VOHIPENO — At first sight, Vohipeno is a poor, but charming rural town covered with bougainvilleas and enveloped in the spicy fragrance of cloves, the main product of this southeastern stretch of Madagascar’s coast. Without electricity and shaded by palm trees or traveler’s trees, the houses are all made of wood, their rough facades faded by the weather.
Heading down toward the shoreline, we come across the white minaret of a worn mosque, attached to a brand new building of grey concrete. A furtive silhouette in a black abaya sees us, and disappears inside. Built adjacent to the Vatomasina (Sacred Stone) mosque, and originally paid for in 1990 by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, is the new Islamic School of Success. It towers over a dusty soccer pitch surrounded by wobbly shops, where laughing young boys in rags chase behind a half-deflated ball amid strewn garbage.
But on this Tuesday afternoon, some of Vohipeno’s children don’t have time for fun. About 45 young boys, aged 7 to 14, sit cross-legged on the floor, with their stained djellabas and skullcaps, in the big, dark room of the Islamic school, endlessly reciting verses from the Koran. They do so in Arabic or in Urdu, neither of which they can understand. It evokes the madrassas for poor young boys in Pakistan, on the road from Islamabad to Peshawar: ultra-strict boys-only schools that have produced many jihadists.
These young boys are all free boarders, placed there by their families, who are too poor to support them. Some even came in directly from the street, where they had been begging. “It’s very easy for a child to convert and become a Muslim for life: He only needs to come here, take a shower and pronounce the Shahada [the Islamic profession of faith],” explains Nadeem Dolip, a Mauritian with a long black beard who heads the new institution.