The Fokonolona and Traditional Governance
Madagascar has a tradition of limited village self-rule associated with the institution of the fokonolona--a village council composed of village elders and other local notables. After having been alternately suppressed and encouraged by the French colonial authorities, authorities officially revived the fokonolona in 1962 in an attempt to involve local communities in plans for rural economic and social development. The perceived usefulness of the fokonolona derived from its traditional role of maintaining order in the village and providing social and economic assistance.
In 1973 the Ramanantsoa military regime furthered the selfrule concept by establishing self-governing bodies at the local level. Government functionaries who were formerly appointed were to be replaced by elected officials. Yet it was not until 1975, under the leadership of Ratsiraka, that the fokonolona was given constitutional recognition as the "decentralized collective of the state" responsible for economic, social, cultural, and municipal development at the local level. Despite his best intentions, during Ratsiraka's rule the fokonolona was still far from an idealized self-governing institution. Its governing bodies were dominated, as in the past, by conservative elders, and participation by youth was either minimal or not encouraged by elders. Under the Zafy regime the fokonolona will continue to offer policy guidance at the local level, but it has been superseded by the Decentralized Territorial Collectives.
The fokonolona often is characterized as one of the most characteristic Malagasy social institutions. It is, in fact, not a "pan-Malagasy" cultural element but an institution that evolved among the Merina and was implanted in other parts of the country by both the Merina and the French. Even among the neighboring Betsileo, it is considered something of a foreign implantation. Nonetheless, the fokonolona offers aid to members in need (such as when a child is born or a funeral is held), undertakes village projects (such as the repair of rice fields or village buildings after a cyclone), coordinates mutual aid at planting and harvest time, and occasionally chastises--or ostracizes--those considered wrongdoers.
The fokonolona ties individuals together in a network of mutual obligations. Its meetings bring together in a cooperative setting people of different kinship groups within a village, and the common use of fictive kinship terms promotes the creation of an atmosphere of amity and solidarity (fihavanana), necessary for sincere cooperation. The fokonolona, however, traditionally has not been a democratic institution despite its town-meeting character, because its meetings tend to be dominated by influential local notables. Local political power remains a function of age and membership in a high-status kinship group; in some cases, the descendants of slaves (andevo) attend fokonolona meetings, but their influence is marginal.
At fokonolona meetings, it is possible to see one of Madagascar's most striking cultural expressions, the kabary (discourse), a lengthy speech in which a speaker uses flowery and poetic language to make a critical point in a most indirect fashion. The people will listen silently from beginning to end. Those who disagree will not express their opinion but will counter with a speech that at first seems to support the first speaker but that actually contains a hidden counterproposal. Speakers may express their views by telling jokes. If people laugh or if they simply act according to the second speaker's proposal, the first has lost. Rarely if ever does an open confrontation between speakers occur.
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