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New beginnings -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

New beginnings

Habitat Madagascar works to improve the infrastructure that surrounds the houses it builds.
By Teresa K. Weaver



In the city of Moramanga, Habitat Madagascar emphasizes holistic community development, building water facilities to augment municipal water collection points and planning to pave the narrow dirt path that connects two sides of the community.


Further reading:


Online extra
“For my family” audio slideshow


The wisdom of building incrementally—moving people out of deplorable housing one solid step at a time—is deeply rooted in the culture of the spectacularly scenic, brutally impoverished island nation of Madagascar, 250 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa. An old proverb in the Malagasy language of Madagascar advises: “Look at the silkworm. She lives in her home while she builds it a little at a time.”

Long-term loans such as mortgages are not as common here—where most families survive on less than US$2 a day—as in other parts of the world. To reach more people in need, Habitat for Humanity Madagascar has adapted its traditional Habitat model of homeownership to facilitate more modest projects done over time.

A partner family might qualify for a one-room house, for instance, and repay the loan in one or two years. Once the loan is repaid, the family can apply for a new loan to add on a room or make other renovations.

In urban areas where building has begun, Habitat Madagascar also has broadened its focus to include infrastructure improvements—installing drainage ditches, paving walkways, providing safe drinking water and laundry points, creating garbage receptacles.

“When you work in a slum area, you have to think about the needs of the population as a whole,” says Serge Andriamandimby, national director of Habitat Madagascar. “The house will have an impact, but their daily routines would remain the same. People need water. They need appropriate sanitation and good drainage systems for a better community life.”

An unusual perspective

Andriamandimby, 34, was raised in a slum area of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, giving him invaluable firsthand knowledge not only of conditions but of possibilities. Part of his daily routine as a child was walking for hours to retrieve drinking water for his family.

After getting an education in finance and accounting, Andriamandimby started as finance director at Habitat Madagascar in 2000 and became national director about a year and a half ago. When he cites statistics about how many Malagasies lack access to potable water (71 percent) or how quickly the urban population will double given current growth rates (10 years), he has personal anecdotes that give numbers extra meaning.

“It’s very much a familiar place when I walk into slum areas,” Andriamandimby says. “Most of the people there don’t have any hope of changing their lives.”

Since 2000, Habitat Madagascar has built 1,092 homes, renovated 31 and repaired 13 in five regions. As the need has intensified, the pace has picked up dramatically: In 2008, Habitat Madagascar built 285 homes; for 2009, 650 are planned.

Every project emphasizes holistic community development to address the interwoven needs for shelter, water, sanitation and environmental protection. In Antanamandroso, a densely populated slum area of Moramanga that is home to 35,000 people, Habitat Madagascar has built 77 houses. Habitat and its partners also have built walkways, water collection stations, public latrines, laundry points and garbage receptacles and installed nearly 2 miles of concrete drainage ditches that keep the dirt roadway from turning into an impassible mud slick during the relentlessly hot, rainy season from November to April.

All infrastructure projects are coordinated closely with the neighborhood chiefs—duly elected leaders of the grassroots level of government called fokontanys. Rakotoarivony Samuelson is chief of the east side of Antanamandroso, and Randria Fils is chief of the west. The two men meet in the middle to lead a tour of Habitat Madagascar’s improvements so far, such as simple drainage ditches beside the busy main thoroughfare.

“Before,” says Samuelson, making a sweeping motion with both arms, “this was all nothing but mud. Now, it is a nice road.”

A worker puts finishing touches on a new Habitat house near the Habitat home that rickshaw driver Randriamamazo Arsène built for his family.



A worker puts finishing touches on a new Habitat house near the Habitat home that rickshaw driver Randriamamazo Arsène built for his family.


“This is all for my children”

The main rod in this slum area is a dizzying jumble of lumber-laden trucks, motorized scooters, rickshaws, oxcarts and wall-to-wall walkers, many balancing huge sacks of food or bundles of firewood on their heads.

Some people are employed in the constantly buzzing lumber mills, but most eke out a living selling goods to one another in haphazard, brilliantly painted stands made of weathered planks. Fresh fruit, dried fish, charcoal, baskets of rice, strings of sausages, bicycle parts, even doll accessories are displayed for sale. At every intersection of dirt roads, men of all ages recline on colorful rickshaws, waiting for passengers.

At 45, Randriamamazo Arsène is among the older rickshaw drivers. He takes home 2,000 to 6,000 ariary a day (US$1 to $3), after paying the daily rickshaw rental of 1,000 ariary.

His wife, Razanadravao Pauline, supplements the family income by selling small plastic sacks of charcoal on a well-traveled corner. She gets up at 4 a.m. and walks 2.5 miles to a wholesaler, so she can then divide the charcoal into small handfuls, package them and sell to make an additional 1,500 ariary a day—about 78 cents—for her family.

“It’s not enough,” she says. “But we have to make do.”

For years, Arsène and Pauline lived in a dark, one-room shack made of cement blocks and rusted metal. High fences made of discarded lumber separate all the shacks from one another, creating a mazelike effect, as children, chickens, geese and ducks ramble noisily from house to house. Arsène and Pauline shared their one room with their three children: Randriamazomanana Lazaharifenitra, 12; Razanadravao Zo Manitra Karine, 10; and Randriamamazomanana, 8.

But in December 2008, the family moved into a bright white Habitat house with red doors and windows, nestled alongside five other homes built with their hard-working neighbors. This cluster of six houses has a freshwater well within steps from everybody’s front door and a row of pit latrines under a giant oak tree. The homeowners have plans for a vegetable garden in the common area, and most of the women already have decided what types of flowers to plant around their homes.

“Not to sell,” Razanamahazo Yvette says of the flowers. “We just want to decorate our house.”

Yvette and her husband, a TV-radio repairman, and their two children had been living with her in-laws in a dark, two-bedroom house that takes on 6 inches of water every rainy season. Now, in a bright white house with red windows and doors, it’s possible to think about things like flower gardens and children’s futures.

Children gather at one of the six water facilities that Habitat has built in Moramanga.



Children gather at one of the six water facilities that Habitat has built in Moramanga.


The next generation

Most communities in Madagascar are cash-poor, but there is a strong cultural tradition of “valin-tanana,” which translates roughly to “mutual help.” In villages, a family will pitch in to help a neighbor work his field; when it is finished, the neighbor returns the favor. Habitat’s core concept of “sweat equity,” then, is embraced without hesitation.

On a seasonably muggy day in November, Arsène was at the site of his family’s new house for a community cleanup. Semi-skilled laborers were hanging doors and windows and putting the finishing touches on all six new homes, while family members and friends kicked up a veritable dust storm outside, sweeping dirt yards, clearing construction debris and hauling away large stones.

Arsène was using a flat-edged shovel to chop away weeds and level the ground near the front door of his soon-to-be home, pausing only long enough to wipe sweat from his eyes.

“When I work, I do it with all my heart,” he says. “I like to work. But this is not for me; it’s for my children. This is all for my children.”

Life expectancy in Madagascar is only 55, according to the World Health Organization, which may help explain Arsène’s preoccupation with his children’s future. “Our lives are almost finished,” he says, prompting a sideways glance from his bemused wife, who is 16 years his junior. “The most important thing is the children. We have to take care of the children.”

Arsène and Pauline’s oldest son attends school every day from 7 to 11:30 a.m.; the younger siblings go for afternoon classes. All three children perform their daily chores without being prodded, including cooking family meals on a small open fire in the yard, while Papa pulls a rickshaw and Mama sells charcoal until 7:30 p.m. most days.

“To move into the new house is a new beginning,” Arsène says. “We hope to have a new life.”