In remote hillside hamlets, the Zafimaniry people have made their mark.
In the gentle light of dawn, this day in the hillside village of Sakaivo begins as it has for generations. Hens and chickens are the first ones out of the houses, clucking and cheeping as they scuttle and strut between the wooden dwellings they share with the people who live here. Then, occasionally, a woman will walk down a bare earth pathway, wrapping her lamba (sarong) around her waist as she goes to fetch water from the stream; and as night fades into morning, light catches the smoke that rises from every roof and lingers around the village, creating haze that lends a sense of intrigue to the place.
When the sun's rays eventually reach the houses, other occupants begin to emerge - young girls with a sibling on a hip; old men with lambas wrapped around their shoulders - and they rest outside the houses, allowing the sun to warm their bodies before getting on with their day. Older children meander towards the village school; women spread basketfuls of beans out in the sun to dry. Sakaivo, in Madagascar's Central Highlands, is one of about 100 villages in the Zafimaniry region. There is no electricity out here; no roads. It's a remote area, one where a network of footpaths provides the only access with the outside world. Despite their isolation the Zafimaniry people, the small ethnic group who lend their name to the region, are so revered for their carpentry expertise that their woodcrafting knowledge is inscribed on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
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In Ambositra, the closest large town to the Zafimaniry region, there is a street of craft shops that are packed with exquisite marquetry, elaborately decorated chess sets, and intricately carved wooden pots and puzzles - but it is their houses that the Zafimaniry people are best known for. Built only from wood and traditionally without nails, the one-room homes have shutters and doors that have been carefully decorated with mesmerising geometric patterns.
Curious to see these houses and the Zafimaniry's way of life, my partner and I trekked for three days through a small part of the 700-square-kilometre Zafimaniry region. With a guide we set off from the market town of Antoetra, the gateway to the area, walking at first on a steep, eroded pathway that led us through beautiful, ever-changing mountain vistas. It was a 12-kilometre walk to Faliarivo, our first overnight stop, where the surrounding hills have been carved into stepped terraces that support crops of rice, beans and sweet potatoes. The village itself is a picturesque collage of terraces. Around half of the houses here were built the traditional way, from wood; Faliarivo's relative proximity to Antoetra has meant that "modern" building supplies are easier to access (even though they have to be transported by human porters) - and are an appealing option when wood is increasingly hard to find, and valuable time must be spent working in the fields.
The Zafimaniry are said to be forest people but, as with most of Madagascar, the forests that once covered these hills have been decimated in recent decades. An exploding population and widescale slash-and-burn agriculture are largely to blame, scientists say, and landsat images have shown that in the last half of the last century 40 per cent of Madagascar's forests were lost. From 2000 until 2020 a further 25 per cent was destroyed.
During our trek I saw scatterings of eucalyptus trees and only small pockets of woodland - but deforestation aside, it was a striking area to explore. The views were ever changing: rugged mountain peaks would rip the horizon, then we'd be surrounded by a verdant valley of rice fields, walk between a section of granite boulders and find ourselves meandering across a landscape of rolling hills.
We spent our second night in the pretty village of Sakaivo where, just like Faliarivo, the houses are built on a terraced hillside. Here the majority of the village has been made from wood; some homes are double-storey and have an extended living space with a balcony out front, while others are more modest and traditional in style.
It was late in the afternoon when I wandered past the homestead of Mr Rapemevaro, a village elder who was carving a chunk of eucalyptus wood outside his home. Nearby, his daughter-in-law was pounding rice in a large wooden mortar and his young granddaughter was shooing away the chickens that tried to forage wayward grains.
"Every Zafimaniry man knows how to work with wood," Mr Rapemevaro said as we stopped for a chat. "It's a skill we learn as a boy and while we used to make everything like tools and honey pots and granaries from wood, men nowadays use their skills only to build houses." As he talked Mr Rapemevaro carved a curved design into the chunk of eucalyptus. It will become the door of his son's house, he said, adding that eucalyptus isn't his first choice of wood, but It's all that grows nearby, now.
According to UNESCO the Zafimaniry designs "carry rich symbolic significance", so I was curious about the pattern Mr Rapemevaro was carving. Our guide offered an interpretation of the motifs: a circle of curves represents family unity, a four-point star is a wish for a good life, a star represents sincerity, honesty and family ties. Mr Rapemevaro's response, however, was different - and it came back to me the following morning, as I sat in the dawn light and watched the village come to life. "These shapes carry no meaning," he'd shrugged. "We just use these patterns because we like them."
Getting there: Qantas flies to Johannesburg, from where you can take a three-hour Airlink flight to Antananarivo.
Staying there: The town of Ambositra is a good place to spend the night on either side of a Zafimaniry hike. Simple but comfortable L'Artisan Hotel has a fantastic restaurant. Ask your guide to book your room; online booking doesn't exist. Double rooms from around $32 a night.
Walking there: Our three-day walk through the Zafiminary area cost 750,000 ariary ($245) for two people. This included the English-speaking guide, village fees, two porters (who carried food and other provisions), all meals and homestay accommodation. Ablution facilities are exceptionally basic. See travelersofmadagascar.com
Need to know: Most hotels and guides accept payment in cash only (ariary or euros). English is not widely spoken.
The writer travelled at their own expense.