The Neighborhood Gangster

By Geoff Wisner

Image of The Neighborhood Gangster

Christian Dumoux was born around 1950 and grew up as a mixed-race child in Madagascar. He went on to live in Benin, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Chad before moving to Paris. Dumoux’s memoir Une enfance malgache, published in French in 2005, is one of the few available from that island country. He tells his story in the third person, in a series of chapters named after the house he was living in at the time.

The passage below was translated for my anthology African Lives by Alexis Pernsteiner and Antoine Bargel.

The boys on the second floor had what they called “kalèches,” wooden planks with three ball bearings, one of which served as the steering wheel, and they would speed over the sidewalk, either by pushing each other along, or by propelling themselves with one leg. It was a kind of horizontal scooter made out of whatever they could find: they crafted their own toys.

His mom worked late, and his dad, after closing the shop, would often play dice or Belote at the neighborhood bar/restaurant. He got along well with a French kid from the mainland who lived down the street, but when he went over to the kid’s house, he got the feeling the mom didn’t trust him. He wasn’t allowed over there anymore, probably because they took him for a little Creole hoodlum, with too little supervision and too much time spent with the neighborhood’s Malagasies. He did have his “gang,” which did not include the Greek friend or the downstairs neighbors, and sometimes there would be scuffles with gangs from other neighborhoods. He would go with a group over to the Chinese grocer, and while the others ran diversion, he would steal chewing gum and licorice. The chewing-gum wrappers had pictures of American movie stars. They would throw them in the air two by two, and anybody whose picture landed face up got to keep it. Everybody knew about John Wayne and Gary Cooper….

He was proud to be known as the “zlamboty,” the neighborhood gangster, but that didn’t keep him from quaking with fear whenever he was in the field and saw the moths with what looked like skulls on their wings. He firmly believed—a common belief—that these were the errant souls of the dead, and that they were dangerous to the touch.


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