research, Writing

Folklore of the Cursed Aye-Aye

In Madagascar, a highly unusual endangered nocturnal lemur is associated in regional as taboo or fady. The bizarre habits, secretive nature and distinctive appearance of the aye-aye fills some Madagascan peoples with the horror and dread at the sight of it. This has often lead to the slaughter of aye-ayes.

In other regions of Madagascar, it is considered fady to eat certain lemurs, which means that local taboos can actually shield and protect specific species. The aye-aye’s most striking features likely lead to its persecution.

Aye-ayes are medium-sized nocturnal lemurs and are mostly black but have large, highly mobile ears for tracking minute sounds. They’re also the only primate with continuously growing incisors which make them look rodent-like. Most notable of the aye-aye’s unusual physical features is it’s long, thin middle finger which is used to tap rapidly on decayed wood where their sensitive hearing helps detect insect larvae beneath. They then gnaw holes into the wood with those rodent-like teeth and use the long, skeletal-like finger to skewer and scoop out insect larvae.

According to the local views of fady, anyone who has an aye-aye point its long spindly finger at them, will be met with ill-fortune.

But the aye-aye’s eating habits may also contribute to their unpopularity with rural villages. Aye-ayes raid common Madagascan crops like coconuts, lychees, and mangos. This has led to viewing the aye-aye as a crop pest. But aye-ayes also eat seeds from the ramy tree (Canarium spp.) which grow tall and undisturbed near tombs in the Samanioana region where it is considered fady to cut them down. Aye-ayes are found in the peaceful sacred burial sites and surrounding forest, nesting and foraging without much human disturbance. Unsurprisingly, the aye-aye’s preference for the areas surrounding tombs may have inadvertently caused villagers to associate them with death and bad luck.

Other regions only consider the aye-aye fady when it enters a village.  Locals feel uneasy about an animal intentionally displacing itself from its home in the forest to enter a village. Essentially the unnatural act of entering a “human space” from the forest is what creates the bad omen.  They believe the only reason an aye-aye would display such unusual behavior is to foretell illness as the harbinger of death.

The degree of fady varies from village to village and the response to an aye-aye sighting. Regardless, fear is ingrained into this fady. In some northern regions of Madagascar, locals fear any sightings of an aye-aye. If an aye-aye is spotted in the forest, locals believe someone in a nearby village will fall sick and possibly die. If an aye-aye is found in the village itself, sometimes the entire village is abandoned as everyone living there won’t risk sickness and death. Unfortunately, the most common response to seeing an aye-aye is to kill it, hang the carcass or tail from a pole by a crossroads hoping that by moving the aye-aye further from the village, it will protect everyone from sickness or death. There’s also belief that passers-by may unknowingly carry the bad luck away with them when travelling past the carcass.

Aye-ayes are an essential part of Madagascan biodiversity. The challenges of habitat loss, persecution as a crop pest and the damaging effects of fady accelerate their declining numbers. Because aye-ayes are very rare, sightings of one only reinforce the fady through storytelling. One conversationist intended to rewrite that story.

The late primatologist, Dr. Alison Jolly, authored a children’s book titled, “Ny Aiay Ako” (Ako the Aye-Aye) with the book distributed to children’s schools throughout Madagascar to teach and inspire a love of these lemurs. The book’s protagonist, an aye-aye named Ako, transforms fear into fascination and children are inspired to protect this unusual lemur. In fact, the success of the first book led to a six book series, each about a different species of lemur.

Today, the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF) continues Dr. Jolly’s work with the Ako Project. A set of 21 Ako Lemur Lesson Plans and accompanying Ako Educator’s Guide were designed to highlight the biodiversity of Madagascar. Educators can use activities featuring characters and themes from the Ako book series to teach about lemurs and their environment. Each teaching kit includes all six of Dr. Jolly’s storybooks and the materials needed to inspire a love of lemurs and encourage conservation action in Madagascar. The Ako Project is now worldwide with all lesson plans and materials available to download free on LCF’s website at http://www.lemurreserve.org/ako-project/. For conservationists, this project is the first step to dispelling the damaging folklore by empowering children with knowledge and empathy for the aye-aye.

References:

Folklore Thursday, Madagascar Superstitions & Taboos: Fighting the Aye-Aye Fady, https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/madagascar-superstitions-taboos-fighting-the-aye-aye-fady/

Duke Lemur Center https://lemur.duke.edu/discover/meet-the-lemurs/aye-aye/

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