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Painting on Tradition in Madagascar


Florence sits on her porch in the shade, her face painted white.  

She wets a stone in her left palm.  With her right hand, she grates a piece of wood against the rough edge of the stone.  A white paste forms on the surface and, using her fingers, she applies it to her cheeks.  

Her daughter watches, mesmerized, as her mother’s face disappears behind a coat of white.

Florence is taking part in the practice of masonjoany, a beauty ritual used for centuries by Malagasy women to shield their skin from the sun.

Masonjoany is known island-wide to protect from the sun’s strong rays, but women also attest to its power to soften skin and remove blemishes. On special occasions masonjoany is also worn as pure decoration, the skin around the eyes painted with dots and swirls.

Different types of aged wood, ranging in color from white to gold, are sold for use as masonjoany at most Malagasy markets on the coasts and in some cities in the highlands.  The wood is ground into a powder, mixed with water, and worn as a beauty mask in public or at home.  It’s removed by wiping the skin with a dry cloth.

Florence finishes applying the white masonjoany to her face, and sets aside her tools.  Her daughter is ready for school.  They walk hand-in-hand up the staircase and out into the streets of Fianarantsoa, Madagascar’s second largest city.  

As taxis and buses zip by, Florence and her daughter make their way to school.  Even in this modern city, no one looks twice.

In Fianarantsoa and across Madagascar, women with their faces painted with masonjoany are a common sight at the market and in the streets.  It’s a practice that feels as normal and modern as wearing lambahoany fabric or braided hair.  

Indian traders are credited with introducing masonjoany to the island, but the practice has been made uniquely Malagasy by the use of endemic woods found most commonly in the Mahajunga and Ihosy regions of the northwest and south.  

The nationwide beauty supply store Homeopharma has taken notice, selling a bottled version of the face mask for nearly ten times the price of the wood found at markets.  Homeopharma’s embrace of masonjoany is emblematic of a Madagascar unwilling to part with its traditions, even as it transitions into a more urban and industrialized society.  

Florence, like her mother and grandmother before her, will pass on the tradition to her daughter, putting on masonjoany out of habit as much as pride.