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The forest is the real place that the Zafimaniry call home as working with wood has very strong spiritual and social powers that have shaped the lifestyle and the collective memory of the natives for centuries.
The woodcrafting knowledge of the Zafimaniry people became a part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008 after being originally proclaimed in 2003.
As a result, thousands of people across the globe got to learn more about the ancient craft of the locals that have been far away from the spotlights of public awareness for too long.
But while we may admire the talent and skills that gave birth to the beautifully decorated houses and tools of the Zafimaniry people, the profound wisdom that is embedded in the ancient craft often tends to remain far from our sight.
Nowadays, many of us are proud to call themselves woodworkers and woodcarvers – no matter if we practice woodworking as a profession or if we practice it as a hobby.
However, few are those who can get to “hear” the true voice of the trees that we are giving a second life to through woodworking.
That’s because our reality has become too distant from the forests where the Zafimaniry people still live in, just like their ancestors did.
And it is deep into these forests that wood speaks to those who know how to listen, for wood has both spiritual and social power on the people who have spent their entire life working with this material to build shelter, start a fire, hunt, cook, heal, and in between – carve – and carving is experienced as nothing less but a means of making yourself one with wood.
Understanding the Quests of the Zafimaniry People in the 21st Century
It wasn’t before the 18th century that the Zafimaniry people were forced to leave their home villages in the island of Madagascar and settle in the remote wooded region of south-east Madagascar.
The ravages of deforestation at the time were the reason why the Zafimaniry had to migrate to the dense forests where they lived nomadically.
Video by Conservation International – Aerial Surveying of Madagascar’s Deforestation – Conservation International (CI)
But the battle with deforestation has not been brought to an end. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
From a global perspective, deforestation is directly linked to the rapid and negative changes in climate. If not stopped in a timely manner, as soon as the year 2100, global warming can lead to the melting of the icebergs in Antarctica, resulting in devastating consequences for millions of people across the globe.
From the much more intimate perspective of the Zafimaniry people, the loss of forests can be probably only compared to Death in every possible way.
The Zafimaniry lifestyle is deeply, complexly, and sacredly connected to the forests.
In fact, the Zafimaniry who live in areas where the forests were lost in favor of terraced rice cultivation is not considered “real” Zafimaniry by the Zafimaniry who keep living in the forests and stick to the traditional way of life which has always been related to working with wood.
On the other hand, the Zafimaniry people live in poverty and they endure hard work from a very fragile age just to be able to bring food to the table.
As a result of the high poverty rates (most Zafimaniry live with as little as $1 per day), soon after their woodcrafting knowledge was recognized by UNESCO and earned global reputation, the natives started carving numerous modern-day figures out of wood.
Video by UNESCO – The Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry
The various carved objects are usually sold to third-party retailers who then sell these objects at the bigger local markets of Ambositra.
The fact that Zafimaniry living in the rural areas have to work harder to make a living than those who migrate to the cities creates a “dichotomy between “us” and “them” where “us”, the collective subject including the guide, represents the city, for many a synonym of modernity and development, while “them” is the countryside, meaning backwardness, poverty, and lack of education” as highlighted in Regimes of Value in Tourism by Emilie Crossley and David Picard.
Tourists who get to spend time visiting the Zafimaniry people while traveling across Madagascar share that the children look malnourished, and they also highlight the fact that the children would start pushing hand-carved souvenirs to the tourists in a rather aggressive way.
But keeping in mind the tough life of the locals, we cannot possibly blame the children for being “too aggressive” while trying to sell carvings to the tourists.
A F R I C A (by Habib Koite)
The sons of Africa wanted to walk…
An adventure that took them far away
from the frontiers of the continent
An adventure that taught them
how things work elsewhere.
Before, we welcomed the whole world with our
Innate sense of hospitality, in dignity and nobility.
We walked but when we wanted to enter their door,
Those in Ceuta told us:
“We don’t have your innate sense of hospitality”
The sons of Africa returned home, saying:
Better an ugly woman than an empty room
Because they’d heard that invaluable help
had been offered to them there
But they’ve had enough of empty promises
Poverty will be Africa’s destiny,
Corruption will be Africa’s destiny
Governments will always get stuck in the sand
Africa is destined for war, for genocide
Until the United Nations
in their development programmes,
Decide to help Africa to:
Reduce its poverty, Reduce its AIDS pandemic
Reduce the death of its children
Reduce what Mother Africa owes to others
Broken promises, of equity, solidarity.
The illusion is false, even if the dream is allowed
Africa will make its own way, after a fashion, because
My Negro pride will always be called Mambo
And we are all in the same boat
Help! Enough helped Africa
Africa will make its own way, after a fashion!A F R I C A (by Habib Koite)
“Africa” is Habib’s reminder to the people of Africa that they need to take charge of their own development without relying solely on promises and aid from the West.
The song also highlights the fact that the West is wealthy but that doesn’t necessarily equal a better quality of life. Habib Koite encourages young Africans to stay in their native lands and work together in order to build a better future for their continent and the future generations.
Video by KEXP – Acoustic Africa featuring Habib Koite & Vusi Mahlasela – Africa (Live on KEXP)
From this perspective, woodcarving can be interpreted as a powerful tool for socializing when it comes to the young generations of Zafimaniry. The traditional carvings of the Zafimaniry people tell stories that can be felt by everyone, regardless of the difference in language, religion or upbringing.
Back in the old days, carving was intricately related to socializing, as well. The Zafimaniry would leave behind a legacy for the next generations through the power of woodcarving – showing their descendants the way that the ancestors lived and worked, and how they progressed through life despite the difficulties.
Most importantly, the Zafimaniry people do not need our pittance. These people are only weak because their homeland – the forests – are being destroyed.
If we are about to change positions and were left to make our own living in the forest, most Westerners would starve to death. But this would not be the case with the Zafimaniry people.
The real way that we can help the Zafimaniry is by making conscious choices in our own lifestyle – saying NO to single-use plastics, saying NO to unsustainable ways of living, saying NO to wastage.
Video by Lavendaire – 10 Ways to Reduce Waste | Zero Waste for Beginners
Up-to-date, there are approximately 25 000 Zafimaniry people who inhabit about 100 villages in the Antoetra and Ambohimitombo administrative settlements.
Understanding Soul of the Zafimaniry People: The Spiritual and Social Power of Woodcarving
“Our homes always have a traditional setting, where each corner has a special meaning the most important is the northeast corner of the room where we pray to our ancestors,”shares an elder of the Zafimaniry community in a conversation with the travel photographer Maciej Swulinski.
“The northern part of the house where you are sitting is reserved for men and guests. The southeast corner is a place to store water. The northwest part of the house is where we keep our tools. And finally, the southwest corner is for the hens. Chickens are safe here from other animals and people who may steal them,”explains the elder
The Zafimaniry have a saying: “Ny tany tsy miova fa nyolombelona no moiva” which translates into “While the land does not change, the living people change.”
This proverb reveals the Zafimaniry people’s awareness of the impermanence and fragility of human life, as pointed out in Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism.
But when looking deeper into the Zafimaniry traditional proverb, we can see the thin thread that weaves through the collective consciousness of the locals, pointing out to the accumulated wisdom that there IS a solution to the impermanence of life.
And from the Zafimaniry point of view, this solution might be the “attaching of human beings to permanent land by means of the mediation of the permanent materials, in their case especially hardwood of which the houses should be ideally made.”
“There is no chimney on a Zafimaniry house. We open the doors and let the smoke outside. The inside of the house gets black with smoke,” shares a young Zafimaniry teenager boy in a short documentary video directed by Itsushi Kawase.
“Three posts represent a family. Mother, father, and a child in the middle. The children are always between the parents, aren’t they? Look at the roof. The roof of a traditional house is made of bamboo,” the young boy explains.
Video by 川瀬 慈Itsushi Kawase – Zafimaniry Style
The Rich Symbolism of Zafimaniry Houses
The finely designed and carved wooden houses of the Zafimaniry people are not merely a shelter and not merely a home. Instead, houses are also “the supreme valuation of the unity of a married pair.”
A Zafimaniry family does not merely consist of a husband, a wife, and their children. It consists of all the family members such as the elders, as well as ancestors who have already passed away, and it also consists of all the future generations that are about to continue the Zafimaniry kin.
Just like marriage, building a house is seen as a gradual process that takes time and efforts to bear fruit. With this in mind, a house has to be “hardened” in a similar way to marriage.
For instance, at the very beginning of their life as a couple, most Zafimaniry start their journey surrounded by impermanent materials such as woven bamboo and mats which are gradually replaced with solid and richly decorated wooden planks that are called the bones of the house.
Quintessentially, in order to understand the true spiritual and social powers of woodcarving and woodworking for the Zafimaniry people, we need to understand the Zafimaniry ideas concerning trees, and respectively wood, from which the houses and the carvings are being made of and onto.
Trees and Wood: The Foundations of the Zafimaniry Microcosmos
The Zafimaniry people use the same word for “tree” and “wood” – “hazo.”
However, that doesn’t mean the Zafimaniry people are not perfectly well aware of the difference between living trees and timber as a construction material.
Instead, this shows the deep spiritual understanding of wood and trees as being intricately connected to a greater perspective that concerns Life and the Universe itself.
The Zafimaniry point out that all great trees start as soft, little plants “like grass.” It is through the invisible forces of the Universe that these fragile, little plants turn into a hardy, gigantic trees that never really get to “die” since wood can last almost forever if used properly and treated carefully.
And just like trees grow from delicate little creatures to constructions that can last for millennia, so does the Zafimaniry kin always start with the tender relationship between two people who are always connected to both the living nature, as well as their ancestors – the invisible forces that connect the Past and the Future of the Zafimaniry.
The spiritual symbolism of trees can be found in any religion, all across the globe – and isn’t this amazing?
Video by Jonathan Pageau – Symbolism of the Tree
The wood obtained from trees has served the Zafimaniry people in literally all aspects of life, and its value extends far beyond the carvings that ask for blessings and divine protection by both the ancestors, as well as the tree spirits.
The Zafimaniry have used wood not only for the exterior but also for the interior of the houses since nearly all implements, tools, and utensils were traditionally made out of wood.
In fact, the traditional clothes of the Zafimaniry people are also made out of wood, and in particular – bark fiber that was skilfully weaved by the women.
Nowadays, it is mostly the traditional hats of the Zafimaniry that are being handcrafted through weaving.
Nevertheless, the traditional medicine of the Zafimaniry consisted exclusively of powdered wood obtained from different tree species. Without the power of wood, the Zafimaniry would have not been able to survive in the cold and humid climate of the highlands.
Nowadays, maize which is one of the staple crops of the Zafimaniry is still being hung from the rafters of the house, allowing the fire from burning wood to dry it out.
Final Food for Thought
It might be hard, if possible at all, to look deeper into the most beautiful corners of the souls and minds of the Zafimaniry people, and that’s not only because of the language barrier.
These people have a unique point of view on the surrounding environment, and for many things that we only see with our eyes, the Zafimaniry see with their hearts.
The spectacular woodcrafting knowledge of the Zafimaniry people hides secrets and wisdom that have been accumulated for generations, and their value extends far beyond the mesmerizing shapes and patterns that are carved in a highly skillful manner.
“…  continuing life is thus a matter of transformation through the generations, a kind of relay race of what the Malagasy call tsodrano, this is a word that is usually translated as “blessing”. It is a matter of process and growth. It should never stand still as the generations should continue to create each other looking into the future… ”Two types of Creativity on either side of Zafimaniry shutters by Maurice Bloch.
It is through understanding the tsodrano that the spiritual and social power of woodcarving as experienced and interpreted by the Zafimaniry people can be understood better by us, westerners.
Next time you start working with wood or go hiking in the forest – let your spirit feel the world of the trees from the Zafimaniry perspective. We live on the same planet, even though scattered across different continents, and we are sharing the same sacred values and dreams, aren’t we?
For no matter of the color of the skin, the religious beliefs or the social positions, all human beings crave for love, health, and a little bit of luck so that prosperity isn’t only for the chosen ones.
Because we breathe the Air and drink the Water from Mother Earth under the big blue skies, where the Sun and the Moon shine equally bright for all the people who turn their eyes upwards to make a wish for better days.
The comet moth of Madagascar resting on a traditional Zafimaniry house – Image Source
“An individual’s yearning to reach outside his life is a seed of greatness waiting for a stream of inspiration. Carving that stream to people’s hearts is a simpler task if the endeavor you are leading them into is attached to a bigger story”Mac Anderson