Madagascar history is a story told, it was never recorded but rather transformed to stories and tales, narrated by local tongues from generation to generation, elders to the young, promptly told as heard. One tale still gives me the shivers every time I pass by the old neighborhood where my parents’ house used to be. It tells the story of a creature half man half bull that dwelled in the presidential palace nearby. This centaur, as they called it, had a peculiar appetite: it ate kids.
Today’s story has nothing to do with mythology. It investigates a long history of street cleanups that target the poor of the capital since 1985 and documents the consequences.
Faced with mounting pressure to reform and constant criticism on a deteriorating economy, Ratsiraka’s government implements a radical procedure to enhance its image. The Manga Be or Big Blue (a truck) is put into service and manned by police skilled at grabbing their quotas (children aged 6 to 12). The double cabin Mercedes 911 goes for daily rounds, no questions asked, fills up and heads out of town. Six kilometers from the center of the city, they are offloaded, logged in, clothed, fed and locked up. A playground bordered by a few rooms is their new home. It’s supervised by firemen who institute a form of national military service.
At maximum capacity, the assigned space can squeeze in up to 300 kids. Due to lack of familial information, names are given and ages guessed. Rumors circulate amongst the kids about their certain death, and while the courageous escape, some are recaptured or return after having sold their clothes. More than 3,000 names are recorded. Parents who want to retrieve their children – if they even know where to go – must present a family book, proof of schooling and proof of housing. In a country where birth registration is estimated at less than 70%, the unfortunate die. Those who survive are distributed by gender: boys to catholics, girls to protestants and a mix to Antoka to be part of a pilot project: Projet de Vie (Project of Life).
Antoka is an association created to take 200 street children to the bush to educate and give them a, early, but fresh start. The government assigns them to a deserted seed multiplication complex. 1,700 hectares to construct a school / atelier, a warehouse, a dormitory for girls, houses for teachers and the rest for cultivation. The plan is to distribute the land to the children once mature – 10 to 20 hectares each – in accordance with their individual capability to cultivate. The facility is run by three teachers, a storekeeper and help. An October 1987 inauguration brings a boat and a small mention in the local newspaper titled: ENFIN, ABRI ET AVENIR POUR LES 4’MIS (Finally, shelter and a future for the homeless)
Abri et Avenir pour les 4’mis
A robust middle aged man, Solo, guides our walk through Antoka relics, introduces us to some of the made orphans and parks us on the boat. Funding for the project was terminated in 1993, the main reasons seem to be: ‘the kids were lazy’ and an alleged dahalo (zebu thieves) attack. The 40 who have remained dismantled the teachers’ houses to build their own, and cultivate land. The others have found a way back to the capital, got lost or joined the dahalo. The village they construct is separated from the main village of Ivohitraivo by a 200-meters cattle trail and infinite kilometers of stigma. Internally, they barter rice when possible, have no medical facilities and send their children to the primary school which is directed by one of their ex-teachers, Isabelle.
Solo’s entry to the community is less accidental; his father, a former teacher and a Manga Be operative, left him literally with the tools of a trade, metalworks. The other kids were not as fortunate, Michel found a way back to Antananarivo, but couldn’t find his family and thus was left to the streets to fend for himself at the age of 12.
90’s bring change to the country’s political structure, the Manga Be approach is considered faulty and thus is halted. The new government, led by Ravolamanana, finds an alternate use for the interim camp as a radio station. By 2002 however, street cleanups are back in business. 1,192 people are captured, their homes destroyed, they are forced into trucks and distributed over four non-governmental organizations.
A tent is constructed a day’s walk from Projet de Vie, the displaced families installed and allocated zebus. The zebus attract the dahalo who soon enough attack the new arrivals. Terrified, they run away and find shelter at the made orphans of yesteryear. Families had nothing except the clothes on their backs, resources at the village are not enough to feed all the newcomers, so, some find a way back to Antananarivo, some get lost, some join the dahalo, and eventually, out of the 30 families, three remain. These rent houses for shelter, rent land to plant and thus can’t afford to send their children to school.
The victims of Manga Be have learnt to forgive their captors and the injustices done them, however, their memories have not been affected, they still want the promised land.
[ a collaborative work and message with: Safidy Andrianantenaina ]