Antananarivo is a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, populated by the Good and the Wicked. It is a city of hills, spiky with church steeples, and coloured like the sun with red and orange houses stacked crookedly up the steep slopes. Narrow alleys and stairways run like tendrils between the houses; the Wicked, clutching a tourist’s purse, can disappear here in moments. The Good sell flowers, vegetables and strange medicines to the locals and embroidery to the visitors. A stallholder’s face breaks into a smile as he hands back the extra Ariary the tourist has accidentally given him; everyone is learning the new money, he indicates sympathetically.

The middle-class French- and English-speakers call their capital Tana. I don’t know what the poor call it because I can’t speak Malagasy. Or only a few words of greeting, but that is enough to feel welcome as I stroll by the stinking grey canal. Tourists don’t come here. Why should they? To the fearful visitors, looking out of their bedroom window at the Hilton, this is the epitome of a no-go area where the Wicked ply their trade. They see not only the scummy water and the patches of colour from washed clothing laid out to dry, but a mass of brown people wearing beige rags. They see the shelters made from plastic and cardboard, squashed side by side against the wire mesh fence. They can’t see what these people are selling; arranged carefully beside the path are treasures scavenged from rubbish dumps.

Salama!” the traders return my greeting with broad grins. Some are selling glass bottles of all colours and sizes. These would hold honey, or rum-soaked fruit to sell. Others specialise in plastic containers, while their neighbours collect anything made out of rubber. You can make a lot of useful things out of rubber. Children gambol like puppies outside the shelters, or chase their hoops – bicycle wheels – along the track. When I ask if I can photograph a chubby toddler wearing an enormous straw hat his father beams with pride.

The canal turns left and I take the road to the right, soon emerging on Independence Avenue. It is lined with hotels, restaurants and tourist shops, as well as some friendly bars. But I don’t linger, I have arranged to visit my favourite place in Tana, the Centre Fihavanana or, as I always think of it, Sister Lucy’s. As I approach the imposing orange church of St Joseph, I can hear the children’s voices, piping and twittering like birds. It is milk-break at the street kids’ centre, and the children, scrubbed clean and wearing identical pink dresses or shirts, are slurping, dribbling, gulping their milk. At “home” on the street, they get only rice. If they’re lucky. Some hide their faces at the sight of a vazaha, others grin and shout “Bonjour Madame!” Sister Lucy takes me inside to tell me about their latest project: housing for the poor. Always sparkling, she is positively radiant today. “I must tell you, we received a fine bequest from a well-wisher. Now we can finish seven houses! God is so good to us!”

Tana, the fairytale city where most stories end happily, has done it again: brought tears to my eyes.

© Hilary Bradt

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