Our Family camp, Tin Tin Bottom, New Forest

“te arakhel o Del”

God forbid you learn your own traditions, my father would spit at me whenever I brought homework out of my bag. His parents were both illiterate and he’d dropped out of school in the fourth grade (aged 10 and a half), though he spent more time out of school travelling than he did behind a desk. He made it further than his brothers, though, who barely made it past second grade. For my father, a non-Romani education was something to be avoided at all costs. His parents were survivors of the Porrajmos (Holocaust), their eyes clouded by smoke told stories of death and disease, their tongues tied by too many glasses of whiskey to do the talking. My grandparents spent their lives moving, chasing the little money they could make, following the fruit as it bloomed across Europe. But, our way of life was always illegal – before Hitler, before our enslavement, before all the hangings and brandings – we were not wanted and of course, this meant in school too. For my dad and his family, school was a prison aimed at keeping them from the language and culture they knew and loved.

Supposedly, the average age Romani girls drop out is ten years old, with one third of us remaining completely illiterate. My mother, who made it until 13, is an exception among our statistics and our family. Her parents lived in England throughout the war so were disconnected from the horrors of Europe. Bombs and planes terrified the horses as much as they did my grandmother, but she never saw a Nazi with her own eyes. They spoke mostly English, laced heavily with a mixture of Polish Romani and Anglo-Romany, and had been settled in the area for longer, even though summers still smelled of wood smoke, hedgerows, and travel. My mother’s family encouraged me to succeed in school as best I could. They said it was the only way to help our family claw its way out of the hunger that gnawed at our empty bones.

The problem was, of course, that I was a girl. My family, on both sides, still clung to tradition like a security blanket. School wasn’t a problem at first. It was a distraction. But, as I got older, tradition breathed itself into my lungs and drew me away from both my family and my classmates. My skirts got longer, my sleeves too. My hair got shorter (“tu na kamel te marel pre jekh gypsy” – you don’t want to look like a gypsy“). It came to a head when I turned ten years old – the age that, statistically, many girls drop out – and there were lots of “discussions” (arguments) and silences (arguments) and the sharpness of scissors dulled by my heavy, dark braids.

My family, like many others, didn’t want me to be in an environment where I was integrated with boys; they didn’t want me to be exposed to many of the non-Romani educational subjects (biology, sex education, English literature, history, geography); they didn’t want me to eat at school with others or eat school-prepared foods; they didn’t want me doing P.E. in co-ed classes and getting changed or showered there; and they didn’t want me going on field trips or outings, especially overnight.

For my fajta (relatives), the biggest issue was my exposure to the potential dual threats of adolescent non-Romani boys and drugs. There was a story we were told as children. A story about trees:

growing-old-together-amanda-rogers“Ko početko bešenas O Del the O Beng. Phirdjan khatar amaro svetos vilagos the jon parnjard’e kašta. He bešenas jekh ambroljin thaj ‘ekh phabalji. O Beng phendja, “kašta! Tumen kamen jekhe avres the kamen te xalakavka e kašta xale lengero ovoca thaj gundžadje. Alje, sako minúti, jon kamenas jekhe avres. Aščaloda O Del phendja “ambora džuvlji, t’bi šoha na čaljarel o jilo. Vašoda, akanastar ča kamel tro veraduno rom!”

“In the beginning lived God and the Devil. They walked all over our world and they painted the forests. There also lived a pear tree and an apple tree. The Devil said, “trees! You have desire for one another and want to eat” so in this way they ate each others fruits and made love. But, every minute, they desired each other. Consequently, God said, “beautiful woman, your desire will never be satisfied. Therefore, from now on, you shall only desire your true husband!”

Purity of girls and women and modesty were very important to my family. They wanted me to marry well (and early) and produce a rake of healthy children. In the smothering heat of summer mornings, my father would shrug off his hangover, letting it fall to his feet like dirty rags and exclaim, “mri čhajori, adadjives hin jekh baxtalo djives! Adadjives, šaj te arakhel jekh pirano!” (My little daughter, today is a good day! Today, maybe you’ll find a lover!”) It was a constant and daily dirge, mingled with alcohol and cigar smoke; “today’s the day!”

Only it never was. And I never wanted it to be.

There are many reports, such as the Open Society Institute’s “Broadening the Agenda: The Status of Romani Women in Romania“, results from the 4th International Conference on Romani Women (Council of Europe), the European Roma Rights Centre’s “Romani Women“, and the UK Department of Education’s “Improving the Outcomes for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller Pupils“, which all state the same thing:

Romani women, especially, are leagues behind everyone else, including Romani men. They state that our communities aren’t invested in education, that parents sabotage their children’s learning opportunities, and that racism and segregation snap at our heels like hungry dogs.

In fact, “survey data reports a literacy rate of just 68 per cent for Roma women, compared to 81 per cent for Roma men. Primary school enrollment rates for Roma girls are just 64 per cent, compared to 96 per cent for girls in non-Roma communities who face similar socioeconomic conditions. These data reflect not only limited access to education, but also the impact of early marriages and early childbearing, which close off education – and as a result employment – opportunities for young Roma women”.

In my case, the pull of culture, tradition, and responsibility were almost too much. I was betrothed to a boy by age 12; his name Petru, he was dark like freshly tilled soil and smelled of horses and grass. Whenever it was mentioned, I would shake my head and shrink further into myself. At these moments, my mother would stand, hand on hip and scour me up and down. Pursing her lips she would nod emphatically and say, “yes, that’s what happened, the Gadže came and switched you in the cradle and brought you among us”.

However, progress has been made, albeit slowly. According to the most recent Regional Roma Survey in 2011 (conducted by UNDP, the World Bank and the European Commission), “between 2004 and 2011 some positive changes occurred: Roma women are slightly less unlikely to obtain higher education levels and less likely to dropout from school”, nevertheless, when it comes to education, gender and ethnic gaps remain. In short, it’s not enough. Too many families still believe the whispers of tradition and protect their daughters from the world by marrying them to good men; too many families rely on their daughters to help raise their siblings so that mothers, fathers, and brothers can bring in money and food. Too many families still believe in the story of the trees – that women need protected from their own sexuality and from those outside our culture who would seek to steal it from us…

However, another, simpler truth permeates our lives:

So kerel o baro keren the o cikne – Whatever the elder does, so the younger does too.