I don’t like to be outdone, even by the author of a travel guide. So, having read Hilary Bradt’s encounter with a princess in a bar in the laid-back town of Belo-sur-Tsiribihina, I too wanted to meet Malagasy royalty. Our guide, Feno, accepted the challenge with relish. During our two-hour wait for the floating raft that would take us, our car and four other vehicles across the Tsiribihina river to Belo, she eyed up fellow passengers for someone who looked as though they had royal connections.
Edmond fitted the bill, and on arrival in Belo, he guided us to the palace where we waited in the car whilst he introduced Feno, who told the prince her clients were interested in learning more about fitamphoa.
Feno and Edmond reappeared, crossed over the road to Bar Vola, and emerged clutching two, quarter bottles of Madagascan rum which would “ease” the introductions. The “palace” was a dilapidated building that had seen better days, with dangerously flapping ceiling tiles and concrete floor and walls. It was about as far from Buckingham Palace as you could get.
On meeting Prince Christian, the grandson of Kamamy, the last Menabe King, we didn’t know whether to bow, but settled on a handshake. His purple-clad wife proffered her wrist (should we shake, touch or kiss), before disappearing into a back room. We sat at a wooden table, with Edmond and I having to share a chair. By now, the previously bare-chested Prince had draped his torso in a length of red royal weaving and we presented the rum which cost us the princely sum of 40,000 Ariary/£9. The prince brought out a small plastic bottle of home-distilled rum, poured a measure into a chipped tooth glass, added a splash of our rum and placed it in front of him.
We were then given permission to take photographs and ask questions. We discovered he’d always lived in Belo, apart from going to school in Morondava and that he had five children aged between five and 25. With Feno translating, he told us all about the Fitampoah, the cleansing of the dady or royal relics which consist of his ancestors’ bones, hair, teeth and finger nails. These are kept in a sacred house, known as a Zomba, and washed every 10 years in the river during a week-long ceremony of feasting, singing and dancing.
A convoluted, confusing speech followed about how he’d trained as a gendarme but because they were sent all over the country, he was unable to fulfil his duties. Finally, we asked about the significance of the rum, but it simply appeared to be his favourite tipple. We were invited to try the rum and he threw what he’d poured out of the open window and we all tasted the second pouring. Feno secured his mobile number for future visits before we crossed the dusty yard for photographs of the prince and the Zomba.
Finally, we bid a royal farewell, tipped Edmond 20,000 Ariary, and left wondering whether we’d really met royalty or been royally ripped off.