Bara people

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Isambo - roi des Baras Iantsantsas.jpg
Isambo, king of the Bara people (1906)
Total population
c. 400,000
Regions with significant populations
Related ethnic groups
Other Malagasy groups, Bantu peoples, Austronesian peoples

The Bara people are a Malagasy ethnic group living in the southern part of the central plateaus of Madagascar, in the Toliara Province, especially in the Ihosy-Betroka area. They are estimated to account for 3% of the overall Malagasy population. An estimated 400,000 Bara lived in Madagascar in 2013. The Bara are considered Madagascar's largest and most important zebu herders.

Ethnic identity[edit]

Along with Sakalava, Bara are one of the two Malagasy ethnic groups of clear Bantu descent. They live principally in the southern part of the central plateaus of Madagascar, in the Toliara Province, especially in the Ihosy-Betroka area.[1] They numbered an estimated 400,000 in 2013.[2]


The history of the Bara begins along the Ihosy River in the Arindrano region of southwest Madagascar, near Toliara. Little is known about the earliest period in Bara identity formation, beyond that it coincided with the formation of the Maroserana dynasty of the Sakalava people[3] and that certain Bara nobles had Maroserana origins.[4] This early kingship-based social structure is believed to have had weak or nonexistent rules of succession. Around 1640 a noble of the Mahafaly people invaded Bara territory and installed his family as rulers under the dynastic name Zafimanely. This was an imposition to which many Bara were unwilling to submit, leading them to simply migrate internally to new territory. Zafimanely power became more firmly established after the death of the Mahafaly nobleman in 1653, but competition and ambition led these newcomers to engage in an ongoing struggle for power until around 1680, greatly disrupting life in Bara territory (Ibara). A major driver of this instability was the absence of a tribute system, leading Zafimanely nobles to engage in cattle raiding and issuing costly fines to law breakers that sparked internal and external tensions alike.[3]

Around 1800 there emerged a Zafimanely king called Raikitroka who put in place new regulations that greatly eased these tensions and ushered in a reign of relative tranquility and harmony.[3] The 19th century military conquests of the Kingdom of Imerina never succeeded in entirely subjugating the Bara.[5] Instead, the Merina sovereigns concluded an agreement by which the Bara were guaranteed their independence in exchange for maintaining a safe buffer zone between Merina lands and hostile territories in the south.

The Zafimanely Kingdom was dissolved after the island was colonized by the French in 1896. After the French conquered Madagascar they attempted with great difficulty to impose administrative authority in Bara territory.[5]


Bara society is structured into numerous loosely affiliated groups based on common ancestors. These were clustered into five main clans. The three largest and most powerful clans were the Bara-Be, Bara-Imamono and Bara-Ianstsantsa, who lived alongside the smaller Vinda and Antivondro.[3]

They live a semi-nomadic lifestyle that revolves around herding zebu[5] and are the largest and most important of the Malagasy pastoralist groups.[3] The capital of the Bara was located in Ihosy.[6]

Communities are strongly patriarchal and polygamy is commonly practiced.[1]

Class affiliation[edit]

Like elsewhere in Madagascar, Bara society was historically stratified into three classes: nobles, commoners and slaves.[5]

Religious affiliation[edit]

Distribution of Malagasy ethnic groups

While some Baras are Christians, most retain their traditional religious beliefs.[1]


The Bara live in rectangular earthen houses that are colored red by the high iron content of the soil. In the winter, space beneath the eaves is used for hanging and sun-drying maize to be stored, sold or planted the following year.[7]

Agreements were traditionally formalized through a blood pact (fatidra). Cattle raiding is a major feature of Bara culture. Traditionally a rite of passage for young men to prove their worth and courage to a prospective wife's family and the larger community, the practice is currently outlawed but remains widespread throughout the southwest and south-central Bara territories.[1] Cattle rustlers (dahalo) are increasingly armed bandits stealing cattle for wealth rather than social prestige.[8]

Zebu wrestling is a sport practiced by Bara communities and involves Zebu being penned into an arena and whipped into frustration. Once the zebu is angry, players sneak up behind the Zebu and jump onto its hump, attempting to 'ride' as long as possible without being injured by the beast. It is seen as a rite of passage for young boys.

The dance traditions and sculpted artwork of the Bara are well known across the island. Their wooden statues are unique in having long eyelashes made from real hair.[1]

Funeral rites[edit]

Bara burial site, Isalo national park

The Bara entomb the dead in natural mountain caves, particularly in Isalo National Park, an area they consider sacred; they have buried their dead in the caves here for centuries.[9] They cut their hair to express mourning. It is believed that the spirits of the dead linger as ghosts, which historically prompted villages to relocate after a death.[1]


They speak Bara Malagasy, a dialect of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the Barito languages, spoken in southern Borneo.[5]


Raising and selling herds of zebu is the principal economic activity of the Bara. In recent decades they have increasingly adopted agricultural practices, including the cultivation of rice, cassava, millet and maize.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bradt & Austin 2007, p. 25.
  2. ^ Diagram Group 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e Ogot 1992, p. 433.
  4. ^ Ogot 1992, p. 422.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Bara". Encyclopedia Britannica. 2014. Retrieved 1 September 2014. 
  6. ^ Bradt & Austin 2007, p. 204.
  7. ^ Bradt & Austin 2007, p. 201.
  8. ^ Bradt & Austin 2007, p. 195.
  9. ^ Bradt & Austin 2007, p. 206.