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The Charcoal Children

An ill-tuned ukelele provides a door into a Madagascar family of cooking-fuel peddlers

A CHILD'S shy, warm smile from a soot-streaked face; a few bad notes on a battered ukulele, strummed with all the confidence of a boy who knows what he likes to do, even if he doesn't know how to do it. That provided the opening this reporter had been awkwardly looking for, to talk with a charcoal seller and his family. When my wife and I came down the long stairway to their wooden shack, perched on a flat jut of land on a steep hillside overlooking downtown, my usual ease of opening conversations had left me.

I kept looking at the children, at their faces. The ones with black charcoal streaks looked like little coal miners just up from the pits. They stood barefoot, in blackened clothes.

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The gap between their world and mine began to close with the first few terrible, twangy notes on that ukulele their father had bought second-hand. I moved over to where the children were gathered on and around a few burlap bags stuffed with charcoal.

After listening to a few numbers by four of the young boys, I suggested, with the help of a translator, that they practice their timing and try to stay together. They laughed, and ran around the corner of the family shack, only to reappear a minute or so later - evidently fully practiced, and ``together.''

Once again they sang to the same, awful, accompaniment. One of the boys wore a yellow-and-black T-shirt inscribed ``Festival of Arts/Cultural Nigeria.''

I asked Michael, one of the singers, what he wanted to be when he grew up. He paused, looked around at the others, then said: ``a doctor.'' Everyone laughed, except Michael.

Victor, age 7, sat with a tray of peanuts in little, sealed plastic bags, the kind that make the customer think they are clean. But inside the shack, the family does their own sealing with charcoal-coated hands.

What does Victor want to be? ``Shopkeeper,'' he says quickly, with no prompting. And sell what? ``Peanuts,'' he says just as quickly. Then his brothers prompted him a bit, and Victor corrected his choice: He wants to sell charcoal.

Is charcoal a business anyone wants to get into? A local forester says the business is not all that bad. Even some university students try their hand at it to help pay the bills.

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The father of the charcoal children didn't sound so positive.

``We make a profit, but it's not enough,'' said Rakotondrafara.

His earnings might go further if he didn't have eight children. Eight or nine children is more typical of rural families in Madagascar: Most urban families have only five or six. Under an old French colonial law still on the books, contraceptives are illegal.

Most people buy charcoal by the handful: They're too poor to afford a whole, 3-to-4-foot-high sack, which costs the equivalent of $1.85. In Madagascar, a monthly salary of $20 is considered good. One young woman here does office help and cleaning. She is given a free room, but has to pay for her own food out of a monthly salary of $10. And she sends half of that home to her eight younger siblings.

But poor or not, people still have to cook their dinners. The main food - morning, afternoon, and evening - is usually rice. The fuel of choice is charcoal, because it is the cheapest.

And so for miles around the towns and cities of Madagascar, in ever-widening circles, the forests are disappearing at the hands of tree-cutters like Cyrille Razakanirina. We met unexpectedly.

I spotted Cyrille peeking over some bushes after I'd arrived too late to witness villagers planting trees in a town 25 miles outside Antananarivo, the capital. He had been in the process of chopping down a short eucalyptus tree that had been pruned and re-sprouted, almost bush-like. The tree would become charcoal.

``Life is very, very hard, so we have to make money with charcoal,'' he explains.

Cyrille is a rice farmer. Each year he sells some of his crop to pay for school fees for his four children and to make some simple purchases. Later, he runs out of rice and has to buy some back. By then the price of rice is higher than it was when he sold it at harvest time. By that time, too, he's out of money.

So, like generations of farmers before him, he cuts down some trees to burn and sell as charcoal. And like previous generations, he doesn't plant any new ones. But this age-old tradition of cutting and not planting has caught up with him, as he well knows.

``There's no good trees left,'' he says. ``Twenty years ago, I remember, there were a lot of trees.''

From where we were standing, you can see hills with one tree, some with two or three. Only a few clusters of trees are visible in the distance. What was once a forested area today looks more like a hilly, rough golf course.

By the time Victor, the son of the charcoal seller, grows up, the only trees left may be very far from the city. That will force up the price of charcoal.

But by then, maybe the charcoal children will have learned to tune their ukulele. Who knows? They may make a fortune as the ``Chanteurs Charboniers'' - the ``charcoal singers.''

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