Madagascar’s undaunted street children

Madagascar’s undaunted street children

Adelson Razafy, journalist in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
Photos by Rip Hopkins.

A late-evening downpour drenches Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, known as Tana for short. Huge drops thud on the outside of a cardboard box which once contained a fridge but is now propped up against a grey wall. Inside, snugly wrapped in jute sacks, Rado and Toky cling to each other and try to get some sleep.

But the floor of their “cabin” is soaked. Groping their way in the darkness, the two boys get up and sit on makeshift stools, which are in fact big stones that stop their abode from blowing away on days when the wind is strong. With his feet on the waterlogged ground and head down, eight-year-old Toky tells his story.

“This reminds me of my first night in Tana. We’d just arrived—my father and mother, my three brothers and sisters and me—when it started pouring. We slept on the ground, under a shopfront awning with other poor people. The next morning, my little sister complained that people had been groping her all night. Since then, my family has preferred to live in a cabin like ours, near the route-taxi station where my father sells maize pancakes.

“But I stay here because it’s close to the market. Before we came to Tana, we lived near Anjozorobe, in the north, where my father worked in the paddy fields. He gave half of the harvest to the owner, even though he was the one who paid for the seedlings, fertilizer and pesticides. One day, the owner asked for two-thirds instead of half. That’s when my father decided to leave for Tana.”
The other boy, Rado, has never lived in the countryside. “When I was little, we lived in one room with electricity,” he said. “But my father drank and didn’t pay the rent. One day, we were thrown out onto the street.”

When dawn breaks, the two boys crawl out of the now-shapeless box. They will have to find somewhere else to sleep before night falls again. But this isn’t the time to be looking. The market is starting up and the first trucks are arriving with goods to sell. The boys have to rush off and set up stalls for five traders who employ them. With the pittance they earn doing that, they can buy a meagre breakfast at a corner stand—some tea (in fact, hot water with sugar in it) and two rice pancakes. When business is good, they treat themselves to a cup of coffee with milk.

After that, Rado and Toky make for the main entrance of the market, where they mingle with a crowd of other children, all waiting for the arrival of well-off ladies in cars whose purchases they will offer to carry for a small fee. Rado knows the tricks of the trade. You have to avoid the talkative ones, who spend hours nattering to the shopkeepers, and the tight-fisted ones, who are always haggling about the price of what they buy.

Rado used to look after cars parked near the market, which was less tiring and better paid. But older children have seized control of that and chase off any younger ones who try to edge their way in. Rado also knows there are two things he will never do again—rummaging in garbage cans and begging. “The garbage boys” are looked down on as idle and dirty by the other boay kely, as Madagascar’s street children are called. Rado is 12 years old and because he is in good health, no one takes pity on him any more.

Like all the capital’s boay kely—which the NGO Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) estimated in 1997 to number 3,500 out of the city’s one million inhabitants—Rado’s worst fear is of crackdowns by city officials. The last one dates back to the summer of 1997, when there was a clean-up before the Jeux de la Francophonie, an international sporting event bringing together countries that use French as a common language. Shacks were torn down and the street children were taken off and dumped in a reception centre 50 km outside the city. But they all ran away because the rules and the staff were too strict. The children walked back to the capital, living off petty thieving along the way. After the Games ended, they were back at the market again.

Disease is another threat to street children. The oldest ones remember typhus. But not Rado. He survived the bubonic plague epidemic which occurred in 1997-98. The disease first broke out in a slum just below the market and then gradually spread among the street children. Some of them watched as the fatal swellings twisted their arms. The health authorities responded by knocking down all the shacks and dousing the area with clouds of chemicals. Many of the children died. Rado was shocked by what survivors told him when they returned from hospital—that the nurses and women attendants had balked at treating the sick children, who were dirty and smelly and not in a position to give them a tip.

Are the boay kely condemned to spend all their lives on the streets? Probably. The girls often end up as prostitutes and the boys doing odd jobs. The porters, car washers, illegal vendors, barrow haulers, water carriers and pickpockets were all once street children. Do-gooders like Lazarist priests or NGOs which campaign against child labour try to change their lives by sending them to school. But the children often rebel. How can they do “homework” when they have no home, no table, no light? What’s the point of “doing nothing” in school all day when there’s nothing to eat at the end of it?

Rado knows he will never escape his present condition. He envies the few boay kely who have been adopted by foreign families. Sometimes photos get passed around among the boys at the market—pictures of well-fed youngsters posing with a grin in front of some place like the Eiffel Tower. Rado has no chance of that happening because he’s older than eight, the maximum age for adoption.
But he can still laugh and have fun. Passers-by are always surprised that the boay kely are cheerful. They live from day to day and don’t worry too much about the future. For them, a good day is one when they eat. And as this good fortune is often enjoyed inside the likes of an empty refrigerator box, they laugh as much—if not more—than in a fancy villa.

photo Blackened by exhaust fumes, the tunnel under Tana’s city centre serves as a dormitory for children, especially during the rainy season.

photo Hygiene goes by the board when scraps are the only form of sustenance. Children rummage through fishmongers’ waste.

photo …or carry shopping for the well-to-do.


A smoking garbage dump on the city’s outskirts, where Raoulatsh and his friends struggle to survive. Young scavengers are looked down upon as unclean by those who have managed to land a menial job.


For the youngest children, begging is the only means of survival.


Playing a game of hide and seek in a skip.


A detention centre in Ambouimangakely. This institution finances itself by raising chickens, which are tended by the detained teenagers.

Children swing on the gates at the entrance of Antananarivo’s central park as they wait for passersby.


 Unesco Courier