rely on wages have much more controlled consumption patterns, leading to substantial savings, which are predominantly invested in the construction of better houses (wooden planks instead of dry grass).

A decade ago, two Frenchmen built several bungalows for tourists, but the business collapsed as one of the brothers died and the other failed to attract tourists. The bungalows have not been used for several years. Another Frenchman lives in the village, but it remains unclear what economic activity he is pursuing.



Most people in Betania would declare themselves Christians, but only a handful regard their Christianity as an alternative to the local customs and rituals relating to the ancestors. The majority of people attend church (either Protestant or Catholic) erratically, whereas the majority of people take their duties towards the ancestors very seriously. In so far as people’s interaction with the ancestors (ancestral blessings, sacrificial offerings, ancestrally induced dreams and illnesses, tomb construction and upkeep, ancestral taboos) is defined as religion, I would claim that ancestral religion is predominant in the village.


People reckon kinship relations cognatically, and at least in principle marriages between cognatically related people are forbidden. Allocation of people to tomb groups and their relations to the ancestors are determined by unilineal descent.

Gramera in Canoe

Hierarchical Relations

Village life is not marked by hierarchy. Age is probably the most significant factor in determining a person’s status, power and influence. Gender is much less significant, especially among senior people. For both men and women, having children and grandchildren is the most important factor in attaining status and commanding respect.


At the time of my last visit in 2004, the village school was attended by the vast majority of children. This was a new trend, brought about by people’s perception of the new President of Madagascar as someone who really cares for ordinary people. The President donated a school bag containing a book, a small blackboard, a notebook and colour pencils to every child in the entire country. This gave an enormous boost to children’s school attendance (and, no doubt, to the President’s image). The classrooms in Betania are overcrowded and the teachers’ attendance is extremely erratic, unsurprisingly given their extremely low wages. Children tend to repeat the same grade/form several times before proceeding to the next, which means that classes include children of different ages (ranging from 6 to 13 in the case of grade/form 1 in 2004). When I left the village and asked children to sign my son’s diary, only a few knew how to write their names, seemingly irrespective of which grade/form they had just completed.

Health Care

At the time of my last visit (August 2004) a dispensary built by a French NGO was being equipped with furniture and medicines. Until then, medical assistance was sought from an Italian nun, who has been resident in Betania for a couple of years, or in Morondava. As a first attempt to cure illness, people typically seek help from western-type doctors and medicines (which are improperly used, e.g., antibiotics are sold in Morondava without prescriptions a pill at a time). When these fail, people seek the help of local diviners and/or spirit mediums.


Explore this Fieldsite with Google Maps

Navigate Around the Fieldsite

The image above, from Google Maps, is a composite of satellite images of this fieldsite. You can navigate your way around the fieldsite by using the navigation bars on the image above. You can zoom in and out, and scan in any direction to get a sense for what the fieldsite looks like.

You can also explore this site with Google Earth, but to do so you will need to download the Google Earth program to your computer along with the following location files: Google Earth KMZ files for North Betania & South Betania. NB: right-click on these files & save to your computer.


Rita Astuti, Greg Solomon, & Susan Carey (2004). Constraints on conceptual development: A case study of the acquisition of folkbiological and folksociological knowledge in Madagascar. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, no.277, vol. 69, no.3.

Rita Astuti (2001). Are we all natural dualists? A cognitive developmental approach. (The 2000 Malinowski Memorial Lecture) Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 7, 429-447.

Rita Astuti (2000). Kindreds, cognatic and unilineal descent: a view from Madagascar. In J.Carsten (ed) Cultures of Relatedness, pp. 90-103. Cambridge University Press.

Rita Astuti (2000). Les gens ressemblent-ils aux poulets ? Penser la frontière homme / animal à Madagascar. Terrain, 34, 89-105.

Rita Astuti (1998). "It’s a boy!", "It’s a girl!": Reflections on sex and gender in Madagascar and beyond. In M. Lambek and A. Strathern (eds.) Bodies and persons: Comparative perspectives from Africa and Melanesia, pp. 29-52. Cambridge University Press.

Rita Astuti (1995). People of the sea: Identity and descent among the Vezo of Madagascar. Cambridge University Press.

Rita Astuti (1998). The Vezo are not a kind of people. Identity, difference and `ethnicity' among a fishing people of western Madagascar. American Ethnologist, 22, 3, 464-482.

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