Geography Webex Seminar:
The Plague After Death: A Political Ecology of the Underground in Madagascar
For this seminar’s Webex access link, please email Kevon Rhiney.
In Madagascar’s central highlands, outbreaks of bubonic
plague occur annually. At the turn of the twentieth century, the French implemented
strict plague control measures, including rules for burying the dead. These
rules persist and have strained Malagasy people’s relationships to their deceased
ancestors. The rules stipulate that plague victims must not be buried in
familial tombs but in unmarked pits. And they must not be exhumed for a secondary
burial ritual or transferred for a period of at least seven years. Colonial-era
scientists conjectured that Yersinia pestis, the
plague bacterium, might survive in subterranean tombs. Scientists today surmise
that plague bacteria may survive in rodent burrow systems, which leaves open
the question of whether bodies buried in plague pits are implicated in the
plague’s persistence in the environment.
Anthropologists of zoonosis have focused on multispecies interactions
and social inequalities of the surface. A political ecology of the plague,
however, compels the ethnographer to investigate what lies beneath: to explore
the speculative underground ecology that has guided terrifying mortuary
policies, and to learn how health inequities alter the microbial life of the soil
and breed resistance.