Children in Madagascar assume many adult responsibilities. It’s common to find young children, particularly girls, as old as five caring for their baby siblings. Children act as their family’s farm hands, water and firewood fetchers, zebu herders, laundry assistants, cooks, market shoppers, income generators and cleaners. You may even spot children buying cigarettes or alcohol for the adult members of their family from local epiceries. Just now right outside of my window my seven year old neighbor was hanging her family’s laundry on my fence with a long stick since she couldn't reach the top of it, after she will return home to cook dinner. Earlier today I witnessed a group of five kids around the ages from three to ten from the same family I assume, each parade around a large pillow in their arms to sell at the market place. At the market you will see young children selling vegetables, meat, and fried bananas on large platters on their heads.
Each child has a task in his or her family and if its not fulfilled there usually is some sort of severe repercussion such as receiving lashes or a meal being taken away. Its easy to judge these children’s situations as abusive or somewhat like slavery but its important to first look at the context in which these children live. A lot is expected of children, much more than their Western counterparts because for the majority of them it is a matter of survival. If they are unable to kill a chicken or cook rice over charcoal they don’t eat. If they don’t pound the husks off of the rice they've just harvested the main source of carbohydrate in their diet is cut out. And while their parents are out in the fields they look after baby siblings. They share a limited amount of their family’s resources and income with several other siblings therefore everyone must contribute to housework and other duties.
But despite all of this I find children here to be charming and full of life. Honestly it’s been the children that have kept me going when I've lost all hope and motivation. Despite the hardships in their lives they smile and play and inspire me to not dwell so much on negative thoughts. Sometimes I wonder who exactly are raising many of these children. Education involves much more than schoolwork and the time spent looking at a blackboard. Really the bulk of what we learn is at home. Sometimes I feel no one looks after these children and other times I feel it’s everyone in the community’s duty. But its fascinating to watch children govern themselves. Often it’s the oldest child in the group that takes the responsibility to make sure that food is evenly divided among the group or that the younger children behave. I often entrusted one of the older and more mature girls in the pact to look after my things when I needed to run out to do an errand.
They are forced to mature quickly. I sometimes found it hard to believe that my neighbor was only nineteen and raising three children on her own while managing a small business to support her family. What were my concerns when I was 5, 4, and 3 (the ages of her daughters) besides play? At three the youngest is given a small pail to fetch water from the pump, at four this daughter is asked to buy oil from the local shop, and the oldest, five, has become an expert with a knife as she is in charge of chopping vegetables for meals.