What would you do for love?
The men among the Betsileo in Madagascar will fight to subdue a 1,000kg (more than 2,000) raging bull in order to advertise their masculinity for the purpose of attracting a woman or who knows, more.
This is the tradition of a people whose name means “the many invincible ones”. The centuries-old bullfighting tradition seems perfectly on the invincibility brand, one may say.
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According to Bethwell Ogot, the Betsileo are some of the oldest groups of people in Madagascar. Until the 18th Century, they existed as satellite communities linked by a narrative of common ancestry.
It was not until the 19th Century that one could speak of a Betsileo state, a union forced by conquest by the Merina, the largest ethnic group in Madagascar.
Currently, the Betsileo are Madagscar’s third-largest group.
They live in the highlands of Madagascar. Historically agrarian, the Betsileo are known to be major growers of rice, a staple.
Animal husbandry is also a critical aspect of their livelihood and culture. As you would guess, cattle-rearing is the biggest deal, with common references to social status measured in how much cattle people own.
Bullfighting, locally known as savika, is a sport that sees young men line up to defeat a zebu, the humped breed of cattle. An audience cheers as the young men are either bloodied by the beasts or successfully get to ride it.
It begins by letting the bull into a fenced yard and teasing it into anger by trying to climb it via its hump. A young man, who is barefooted, has to try to hold onto the hump for as long as possible if it cannot possibly ride the animal.
Savika is a right of passage. How young men are perceived for the rest of their lives is dependent on how they fair in the rodeo yard; that much is what is on the line.
Of course, the crossover to manhood comes with choosing a female partner. Whoever a young man has his eyes on will be at the occasion, verifying for herself how strong the young man is.
The history of savika itself is undetermined. It, however, appears indigenous to the people, unborrowed from matador culture in Iberian countries.
The Betsileo maintain savika is fomban-drazana, the ancestral way of doing things.
In recent times, the sport is still ongoing with its purposes unspoiled by modernity.