On our first day, when we stopped for whatever reason, I saw children holding rods. I asked Mami what they were doing. He asked them to show. They were playing. They had taken two plastic bottle caps, connected with a stick to make an axis, and raced the little two-wheel vehicles with the rods. I was about to cry. When I was a child we also played with simple things. Sticks, cones, pebbles. During our trip, we saw hundreds of children playing with all kinds of things. We didn't see any manufactured toys.
Meeting with children was for me the most disturbing thing, emotionally, and my travel companions' constant comments on children being cute made me wince.
At one point we were taken to a family smithy where barefoot boys were hammering on a heavy piece of metal. The audience was delighted. They were so cute and skilful.
I am sorry to offend anyone, but I don't find child labour cute. It isn't even cute to watch for five minutes, and still less to think that the children probably do it ten hours a day seven days a week, not because they enjoy it, but because they have to feed themselves and the rest of the family. I may sound old-fashioned, but I think children should go to school. I firmly believe in the benefits of education. But I may be wrong. Malagasy parents don't send their children to school. They send them to watch zebu.
A zebu costs 300,000 ariary, which is €100 and three months wages. Children as young as six are hired to watch zebus and are paid one zebu a year. By the time they are fifteen they own a hoard. Why would they go to school, which won't get them a job or a social status? The only thing that gives status is zebu. Schools are few and far between, and there are no school buses. Rural schools have one teacher and a hundred pupils in a classroom. There are hardly any books or supplies. Much better to stay at home and earn zebu.
At one stop, we saw a tiny, perhaps five-year-old girl tossing rice in a huge mortar. Lynn asked to lift the pestle: it was heavy. Everyone thought the girl was cute. I had to turn away.
On the way from Ranomafana to Andringitra we stopped to visit “a genuine Malagasy home”. Mami made it sound as if he was doing us a special favour, and we almost swallowed it, although it had of course been pre-arranged. Mami had explained to us what a Malagasy house looked like: storage and poultry in the ground floor, two bedrooms on the first floor and, if there is a second floor, kitchen. In the house we visited, forty-two people in three generations lived together. The oldest people slept in a bed, the younger on mattresses, young boys had blankets, and girls slept on bare dirt floor.
Well, seventy years ago in Sweden, forty people might share two rooms.
It was clean, it didn't smell (like Russian country huts would). The others saw cockroaches – I didn't. We had cockroaches in our flat in central Moscow. There were no tables or chairs, just a couple of beds. My travel companions said afterwards how charming it was with three generations living together, and I didn't say anything. When I was a child, we lived four generations together, not in a clay hut, but in a, by Russian standards, luxury flat. It wasn't charming. It was a necessity, and there wasn't any way out of it. My great aunt, returning to Moscow from deportation in mid-50s, was allowed to buy a part of a peasant hut just outside the city, with no running water and a clay stove she used for heating and cooking. Young and silly as I was, I thought it was charming and loved to visit her. In the '70s she finally got a modern municipal flat, and it was from her reaction I realised how much she had hated the charm.
Anyway, now comes the sad part of the story. The guidebook said visitors should bring small souvenirs for local people: postcards, stickers, pencils for children. I thought it was nonsense. Yet there I was, surrounded by children of various ages, some carrying babies on their backs, calling: “Cadeaux, cadeaux!” They were not begging, they smiled and cheered, and I had not brought any gifts. I was embarrassed - no, ashamed. Mami was dispensing hotel soaps and some toiletries I had found in my purse. I saw two teenage girls smelling my body lotion with suspicion. But it would have been so easy to bring crayons, erasers, pins, ribbons, hair clips, small things you find in party ctrackers - just by rummaging through my desk drawers! I now rummaged through my backpack and dug up some pens which were snatched from my hands – gently, not aggressively – with happy grins. One of the girls had asked for our names and kept saying: “Catherine and Maria!” Her name was Lydia, or at least that's what I heard her say.
For the next hour in the van I was thinking about what I could do for Lydia. I knew I could not adopt her, as I once upon a time believed I must do with a girl in a Russian orphanage millions of miles away from everything, who ran up to me as soon as I entered the room, hugged me and cried: “Mamma!” I could not adopt Lydia because she had this big family who, I am sure, loved her. But I was thinking about asking Mami to visit her on the way back to Tana and give her all my t-shirts and scarves, and my notebook and the rest of my pens, and somehow send her a parcel with more pens and crayons and a teddy bear and picturebooks in French. I thought how I might send money through some charity to help her go to school and have her teacher write to me about her. All my idealistic stuff.
Mami mentioned later that he chose a new family each time, to be fair, so he might never go back to that family again. He said he paid them 5,000 ariary per visit, which is about one pound and which would buy two meals for the whole family.
And I kept thinking: maybe a small weaving frame, like my grandchildren have; a sewing or embroidery kit, something useful rather than toys. Although I can imagine – no, I cannot imagine – what a pile of simple toys would be like for those kids. How, how, what could I do? Lydia will stay forever in my mind, just like that little Russian girl. (I have a picture, but Anton and I have agreed that we should not put pictures of children on the web). I didn't want her to be raped by an uncle at the age of eight and start having babies at twelve and have ten by twenty-five. I wanted her to go to school and get a proper education and change the world. But she would be better off watching zebus.
Yet I was thinking: Sweden was poor a hundred years ago, and it all changed with democracy. Russia is still poor and will never change. The Malagasy people are poor, but they work hard and build their clay-brick houses which they decorate nicely if they can; and the children were clean, and the girls' hair carefully plaited. And everybody smiled.
And I couldn't help thinking: when I was a child in the Communist Russia, we would treasure pens, candy wraps, pins, rubber bands, paper clips, and yes, hotel soaps, anything foreign brought into Russia by the few privileged to travel abroad; how valuable these things were to us. And then, I lived in the capital and belonged to the elite. And I couldn't help thinking: do these children - and grownups for that matter - hate us like we, in those old evil days in Russia, hated and envied foreigners who had all those attractive things that we were denied.
I hope they don't. I don't want little Lydia to hate me because I went back to the van and disappeared from her life forever, with just a pen left behind.
Maybe I can make a difference, but I don't know yet how. Maybe I cannot reach Lydia, but I can help another girl who will then help two more girls. I did give Mami all my t-shirts when we parted, to dispense as he saw fit.
At this stop, Mami told the children to line up to get their gifts.
To be continued.