A Little Trip (Madagascar Part IV)

A Little Trip (Madagascar Part IV)

Thursday afternoon two interesting bits of news reached us.  The first: There had been a new find of tourmaline near the mine of Ambatonapetraka (near Ibity) by the local bandit tribe, the Dahalo.  The news spread like wildfire.  The material was in crystal form only, possibly some cutting grade material also, it was pinkish and very pretty.  Nobody knew exactly how much was found, but after many phone calls many of the brokers disappeared to Ibity to try to acquire some of it – as Vazahy (white) it wasn’t safe fo us to go.  Jochen managed to buy one piece on Friday and haggled over the price over an hour via phone with the owner.  It turned out to be his most expensive purchase but probably worth it for him.  

The other and perhaps more promising news that the local fluorite mine (near Malaimbandy) had started yielding crystals (before that, there was only fluorite “massif” which was used for making eggs and such).  This had actually started earlier in 2018, and someone that Ando knew had acquired 600 kg of the stuff, which was stored in town.  Jochen was super interested in taking a look, so we took a drive across town to where the entire stash was.  In typical local fashion, and because the material easily breaks, it was stored inside someone’s house on the floor, shelves, and the bed.  And these houses are not exactly big.  Jochen loved the pieces and wanted to buy all of it.  Only we were leaving within just two days, so how to negotiate shipping, packing, and get prices for overseas freight in such a short period of time?  Unless you have an established international seller who does this type of thing all the time, you have to piece it together slowly, not via the internet but via phone calls and in person meetings.  (Things like this are the reason why Madagascar has not yet been so well explored for mineral mining – a fact that I expect will change in the next few years).

Jochen Hintze Examines Fluorite Crystals

Inspecting FluoriteInspecting Fluorite Inspecting Fluorite

Well, after some negotiations over the price, a sum was reached that was satisfactory to everyone.  Ando would get a cut, Gael maybe a small cut, Ando’s brother Thierry would also get a cut, and the owner would get the lion’s share.  The largest immediate problem first how to pack the stuff, and then the transport.  Where to get barrels, how many, how to ship and where to ship? 



v Fluorite

I went to the market with Ando to try to locate bubble wrap.  That was a total failure.  Bubble wrap, which is one of the few things that don’t tear (newspaper doesn’t work) turned out to be unknown to the population of Antsirabe, despite me showing photos of it on the internet.  Ando and I finally settled on mattress foam (cheap stuff, about ½ inch thick – I guess it’s what I slept on only thinner), and bought out a tiny store, much to the surprise of the owner.  We also needed to get a “caisse” – a metal box with a lock – for my purchases and for some stuff of Jochen’s that was being shipped to the US for the Denver gemshow in September.  These tin boxes are actually made one at a time by hand.  Mine was pre ordered but the second one for Jochen had to be bought finished – we ended up with a big iron box which was probably two kilos and which seemed to have been used as a piggy bank.

After that the serious work begun.  The repurposed mattress foam had to be cut, each of the couple hundred pieces wrapped and stored in the barrels that had been located elsewhere in the meantime.  The process took several hours with the only disturbance being an upset rooster who kept walking between the fluorite.  I should add that by now the fluorite had been moved outside!

Packing Fluorite

Packing Fluorite

Meanwhile, the transport problem was never fully settled and is still not fully settled at the time of this writing.  What I do know is that the material was carted off to the local harbor, but transport costs turned out to be unexpectedly high – meaning that various pockets were clearly being lined with the extra.  Export papers needed to be gotten from the mining office, and the freight costs established.  The recipient of the entire lot will be my garage, where the fluorite gets to wait until January when I can ship it to Tucson.  Lucky me!


Sunday morning it was time to say good bye, we had to leave at 7 a.m. for Antanarrivo.  It was a sad goodbye again, Maria couldn’t join us for the drive: she was explaining a family issue I could’t understand.  My French, although much improved after a week of digging up vocabulary from my teenage years of French study, often wasn’t enough for deeper conversations.  Most people we dealt with spoke French because most schooling is still in French, but they too have an accent so it takes a bit of getting used to.

In the car, Gael and I had a long conversation about what he might do with his life, and how I might be able to help him.  He has a computer science degree but no job, so he occasionally drives for his dad.  His friends and him built a website trying to sell advertising for small businesses but that’s not very successful.  I suggested to him that he could be a tourist guide if he improved his English, since it is virtually impossible for a foreigner to get around Madagascar without local help.  Road conditions are unreliable and constantly changing, all transactions are done in cash, banking is impossible, the locals in small towns don’t speak French, cars are nearly impossible to rent.  Finally, you don’t want to do anything to get in trouble with the law (and you may not know what that is).  It’s way too risky to be a lonely traveler here unless you just go to the bigger hotels in Tana and Nosy Be.  And it is also too confusing. 

Anyway our conversation ended on the following note: I would see if I could put together a kind of “Madagascar gem buying guide” and then have him build a small website for that.  He could be the driver/guide and Ando could organize the purchasing and transactions.  They wouldn’t need a lot of clients each year, as a salary of $200 per month, so $2400 a year, is sufficient (though not great).  Jochen and I make for a few hundred dollars in commissions in one trip. 

As you have already learned, gem buying in Madagascar is not for the uninitiated, and the export hurdles we faced in Tana are yet example.  Technically, it is totally legal to export any gems and there are not export restrictions or taxes (as compared to Tanzania, for example).  That is a good thing.  All you need is a stamped paper from the mining office in Tana which you present at customs at the airport when you leave.  But the realities are another matter: even with the export papers you will get stopped.  The airport employees will tell you there’s something wrong with the paperwork, maybe something’s misspelled, or whatever, and make you wait.  And wait.  And wait.  Until you miss your plane.  Or alternatively, until you catch the drift that you are to pay a “cadeaux”, a small gift, to the custom’s officers. 

Jochen has arranged for this “gifting process” to take place ahead of time, by meeting with an officer of the mining office at the hotel Mirandav before we go to the airport.  There, we presented our invoices, and we brought our boxes for viewing in case there are any questions.  Ando and the customs official have a nice discussion in Malagasy over tea, with us sitting there smiling, until some numbers start to surface that guarantee a speedy export process.  The magic number, in our case, was just under $100 a person.  Is this legal? Ethical?  Touchy question, legal in Madagascar, yes.  According to International Law, well it’s a small amount, and it is paid to accelerate business, so while you might be teetering the line here, I think it’s a yes.  Ethical?  I think the only ethical difference is that the fee structure to accelerate business (i.e. a rush fee for a passport) is part of an official structure.  In Madagascar it isn’t, and there’s very little pay, very little by way of organized jobs.  People in my view deserve to have more than they have in such a poor country.  But there’s a sliding scale between a small gift and a large bribe, and therein lies the problem.  I do think it can and often does lead to corruption.  It leads to corruption in the US, and we have ample illustrations of that in daily news.  There’s no reason to assume it’s any different elsewhere, and the bigger problem is that here we have better enforcement. 

Incidentally, we still got stopped at the airport, but not by customs.  It was a security agent who didn’t like the metal boxes going through the scanner.  We almost missed the plane but Jochen called the mining officer who works at the airport anyway, he showed up to disentangle the mess, a long discussion in Malgasy ensued and just as the final boarding call was made Jochen was “set free to board.”  We didn’t really know what was going on but we made the plane, that was the important thing.

Life in Madagascar - this is where the rich people live



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