The north west of Madagascar is as wild as anywhere I’ve seen. Catapults are shot with stunning accuracy and people live from little more than what’s found around them in nature.
Antsirabe, I was told, is a village deep in the forest in north west Madagascar, where large, clean blue sapphires are occasionally found. Xiang, a Chinese gem trader based in Ambondromifehy (also spelt Ambondrofe) offered to take me there. I spent 3 days in the forest learning about sapphires and while it was an eye-opening expedition into the forest for me, it was also an eye-widening experience for friends and those had heard about where I had gone. I have written about my time to acknowledge and thank those who worried about me. It was a wonderful opportunity as I hope this shows.
What a natural, self sufficient life miners in north west Madagascar lead. How far from the “rat race” of an exploding city it is! For 5 hours, I waited in Ambondromifehy to catch a bus to Ankaramy-Be (also spelt Ankaramibe) which is the closest town to Antsirabe. We arrived there 2 days later and stayed overnight so as to start our 7 hour walk early, minimising hours spent walking in the heat of the sun.
At the edge of town, we stopped at the house of a lady who battled with her hungry chickens as she made us “mofo gasy” (Malagasy donuts) and coffee. The first half an hour of our walk was the hardest and at the top of the first hill we took a break. No villages were apparent; only some areas of “Tavy” (slash and burn) broke the texture of the forest. The people who lived there would have seen much more than I did: “chuppa” trees used for roofing, “boa” for the beams of houses and “kutt” which is made into a natural energy drink. In the forest there was a whole high street of building materials, food and medicine. Enroute to Antsirabe, we passed a few huts selling bananas and more “mofo gasy” as well as a couple of villages (one with a school) but there was not much foot traffic between them. Two toddlers on separate occasions caught sight of me and promptly burst into tears.
After about 6 hours walking, we drew closer to the village and on the path we spoke to an old man carrying a glass jar of sapphires in his pocket with a boy holding a catapult and a small bird. It became apparent that he was the son of Xiang’s friend, who welcomed us to the village with a meal of rice and eggs, which we ate overlooking a clearing. The clearing was the size of a football pitch and shafts up to 6m deep and approximately 1m in diameter had been dug into the compact, red ground using metal poles. Miners descended using foot holes (indents) in the sides and oxygen was fed to them via a plastic tube. We were brought sapphires by local miners but most were too included for Xiang to trade.
50-60 huts with floors made of woven branches had been built on the edge of a clearing. A whole community lived there, not just men. There were corner stores and off-licences, places where people played chess and cafes where people sat on benches and drank the locally-made herbal stimulants or aphrodisiacs. Chickens strutted about freely until they were picked up, killed, plucked and placed on the fire, in a well-practised series of movements. Prayer music played from one of the huts.
As the sunlight faded so did the noises. We got up at 6am to walk to the next mining village, where larger, clearer sapphires could be found. Close to the village, mine shafts dotted their way along the footpath like booby traps and 3km later we appeared in a clearing about 30m x 20m, which had been mined intensively. People wrapped in blankets shouted something to Xiang. They were mining but not much. Sadly, 7 people had died the previous year in a collapsed tunnel, Xiang told me.
We continued and 2 km ahead we were at our destination and welcomed with coffee. Xiang had a quick sleep while sapphires were collected by the local brokers and I sat in a cafe where, for lack of conversation, I taught some people there the card game “pelmanism.”
The sapphires were clearer than those we’d seen the previous day. Many were blue and green. Many were more blue, with less green in it than those I’d seen in Ambonfdromifehy but they were also much more expensive. We bought what we could and then made our return journey.
At 5:30am the following morning we left with a porter and food for the journey. The porter knew of several sapphire mining villages on the way to Ankaramby-Be and when we spotted one from the footpath he said it would be likely to have sapphires for us. It was an hour extra off our route but there was plenty of daylight left. A lady called Mama Farida welcomed us warmly and when we asked for sapphires she told us a miner had recently found “a good 1 gram sapphire.” The miner was at work about 45 minutes away but once tracked down, the sapphire appeared to be heavily included.
None of the sapphires they had to show us were of fine quality but sales, along with the crops they were able to grow, produced enough for them to live off. Men took parcels to Antananarivo or to Ilakaka to sell. Equally, miners walked in from Ankaramy-Be to work for a few days at a time to mine.
There would have been plenty more villages to look for sapphires in but my eye was on my watch. I had wanted to catch the “taxi-brousse” (public bus) to Antananarivo before dark so I chose to walk back out to Ankarame-Be. Xiang, the porter and I all got on to the last “taxi-brousse” south. They were aiming for Andilamena while I stayed on until Antananarivo, 22 hours later. In that time, worried messages had started between friends who were wondering where I had got to. I am sorry…here I was.