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The Cursed Twins of Madagascar

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Meeting the unluckiest woman in Madagascar changed my views on motherhood forever.
Despite standing almost 6ft tall, Carolin ducks her eyes when she smiles, shyness getting the better of her. She hides her inner steel. She lost everything because she refused to abandon her children. She is the mother of twins: three sets of twins.

Carolin is from the remote, cyclone-battered south-east coast of Madagascar, where ancient taboos control every aspect of how people live their lives. But for Carolin's ethnic group, the Antambahoaka, an extra, extraordinary taboo: here people believe that raising twins brings terrible misfortune, even death.

In the past, new-born twin babies were left to die in the bush. Today, most are abandoned at centres to be adopted abroad. But not Carolin. She has joined a small, tough group of families - largely single mothers - battling this ancient taboo by refusing to give up their twins. With seven other families and their twins, she now lives in what I can only call a 'twin refugee camp', living in tents on the edge of the town of Mananjary, forced to flee their homes and villages because they refuse to abandon their twins.

"I never knew I was giving birth to twins," Carolin told me. "We have had to move home 30 times because no-one would rent us a house. If my family saw me in the street they would ignore me, but nothing will make me give up my children."

I was interviewing her for the Unreported World series on Channel 4, at dawn, as she went through the universal hassle of getting kids ready for school. But where I race around fretting about porridge and reading books, jumpers and teeth-brushing, Carolin carefully divided cold left-over rice into six bowls for her six hungry children. The smallest of the twin siblings, a frail three-year-old girl called Carina, whimpered as she pleaded for more.

As I watched the two older sets of twins walk off to school barefoot, holding hands and clutching the plastic UNICEF bags holding their pencils, I decided I would not tell my own children about this hardship.

My resolve, it turns out, was thin. Back at home, it didn't take more than two wasted bowls of cereal before I grumbled, "You know, I saw kids in Madagascar arguing over tiny bowls of cold rice for breakfast."

I cringe as I write this. What an appalling, 1980's thing to say to a child. No amount of eating in the privileged north will open floodgates of Cheerios and Wheetos to the slums of Madagascar. I know this.

Now I am caught in a web of questioning I feel compelled to try and answer. 'Why do they eat rice for breakfast?' 'Why can't they have hot food?' 'Where does electricity come from?' 'Why don't they have anything made from plastic?' 'Why don't they have toys?' 'But you brought us toys from Madagascar made of straw, don't they have straw toys?' 'Why not?' 'Can't their mummy's make them straw toys?' 'Why not?'

I do not have all the answers to my daughter's questions. I wish I did.

While we were in Mananjary we tracked down a woman from a remote village who had abandoned her new-born twins only a week before. 20-year-old Cecile told us she was "scared for her life" when they were born.

And we confronted other destructive taboos; a doctor we were interviewing introduced us to a 14-year-old girl and her malnourished baby.

"When she was born, I was too scared to breast-feed her from both breasts, in my village this is a taboo," she said in her high-pitched, child's voice. "They say she will die if I feed from both sides." At seven months, this baby was the size of my son when he was a month old.

So what is everyone fretting over today? What new harm lurks in the shadows? Ipads? Pesticides? TV's? Computer games? Processed carbohydrates? Our kids are, pretty much, going to be fine. Until they're fighting over scraps for breakfast, yours are likely to be too. Let's not forget there is a real battle to fight out there, for mothers with real problems.

Unreported World, The Cursed Twins of Madagascar is on Channel 4 this Friday, 9 May at 19:35.

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The Cursed Twins