Visiting Madagascar: Tradespeople

This post is one of a series detailing our guided visit to Madagascar in 2019.

Many people — usually near cities, but not always — decide not to farm and instead take up a trade. In our travels we not only saw the end result in many stores, but were taken into workshops to see how the objects were crafted.

The closer you are to a tourist hub, or if the craft involves objects to be bought by tourists instead of exported, there is some theatre involved. The staged workshops are taken up mostly by benches for an audience, even. It became clear later that a majority of these products are made elsewhere. Despite this, you’ll find the demonstrations fascinating.

Away from the tourist hubs, the demonstrations become more real — honest depictions of a skilled or difficult trade.

During our week in Madagascar we saw five:

  • Model vehicles from recycled materials;

Recycled Models

The first shop we visited was in Antsirabe: a model shop.

Left: bicycles, taxis, rickshaws, and even planes wait to be taken home. Right: a workbench where a craftsman demonstrated creating a bike wheel.

The models were all created from upcycled materials:

  • The bodies and panels were snipped from aluminum cans, allowing each model to take on a unique color palette.

We watched as a well-dressed man effortlessly made a bicycle wheel using only an awl against wood and scrap templates. It was as if he’d done it hundreds of times, and, looking around the shop, it was clear he had… but only the wheel. There were no other forms, tools, scraps or other items on his workbench… only wheels and finished products… at just-high-enough-to-be-unreasonable-to-me prices.

While the storefront was presented to us as a small workshop of unique souvenirs, later we would see these same models in dozens of stores throughout Madagascar, most sealed in plastic cling wrap. Then, when we visited the small village toward the end of our trip, we saw one of the men with the missing tools and scraps, making models from scratch in the shade of his home.

In a remote village days later, ducks guard crates of flattened aluminum cans as a man on the left (not pictured) builds model bikes.

Zébu Horn Smithing

The Malagasy have a native cow called a Zébu. Like cows found in the US, Canada and Europe, they produce milk and are slaughtered for meat. In recent years, Zébu have been bred with Norwegian cattle. This extends a Zébu’s milk production from a few liters a day to dozens. You can identify a native Zébu by the hump behind its neck: the taller the hump, the more “pure” the Zébu. Zébu horns have an interesting shape, at a more acute angle, and the Malagasy have found many interesting ways to ensure they don’t go to waste.

A pair of native Zébu, with tall humps and large horns, struggling to climb a rough road to Lac Tritriva.

Behind a storefront next to the Model Shop, we were led into large work shed with benches. A young woman began a polished presentation on how Zébu horns, reclaimed before they dry out and at the right age, can be made into all kinds of things: cutlery, dominos, jewelry. Once the inner marrow is removed, each portion of the outer horn can be repurposed based on its density; cutlery from the hollow base, dominos from the solid tip.

Left: a pan of beeswax, a sheet of steel where handmade saw-blades are cut, and discarded jeans from which polishing wheels are cut. Right: a pile of Zébu horns and the motor of an old washing machine allow a craftsman to sand the edges of a spoon.

A craftsman came in to demonstrate as she described the (intensive) process of making a spoon:

  • First, the horn is boiled. This loosens the inner marrow from the horn so it can be pounded loose and removed, leaving the hollow horn shell.

They let me keep the demonstration spoon, and then led us into the store at the front, where a large variety of Zébu horn objects were for sale. As with the Model Shop, the theatrics were finished and it was time to buy something.

The young woman from the demonstration appeared a few moments later with a child in her arms. On one hand, it was a bit manipulative: she didn’t speak to us, but made sure she, and especially the infant, were always within our line-of-sight. On the other, this was how they made their living. They had a script they knew worked, and they followed it. But something was itching my mind, just like the Model Shop: not a lot of workspace, few hands, few raw materials. I felt like this was just the show floor, and the show was what we were paying for.

Still, the work was impressive, and the interesting thing about Zébu horns is that they come in a number of colors — just like the Zébu themselves. Liv found a nice pair of salad tongs in white-streaked tan for the equivalent of a few dollars. The store owner thanked us, wrapped them in paper, and cautioned us to put them in our suitcase. Perhaps leaving the country with animal horn cutlery, however processed, is frowned upon? We saw no notice at the airport when we left, and didn’t ask otherwise.

Veneer Stitching

A few days later, we visited Ambositra, a city known for its artisans. One that struck me the most was an older man, perhaps in his late 50’s, sitting at a handmade scroll saw. He was cutting pieces of veneer to be stitched together to create artwork.

Left: a man at his homemade scroll saw, sorts through a stack of paper templates, with finished works on display. Right: a keychain pendant made from two different pieces of veneer combined.

The saw itself was impressive, (and you can refer to the photo above as it is described). The saw blade is a reclaimed emergency brake line wire. This wire is laid into a channel in the top of a wooden block (to his right). He then uses a chisel to notch the wire into sharp teeth, one notch every few millimeters. The new saw blade is then stretched between two tines of a long steel fork, taken from the rear suspension of a car. There is a large spring, also from the car, underneath the work surface, which applies upward pressure to the fork. To operate the saw, the carpenter simply pulls down on the lower tine of the fork, using a handle attached to it. The spring then pushes the fork upward, creating a smooth sawing motion.

The wood he uses comes from a number of sources. The thin strips are soaked in water for a darker color, or left alone for a lighter color. It has a density and consistency similar to balsa. Each color seen in the finished product is from a different piece of wood, assembled together like puzzle pieces. After a dry fitting, each piece is given a small swipe of glue along its edge and put into place. The carpenter then glides his chisel along the surface, leveling the different thicknesses of wood into a smooth, final surface.

He demonstrated his technique with a small heart-shaped pendant, then gave it to me as a gift. We gave him a bit of cash for his time, and went to the workshop next door.

Wood Carving

In a workshop across the square, several men sat working with tools on hunks of wood.

A man uses a set of carving tools and a wooden hammer to create a bookend shaped like a chameleon on a branch.

Tsu explained that there were several kinds of wood native to Madagascar that could be used to make things, the most well-known being Malagasy Rosewood.

Rosewood is unique to Madagascar, and heavily sought after in China and beyond. The demand for the deep reddish-purple wood is so intense it forced the government to declare it a protected resource. With deforestation from that high demand, as well as slash-and-burn farming, there is now a tension between local people trying to use their resources and the country trying to to protect them.

Aluminum Smithing

A day later we were en route to Antananarivo, and we would stop halfway to experience by far the most intense demonstration: aluminum smithing.

We were led behind a large home to find a dozen men working in several open-air buildings surrounding a square. In the square were several men using large brick smelts to melt down discarded aluminum.

Left: a man in the background cuts aluminum window frames into four-inch pieces while another, in sandals, heats them to 800 degrees to remove debris. Right: steel pot forms rest beside purified aluminum ingots.

The heat coming from this area was unbelievable. The brick kilns are used to heat the pieces of discarded aluminum to 800 degrees. A smith then stirs the melted metal, where bits of dirt or debris float to the top — he discards them, flipping them aside using the end of his staff. The melted aluminum is then drained into a small reservoir at the bottom, where is cools into an ingot.

In front of the other building around the square are larger brick furnaces where the ingots are combined and melted. From these furnaces, other smiths take measured pours of liquid metal to make various formed objects. We were to watch a team of two men make an aluminum pot.

Making an aluminum pot: form, pour, drain, dump. These men produce a pot and lid every five minutes.

The process is dirty, dangerous and must be done quickly:

  1. The men use and reuse powdered charcoal in their molds. It is easily molded and can handle large amounts of heat all while not sticking to the aluminum.

Liv and I were dumbstruck. These men work in extreme heat with boiling liquid metal with no gloves or boots, with powdered charcoal with no masks, for ten hours a day, for 2000 ariary daily— or 56 cents. The pots are mostly exported.

Of all of the demonstrations we saw, this was the most jarring. There wasn’t much we could think to say, so we thanked and tipped them for their time, and began to walk back to the car.

Just a dozen feet from the square, you could still feel the heat wafting out as children skipped rope. A few more feet away, a table of polished aluminum trinkets sat on a draped card table. It was hard to combine the scene we had just witnessed and glittering tourist trinkets. Once in the car, Tsu pointed out the expensive Renault in the drive: the smithy’s owner’s car. He told us more about the men’s work, and that the owner did not treat nor pay them well… then he stopped short. He seemed to shrug: the men were good at their jobs, they were able to feed their families, and this was the state of Madagascar.

Within a few minutes we were back on the road… much more somber and thoughtful than before.

User Interface Engineer and geek; Presentation Lead at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.