Two teenage girls squat on the ground at the sprawling Antananarivo garbage dump sorting detritus. Around them hills of garbage spread in all directions, little trails winding through the mounds like a golf course gone rotten. Instead of golf carts making their way down the fairways, there are trucks, 14 of them come every day rumbling their way into the dump bringing 700 tons of garbage from the city. Behind the girls, a steady plume of smoke spreads out across the horizon as some of the waste burns.
Flies buzz around 16-year-old Felana and 19-year-old Suzanne, but they don’t notice. They don’t notice the stench either. Their callused and crusted bare feet sink in the refuse. I squat down next to them to ask them what they are doing. My cameraman, APTN’s Nqobile Ntshangase, is filming them, and they are a bit shy, but continue chatting and smiling as they work. They have a tarpaulin cloth spread out on the ground filled with scarps scavenged at the dump. They sort quickly with their hands picking out pieces of charcoal and putting them in baskets. I think how I put on rubber gloves to wash my dishes at home in Rome. A different world.
On a nearby garbage hillock a young boy walks slowly past dragging a yellow bag half his size. I squint my eyes, yes, it must be a caddy with a large golf bag. But no, he is slowly filling it, not with golf clubs or shiny white golf balls, he’s gathering up the dregs of the city. On the edge of a garbage pile, an elderly man sits watching the sun go down, weariness on his face. Not scavenging, not searching, just sitting on the refuse.
Felana and Suzanne say they come to the dump to help their parents make ends meet; for a kilo (2.2 pounds) of charcoal in the market, they can get 600 ariary, about 15 cents.
Madagascar is the world’s 4th largest island, a few hours’ flight from the coast of East Africa, out in the Indian Ocean. It is a country with stunning natural beauty whose name alone conjures up images of lemurs, vanilla beans and majestic baobab trees. Yet Madagascar is struggling with extreme poverty; according to the UN’S World Food Program, 92 percent of the population lives in poverty on roughly $1.90 per day and almost half the children under age five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
There are about 25.5 million people living in Madagascar from 18 different ethnic groups. The country was first populated by settlers from present-day Indonesia, then by settlers from East Africa, mixing with Arab traders moving up and down Africa’s East Coast. Physically the Malagasy people appears to be a mixture of Africa and South East Asia.
I travelled to Madagascar this month to help with AP’s Television coverage of the Pope’s visit there. This time I was not on the Papal Plane which meant I did not travel in the tight Pope entourage, attending all the events and witnessing the Pope’s visit firsthand. Instead, I arrived a few days before the Pope and left a day after. That gave me a chance to see a bit more of the country and the people. Well, not really the country, but a little bit in and around the capital of Antananarivo.
The people are friendly, smiling and laugh easily, many I spoke to seemed fatalistic, resigned to live in devastating poverty. Part of the problem has been political corruption.
The city of Antananarivo is on several hills in the central highlands of Madagascar. It is a beautiful city with several hills, a bustling, packed market filled with exotic food and spices and elegant French Colonial buildings and yet the poverty is inescapable.
During the 11-hour flight from Paris to Antananarivo, the Frenchman sitting next to me– who apparently had eaten about 5 cloves of garlic for dinner the night before – took great pleasure in regaling me with horror stories about the city. I am such a pushover that all it took was for him to compliment my limited French, and I cheerfully accepted living in a garlic cloud for hours while he told me about Madagascar.
Philippe urged me to take off my watch, ring and earrings, warned against going out at night, told me I should spend the night in the airport rather than take a taxi alone to my hotel, and cautioned me that the city is dotted with open sewers and to watch where I walk. He was exaggerating, but not completely wrong.
After hours of chatting with Philippe, I got off the plane and stood in line as every single passenger had their temperature measured with a machine on their forehead before entering the terminal. Signs inside the terminal warned of an outbreak of the plague, and although it was in Malagasy, the drawings on the signs made it clear what they symptoms are.
Two steps out of the terminal and I met my charming fixer and driver team, Jean Aimé and Fety and the three of us had such a laugh at the Frenchman’s dire warnings as we wound our way past the rice paddies and into town.
The next morning, as we headed out to change money and get SIM cards, I got my first taste of the chaos and traffic in Antananarivo. For the Associated Press we needed to get 18 local SIM cards to put in phones, MiFis, and a contraption called a LiveU which we use to transmit images live. This process turned out to be much more complicated that I envisioned.
Traffic in Antananarivo is mostly at a stand-still and human beings fill the street carrying enormous loads on their heads and on bent necks. Men drag wooden carts known as pousse-pousse with two large wheels and wooden handles and run barefoot down the filthy streets
Local buses are packed with people block up the streets. A man at the back leans out the door and yells out the direction the bus is headed, and people run and hop in the back door as it is pulling away. They are jammed with passengers and an assortment of bundles who come periodically spilling out the back.
Most cars are belching out fumes of black exhaust. On many occasions, I was able to walk rather than face the traffic. It was then that I could get closer to the street children with feet so thickened and crusty you know they have never seen shoes.
I saw several mothers with disabled children in decrepit, makeshift wheelchairs begging and young girls, clearly minors, with babies at their breast reaching out desperately for some spare change.
Not far from the five-star Hotel Carlton where the press center was located and where I was staying, was a canal that was a giant green, stinking gutter. It was filled with garbage and little shacks lined the sides, people living inside.
But back to the garbage dump. Nqobile and I visited the dump for a story we were preparing on the extraordinary work of Father Pedro Opeka, an Argentinian priest who came to Madagascar in 1989, saw all the people living in the dump, and decided to do something about it. Over thirty years he managed to create the community of Akamasoa on the hillside above the dump. Using knowledge he had gained as a young boy in Argentina in masonry and brick-laying, he worked with them to cut a quarry out of the side of the mountain and thousands of locals went to work cutting stones to build. And they built houses up and down the hillside, roads and sewers, and schools. Twenty-five thousand people now benefit from the project, 700 work in the quarry others work as carpenters and builders and thousands of children now go to school. Together with the children of Akamasoa, Father Pedro Opeka has planted tens of thousands of trees and the result is glorious, a piney hillside.
As one battles the traffic of Antananarivo suddenly Akamasoa appears in the distance, a hillside dotted with neat little homes, a small forest and the slash of a quarry in the side of the mountain.
We made our way up the hill and were beginning to speak to people in the town when Father Pedro Opeka came zipping up the hillside in his car. He jumped out to make his way up the hill on foot, stopping to look at workers fixing the roads and building drainage canals. The 71-year-old priest is dynamite, so full of passion and energy he seems to send shockwaves out around him. Children thronged to him, following him along, men and women came to greet him, shake his hand and ask for his blessing. He refused no one, laughing, chatting, blessing, pontificating on poverty and the battle he is winning against it.
We raced along behind him with dozens of children, like the Pied Piper he swept through the piney forest and up to the top of the hillside where we looked down into the quarry. From below emerged a cacophony of chiseling and hammering as dozens of workers pounded at the granite.
Father Pedro stopped to talk to us. Below him we could see workers, many of them women seated on the ground with little children nearby, hammering away at the stone in the quarry.
With a sweeping gesture of his arm Father Pedro declared, “this is our Cathedral.” Surrounded by children, with his big white beard, his mass of white hair and piercing blue eyes, Father Pedro looked more like a gentle grandfather than a revolutionary, yet he said he was leading a revolt, a revolt against poverty. A revolt to give dignity, hope to the outcasts and the wretched. He explained that all those people in the quarry were working for roughly one dollar a day, but they were working. Ten hours a day, in the heat of summer and the cold and rain of winter, but they were working, and their children were going to school, and the stones were being either sold of used to build the roads and homes of their community.
And then he was off and running, charging down the winding paths down into the quarry, his flock of children behind him. I scurried along myself, and so did Nqobile with the camera and the tripod, both of us eager to capture the formidable scene below us.
Down in the quarry, Susane Razanamahasoa, put down her mallet and with the help of Father Pedro’s translation, told me a bit about herself. She is 65 and has six children. She has been working in the quarry for the past 20 years, nine and a half hours a day. She gave me a huge toothless grin before getting back to work.
Thanks to Akamasoa thousands of people are no longer living in the dump, but, as Father Pedro admits, he cannot do anything to stop them from continuing to go there for extra sources of income.
Separated from Africa, yet far from Asia, Madagascar has its own unique ecosystem. Ninety-five percent of reptiles on Madagascar, 89-percent of the plants and 92 percent of the island’s mammals can be found nowhere else on the planet according to the World Wildlife Fund.
It is also blessed with natural resources, forests and fishing lands, gold and copper, cocoa and vanilla beans.
A week is not enough to understand much about Madagascar and a blog post is not enough to do justice to anything, but I must at least mention the lemurs.
These furry mammals exist only in Madagascar. Nqobile, Joe Mwihia, our cameraman from Nairobi, and I managed to escape the chaos of Antananarivo one morning to visit the Lemurs’ Park an hour out of the city. In this park along Katsaoka river live about 50 lemurs from seven different species. These curious creatures have a lifespan of about 25 years, they sleep in trees and have five fingers and tails they use for balance. They have very intense, light colored eyes. The most popular tends to be the ring-tailed dancing lemur. Here are a couple of my photos from the park. My favorites were the one I call the seducer who hopped up on a tree and seemed to pose for us as soon as we came near. My other favorite was the stressed-out multi-tasking Mom, who danced around with her baby on her back.
A week was only enough for me to take a quick picture or two of some lemurs and get a glimpse of the aching poverty, but there is so much more to the magnificent island of Madagascar and its fascinating people that I must go back and see.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.