Painted face women in Madagascar

February 7, 2022Niry Fidelis
Nosy Be

When I was in Nosy Be, besides the wonderful nature at every footstep, I was also impressed by the women with painted faces. I had never seen such a thing before. I mean, I knew that Indian women widely use raw turmeric paste on their face to lighten their skin, but they keep it up for about half an hour and then they wash it away. What I saw in Madagascar was something very unique: some of the Malagasy women on the western coast paint their faces with tribal designs and flowers and they keep it like that all day, both when they stay at home and when they go out.

To be honest, it wasn’t that I liked it that much, but I admit that I was very curious to find out what it was all about. This unusual beauty ritual intrigued me a lot.

Somewhat of a bias about the painted faces women in Madagascar

Do you know when I first came across these women in Madagascar? When I decided to go a few steps away from the most popular tourist area of Nosy Be where I was staying.

In Nosy Be it is very rare to see women involved in the tourism industry, therefore, if you keep going around only in the touristy area, it could be pretty hard to see them. The few who work in the hotels normally don’t paint their faces. So, what I want to say is that it could happen that you need to go beyond the resort boundaries of Nosy Be to encounter the Malagasy women with their faces painted.

Why do the women in Madagascar paint their faces?

It looks like these patterns besides being decorative are also mean to protect the skin from UV rays and external aggressions as well as from the insects, such as mosquitoes. Since it deeply cleanses the skin and eliminates toxins from the face, it seems that it also delays the appearance of wrinkles.

It is also believed to make the face more beautiful. This is why it is worn simply as pure decoration on special occasions.

What is the Malagasy face mask made of?

The Malagasy face painting tradition is called Masonjaony. They rub different types of aged wood on a stone to get white and yellow powders. To this obtained product they add a little water or oil to make a paste and immediately they apply it on their face. Normally the yellow paste (sandalwood) is spread homogenously all over the face; meanwhile the white one is used to add elaborate decorative patterns over the yellow one. As it dries, it comes off and falls away. It’s then removed completely by wiping the skin with a dry cloth. The effect is considered guaranteed only once it is completely dried.

The patterns and the area of the face covered may vary from one geographical zone to another, but the colours of the paint remains more or less consistent.

Where to buy Masonjaony?

Masonjaony is sold at local markets and craft markets (there are very few present throughout the island) in small packages in both the form of powder and nowadays also in the form of paste. Commonly the ladies in Nosy Be prefer buying small pieces of wood and rubbing it themselves because that is cheaper.

The best place to buy Masonjaony is certainly the Hell Ville Market. Here not only can you find it in all shapes and sizes, but also it is cheaper than anywhere else in Nosy Be.

If you take a boat trip to Nosy Iranja, know that ladies on the island offer the full treatment for a few bucks. Try it; it’s cute for once!

I tried it on my boat trip to the Emerald Sea when I was in Diego Suarez. Indeed my face felt fresher, I must say!

Masonjaony, a century old tradition.

Masonjoany is commonly associated with the Sakalava people occupying Madagascar’s western coastline. However, the women of the Vezo tribe in the southern coastal areas of Madagascar, considered a subset of the Sakalava group, also notably wear face paintings. The practice is also common on the nearby island of Comoros.

Back in 1100 the Indian traders arrived in Madagascar, and it is said that theytaught the use of sandalwood to the indigenous people as a sunscreen. This practice has been enriched by the Malagasy women with also the use of other endemic woods commonly found in the south and northwest regions of Madagascar.

Since now the use of the Masonjaony is proudly taught from one generation to another.

I feel so fortunate to have had my time in Madagascar, and to have explored such a beautiful country and interesting culture. But I would never go around with drawings on my face! Maybe if I lived there in Madagascar I would. Who knows!

What is your take on this? Would you use Masonjaony to adorn your face? Drop your thoughts in the comments section and don’t forget to click on the like button and follow for more entertaining articles.

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