The Hidden Magic Of Zafimaniry

The Hidden Magic of Zafimaniry: The Last Generations of Master Madagascar Woodcarvers Faced with the Ravages of Deforestation

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The Hidden Magic Of Zafimaniry

Image Courtesy of pexels.comChameleons, along with rosewood trees and tortoises, are just a tiny number of the many endangered endemic species inhabiting the island of Madagascar, faced with the threats of losing their habitat, as well as falling victim to illegal wildlife trade.

Snuggled in the once dense forests of Madagascar, the Zafimaniry people proceed to live in harmony with the surrounding environment, staying true to the traditions and legacy of their ancestors. One particular craft has shaped the life of the local people for centuries, and this craft is the art of wood carving.

Furthermore, the ancient knowledge of all things woodworking-related has influenced each and every aspect of the Zafimaniry style of living.

Amazingly, every person of the Zafimaniry community is involved as either a forester, craftworker and/or carpenter since wood is utilized for the construction of literally every object in the household.

However, the shadow of poverty and the vicious threats posed by deforestation have greatly impacted the lifestyle of the locals.

But how often do we really get to think about the people whose reality is far away from all those tiny things we take for granted, surrounded by the comforts of the 21st century?

In this article, we will introduce you with the hidden magic of Zafimaniry, with a mind to understanding our mutual responsibility for preserving the beauty, uniqueness, wisdom, and diversity of Planet Earth and the ancient crafts.

Getting to Know Zafimaniry Better: Introducing “The People of the Forest”

The People Of The Forest

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The forested mountains of the southeastern Madagascar highlands are the place a small group of approximately 25 000 people calls home. Scattered across those breathtaking highlands, the Zafimaniry people inhabit about one hundred villages in the region.

Ultimately, the Zafimaniry belong to a Madagascar ethnic sub-group called Betsileo. The language of the Zafimaniry people is a dialect of Malagasy, and it originates from the Barito languages. On another note, the Barito languages are still spoken in the lands of Southern Borneo and are part of the Malayo-Polynesian group.

From a historical point of view, all members of the Zafimaniry community practiced woodworking.

Wood was used for the construction of the incredible houses of the natives, and it wasn’t only the exterior of the houses but also the interior that was created by the skillful woodworkers.

Nevertheless, tombs were also built out of wood. Impressively and surprisingly enough, elaborate and deeply symbolic wood carvings were used to decorate each object that belonged to the local community.

Traditional Zafimaniry Carvings In The City Of Ambositra

Traditional Zafimaniry carvings in the city of Ambositra – Image Source

It was during the 18th century when the Zafimaniry settled in the deep forests of Madagascar. Back at the time, the community was faced with the cold-blooded impact of the reckless damage caused by the hands of insensible human beings: deforestation. Thus, the Zafimaniry were burdened with dark times that endangered the culture of the local community to a great extent.

Then again, it is crucially important to highlight the fact that the lifestyle of the Zafimaniry people is intricately connected with the use of wood. Once abundant in the region, wood material was present virtually A-Z in the daily life of the natives.

Video by UNESCO – The Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry


Probably the only modern-day way to compare the significance of wood for the natives would be to imagine ourselves deprived of our smartphones and/or laptops, although such a comparison is still too weak, and fails to embody the immense importance of wood for the Zafimaniry.

The Art of Zafimaniry Woodworking and Woodcarving: Part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Art Of Zafimaniry Woodworking And Woodcarving

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Originally proclaimed in 2003, the woodcrafting knowledge of the Zafimaniry people was finally added in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.

Certainly, it can’t be any other way because the ancient know-how and skills of woodworking have been passed for generations in the local community.

What’s more, working with wood has accompanied every aspect of both life and death, penetrating deeply into the most sacred beliefs and life philosophy of the natives.

The Stories Behind the Traditional Zafimaniry Houses  

The Stories Behind The Traditional Zafimaniry Houses

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For a start, we can look at the incredible wooden houses that are typical for the Zafimaniry community. Stunningly, all wooden surfaces are decorated with mesmerizing carvings. These can be found on the walls, the doors, the posts, the beams, and the window frames.

But moreover, just like we briefly mentioned above, wood carvings are also everywhere inside the house, covering the surface of stools, chests, and nonetheless – the tools of the locals.

According to the Zafimaniry people, it is through the geometric patterns in the elaborate traditional houses that “ideals are given the form.” In other words, it is through the building process of their houses that the Zafimaniry has managed to realize and nurture their ideals century after century.

The houses cannot be built without cooperation and love,” shares the elder of the Zafimaniry community. “The most important idea behind the house is mutual love and respect,” he adds.

He also makes a beautiful comparison describing the way the posts of each house are placed following a strict order.

Firstly, the west post is placed and then stood with the east post. Next, the south post is put and only then the north post can be placed. This way, the houses become stable and unify. “Love and harmony are necessary in building a house,” he humbly sums up.

Video by 川瀬 Itsushi Kawase – Zafimaniry Style


The Zafimaniry Understanding of the Forces of Nature and Family Values

Zafimaniry Understanding Of The Forces Of Nature And Family Values

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Another important characteristic of the building process of Zafimaniry houses is the ancient knowledge of using joinery techniques that allow the construction of their homes to be fully completed without nails.

This process is incredibly intelligent, and it is a solid proof of the deep understanding of the natives when it comes to the forces of nature.

Due to the high humidity, using nails would only lead to the gradual destruction of the houses because of the rusting nails. A similar approach was embraced by the Japanese for the building of the extraordinary shrines and temples architecture.

When it comes to the motifs that are being carved by the gifted Zafimaniry carvers, each symbol represents the core values of the natives, and not even a single line is carved in vain.

For instance, the honeycomb symbol – papintantely, is bound to community life. On the other hand, the spider’s web symbol – tanamparoratra, represents family ties.

Back in the days when the ravages of deforestation did not affect the lifestyle of the locals, the Zafimaniry used approximately 20 endemic tree species for various woodworking practices. Amazingly, each type of wood served a strictly particular purpose in the art of carpentry, as well as wood carving.

Interestingly, the Zafimaniry community has evolved around a wise and deeply cherished family affiliation hierarchy.

In fact, family life and marriage are valued as the core virtues needed to nurture a stable society. Women often become mothers at a very young age, and adults are seen as successful individuals in the case they manage to raise more children.

Nevertheless, the older members of the family are seen as the guardians of the ancestors’ legacy. Thus, the elders speak in a calm and polite manner that serves to set an example of a harmonious living within the community.

Video by Stop Over – Documentary, Discovery, HistoryMadagascar (Documentary, Discovery, History)


The Challenges of the Zafimaniry Woodcarvers in the 21st Century

Challenges Of The Zafimaniry Woodcarvers In The 21St Century

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Above all, the Zafimaniry people of the 21st century are largely involved in agriculture. Nowadays, wood carving is looked upon as an additional source of income.

Looking into Traditional Zafimaniry Agriculture and the Rise of Tourism in the Region

Traditional Zafimaniry Agriculture And The Rise Of Tourism In The Region

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Maize and beans are the major crops of the natives but potatoes and sweet potatoes are also equally important.

Most noteworthy, the land needs to be left fallow at a particular period of time because otherwise, it loses its fertility.

During the fallow period, the Zafimaniry use the fields to grow medicinal plants, as well as various bushes and trees that serve well when it comes to construction purposes.

Still, wood carving remains a traditional and highly valued craft but the focus of the community has greatly shifted from what it used to be back in those days when the people were much more secluded than now.

Currently, the tourism market in Madagascar is becoming more stable. Moreover, it is also full of growth potential in the future decades.

As a result of the growing number of tourists in the region, the Zafimaniry have started to sell out various traditional wood carvings to the passing hikers. Partially, that’s thanks to the still little-known lands in the region that allure the visitors who wish to explore the unexplored.

And while the woodcarving trade may help to ensure an additional income, it also comes along with another challenge.

Many third-party retailers buy the incredible Zafimaniry carvings for very little money but then make a much greater profit by selling these in bigger towns in the area. It’s good to keep in mind that most of the Zafimaniry people live with about $1 (or less) a day per person.

In the short documentary film directed by Itsushi Kawase, a local Zafimaniry man shares that “In some villages tourism is beneficial. Some people got benefits from tourists. But in this remote village, very few get benefits.”

Zafimaniry & Rice Cultivation: The Crops of the Future?

Zafimaniry Rice Cultivation The Crops Of The Future

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On another note, intense efforts have been put by the government in order to increase environmental protection and save both the flora and the fauna from further damage, and nonetheless, to block the negative impact caused by the global warming.

Interestingly, global warming has actually played a beneficial role in the rice cultivation in the country. Years earlier, the climate was too cold to ensure the sustainable production of rice.

However, nowadays things have dramatically changed, and a huge percent of the cash income of the locals is being invested in the construction of rice terraces that will serve to boost the cultivation of healthy crops in the region.

Be that as it may, though, the Zafimaniry’s quest to stimulating rice cultivation is not going to be an easy task as the locals lack the knowledge needed to build the complex irrigation systems and terracing. Thus, they will have to rely on the paid help provided by Betsileo specialists.

Now I can feed my family with my own field. We don’t have to buy rice. But the field wouldn’t be enough if our family becomes bigger. The life becomes worse and worse because the food is not enough and education costs much. The life will be harder. I will have to make the family work harder because I am getting too old to feed them,”

shares a local man of the Zafimaniry tribe in an interview filmed by Itsushi Kawase.

The Hidden Magic of Zafimaniry Wood Carvings: Final Food for Thought

Hidden Magic Of Zafimaniry Wood Carvings

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In an article published by the Wild Madagascar Organization, the wise words of a native Zafimaniry man sum up the way local people understand the significance of wood for their society: “In the old days, when there was forest, the men were strong. Now the forest is gone and the men are weak.”

Ultimately, UNESCO experts highlight the importance of Zafimaniry wood carvings to humanity by describing the sacredness of the geometrical patterns as being “… [] highly codified, reflecting both the Polynesian origins of the community and the Arab influences in Malagasy culture… []”

Unfortunately, within the course of the last 50 years, the forests of the Zafimaniry people in the highlands of Madagascar have kept disappearing. Partially, that’s also related to the extensive slash-and-burn practices.

Meanwhile, the greatest challenges in front of the humankind in the 21st century are intricately connected to preserving the cultural heritage of indigenous tribes such as that of the Zafimaniry people.

Because no matter how robustly the technologies flourish, there is hidden magic that weaves through the beating hearts of the people across the globe and pulsates through the veins of Nature that provides food and shelter for all.

Video by Lisa Wilkinson – World History Final Project – Environmental Awareness


In a world where nothing remains the same, crafts like the ancient wood carving of Zafimaniry master wood carvers is the beaming light of hope, pointing out to the dire need of embracing an environmental-friendly attitude and a higher awareness over our impact on the beautiful planet that we call home.