Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 5: Local businesses

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three and four.

Something that I would have enjoyed more if I had been better prepared for it was visiting workshops and tiny factories. The tour description mentioned stopping at woodcarver centres and papermaking factories, which, as I said before, are an unavoidable part of any group travel, but it was far from explicit that these visits would constitute such a prominent part of the trip. I am not saying that I wouldn't have chosen the tour if I has known about it, but I wouldn't have been so irritated when, after a couple of days, Mami would every morning announce more and more workshops. I tried hard to be interested, and there were places where I was genuinely interested, and those were usually places that I was the only one interested in, and we moved on quickly.

But during the very first days, when I was eager to get to the rainforest, the incessant visits to local businesses were frustrating. For instance, en route from Tana to Antsirabe we stopped at a place that produced aluminium pans in a very primitive way that all Western health-and-safety authorities would immediately close down: no gloves, no shoes, no goggles. We all were still green and naïve and asked stupid questions. To the question why they didn't use a more advanced technique – just slightly more advanced, like using a permanent mould rather than making a new one for each pan – Mami explained that this was the tradition: they had done so for generations, and they didn't want any change. (After a few days of similar experience, we stopped asking). Yet apparently this was a successful business because anywhere we went in the following days we saw the pans from that factory, which Mami proudly pointed out.

They had a small stall that sold aluminium lemurs and rodents, but they were not particularly pretty. I don't buy souvenirs for the sake of having bought souvenirs; I only buy things that I like or know I can give to someone who would like them. None of the small figures spoke to me, but I was glad to see some other people buying them.

Then there was a shop that made miniatures from rubbish, which I watched with fascination, because I could appreciate the ingenuity and skill (I am a miniature maker in my leisure time). I even bought a miniature bike, so at least that shop made some profit from our visit. The price was in the range of 50p. Enough for somebody's lunch? Mami cleverly advised me to put it inside a cut-off plastic bottle, and it survived the journey.

The third factory, on the same day, made all kind of stuff from zebu horn. We had already learned about the omnipresence of zebu as food, currency and sacrificial animal. Watching someone make a teaspoon from horn, bending and polishing it was in itself interesting, but I knew from experience that they only showed us a tiny bit of the process that takes much more time and effort. The tools were primitive (no more questions from us), and the products were fine, but not for me. Yet in each place at least some of us bought something, which made me feel less guilty. While the aluminium pans were presumably used by the locals, horn spoons, boxes, chameleons and baobabs were produced exclusively for tourists, which made our watching the process awkward and humiliating for everyone, including Mami. But as already mentioned, I am probably oversensitive.

The woodcarving shop on the road from Antsirabe to Ranomafana was disappointing. It was fascinating to watch an old man making marquetry with primitive, make-shift tools (no questions asked; but I couldn't help thinking that I have better tools for my hobby. If it were at all possible, I would like to send some good tools to this shop). However, there was nothing in the shop that looked enticing, but again I was glad that some of our companions bought rather expensive, even by Western measures, marquetry pictures of mountains and baobabs. I hope that whoever gets them as a gift will like them for whatever reason.

The rope and basket-weaving workshop was pathetic, but I enjoyed the papermaking factory for the same reason I enjoyed the miniature-bike shop: I could relate to it because I used to make paper myself. They made pulp from bark of a particular local tree; they boiled it for hours, beat into pulp with wooden mallets, diluted with water, poured into huge frames to dry. Decorated with dry flowers, just like I used to do, and made greeting cards, notebooks and other stuff papermakers do.

I had been looking forward to woodcarver's, because I have so many beautiful wooden animals from South Africa, but surprisingly there was nothing that caught my eye.

We also visited a rum distillery, a weaver's shop, an embroidery shop, a smithy. I don't know whether these were typical tourist attractions, like I used to take foreigners to when I was a guide in Russia. If you have been a guide you can see behind the scenes. Mami was a great guide, but I knew he was telling us the truth, but not the whole truth.

Mami said that about forty tourist groups passed all these workshops every day, so even if just a few foreigners buy something it may feed a family for a week. Most of these businesses are family ones, so hopefully the whole family benefits. There are also cooperatives, supported by Western NGOs. The question remains, are they profitable at all? Or do people toil elsewhere and only come in when tours are in sight? There are no tours during monsoon season. 

To be continued.

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