The Fear of Dahalo Bandits on a Drive Through the Alaotra Night (Madagascar)

– by Anders Norge Lauridsen –

Why are we stopping? The shadows are growing longer and the twilight is near, but we still have a long way home to the village of Anororo ahead of us. A man at a run from the other tractor several ridges behind us catches up with our tractor and announces between his gasps for breath the bad news. The other tractor has broken down. I exchange nervous glances with my friend and field assistant, Fara. Both the trailer on which we sit and the pulling tractor in front of us are packed with people, it would be impossible to also fit in everybody from the other tractor and its trailer. What is more, we are already running late as it is, we can hardly make it back to the safety of Anororo before darkness descends. The wilderness of the Alaotra region should be avoided after dark, because of a scourge that has swept through these otherwise peaceful lands in recent years: dahalo bandits.

In this short article I reflect on the issue of feeling exposed and vulnerable as an anthropologist through the telling of a personal experience from my latest fieldwork among the Sihanaka of Madagascar. Prior to this experience in 2019, my acquaintance with the dahalo was quite limited. I knew that dahalo are Malagasy castle rustlers notorious for their violence and ruthlessness in their attacks which usually happen at night. Once, during my first fieldwork in 2015, I even woke up to the sound of agitated shouts and ringing church bells in the middle of the night, only realising at the break of dawn that dahalo had entered Anororo and a couple of people had lost their lives. I remember a series of days in the wake of that night with anxious thoughts. What if they come back? What if they hear that a vazaha (“foreigner”, associated with wealth) stays in Anororo? As a night patrol of 70 vigilantes was set up in the village and as days turned into weeks, months, and years without another dahalo attack on Anororo, my worries dissipated. Nevertheless, this experience made very real for me the local precautions of closing the shutters and locking the door when darkness falls. It made me understand why the privy in the backyard of my host family’s house gives way to chamber pots after dark – even in case of nightly diarrhoea.

We turn around and there it is, the other tractor, which is not a hefty Massey Ferguson like found in the rich global north, but a little, two-wheeled motoculteur pulling a trailer full of people. Our reason for being about three hours’ drive away from Anororo is an annual bathing ritual at a sacred waterfall in a hilly wilderness. Sitting there on the trailer with no sign of civilisation in sight while the sun crawls menacingly close to the horizon, I start to wonder if we are in fact in a “red zone”, that is, territory beyond effective law enforcement within which banditry thrives (we were deep inside a red zone on that day I found out later). Nevertheless, the atmosphere is cheerful as the group attaches the other trailer to the rear of ours, so that the big tractor with two trailers attached constitute a train so to speak.

The young men in the group lift the malfunctioning motoculteur onto the trailer in a joint effort, and then everybody – however unfeasible the task seemed to begin with – manages to find some sort of seat somewhere on this makeshift tractor-train. I have oftentimes witnessed how incredibly pragmatic and resourceful the villagers of Anororo can be, for instance, when a bicycle taxi driver freighted my double size spring mattress on the rear rack of an ordinary bicycle. But now I can’t believe my own as eyes as the two trailers and the tractor are loaded with a broken motoculteur, miscellaneous ritual objects, canisters full of sacred water from the waterfall and – I try to count – sixty-five, sixty-six, sixty-seven people! In spite of recurrent engine failings, disturbing metallic creaks from the hitches and the fact that the rearmost trailer comes off with a loud thud several times, most passengers take the whole thing with a smile. At least to begin with.

At first, our caravan emits a merry chatter as it crawls up and down the hills on the potholed dirt road, but after the first hour or so of driving, most of the talking has died out. Reaching the waterfall also included a good deal of trekking, and now exhaustion kicks in for most of us. There is no coverage on my phone whatsoever, but I can tell that we are still far from Sahamaloto village, where rice fields and patches of settlement take over for these virtually uninhabited hills – a hilly wilderness that I dimly remember reading in old colonial and missionary literature was a hideout for outlaws since pre-colonial times.

Now that I am writing this article and consulting the literature on both historical and contemporary cattle raids in the Alaotra region, I have begun to understand the context more fully. Even though cattle raids in this part of Madagascar date back to at least the 17th century, recent decades have seen a severe deterioration of the situation. The island nation of Madagascar has suffered from a vicious cycle of political crises in the past half-century. Corruption there is endemic, and future prospects for many young people look bleak. Insecurity permeates the society and makes living as a rice farmer – the quintessential metier in the Alaotra region – increasingly difficult. Somehow it is not completely unfathomable that some marginalised young men may be tempted to join a gang of dahalo. Contrary to cattle rustlers of the past who only carried spears and occasionally muskets, today’s dahalo are armed with anything from old shotguns to AK-47 assault rifles, which quickly render their victims virtually defenceless. About a third of Madagascar is now categorised as red zones, and in the Alaotra region, where I conduct my fieldwork, more than half of the municipalities are categorised as red zones.

I can barely feel my legs anymore, my bottom is numb, but there is no way of changing position in this closely packed trailer. This is, however, of utterly secondary importance as it dawns on me that we won’t make it back before dark. What are we going to do if the big tractor also breaks down? With this slow pace and the constant halts, would it be wiser to get off now and start running? Little by little, anxiety sneaks up on me, and when I glimpse a couple of distant hamlets between the hills, I wonder whether Fara and I should attempt to seek shelter there. I feel ashamed that I’m contemplating saving my own hide and leaving behind my informants, but as a European – that is, someone people would assume to be rich – I would most likely be an extraordinarily tempting target for opportunistic dahalo gangs.

Fara is silent. She hasn’t said a word since she pointed out a solitary house to me a while ago, a house whose satellite dish made her remark “it’s strange to see a house with a satellite dish out here…” Is her silence just an expression of exhaustion or is she genuinely worried? I take my dictaphone up to my mouth as I often do to take oral fieldnotes, but this time it’s more for therapeutic rather than ethnographic reasons. Most of the audio recording is basically self-soothing nonsense plus nascent emergency plans – “the light from the full moon above us would perhaps suffice to make it home on foot…”

Out of the dark, another light appears, not above us, but behind us. Moving lights, headlights from a car, several cars. Are we being followed by dahalo?

Young voices, drunk voices, from what appears to be a string of pickup trucks catching up on us at high speed. Unpleasant associations to documentary images of bandit attacks someplace in mainland Africa materialise in my head. But why do they have those enormous banners in their hands? Why are the cars decorated? And the voices, they are chanting something, aren’t they? Of course! It’s the mayoral election campaign. They must be on their way back from some of the remote settlements between the hills I glimpsed earlier. Passing our tractor train, they wave and chant cheerfully at us, and then they disappear into the night in front of us just as quickly as they came.

Am I just turning paranoid? I have seen scars from gunshots and bullet holes in houses in the smaller and exposed hamlets in the Alaotra countryside. I have seen how the ruins of solitary houses dilapidate in the forests and fields after being abandoned in the 1990s when the dahalo threat became too unbearable. I have heard time and again the dismal news of neighbouring villages falling prey to deadly dahalo attacks. Although the dahalo are not at all my subject of research – I work with Sihanaka spirituality and tradition. But the dahalo lurk in the periphery of my fieldworks since the deadly night attack on Anororo in 2015. But now, on our tractor drive homeward through the Alaotra night, these young electoral campaigners cruise around the red zones in an anything-but-discreet manner – isn’t that a risky business?

When we reach Sahamaloto village it has turned into a veritable ghost town of closed shutters and bolted doors. Now that this place is stripped of its day-time vivacity, it strikes me as we traverse the village how many walls have been erected around compounds in impoverished Sahamaloto. As the village comes to an end and we are once again out in the open, Fara’s phone rings.  Apparently, we again have reception. It’s our host father in Anororo. He is seriously worried for us and suggests that he dispatch someone on a motorcycle to come and pick us up. Fara takes stock of the situation and concludes that we should stay with the others on the tractor-train – but we will call him back if things turn bad.

More than two hours after sunset, we arrive back in Anororo at long last. Up until then, I had doubted my own fear, but that vanishes when I see how worried our host parents were. In the following days, Fara and I talk the experience over, and it turns out that she had many of the same thoughts as me that night on the tractor-train. Moreover, she explains that the remote and isolated house we saw with a satellite dish on its roof was clearly a transit place for dahalo; the dahalo use certain routes in and out of the region, and some houses on these routes offer food to the dahalo in exchange for being left in peace and sometimes even in exchange for material wealth. In that remote area where most houses are but ramshackle papyrus huts, a house with an expensive satellite dish – which moreover indicates the presence of both a TV and solar cells or a generator – is an unmistakable sign of a dahalo route, Fara explains.

I don’t know if there’s any lesson to be learned from this, other than the realisation that it is nearly impossible to safeguard oneself completely against such risks if one wants to get really good empirical material – which I certainly did at that bathing ritual we drove back from. And perhaps, that it is best in these situations to simply trust and follow what the locals do.

Anders Norge Lauridsen (1989, Denmark) is a social anthropologist and a PhD student at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg (Sweden). Since 2015, he has conducted ethnographic research on spirit-human relations among the Sihanaka of Madagascar.