In a country where the rainforests have been savaged by loggers pulling out trunks of rosewood to turn into dining room chairs, it’s worth first emphasizing what not to buy. Most timber products have a dubious source and you’d also be well advised to stay clear of anything with a wildlife origin – from seashells and coral, reptile skins and butterfly-wing art to fossils and fragments of eggshell from the extinct elephant bird – most of which is likely to get you in trouble either when leaving the country or when going through customs on your return home. On Madagascar’s strict not-for-export list are all items connected to the country’s many funerary customs, including grave posts.
Happily, there’s no shortage of legal souvenirs and crafts. Top in value must be gemstones, with sapphires leading the way. If you go to the mining town of Ilakaka be sure to know your sapphire from your blue glass. Shops and dealers in Tuléar, Antsirabe and Tana have plenty of other precious stones. Equally beautiful, but artificial, are the remarkable sand bottle paintings (bouteilles de sable) that you can buy in several areas, especially Majunga. The highlands are a good area to buy musical instruments, though you’ll need to ask around to find genuine musicians’ instruments rather than cute pieces for tourists. Also in the highlands, silk and all over the country cotton lambas (wraps) are great value, as are raffia basketry items and anything that used to be a cow, from leather bags and sandals to zebu-horn kitchen utensils. On Île Sainte Marie and in other touristy areas, you’ll find skilfully worked model ships: if you can get them home in one piece they make fine ornaments. And of course, as almost all Malagasy wear hats, you can buy a wide variety of practical and more frivolous headgear.
Consumables are worth considering too – some of the fancy chocolate is delicious, though try to buy it in Tana just before you leave the country to avoid a molten mess. More durable are the spices and essential oils that you can buy in many places: the state-run chain of homeopathy stores, Homeopharma (madagascar-homeopharma.com), does great baobab oil hand cream. Vanilla is a good purchase in the northeast, though don’t overlook how few vanilla pods the average household needs.
For all these items, bargaining is only called for at roadside stalls and with beach- or street-hawkers, and it rarely makes a huge difference to the final price: most Malagasy are very happy to tell you their figure (usually low) and hope you agree.