Friday, April 22, 2011

A tale from the crypt

This morning I unexpectedly witnessed a Malagasy exhumation here at the center. The center is building a new dormitory for the boys who live here, and while leveling the earth at the construction site, the workmen uncovered an old tomb still containing the bones of its occupant.

Tombs are very significant to Malagasies, many of whom still adhere to Madagascar's tradition of ancestor worship. Above-ground stone tombs are a common sight in the countryside here, often prettily decorated with painted carvings. The tombs are often associated with local fadys, or taboos. Fadys govern many aspects of life here. For example, in Ambohidratrimo, where I live, the locals believe that goats cause crop-destroying hail, and bringing a goat into the village is therefore fady. But since fadys are usually understood to be strictures laid down by ancestors who continue to watch over the living, there are many fadys associated with tombs.

The fadys are really just a part of the respect that Malagasies pay to the dead. As far as I understand, Malagasy animists believe that their ancestors watch carefully over the living, and are very much involved in day-to-day life. Another well-known custom here is the famadihiana, or turning of the bones. In order to help a dead relative join the ancestors, his or her bones are exhumed a few years after burial, to be wrapped in a new shroud and reburied in a more or less joyful ceremony.

So the discovery of an unknown tomb at the construction site here caused quite a stir. The center is technically owned by a powerful Malagasy Christian denomination, and most of the staff are either totally secular or more or less Christian. But even the Christians here generally observe traditional customs and beliefs to some extent. The tomb and its occupant had to be moved to the local cemetery, but it was done according to custom. Here are some pictures.

Excavating the tomb at the construction site.

The opening to the tomb. There are other tombs still standing nearby that were noted in a 1902 survey of the area, so we surmise that this tomb is about the same age.

A shot of the bones in the tomb. Nobody knows who this person was, and it will probably prove impossible to find out. He or she is now resting in a nearby communal cemetery.

Rum is an important part of Malagasy ceremonies involving the dead.  Before exhuming the remains, Akany's maintenance man Jose poured a few capfuls of the rum into the grave as an offering.

The workers put what bones they could find into a new shroud to be wrapped for reburial. The only intact bones were a femur and some vertebrae; the others must have disintegrated over the last century or so.

The shroud, wrapped as is customary here. The older worker to the right has attended a number of famadiahana and knows the proper way to tie a shroud.

Jose pouring a capful of rum to splash on the tires of the 4x4 that took the bones to the reburial site. The newly wrapped bones are at his feet in a straw mat, next to the concrete and sand that will be used to build a new crypt.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hiking in the highlands

So far my posts about Madagascar have been fairly grim, but in fact this is a beautiful country with much to see and enjoy. Earlier today I had a chance to go on a hike in the countryside with my colleagues Caroline and Julie, to scout possible places to take some of the Akany children camping. Here are a few pictures.

A local village and its farmland. Rice cultivation is huge here.

Rice ripening in the field. It's not very nice fresh off the stalk—dry and starchy, a bit like a raw potato without the juice.

Some local farmers threshing rice by beating the stalks against old oil drums. They asked me to take a some photos of them and the scenery, which I'll print out and bring back to them in a few days.

Another vista.

The local basketball court. We went into the village to ask permission to camp on a local hillside, since there are often fadys, or taboos, associated with particular places. In many places, people are especially hostile to people camping near old tombs or other sites associated with their ancestors.

Enjoying some of the freshly threshed rice.

A farmer and his kids sharing a Checkers moment.

Friday, April 8, 2011

All for a cell phone

This morning I had an unexpected opportunity to speak with a boy who was recently released from a center for juvenile delinquents.

This particular center has posed a difficult problem for me and my colleagues here. It has a fearsome reputation: stories abound of poor conditions, malnourishment, and physical/sexual abuse. Naturally, I'm putting much of my time and energy into researching the laws applicable to the delinquents' center, since that's where the worst abuses are taking place. The center's administration, however, makes it impossible for me to actually speak with the children there. It's not that I would actually be barred. In fact, I've already twice interviewed the center's director, who actually described some abuses without so much as blushing. Nevertheless, the administration fears scrutiny. I'm told that if I were to question the children about the conditions of their detention, they would likely be harshly punished en masse and interrogated about my work.

That's why coming across this boy was such a stroke of luck. Now that he's been released, he has nothing more to fear from the center's staff, and there will be no consequences for any of the current residents. Here's what he told me, through a Malagasy interpreter (no names or places, per my boss's request).

He was arrested in February, charged with the theft of his cousin's cell phone. Just before his two-hour trial, he was able to speak with a lawyer for about ten to fifteen minutes, during which she asked him nothing about the facts of his case, but managed to ascertain that his family would be unable to pay her $200 fee. She stood at the start of his trial to let the magistrate know that she was "representing" him, but never said a word. The magistrate (who, in a civil-law system like Madagascar's, decides matters both of fact and law) asked him only one question before convicting: did he do it?

He was taken straight from the court to the delinquents' center. As soon as the gendarmes left, the guards, along with five trusted children, started breaking him in. First, they made him kneel on the tiles with his arms behind his head, chanting "I stole it, I stole it." Then they made him "count" the tiles in the room by kneeling on each one in turn to determine how many pushups he would have to do—150 tiles, 150 pushups. When he was done doing pushups they forced him to pose as if seated for about half an hour. When he fell down from fatigue, they made him resume the position, and kicked him in the backs of the knees. Finally, they took him to his dormitory.

The dormitories are even worse. Every night, between 6:00 PM and 6:00 AM, the boys are locked into the dorms and left there with no supervision. Most nights, there is at least one fight: boys get black eyes, bruises, split lips, and in one or two cases, broken arms. Generally, the boy told me, the guards laugh when they see boys emerge in the morning with bruises. Occasionally, however, they respond to the fights by punishing the entire group. All of their punishments are cruel: the boys are forced to somersault, walk in pushup positions on their knuckles, or crawl, military style, back and forth across concrete. The boy I spoke to had scars on his knuckles and elbows.

Individual boys suffer even more. They are forced to clear sewage from the center's filthy squat toilets with their bare hands. They are bastinadoed: made to kneel on hands and feet with their feet on a chair, soles facing upwards, and are beaten on the soles of their feet with a rubber truncheon whip from a car tire. In some cases they remain unable to walk for up to a week afterwards. The guards administer the bastinado so cruelly that often the boys' feet are swollen on both sides, as each stroke causes the tops of their feet to hit the wooden chair hard enough to cause bruises.

The food at the delinquents' center is woefully inadequate. Plain rice gruel is served for breakfast and dinner. Lunch is half a bowl of rice with some dried fish. I asked the boy to show me, by pouring water into a bowl, how much gruel they are allowed for breakfast and dinner. Here's how much he poured:
For the record, it came to about 110 ml, or just shy of half a cup. More telling, perhaps, was the effect on the boy. He told me that between February 11 and April 7, his weight dropped from 65 kg (143 lbs) to 51 kg (112 lbs)—imagine a sixteen-year-old boy dropping thirty pounds in two months!

From a purely legal perspective, this is really a rule of law problem. Madagascar's laws are good on paper, but the reality is bleak, as in Oscar Wilde's epigram: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." The law says that the boy should have been assisted by counsel during his first police interrogation—but he wasn't. The law requires the trial magistrate to ask questions to determine a child defendant's capacity for criminal responsibility—but he didn't. The law forbids the centers' staff from abusing the children—but they do—and requires them to feed the children 3,000 calories a day—but they don't. Under the law, the boy I spoke with should have faced some form of judicial admonishment, or at worst, been required to attend a few reeducation classes (assuming that he could have been convicted at all under proper procedures). Instead, he was summarily condemned to a months-long nightmare of abuse and deprivation—and all for a cell phone.

There are bright spots in all of this. I've met, and heard of, juvenile judges here who are marvelously diligent and caring. And it's possible that we can change things at the delinquents' center. The boy I spoke to was convinced that the center's director has no idea what's going on, thanks to her attitude of not-so-benign neglect. Of course, she already told me about the fights in the dormitories herself, but she may be unaware of the worst of the adult abuses. And even if she does, it's conceivable that she doesn't know that her center is on the wrong side of the law. There's no guaranteeing it, but by approaching the center's director through the right channels, it's possible that we can improve things. One can only hope.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A peculiar institution

In my last post I mentioned femmes de ménage. It's really just French for a housekeeper/cleaning lady, but in Madagascar the term has come to refer to children who work as domestic servants.

Most of what I've learned about these girls (and they're almost always girls, as the term indicates) comes from the staff at the various children's centers with which I'm working. So far as I know at the moment, femmes de ménage are the children of poor families, sent by their parents to work for wealthy Malagasies. They generally make some kind of wage, which I'm told tops out at about 60,000 AR or ariary ($30) per month. Not only is that less than the minimum wage of 77,000 AR ($36.50) per month, but the girls generally work long hours, sometimes up to twenty hours a day. Most of them live in abysmal conditions, sleeping on the floor in their employers' (or patrons') kitchens, and eating two meagre meals a day of either leftovers or plain rice. Although they usually make a nominal wage, they rarely collect it themselves; either their parents collect it directly, or they send it home themselves to support their families.

As bad as this practice is, it's hard not to sympathize with the plight of Madagascar's rural poor, who struggle simply to feed and house themselves. For them, sending their children to work can be a necessity. What's really infuriating about the femmes de ménage are their patrons, some of whom have succeeded in using the juvenile justice system to reduce their child servants to child slaves.

There's a pattern to these cases, according to my information: the patrons of a child femme de ménage brings the child to court on a petty charge, usually theft. The child is tried and sent to a children's center, like the ones with which I'm working. The femme de ménage, now branded a thief, is unable to collect wages. And there you have it: a child servant, by virtue of a petty conviction, is retroactively rendered little better than a slave. Meanwhile, the patron is free to find another servant. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The cycle can be even more maddening. In some cases, the patron will fabricate charges, and then blackmail the child's' parents into an informal agreement to reimbursement him for the alleged thefts. At the same time, the patron convinces the courts to craft a formal reimbursement order against the child. The patron avoids any obligation to pay even the meagre wages he owes his femme de ménage, and profits twice from a double reimbursement. As far as I've learned, however, the femmes de ménage are almost invariably convicted, while patrons are almost never prosecuted, despite the clear illegality of child labor under Malagasy law.

Under the circumstances, the fact that some of the girls are in fact guilty of theft is almost by the by. Most of their convictions pale into insignificance next to the crimes of their patrons: child labor at best, blackmail, fraud, and physical and sexual abuse at worst. And yet it's the children who land in court.

Even the worst child exploiters seem to go unpunished. A good example came up just this week at the children's court in a nearby town. A woman, who by all accounts was extremely rich, brought a nine-year-old boy to the family court, demanding that the judge relieve her of him. She described him as an unbearable burden, fit only to be a ward of the state. In fact, it emerged that she had adopted him as an infant and used him as a domestic slave ever since. Despite her wealth (she drove a Mercedes Benz to court, an incredible luxury in this country), the boy had slept in her kitchen and eaten two meals a day his entire life. He had lash marks on his back. The judge agreed to sever the boy's connection with the woman, and threatened to have her arrested if she ever approached the boy again, but she was not charged with anything. After nine years of exploitation, it was that easy for her to unburden herself of her child servant.

This case raises a frustrating question: how can a person who has exploited a child from birth walk into a courtroom, essentially confess her crime to the judge, and walk out a free woman? As is often the case in poor countries, the question really has two parts. First, how are the procedures for charging someone with a crime supposed to work? And second, why don't they work? The first part of the question should be relatively easy to answer. Either the judge has the power to charge someone on his own initiative (or sua sponte, as we say), or he doesn't. The second, however, is more complicated. If judges here actually can bring charges sua sponte, why don't they? Are they corrupt? Are they scared of retribution? Are they resigned to the dysfunction that surrounds them? If judges actually can't bring charges, why doesn't someone else?

The asymmetry is galling: in Madagascar, as far as I can tell, if a child exploiter and a child servant walk into court together, the child will stay behind to be processed by the justice system, and the adult will walk out to repeat the cycle. Hopefully I'll learn to understand the problem better over the next couple of weeks, as I speak with local judges and lawyers.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The good, the bad, and the ugly

It's been a full first two weeks in Madagascar. Now that I've been here for a while, I've had time to acquaint myself with the various children's centers I'm working with. The center where I'm living has a grant from the EU to put together a human rights education program for the children and staff at the various centers, all of which are closely tied to the family or criminal courts. The idea is to teach the children about their procedural rights in the courts (and, in some cases, prisons), and the laws governing their employment. The other part of the program will hopefully at least cut back a bit on some of the abuses that take place at some of the worse centers by making sure the staff know the law (and its attendant consequences) governing their conduct. I've had time to visit each of the centers at least once, and to meet the children and staff.

The first two centers are Akany Avoko, where I'm living, and Centre St. Jean. Both are well-run centers that take in children separated from their parents by the courts, because their parents have either abused them, abandoned them, or are themselves in prison. There are a few orphans as well, but they're exceptional.

Another center included in the EU grant is in Faravohitro, a neighborhood in Antananarivo. It was founded at around the same time as Akany Avoko and is considered a sister center, but the two are completely separate. Faravohitro houses about 30 girls, all of whom have been either accused or convicted of delinquency. The courts send the girls there either to await trial, or, if convicted, to serve out their sentences. Before coming to Faravohitro, most of the girls worked as domestic servants, or femmes de ménage, for wealthy Malagasies in Antananarivo. In reality, femmes de ménage are little better than slaves, sent to the city by their parents, who collect their wages. They often end up at Faravohitro on charges of petty theft, while their employers, or patrons, suffer no consequences at all for trafficking in child laborers. More about that in a later post.

By far the worst of the centers is Akany Fanabeazana, the center for boys. It houses about 80 boys, also accused or convicted of delinquency, or in a few cases of more serious crimes, including murder and rape. The fact that they are being held in a children's center rather than a jail is a step in the right direction, but I've quickly learned some disturbing things about the conditions there. The staff there use corporal punishment against the boys, and have been known to steal from them. Although some of the boys have committed violent crimes, they aren't supervised properly; there are cases of boys being badly beaten or even raped in the dorms by other boys, and, in at least one case, by a staff member. I'll post more about that as well.

My next task is to survey the children and staff at the various centers, to find out what they know about their legal rights. This is necessary because the teacher who will ultimately deliver this curriculum at the various centers will be paid by the EU, which won't give us any more money unless we show progress with measurable indicators. Beyond satisfying the EU (hopefully), the survey will give me a useful baseline measure of what people do or do not know. It will also give me a chance to ask the kids about their experiences in the courts, to find out which legal protections (like representation by a lawyer) are or are not actually enforced. I'll be doing that all next week.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Keeping in Touch, sort of

While I was in Cambodia working at the Documentation Center, I tutored some high schoolers who also worked there. (I wrote about it a bit here.) The Director had asked me to help them improve their English writing. I recently received an email from a few of them, and you can judge for yourself how successful I was!

I got this one first:

dear! teacher!
We are very miss teacher so much, How are you!
I hope teacher will teach us again, at the end I wish teacher good luck gooog health and success in work, If teaher got my Email pleas reply to me soon ok,
from your best student Tina, Romas, Sarath,

And then a couple of days later, this one:

Dear Alex!
How are you nowadays? I hope that you are fine right? how about your study? Going well or not? I hope that you can do it to the good point.
For me, it always have the problem with my study because there has a lot of subject to study, so I must to challenge to try hard to study.
I and our team really miss you so much because we always think about your teaching us and I hope that we'll see you again.
OK! Take care.
Best wish!

Their emails are obviously totally adorable, and I'm highly flattered that a year after the fact my students are keeping in touch, especially given what a rotten ESL teacher I was. There's no doubt in my mind that I learned much more from them about Cambodia than they learned from me about English grammar, but it was certainly a fun experience.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A party

Last week Lou and I went to a party at our Khmer teacher Sokha's house. He and his wife were celebrating the first birthday of their son, Sothearos, a name from Sanskrit meaning "dew." It's also the name of a major boulevard in Phnom Penh, after some king or other. Sokha told us that it's very unusual for ordinary Cambodians to give a child such a grand name, as it's thought to be bad luck. He and his wife, however, decided to buck tradition. I'm not entirely sure of it, but I surmise that in Western terms, Sothearos falls somewhere between William and Charlemagne for grandeur and eccentricity. Not positively outlandish, but distinctly regal.

The party was a great chance to infiltrate a real, actual Khmer home---an opportunity that comes along with surprising rarity. Just traveling to Sokha's house demonstrated to us how much of Phnom Penh is hidden from us. Lou and I drove out to a spot near the airport, where Sokha met us on his motorbike. He led us along a series of unlit, rutted dirt alleys along the abandoned train tracks to his house, which seems to be part of the housing development that has exploded in the capital in recent years. Many of the houses seemed new or even half-built, although it was difficult to tell in the dark, especially as I was concentrating on negotiating protruding boulders, mud puddles, and hardened tire tracks with my extremely inadequate headlight (at low speeds it hardly works at all, but flares up when I rev the engine). The houses in this part of the city open onto undeveloped land that must have been a railway easement in the past. They say that Cambodia is restarting its rail lines, setting up an inevitable land conflict with these homeowners and merchants---but that's for another post.

Lou and I were the only Westerners at the party, and were given the red carpet treatment. That meant (1) sitting at a table groaning with grilled meat and pungent sauces, and (2) posing for photos with every single person at the party, whether or not we had had the chance to speak with them at all. The guests seemed to take it as a prestigious thing to have barangs (foreigners) at the birthday party, and wanted to commemorate the occasion. I've never really been a guest of honor, especially in such an unearned way, but I can't say I didn't enjoy playing the celebrity for an evening. Of course, I may have misinterpreted the whole thing. I was undeniably a bit of a physical standout at the party, towering over everyone there, so the shutterbugs may have simply been documenting an interesting specimen.

Here are some photos, as well as a very short video of Sokha's niece dancing. Her hand gestures are very typical. People dance the way she does in the video by the hour at weddings.