Solidarity as Strong as Silk
The island nation of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean has a fomba, or proverb, that roughly translates, “While one silk thread is strong, many woven together are stronger.”
The proverb is speaking about community life and the essential need for solidarity. In the district of Manandriana in central Madagascar, a cooperative of silk weavers has championed this theme of solidarity in their work. They are using their craft both as a means to preserve local tradition and to provide for the future.
The Firaisankina silk weavers cooperative, whose name means “solidarity” in Malagasy, is an association of more than 100 women based in the village of Soatanana. Located in the Betsileo region, about 20 miles west of Ambositra, the artisan capital of Madagascar, Soatanana is home to only a few hundred people. Families get by on subsistence farming, mostly growing rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, and corn. Although fieldwork is a duty shared by all, Soatanana’s crafts fall more along gender lines: the men are skilled oxcart makers while nearly all the women are silk weavers.
For generations, mothers have passed down to their daughters the craft of making silk shawls, called lambas. “Our mother weaved, so I weave,” explains Madame Georgety, one of the cooperative’s members. “When we were young and would come home from school, we would weave.”
Betsileo silk weavers use either landy kely, popularly referred to as mulberry silk and produced by worms raised indoors, or landy be, also known as Borocera silk, which is endemic to Madagascar. Landy be is more durable than mulberry silk, and has a lustrous, natural look. In the hands of masterful weavers such as the Firaisankina cooperative, this unique material can be spun to be either heavy or fine.
After boiling the cocoons to loosen the material, weavers pull the thread by hand, a long and labor-intensive process. Threads are then dyed an array of brilliant colors from natural materials such as bark, soil, leaves, and flowers. Finally, the women weave their lambas by hand—in some cases, on the same loom used in their family for nearly a hundred years.
Malagasy silk weaving is one of the country’s most revered and longstanding craft traditions. As the textile reserved for local royalty, lambas took on different styles in different regions of the country. But their most iconic function has been as the centerpiece of the famadihana exhumation ceremony.
In the famadihana, a Malagasy family tree is literally recreated, with members both living and dead. Families save up for years in preparation and invite relatives from all over the island for the event, which is always held during the winter months, either August or September.
On the day of the famadihana, a long procession fueled by music and moonshine parades from the village to the family tomb, where the ancestors are exhumed. The ancestors, or drazana, are wrapped individually or often together in a special lamba called a lamba mena (literally ‘red cloth,’ although the lamba does not necessarily have to be red). The music reaches a cacophonous volume as the family feasts and dances, carrying the freshly wrapped drazana on their shoulders. Lambas play a critical role in keeping the remains of the dead together, both in and out of the tomb, and are a symbol of the strength and unity of the family.
“Before, the lambas were used for the dead only,” explains Madame Eugenie, the cooperative’s president. “When a person died, he was wrapped in a lamba because the understanding was the lamba was strong . . . it didn’t fall apart easily.”
In contemporary times, however, tradition has bowed to economic reality. Although the famadihana is still practiced in rural areas, few families are able to afford an authentic silk lamba for the ceremony and instead use a cheaper textile imported from India or China. The costly nature of hand-made weaving coupled with the availability of industrially manufactured alternatives have turned silk lambas into luxury items affordable mainly to rich Malagasy and foreign tourists.
For the weavers of Soatanana, the market for their silk weaving during the past few decades had all but dried up. Most women were producing only a few shawls per year, if any. That was until 2004, when good fortune placed a Peace Corps volunteer named Kyley Schmidt in Anjoman’Akona, a nearby village. Kyley had studied textile design at the North Carolina State University. Although her service was as a health volunteer, she found an opportunity to put her education to work.
After learning about the lambas, Kyley and another volunteer helped the weavers organize themselves as a cooperative. By working together, as the proverb taught, the cooperative’s members were able to approach their market with new vigor. Firaisankina sold their shawls to boutiques in the cities of Ambositra, Fianarantsoa, and Antananarivo. Kyley sold lambas to other Peace Corps volunteers and sent them to friends in the United States. The cooperative received more orders for their elegant and unique shawls.
“We made a cooperative because it was very hard to approach the market as individuals,” says one of the members. “But it was easier to sell lambas when there were many members of the association. And when someone makes an order, we can finish it all at once.”
In 2006, Prism Community Arts, an emerging US nonprofit organization that supports community-based art and media projects, began working with Firaisankina to market their work both in Madagascar and on an international level. During the winter of 2006, Prism toured an exhibition of Firaisankina’s lambas and photo portraits of the weavers through Baltimore, Austin, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. The work and the cooperative’s story captivated audiences, who were eager to take home a piece of the exhibit. These sales raised close to $10,000 to support Prism’s ongoing program with Firaisankina, which includes purchasing improved weaving tools for the cooperative and starting a university scholarship for the weavers’ sons and daughters.
Kyley Schmidt, now an MBA student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has been building her own fair trade business, Peace Goods, to import Firaisankina’s lambas to the States.
Firaisankina’s story exemplifies the crossroads of cultural preservation and entrepreneurship. In order for silk weaving in Madagascar to survive, passed down from one generation to the next as it has for hundreds of years, it must find a viable market. If that market cannot be found within the craft’s original purpose, then a new market must be cultivated.
“The new purpose is very good,” says Madame Belle, Firaisankina’s vice president, “because the living people wear the handicraft. Now we can make a living for our families.”
At a meeting of the cooperative in Soatanana, the excitement is palpable. Firaisankina recently elected a new treasurer, and everyone is eager to hear if the money from their latest order is secure at the bank in Ambositra. The season before harvest is typically lean and it has been worse this year. A series of cattle and crop thefts in the area have people on edge about making it through. But Rasoa, the treasurer, a large, jolly woman with a bright smile, assures the cooperative that the funds arrived in their account and will be distributed after the meeting.
The main event is a discussion of a potential grant to expand Firaisankina’s production capacity, as well as improve quality of life in the community. Nearly all the officers of each fikambanana, or association, are present, with lists in hand of desired projects. One major concern is cultivating enough of the special landy be silk. An increase in demand when the number of cocoons is limited means that the silk supply soon will be critically low. The cooperative has been buying landy be cocoons from intermediaries in a nearby district. But the cost nearly eliminates any profit margin. In order to see the growth of the local silk weaving business, Firaisankina’s community must take ownership of their own forestry management project (replanting, protection, silk cultivation, and harvesting).
Collaboration with other local cooperatives and NGOs means the labor can be shared by the community as a whole. This is a holistic approach to community development—economic, environmental, and medical—with traditional silk weaving as its hub.
“When [the weavers] make the lambas as part of the cooperative,” asserts Madame Eugenie, “then there is enough money to buy food, there is enough money to buy medicine, there is enough money for school fees and for each family. So the life of each family is better. There is enough money when each family is able to make a lot of lambas.”
On March 8, 2007, the weavers of Soatanana celebrated International Women’s Day in the true spirit of empowerment that the occasion demands: They repaired the dirt road leading to their village that had been decimated by a month of heavy rain. “The road was too bad,” said Madame Belle, “so the women decided to do this project for Women’s Day.”
Working alongside the fokotany (local government), nearly one hundred women rolled up their sleeves, grabbed shovels, and patched the craters of red clay. Byearly afternoon, everyone was covered in mud but very happy with their accomplishment. The road was now smooth enough for a car or oxcart to pass without difficulty. Improved transportation routes mean an easier way to bring in basic goods and export produce, and, for the cooperative, more tourists coming to learn about the Malagasy silk weaving tradition firsthand.
It was this feeling of optimism and hope for a better future that carried the weavers to sing and dance as they celebrated their day. Like the many silk threads of the lamba, the cooperative is weaving together artistry, entrepreneurship, and a strong sense of community. This tightly woven shawl is not yet near completion, but already its beauty is undeniable.
Jack Gordon is the director of Prism Community Arts. He can be reached at email@example.com.