Letters from Slovakia – Contemplating the Roma and Other Minorities in a Post-Peak Oil World
In a world of decreasing energy excess, will ancient hostilities get reignited or defused? What will peak oil and economic collapse mean for our human relationships if we fail to prepare for the stress ahead?
“It was a dark and misty night…”
So begins many a dramatic work of fiction. I am not going to begin a novel in this way – rather, just a short description of my first major contact with a Roma (known as ‘Gypsy’ to many in the North, but this word is regarded as derogatory by many Roma).
It was only my second visit to this region, in December 1993, and on this very cold and bleak night I almost got into a physical scuffle with a rather large and inebriated Roma man, due to some very inappropriate attentions he was giving my wife – and every other attractive female, one by one, on the train we were travelling on. We were travelling from Prague to central Slovakia – a seven-hour journey through the night to our stop – and, being the eve of Christmas eve, the train was absolutely jam-packed with people trying to return to their families, many from working in Prague or Germany. After coming to the aid of my wife, I was quickly surrounded by several of his Roma friends. In such circumstances, one has visions of being thrown off the train into the snow, or worse. Through translation they learned the ‘woman’ was my wife, and one man subsequently apologised for his friend. The Mexican standoff was seemingly defused.
It beggars belief
Beyond that, most of my experiences with the Roma people are of being asked for money. I remember, after one fellow solicited money "for bread" in a supermarket car park, suggesting that I could take him into the store to buy the bread for him (to ensure it wasn’t used for another purpose). The fellow didn’t want to go, as “it wasn’t worth it”. When I told him I had to work to earn the money he wants, and that all he has to do to have the bread was to accompany me into the supermarket, he gave up and walked off.
On another occasion when a man approached me and began to tell his tale of woe, because I was unable to gauge his sincerity or honesty because of my weakness in the language, I simply said “Nerozumiem po Slovensky” (I don’t understand Slovak) — a useful phrase here to stop street salesmen and beggars in their tracks (they don’t know how to proceed after that, and usually walk off also). In this particular case, however, the man wasn’t so easily discouraged. He motioned me to wait, and then proceeded to roll up one of his trouser legs. Before I had time to think “this is odd” I was gazing incredulously on what he was trying to show me. His ankle and foot was black, and I don’t just mean bruised. Actually, it was worse than black – he pulled back some dirty bandages to reveal horribly huge abscesses that I found very difficult to look at.
Okay, after seeing that I didn’t care if he intended to drink the money or use it for food. It looked like he essentially had a dead foot, and that the rest of him wouldn’t be far from following suit if it wasn’t amputated. I gave him some money, and he slowly and painfully limped off. Thoughts raced through my mind about what I could possibly do to help him. He really needed a hospital, but, as far as I understood, in Slovakia they wouldn’t turn him away if he needed emergency treatment, so going to a hospital was something he could have done already. Not being able to understand the language enough meant I couldn’t ask all the necessary questions, so I just paid my dues, and watched him go on his way after ‘blessing’ me profusely.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks. World, meet Johnny (at left, with real name changed). Johnny approached, quietly asking for money for food. He spoke so quietly we had to get him to repeat it twice before we understood. I had a translator this time, so made the most of it. The first thing I said, again, was that I could give him some bread instead of money. He was keen, and thanked us in advance.
With the realisation that his need might be legitimate, I asked him if, in return for some bread and some money, he’d mind answering some questions. He agreed. I wanted to know why a boy this young was begging.
Johnny is 14, he said, and goes to school. I asked him about the skin disorder he has, and he advised that it’s psoriasis – something he’s had since a baby. I asked him why he has no money for food. He said his parents are poor, and don’t have jobs. His mother does community work, which is obligatory for people that are unemployed for over a certain length of time (and it earns her a little extra per month). His father had worked in a factory building tanks and tractors, which after the fall of communism limped along just making tractors for a while until finally closing its doors.
When I asked Johnny what he wanted to do when he left school – his face lit up noticably as he told of his plans to go to a town further in the south to learn the building trade.
Johnny took the money and food gratefully, and off he went.
As many kind-hearted permaculturists will appreciate, knowing how to deal fairly with beggars is a very difficult art to master. For example, studies indicate that beggars in prime locations in this area can earn around 15+ Euro per hour, which is an exceptional hourly rate by Slovak standards. Professional beggars can thus earn a very decent living off the hard work of others, and giving money to such people works against the interests of society, as it discourages them from doing anything constructive themselves. There have even been newspaper reports of beggar ‘companies’, where people are dropped off to ‘work’ by a van, wearing appropriate clothing, and some even having fake disabilities, etc.
In addition, professional beggars make the situation more dire for those in real need. Because of them we may give in to the temptation to be callous and cynical, assuming every beggar we meet is essentially a con-man, with the consequence that people in genuine need could be cast aside with callous disregard — something that doesn’t bear thinking about.
The historical Roma
From watching movies on television as a child, I grew up with a kind of romantic view of ‘Gypsies’ — you know, colourful clothing, finely groomed and decorated horses and wagons, flamenco music, magic tricks and circus acts. The images I saw could cause an imaginative eight-year old to seek to live ‘the Gypsy life’. But today, if you read the news or watch television, the impression is quite the opposite – one of poverty, dirt, slums, crime, and laziness.
So, which picture is true?
It may be useful to share a dollop of historical background. The Roma are believed to have originated many centuries ago in India. Repeated migrations took them further afield. History books tell us that by the eleventh century they had migrated as far as Persia, by the fourteenth to Eastern Europe, and by the fifteenth century to Western Europe. After only a few generations of their making an appearance, most of the countries of Western Europe made an edict banishing them – and systematically evicted and deported them (some even made it legal for anyone to kill them). In the deeply religious middle ages, rumours that Gypsy tinkers were responsible for forging the nails for Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t help either…. The Roma’s rejection by host countries continues even today, as seen in the recent and controversial edicts from France. Despite all these banishments, one way or another they eventually reappeared in the regions they were transported from.
The Roma are almost always at least bi-lingual – speaking their own Romany language, as well as the language of the country they inhabit. Today’s countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, etc.) have the largest Roma populations in the world, although actual population tallies are hard to gauge, as they tend not to be involved in census counts.
The traditional stereotype of the Roma being nomadic is not necessarily true – although their being unwanted and rejected from areas has caused them to move perhaps more than they would like. One thing that is sure, however, is that Roma populations are highly resistant to assimilation into the cultures they live among. Rather, they almost always remain on the fringes of society, maintaining their own peculiar lifestyle. This isolation has naturally tended to make them targets of suspicion and distrust.
Picture this – a building downtown is getting converted into a police station, complete with holding cells. Then, just as the building is almost complete and ready for action, someone steals the iron bars from the cell windows. (As an aside, a few weeks earlier someone stole a neighbouring station’s police dogs as well – and it is feared they may have been eaten!)
Or worse, pieces of iron regularly get stolen from railway tracks, the grates and plates covering residential drains and sewerage systems disappear, and side rails from roads and bridges magically vanish overnight. Sometimes whole neighbourhoods can be plunged into darkness and/or lose their telephone connections, as enterprising individuals steal large sections of expensive copper wiring.
Where do these things all end up? Well, who knows really – but bets are on much of it either going into people’s own building endeavours, or being cut into pieces until unrecognisable before being taken to recycling centres and sold. Few people are ever caught in the act, but the blame is usually laid at the feet of the Roma population regardless.
One morning last week I saw an old single bed had been tossed out and placed next to a nearby dumpster. Not more than an hour later, as I was walking, I saw that same single bed a kilometre away, being carried along the street and then manhandled into a tenement block by two Roma recyclers. But this kind of recycling is common amongst the general populace also, and is a great way to see one man’s waste become another man’s treasure, as the old saying goes.
You’ll often see people walking or cycling with all kinds of ‘rubbish’. The items
are carried in bags, or strapped to bicycle frames, or towed in makeshift buggies
made from shopping carts or baby prams, etc. Above are a couple of
industrious fellows heading to the local recycling centre
where their items will be weighed.
The dumpsters of Central Europe are generally frequented multiple times per day by people looking for food, clothing, metal parts, electronics, and anything else that could be somehow used, sold or repurposed. Indeed, charity clothing shops are rare to non-existent here, as people simply drape their unwanted clothing over the edge of a dumpster (rather than tossing it inside), after which it is promptly retrieved by the next visiting dumpster-diver.
People search for anything salvageable (a little girl accompanies her
dad on this particular mission).
A matter of dates
As far as I can tell, in times past, before the industrial revolution got into full swing, the Roma had a far higher perceived local value than they do today, despite the banishments and murders. Often they were skilled in animal husbandry (peasants with ailing horses and other livestock would often consult them), or as tinkers (metalwork – fixing pots, etc.). They were also well known for their musical prowess, and were in demand to perform at weddings and ceremonies (usually violins and bass). Today, modern hi-fi systems have made this service redundant also. The new technological age, I fear, has removed the need for their specific crafts, and made them even more ‘unnecessary’ than before. In fact, in regards to being unnecessary, there are historical records of Roma women being sterilised by doctors — with evidence for this spanning from 1933 potentially through to the turn of the millennium.
During World War II, Nazi Germany is said to have murdered somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma men, women and children, which would somewhat indicate the perception prevalent at that time. In contrast, today in Europe there are political efforts to provide employment, and adequate housing and facilities in a bid to improve the lot of local Roma populations. Local heads of Roma bands are encouraged to represent their group to give them a say in their future. Also, being now part of the European Union (and receiving their financial support), the treatment of minorities by new EU member states is under scrutiny more than previously.
But despite attempts at political correctness at the highest levels, the actual modern and mainstream attitude towards the Roma is almost without exception one of either stifled, or outright, negativity; the popular perception being that they are lazy and unwilling to work. Once, when some Roma children ran towards a group of us, asking for money, a six year old asked “why are they asking for money?”, to which the child’s mother responded “because they don’t have any”. The boy considered this, then asked “why don’t they have any money?”, which in turn was answered with “because their parents don’t want to work”.
You’d have to be an insensitive stone to not detect an underlying sense of frustration here, as many seem to be at a loss to know how to deal with the Roma and their growing populations. Often efforts to ‘help’ them appear to have failed, yet these efforts are likely misguided to begin with, based on the preconceived notion that what the majority populace strives for (a job, home, leisure time and entertainment) should also be what the Roma need and want. The Roma certainly have their own strong sense of family and culture, but their lifestyle seems to be one that is quite at odds with the modern industrial age and the modern industrial citizen.
But then, there are a great deal of things today that are at odds with the modern industrial age and the modern industrial citizen….
What does all this have to do with permaculture?
Cheap energy, fueling the century of self, I believe, has helped to artificially maintain relative peace in many parts of the world and between many groups of people. This post is perhaps an opportunity to help us realise, consider and objectively discuss this aspect, and to consider the implications for interracial relations as we descend the peak oil edifice. I broach this (admittedly, potentially divisive/controversial) topic, because I sense that people in this part of the world have, in a world of cheap energy (and so as not to ‘make a scene’), tended to overlook the proportion of that energy and its resulting discretionary funds that have been funneled into keeping the Roma content. I think the same can be said for other continents and nations, where more supposedly ‘successful’, ‘developed‘ peoples have turned a blind eye to the presence and activities of minority peoples they might regard as ‘backwards’ — at least whilst the latter are not directly, adversely impacting them. As long as the general population are getting by okay, they’ve tended to overlook perceived transgressions. But, as energy supplies, and food supplies — and every other supply — becomes more expensive and erratic, I fear that tensions will mount, and potentially explode, once more, as they have repeatedly in times past when the day to day realities of survival were more real to people than they have been for the last few generations.
Take the simple, practical example of a woman who works a garden allotment here. She arose eagerly one morning and headed off to her plot to harvest the many cabbages that were ready to be eaten. On the way, not far from her garden, she noted another also had an excellent cabbage harvest in his possession — the Roma man was selling a bountiful quantity of them roadside. I think you know what happens next…. Yes, the woman arrives at her allotment to find all the plants she’d poured her efforts into over the season had already been taken. In times of plenty, people might just curse and shout and move on, but if your and your family’s life depends on the results of your labour and on squeezing as much ‘profit’ out of real-time sunlight as possible, then the outcome might not be so passive.
In former times, when violence against minorities was considered ‘normal’, we lived with a fraction of our current population, and far lower population densities. Since those days, whilst gorging ourselves on abundant energy and shaping society around it, we’ve since orchestrated a massive shift to urbanisation and dependency on the money economy. Many people now, the Roma included, are jammed into blocks of flats where supplying their own needs from their own garden is impossible, whether they had the desire to do so or not. All of these people, in the present system, require money to function. Pull the economy out from under this vulnerable, centralised situation, and, well, what next?
Could it be that if our civilisation, from necessity, somewhat reverts to a lower-carbon existence, that some of the former skills, crafts and activities of people like the Roma might see a resurgence? For this to occur, the big obstacle — aside from former hard-earned knowledge having been discarded as no longer valuable — is that we’ve ‘designed’ our buildings and supply lines around a dream of limitless energy.
I would encourage all transitional considerations to incorporate not just your own individual self-interest needs, but to also see how your transition intersects with the wider community and its context. I think permaculturists can be working for peace and harmony amongst the many diverse human elements found within our biosphere, just as we pride ourselves in doing so with all the other biological elements we work with.
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- Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century
- Closing the ‘Collapse Gap’: the USSR was Better Prepared for Collapse than the US