Street Children

Published in Africa Geographic, February 2006

It’s cold in Tana in the winter. And it’s especially cold in the long, dark tunnel that burrows under the hill that bears the city’s classiest buildings. The thousand warriors that supposedly guarded the royal palace on the highest point made little of the narrow flights of steps. Nor did the ordinary citizens. It was only with the arrival of the motor car that a tunnel was needed. It is cold, dark, and full of exhaust fumes. A horrid place. As my taxi nosed its way forward in the rush-hour traffic I saw a child. He was about twelve, dressed in the brown-grey rags that characterise street children the world over, and sitting with his back pressed against the wall, hugging his knees to retain some body heat. His skinny brown arms were bare and he was shivering. He was not begging, just sheltering. Just surviving.

I walked up to the steps to my posh hotel, but turned back at the door and headed for the Champion supermarket. Here I bought a sweater. A child’s sweater. The boy took my gift with an expressionless face. Next morning he had gone, and I never saw him again.

A few years later, in 1990, I received a letter from Jill and Charlie Hadfield, a British couple teaching in Madagascar. They had visited a centre for street children run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and described, in vivid detail, the work of the Centre Fihavanana and what the nuns hoped to achieve if only they had more money. On their return to Britain the Hadfields started fund-raising…

Now

Last month I paid my annual visit to the Centre Fihavanana with a group of tourists. The primary school children were expecting us, breaking into a ragged version of “Row, row, row the boat…” which petered out as their curiosity got the better of them, and singing gave way to staring. They were spotlessly clean and dressed in pink school uniforms. We left the teacher to her work and eased our way through the crowds of women and babies into a small room. The air was like a fetid curtain, rank with the smell of unwashed bodies. “They’re all undernourished” said Sister Jeanette. “We are supposed to limit the numbers but how can you turn anyone away? Look at them.” A small, skinny child, obviously suffering from cerebral palsy, was writhing on a young woman’s lap. With infinite patience she fed him with small teaspoons of high-protein gruel. “He’s five years old.” said the Sister. “And look at that one: he’s blind. Malnutrition. I think he’s about three.” The infant looked no more than nine months old.

Upstairs in the embroidery room, women were stitching lively ring-tailed lemurs on to T-shirts. “You see, we’re learning what tourists want to buy!” Indeed, my group were amassing a collection of table cloths and embroidered greetings cards as well as T-shirts. And that’s why I bring tourists here and why I recommend a visit to the Centre in my guidebook, rather than giving direct to needy-looking children. Tourists come for the shopping, but leave with poignant memories. Many also leave a donation. After our visit I received an email from Sister Jeanette:

Dear Hilary,
Let me tell you a miracle rice story. Before you left Madagascar, you dropped by our convent to say goodbye and left a paper bag of unused medicine.
The other day, I asked Sr. Ernestine to buy a ton of rice for the children… She asked me if I have enough money and I said “Yes” She told me that the price of a ton of rice costs almost 5 million Fmg. I had only 3 million fmg. So I was disappointed and said “then we will have to wait!” Then something urged me to look into the paper bag which has been there for quite some time undisturbed. I picked it up and asked “who brought this here?” The sister recalled: “Hilary came and gave this to you”. I looked into the medicine and then I saw a small green paper packet and thought it must be some bandage. Fortunately I peeped into it and lo and behold…..
2 million fmg. Just what I needed to be able to buy a ton of rice! I had goose pimples and for a moment was shaken to the core. Indeed God is listening to our prayers.
Thank you for bringing blessings to our hungry children. Now they can have their fill of their “vary gasy” [rice] which they love, grace a vous!

For a group of tourists the donation per person was not much more than the cost of that sweater 20 years ago. I don’t regret that impulsive action but I needed Jill and Charlie to show me a better way to give.

© Hilary Bradt

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