Irena Biháriová: Comprehending the matrix of a Romani settlement in Slovakia is not easy
Before I visit a Romani settlement, I always tell myself that being confronted by the poverty cannot startle me anymore. I have seen so much over the years that it will be possible for me to maintain my professional distance.
You ask yourself what more you could expect to find than what is already known to those who have never even entered such a settlement: The houses of clay and tin with their facades falling off; the trampled, muddy footpaths lined with garbage; and the dozens of barefoot children carrying their own children in their arms. A few days ago I entered the settlement in Kojatice, and at first glance it met all those expectations.
During that first minute I maintained my professional detachment. During the second minute, tears flowed from my eyes and my nose was running just as much as the nose of the little Romani girl who approached us and to whom, incited by my ridiculous humanism and savior-syndrome, I gave the leftovers of my lunch.
I hid my professional failure, my failure to manage my emotions, behind my sunglasses. I did not want my "interior" emotional world to be seen.
This is exactly the same way we never want to see what the emotional world of the people in these settlements looks like "from the inside" while we have been observing them "from the outside", for years, and believe we know all there is to know about them. The "long read" of this article will not be about what it is we already know about Romani settlements, or what is known to those who have never entered them, and that is that sociopathologies do actually function in many of them.
People live in these settlements who actually do bother others with their behavior and harm them through violence. This environment does produce all kinds of anomalies and causes the majority both personal and societal problems, from premature births, to drug addiction, to crime.
We see all of this, we observe and experience it, and nobody sane doubts it. Despite this fact, we are incapable of penetrating the matrix of the Romani settlement to a deeper level and comprehending why it is this way.
What forms the border between our worlds? The path to answering that question is like playing a game with an optical illusion: You see an image of five squares as an objective reality - just like the reality in which many Romani people from the settlements have never developed work habits, given birth to children at young ages, and make their livings, some of them, as criminals. Then somebody shows you that if you stop looking at the lines that form the individual squares as lines and isolated squares, suddenly you notice that actually what you are seeing is the image of a chessboard - something that hadn't even occurred to you before, but that is now as clear as day.
What touched me in Kojatice was not the initial view of the "five squares" that we have all seen a thousand times. It was the moment when the chessboard unfolded in front of my eyes.
Who here is inadaptable?
The Kojatice settlement is among those which we call one of the "most difficult", in our work jargon. Compared to others, it presents one of the most extreme forms of poverty.
I am observing the children there, and nothing but bizarre thoughts are running through my mind. To emphasize the colossal difference between the two worlds and the absurdity of the criteria through which we assess the settlements, I ask you the following rhetorical questions: How is a parent supposed to prepare baby formula in a location without electricity or running water?
How do nursing mothers function here without the outreach and support of lactation consultants? What are these babies even drinking?
What do they eat when they are supposed to get their first solid food? Where will they learn to crawl if there is nothing but mud everywhere?
If almost nobody in the settlement knows how to read, how can anybody give the children medicine? I recalled how the constant diapering of my own two children had worn me out when they were babies.
If I had been left in a settlement where I had to wash tons of cloth diapers (and the entire family's clothing) in a cold stream, I swear I would have preferred to drown myself instead. I also recalled how demanding it was for me to carry both children down the staircase in my building to the pram area - the newborn's little head had to be supported while carrying a 10-kg toddler in my arms.
The idea that I would have had to carry both children several kilometers in the winter, on foot, without a car or a pram, just to get my other children to school - that was horrifying. If those were my choices, then they would have either imprisoned me for leaving the younger ones at home alone, or for not sending the older ones to school.
In Slovakia we've gotten used to saying that it is not Romani people's skin color that bothers us, but their "inadaptability". We're inadaptable too, though.
We could never adapt to the conditions in which Romani people now live in the settlements. At the same time, I have realized why their collaborations as clans and their collective culture is so important to them.
While those aspects of their lives may prevent them from developing autonomy as individuals, they would not survive without them. A shared household that functions beyond the rules of privacy that operate in nuclear families or that serve the efforts of individuals are actually not even cultural matters, but essential components of these extended families' survival strategies.
Is it actually the case, in this context, that it is the Roma who are "inadaptable", who "are unable to comprehend" and accept a system based on individual effort? What if it's actually the opposite?
What if the evidence of their adaptability is exactly the fact that they have managed to keep alive a system of collective culture that has long since died out elsewhere, and that thereby they have survived even in extreme conditions? Are we looking at five separate squares - or are we seeing the chessboard?
Different living conditions require different survival strategies. At this moment many of you will reproach me and ask why these people have so many children if they are "unable" to care for them.
After all, these children will grow up to be an uneducated generation dependent on doing whatever they can to survive their poverty somehow. Naturally, that is a relevant comment.
Nevertheless, to assess which survival models (available in a settlement) can be considered rational is, once again, just like playing that game with the optical illusion. Apart from the more prosaic reasons (the lack of sex education and a limited access to contraception) we must admit that a Romani girl living in a settlement has nothing else awaiting her on her particular timeline.
Living in a settlement, that girl cannot plan a career, or to take an English course, or to travel, or to study abroad. The only milestone that will essentially change her life, that will mark a "before" and an "after", is the moment of her maternity.
A second, much more complex factor is the fact that the criteria we use to assess the "success" of her life correspond to the normative criteria in which we ourselves were raised. Those criteria are confirmed to us by the norms of our entire civilization.
Those criteria do not correspond at all to the scheme for survival created in the settlements. It is exactly here that our worlds constantly clash.
Now you cannot wait to argue that "they" must adapt to "us", after all. They are living in Slovakia, so they should at least obey our laws.
Naturally, this is a rational requirement. At the same time, though, it is exactly such a perspective that prevents us from actually succeeding to harmonize their behavior with our rules.
While we are waiting for them to finally adapt to our norms, we are ignoring the fact that our norms are the consequence of the conditions in which our society has developed. The conditions in which Romani settlements have historically developed, however, are diametrically the opposite to ours, and therefore have generated a different set of values.
Those conditions forced the development of different childcare norms, different needs, different skills, a different definition of what is important and how to measure success. An absolutely different life strategy has passed the test of time there, with different normative criteria.
The behavioral models and norms that arose from the historical exclusion of Roma cannot be comprehended as somehow constituting their free and informed consent to that exclusion. These models are dictated by the drive for self-preservation and they create what we call a survival strategy.
Our own survival strategies are also not a matter of decisions we made freely. We do not go to work for 40 years because we have chosen to do so as a matter of our deep, moral. personal conviction.
All survival strategies correspond to the conditions in which they are born and in which they apply. It is only in that context that we can assess whether or not they are rational.
A long time ago a friend of mine who is a cultural anthroplogist described to me, with a twinkle in his eye, how Romani people had removed a brand-new bathtub from a bathroom in their residence and taken it to a scrap metal dealer. "My God," I responded, "how horrible!"
He told me that was a display of their cultural viability. I rolled my eyes.
Today I comprehend what he meant a little bit better. If we want to see the chessboard, we must admit that in a situation where these people cannot pay their water bill if they take a shower, and where they have nothing to eat, it can actually be the best, most rational choice to turn the bathtub into money.
Education as the highest value
Let's orget about Romani families for a moment. Imagine a social worker from Hollywood knocks on your door and does her best to convince you to send your child to a course to learn the differences between the 12 kinds of forks in a set of flatware.
She convinces you that this is actually important and worth all of your investment, because if your child tries very hard, she can get a job working for Angelina Jolie. You might decide it would be more useful if your child studies IT, or medicine.
You have no need to prepare your child for a future in which she will work with somebody who is not part of your social hierarchy and does not represent an immediate goal or natural authority for you. The skill to distinguish among forks is not something your child will be able to apply in your world.
What's more, how many children of your friends have successfully passed such a course, only to ultimately never work for Angelina Jolie? Would you actually decide to bet everything on those forks?
The lax approach taken to formal education by some excluded Roma must be comprehended in this context as well. In a settlement the ones who are successful are not those who have studied at demanding schools, but those who collect scrap iron.
The rich are not those who get up in the morning to go to a job, but those who have become loan sharks. Respect is inspired not by those who politely wait in line, but by those who have learned to fight.
The acquisition of exactly the skills that will aid people with survival in their world is what is bolstered by the society. On the other hand, there is a part of the Romani community who accept our calls for them to educate their children, despite this fact.
Those parents send their children to the equivalent of courses for distinguishing forks, despite the fact that it costs them incomparably more effort than it costs us, because we have much more favorable starting conditions for such education. If persons who acquire that education eventually come back to the settlement unemployed, the others take that as evidence of the correctness of their assumption that education makes no sense.
Once a Romani field worker complained to me that he had felt it necessary not to tell the Roma in the settlement that he is a graduate in forest engineering and management. "Do you know what it would look like if I were to tell them about the importance of education and if they were to know I am an engineer? They would laugh at me, because after studying all that time, the only job I got is one where I have to worry about them for EUR 400 gross a month," he said.
Feelings of inferiority
During my visit to the Kojatice settlement a guy named David dropped by. He told us that he had worked for a month and a half for a local firm right up until it was closed.
David had been happy to have a job. He had also been happy to be perceived as one of the gang at the workers' residential hotel.
"Nobody called me a dirty gypsy there," David told us. While each of the workers had a different nationality, what they all had in common was that they had been the "losers" all their lives
It is difficult to admit that a person who has fallen to the bottom of society can usually only gain acceptance from those who have fallen there with him. Recently, for example, my Mom told me what a "beautiful child" had been born to a Romani acquaintance of hers.
"I don't get it," I said, "all babies are beautiful." "This one was all white, though. It was as if it wasn't a gypsy," my Mom said.
The whiter, the prettier. My Mom carries that somewhere in her consciousness.
She is a person who is from the second generation of "passing" Roma in our family, somebody who does not speak Romanes and was not born in a settlement. It's a long process to build up and then embody such a feeling of inferiority.
Later on Majka, the field worker in Kojatice, introduces us to Igor. He works as a member of the Romani civic patrol there.
Igor courteously answers our questions, even if he does speak a bit quietly and keeps cautiously looking behind him. As we move from the settlement back to the community center, Majka explains to us how she is teaching adult Roma to read, speak and write in Slovak.
"I taught Igor to speak Slovak too. You know, it's difficult for him to communicate with whites, he doesn't feel like he conforms. He's ashamed," she said.
So that's why he was backing away from us. It never occurred to me that Igor could feel inferior to us.
Somebody who didn't know him could have easily written him off as somebody too submissive to be a "guardian of law and order". So if you catch yourself not wanting to sit next to somebody Romani, or automatically speaking to somebody Romani in the familiar register, please remember David and Igor.
They are the litmus test for whether we are able to demonstrate basic human respect to those at the bottom of the social ladder. Such minor things do influence their life motivations, and the lens must be changed on the Romani side as well.
Your folks shouldn't come to ours
The Kojatice Roma have Majka, a field worker from People in Need - fortunately. They also have the good luck to have a good mayor.
Despite this, it will not be so easy to bring the values of these worlds closer together, to change the living conditions. The mayor has decided to use EU money to build a bigger community center in the village and has set land aside for it.
The thing is, village residents, including the leadership of the evangelical church, have put together a petition of protest against this. They do not want Romani people from the settlements coming to the village.
In such a case it actually will be difficult for us to achieve a coming together of the worlds of the excluded Roma and the majority if, at the same time, we are demanding that Roma from the settlements avoid coming into our classrooms, our villages and our workplace collectives. My excursion to the world of the Romani settlements, though, has not been an effort to romanticize them - quite the opposite.
My visit was a recognition of all the anomalies we have observed in the settlements for years. Without comprehending the causes of those anomalies, it is impossible to address them
Our lack of comprehension is why we continue to fail. It's like trying to play chess when you don't see the chessboard, just those five disconnected squares...
Irena Biháriová is vice-chair of the Progressive Slovakia movement (Progresivní Slovensko).
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