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Nihasina Rakotoarimanana, Antananarivo Nihasina Rakotoarimanana, Antananarivo   Stories

Barber N° 7

No use looking for him in the sprawling popular district of Antananarivo, the "Cité 67 ha" (the City of 67 hectares), but in the chic district, near Lake Anosy. It’s there he can keep his eye on the Carlton, the biggest hotel in the country, and it's there that he makes his living.

Jean-Pierre Bodjoko, SJ

His name is Nihasina Rakotoarimanana. But I have nicknamed him "Barber N° 7", because that is the number of his barbershop. His “salon” is a hovel of about three square meters, squeezed between two other barbershops, both small makeshift kiosks, where he spends his days waiting for a customer. He calls himself "a professional barber in Antananarivo, Madagascar". He welcomes me to his shop with a smile. I had seen the place from my hotel room, it was less than 150 meters from where journalists of the international press corps covering the Pope’s Apostolic Journey to Madagascar were staying. How to compare living in this 5-star hotel with the small district next door? A contrast like day and night, like a moonless, starless, sky. The contrast between those who have everything and those who have nothing, between wealth and poverty.

Nihasina district Rakotoarimanana
Nihasina district Rakotoarimanana

In this poor neighbourhood, children kill time playing pool on a home-made billiard table. Others play cards - for money. Not far away, women survive by selling bananas, sitting on the ground beside the road. In front of Barber N° 7’s shop is a "restaurant" where customers eat standing up at the counter. A plate of food costs 2,000 ar (ariary, the Malagasy currency), about 50 euro cents.

Restaurant in the neighbourhood
Restaurant in the neighbourhood

7 is the number of the jersey worn by footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. He is a world-famous soccer player, and lives far away from poverty. But Barber N° 7 is far from being a star; his life is an "industrious" one, as they say in many African countries. Every day he has to provide for his family. His serenity is surprising and his broad smile causes you to reflect. It is a smile that seems to say: "I'm poor but I’m happy!". The price of a haircut is written on a sign in his shop: 2,000 ar, still about 50 euro cents - as if everything around here costs 2,000 ar.

Neighbourhood youth
Neighbourhood youth

To understand where Barber N° 7 works you need to know how the city of Antananarivo is built: between plains, hills and mountains. And the Lake Anosy district - Ampefiloha - where Barber N° 7's workplace is located, does not go unnoticed. Over the years, this neighborhood has become the center of the city. This is home to the country’s great institutions: the Presidency of the Republic, the Jesuit College of Saint Michel, the Statistics Office, the Palace of Justice, the Topographic and Registry office, as well as Malagasy National Radio, Télévision Malagasy - and so on. The Central Bank of Madagascar and the National Library are also located in the vicinity. This district covers 46 hectares and is divided into two main parts: the area with social housing, and the administrative and ministerial buildings. Ampefiloha is bordered by Ravoahangy Andrianavalona Hospital, Manarintsoa Bridge, Ampefiloha Modern High School and the Carlton Hotel. There are major security issues in Ampefiloha, especially at night. Even if you are only 500 metres away, you are advised to take a taxi and to avoid walking, especially if you are a foreigner. "You are always recognize a foreigner”, they tell me. Next door to the administrative buildings and ministries, there is the working-class district. This neighborhood is a maze of poor housing, and it is here we find the shop of Barber N° 7.

Carlton Hotel
Carlton Hotel

Ampefiloha is the opposite of one of the most disadvantaged districts, having the highest population density in the capital. Known as "Cité 67 ha", itis located in the flat part of the city. There are several neighborhoods in the city of Tana, which is another name for the Malagasy capital, but you cannot imagine Antananarivo without seeing the “City of 67 hectares”, located in the north-west. A lot of people live here and it throbs with life. Everything comes together as one. In this district, you will find Malagasy people from every province or region, people who have left the countryside to realize an urban dream. Life and poverty mix. Before you enter "Cité 67 ha", someone will remind you to watch your pockets, wallet, phone, everything. Small crime is common. When in a car, you must not lower the windows. They told me that in this neighborhood people even had their hair stolen. Thieves, armed with scissors, mingle among the passers-by. They pick out anyone with long hair and skillfully cut it off to make wigs that sell at high prices. The "Cité 67 ha" is classified as a "red zone". Still, this is where most of its inhabitants go in search of what they need to survive the day, especially food... and sometimes by any means possible. Everything is sold here, and anything can be found. Again, by any means possible, even the most unpleasant. This is the height of informality: stores and butcher shops open onto the street, stalls are set up on the ground selling vegetables, spices, fruit, clothing, shoes and so on, usually beside the road. Cars slow down, as a result, causing traffic jams and bottlenecks. Despite a level of poverty that can seem frightening, there is life there. People continue to smile.

Customers of Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's wife
Customers of Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's wife

Barber N° 7 was born on 11 July 1975. He is married and has three children: Tojo, 24, Rova, 22, and Murielle, 18. They are still studying. Their father worked various jobs: he was a bricklayer before he decided to become a barber in 1998. He said he changed job because of his passion for amateur football: he liked to play football after work, but didn’t have time when he was a bricklayer. As a barber his job doesn’t clash with his passion.

Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's team, second from right
Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's team, second from right

"This barbershop job doesn't pay much, but it does allow me to survive. I have to work hard, every day, without little rest," he tells me. Supporting a family is expensive: there are school and university fees for his three children, and rent of 150,000 ar a month - about €40. He charges 2,000 ar for a haircut and works every day except Sundays. Serving 10 customers a day, he can earn around 520,000 ar (about €130) a month, enough to pay all his expenses, including the rent. Unfortunately, he often has fewer than 10 customers a day, which makes it hard for Barber N° 7. Fortunately, he can also rely on the contribution of his wife, who has a shop 50 meters from his barbershop, selling milk, tea, sugar, nuts, cooking oil, toothbrushes, razor blades...

Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's wife
Nihasina Rakotoarimanana's wife

The future? He says it is bleak. "My future is uncertain because my work does not give me any guarantee for old age. But I dream big: I would like to have a big house, for my children, my family. Above all, I want economic security. And it will certainly not be the barber's job that will allow me to realize my dreams," says Nihasina. "I'd like to do something else", he says, but doesn't know what that is. "I still have to think about it. For example, I could be a night watchman when I finish my job as a barber”, he says. The night watchman's job would be even less rewarding, however, because it would be every other day. And our barber doesn't want to leave his hobby of football: he still like to train when he is not at the shop, and during his down time.

He also hopes the State will do its duty and ensure a better future for all Malagasy people. As for his children, Nihasina hopes they can complete their studies. "I would like them to study, because that is their future. I don't want them to work as hard as I do. I want them to live a better life”, he says.  But does he have enough money to guarantee his children studies? "Yes, with a lot of sacrifice", he replies bitterly. When I ask him about the happiest moment of his life, he replies without hesitation: "It was when I used my savings to buy my little bike". But even a motorcycle is not enough for a man.

Nihasina Rakotoarimanana with his motorbike
Nihasina Rakotoarimanana with his motorbike

The most difficult period in the life of Barber N° 7 was the political crisis of 2002, immediately after the presidential elections of 16 December 2001, which threw the country into a deep political crisis. The first official results of the elections were proclaimed on 25 January 2002 and immediately became the object of strong protests. Accusing those in power of massive fraud, the main opposition candidate, Marc Ravalomanana claimed victory from the first round. Presidential candidate, Didier Ratsiraka, refused to verify the election results legaly, despite a High Constitutional Court order to that effect. As a result, a vast peaceful movement of popular protest developed, essentially in Antananarivo, which threw the country into crisis and provoked serious consequences. Ravalomanana proclaimed himself President on 22 February 2002, setting up his own government, but failed to extend his power over the whole country. The Governors of the five coastal provinces came out in support of Ratsiraka. Encouraged also by the legality of the vote, Ratsiraka organized a blockade of the capital. This included roadblocks, the destruction of bridges, the control of local media and the establishment, in the provinces, of a climate of terror towards the supporters of Ravalomanana. Despite the condemnation of the international community for actions that hindered the movement of goods and people, Ravalomanana was unable to obtain international recognition for his power. This meant that, for four months, administrative and economic activities were seriously disturbed and even paralyzed.

Barber N° 7 was deeply affected by this crisis: "I came out even poorer. At that time, I managed to earn 1,000 ar (about 25 euro cents) a day. And the 2002 crisis is still my worst nightmare”, says Nihasina.

District around Lake Anosy, Antananarivo
District around Lake Anosy, Antananarivo

Living in a neighborhood of tall buildings and wealthy people, while he and his family live in poverty, is not easy for Barber N° 7 to understand. But he keeps going, even while asking questions about these obvious and shameful inequalities. "I can't explain this situation. There seem to be two roads, very far from each other: one for people who are successful in life and live well, the other for people living in poverty. It is a system that has been set up and that works. There is a lot of corruption in our country, and it is deeply rooted. I am not in this situation because I have been lazy or haven’t worked hard. Still, I accept my life as it is. With a smile.

Nihasina Rakotoarimanana, Antananarivo
Nihasina Rakotoarimanana, Antananarivo
17 October 2019, 13:42