A walk down Sapphire

A week of road-tripping through the south of Madagascar is like visiting the rice paddies of Vietnam, the French Quarter of New Orleans, the markets of India and the villages of Provence.

Above all, in the midst of the poor and the exotic, there are the smiles. They call me mpakasary out here, which means “photographer” in Malgache. They feed me Three Horses Beer and shrimp on a stick. They let me into their homes. The children in the medieval villages follow me like I’m a circus bear in town for the Christmas season. The old folks let me stick a camera in their grizzled faces and answer my inane questions with dignity. I carefully watch out for their fady — taboos — and commit some abominable French in passing.

Madagascar, two years after its political crisis, is fast becoming a tourist’s dream spot. And we’re not just talking about the Old-Frenchman-Young-Malagasy-Girl tourism on the northern islands here. With a new, open-minded government in place, Madagascar is working hard to lure visitors and rebuild its natural environment, which has been on the brink for decades.

And then suddenly I find myself in the one-Zebu town of Ilakaka. David Razafinarivo, a cheerful Merina Highlander from Antananarivo, is my guide on this trip. He’ll do anything to help me get photographs or interviews. This is the first time I see him visibly baulk, as we go over the crest of a hill and look down at Ilakaka. He really doesn’t want to be here.

“Let me warn you before we pass through,” he says, ominously. “This is a town of bandits. If you’re a foreigner staying overnight, they stand in the street and squabble over who owns you. Everyone has a gun down there. A tourist sleeping here would be lucky to still be alive in the morning — but all his possessions would be gone.”

Ilakaka, on the edge of the legendary Isalo National Park, didn’t exist three years ago. Then a Zebu herdsman picked up a few pretty stones and showed them around. The next day, says David, 300 people arrived and went prospecting.

“Now there are more than 300 000 people down there, many of them Thais and Sri Lankans,” he says. “The Malagasy dig for the sapphires and sell them cheaply to the foreign dealers, who export them at great profit.”

We drive through the crowded pedestrian mall that passes for a main street. A man lifts water from an old-fashioned well. A poster advertises the next meeting of the Apocalypse Church. There are hundreds of signs with one word in common: Saphir. Suspicious eyes follow our minibus. Men with tell-tale bulges at their belts swagger down the street, sporting gold — the Bling Bling Cowboys.

Deals are being made on Sapphire Street, as hands furtively cup collections of pink stones and assess them in milliseconds. Little stalls manned by tough guys wearing jeweller’s eyepieces line the street.

One of the big attractions of Malagasy sapphires is that they come in many colours. The pink one is called Felapaiso, which means “peach blossom”. The blue one is Masopiso, or “eye of the cat” and the yellow is citrine.

There are shops selling sieves to separate stones from sand. Others sell Adidas and Nike knockoffs, as well as Osama Bin Laden T-shirts and shotgun cartridge belts. This is a modern-day version of what one imagines Pilgrim’s Rest used to look like in its late 19th-century heyday, when robbers, cut-throats, whores and Staffordshire bull terriers walked its golden streets. It’s so exciting I have to get David to take me on a walk. He hates the idea, but eventually gives in.

First we park, and David hustles us into a restaurant where he knows the owners. At the entrance is an enormous, dishevelled man sitting at a rickety table, a mountain of filthy banknotes in his ham-like hands. There’s no bank in Ilakaka. You keep your money in your hands, your pocket or somewhere really sly where the bad guys can’t get at it. There’s a lot of different food on offer, from petite Thai specialties to horse steak.

The Man With The Money comes over, shadowed by an even larger bodyguard, and takes our breakfast order. A pretty woman brings us 220 volt coffee and we look out the window at the passing parade.

Most of Sapphire Street is full of middle men, mediating between the peasant miners and the foreign dealers. Sapphire mining is entirely legal but you wouldn’t say so, judging from the shady looks going around. The town might be full of gold, luxury commodities, sports utility vehicles and prostitutes, but there is very little water to be had — it is generally trucked in by the government. Petrol is also sold by the jerrycan, but they do have a massive communications mast on the hill outside town. You can’t expect a Bling Bling Cowboy to operate without his cellphone, can you?

Under the previous regime of Didier Ratsiraka, locals were not allowed to use heavy machinery to extract the sapphires — but foreigners were permitted to dig with anything they had. As a result, Thai and Sri Lankan miners brought in bulldozers and other heavy plant machinery. Resentment built up into rioting, the machinery was destroyed and a few of the outsiders were killed.

Currently all the mining is done by hand, says David. Geologists say the sapphire Mother Lode can last another 200 years. And while a spread of holes in the ground is no more aesthetically wonderful than a field of termite mounds, it is not as environmentally impactive as, say, South African gold — or coal mining.

Fortified by baguettes, cheese and coffee, we walk down the street. Very carefully, photographs are taken, and most of them capture some kind of hostile glare from someone. There’s so much money here, also so much perceived danger. Which is totally at odds with the happy, poverty-stricken villages I’ve passed through so far in Madagascar.

David and I walk up to a group of women gem-sellers sitting on the ground surrounded by beam scales and plastic trays. Reluctantly they show their wares and I start taking photographs. There is shouting, and David mutters: “Stop now. Let’s rush off.”

About a kilometre out of Ilakaka, we pass a wooden casino standing alone on a wide open flat plain that could be Outer Mongolia. There is a shapely young woman standing in her evening dress next to the casino sign. She’s a night shift croupier waiting for her lift back to Ilakaka, where her boyfriend deals in sapphires. Two years ago she was a simple Bara villager with an uncomplicated life. Now she’s living proof that Las Vegas could be anywhere, even here in southern Mada.

I want to meet a sapphire miner, so David turns left at Manombo Village and we stop at a grassland where there’s some informal digging going on. Every few metres is a sudden, steep, perfectly-round hole with footholds cut into the sides.

“This is how you do it”, says the sprightly 53-year-old guide, quickly straddling the 15m-deep narrow hole. “But you have to watch where you walk around here, or you might disappear without a trace.”

We come across Berthine and Esperance, the one hauling buckets, the other digging. A few weeks ago, they chanced upon a smallish sapphire and that find has kept their hopes alive. It beats farming, they say. Their husbands are also digging for sapphires, “somewhere out there in the mountains”, they gesture vaguely.

A little further on, we find a family of four young men. They’ve been digging here for more than a year, they say. Only small stones so far. They return to their Groundhog Day existence of patiently washing the gravel in silty water, keeping a lookout for the coloured pebbles that will take them on a journey to the Sapphire market of Ilakaka and the tight-lipped men in shades.

We drive on to where the miners live, in shabby Hobbit-ish huts of grass and wattle. “This is a six-month village”, says David. “It has no history. It is only here because of the sapphires.”

The kids crowd the vehicle, begging. I reach for a bag of litchis we’d bought earlier. David stays my hand.

“Don’t give anything. Here, if you give one person something, you have to give everyone something. Recently, a man gave a pen to a child here. He was forced to give a little something to every single person — and ended up parting with a lot of money …” — Main Line Media

The lowdown

For great packages to Madagascar contact Pulse Africa on Tel: (011) 325 2290 or visit the website: www.pulseafrica.com.

An economy class air ticket from Johannesburg to Antananarivo will cost you from R4 570 (low season rate) and a business class ticket about R8 530 (low season). Both fares exclude taxes. Contact Air Madagascar on Tel: (011) 289 8222.

Visas are essential and can be organised in South Africa or on arrival. Get your visa from the Malagasy Consulate in 6th Street, Houghton, for R200 or purchase it on arrival in Antananarivo for $40.

There are more than 40 domestic airports in and around Madagascar. There is a malaria risk, so travellers should take the necessary precautions.

If you are “roughing it” take bottled water or water purification tablets.

Up to speed with the gem trade

Gem traders from all the big world centres come to Madagascar to buy sapphires. Few Madagascans benefit from this business because the stones are invariably smuggled out of the country. Foreigners with technical know-how dupe the locals into selling their stones for pittances.

However, a new Madagascan school has been opened to teach locals how to find, recognise and value precious stones. The gem school is part of a $32-million World Bank effort to develop the country’s mineral resources.

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