Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Field School in Romani Studies

anthropology

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ANTH 3000: Current Issues in Cultural Anthropology

This international field school in Europe puts academic study in context through visits to selected Romani communities in eastern Slovakia. Students will have the opportunity to spend several days in a Romani settlement and experience the daily life of its residents; to meet representatives of the Romani political establishment; and to appreciate the creative and artistic dimension of settlement culture.

The course carries six upper-level credits and is open to students from TRU and other universities. It has no prerequisites, but registration requires permission of the professor.

Overview

The Roma of East-Central Europe have become the object of increasing political and scholarly interest since the disintegration of state socialism in 1989 and the enlargement of the European Union. The biggest European minority, they suffer disproportionately from poor health, unemployment, low levels of formal education, inadequate housing and discrimination. East European Roma constitute Europe's most politically under-represented and most stigmatized population.

The perception of Roma as a pre-modern enclave within a rapidly modernizing bloc of EU countries has led to the delineation of a specific "Roma question" (or "problem") and the formulation of political strategies intended to address and solve it. Since 2012, the European Commission—the governing body of the European Union—has made the integration of Roma into mainstream society an important goal of EU policy, and it has obligated all member states to develop and implement country-specific integration strategies.

The Field School in Romani Studies attempts to come to grips with the "Roma question" in a circumscribed region by introducing the participants to real people in real communities. The Roma and their neighbours explain the challenges they face, identify issues they consider problematic, and address the ideal (or idol?) of integration.

Participants will have a chance to visit a range of communities and to experience different types of inter-ethnic coexistence. A unique feature of the field school is the opportunity to spend several days in a Romani settlement and experience the daily life of its residents.

The Roma of Eastern Slovakia

Roma account for almost ten percent of Slovakia's population, but that proportion is much higher in the eastern parts of the country. Most of the communities on the field school itinerary are located in the Prešov region, where many villages have undergone a profound demographic transformation caused by a rapidly growing Romani population. In rural municipalities, around 40 percent of the Roma are under the age of 15, while the proportion of ethnic Slovaks in that age group hovers around ten percent. In some places, the proportion of young Roma exceeds 50 percent, a demographic profile which resembles sub-Saharan Africa rather than Europe.

The population boom is one of the factors behind the disastrous housing and employment situation of local Roma (the unemployment rate in the Prešov region is around 20 percent, but in most Romani communities it is above 80 percent), and it also affects relations with ethnic Slovak neighbours. For example, in Jarovnice, the country's largest rural Romani community with almost 5,000 residents, 174 of the 180 children born there in 2013 were Roma. Its elementary schools are bursting as a result of soaring enrolments, but the quality of education is declining, and policies calling for an end to segregationist practices have become meaningless as the few remaining ethnic Slovak children have chosen to attend schools in other locations. This raises the question of how to promote integration in communities that are rapidly becoming uni-ethnic.

One interesting byproduct of demographic shifts as well as the politicization of the "Roma question" has been the emergence of scores of Romani mayors and councillors who are making a mark on Slovak municipal politics. Recently, the political spectrum has become even more colourful with the election of a Romani king, Róbert I, who has vowed to unite all Slovak Roma under his leadership. Field school participants will have a chance to meet representatives of the Romani political establishment.

Akin to the Black townships of South Africa or Brazil's favelas, the rural settlements of eastern Slovakia's Roma encapsulate the complex history of a colonized people busy with the construction of meaningful lives on the margins of conventional society. Roma in this region live in the countryside rather than in towns or cities, and one has to visit these rural communities to appreciate the reality of contemporary Romani culture and society.

For centuries, music has served as one of the more durable bonds connecting the world of the Roma with that of their neighbours, and this tradition continues. Rising stars, such as the phenomenal Anička Oláhová, were born and raised in impoverished settlements. The late rapper Ignác Červeňák launched his career thanks to his involvement in a Slovak-Canadian community development project. Film productions, such as the social commentary Cigán - Slovakia's official entry to the 2012 Academy Awards - have used the backdrop of Romani settlements in an attempt to capture the vibrancy and complexity of their residents' lives. The 'Kalashnikov' song, composed by the country's most controversial rapper, uses another settlement as a backdrop for unconventional lyrics meant to shock the audience, and the music video's revealing scenes of a copulating couple had to be toned down for public circulation. Rural Roma are presented here with subversive and counter-cultural undertones that hint at their alienation from mainstream society. Scores of other contemporary expressions of popular Romani culture highlight the status of rural settlements as sites of cultural authenticity.

Field school participants will have a chance to appreciate the creative and artistic dimension of settlement culture through encounters with local singers, dancers, and painters.

The Program

The Field School in Romani Studies builds upon Thompson Rivers University's long involvement with the Roma of eastern Slovakia. Back in 1993, a group of our students was instrumental in the implementation of one of the first and most comprehensive community development projects focused on East European Roma. This early initiative led to the production of pioneering works documenting the lives of Slovak Roma, such as the National Film Board's The Gypsies of Svinia and the ethnography Svinia in Black and White.

The field school has been designed jointly with the Institute of Romani Studies at the University of Prešov, and one of its faculty members, Dr. Alexander Mušinka, will participate in the delivery of the program.

Barring unforeseen obstacles, the 2015 itinerary shall follow this structure:

Week 1 (early May 2015)
  • Arrival and orientation in Prague, Czech Republic
  • Travel by train to Prešov, Slovakia
  • Roma in the city: socialist era urbanization vs. post-communist ethnic cleansing (Prešov's Stará Tehelna and Luník IX in Košice)
Week 2
  • Roma in rural settlements: participant observation in a settlement near Prešov (students select type of community and degree of immersion with assigned host families)
  • Meetings with teachers, local politicians, artists and community representatives of Romani and ethnic Slovak backgrounds
Week 3
  • The transformation of multi-ethnic into exclusively Romani communities in the Spiš region; ethnic cleansing in high-exposure tourist areas; the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz; return by train to Prague

Program and Academic Fees

As a six-credit course, ANTH 3000 requires prospective students to register and pay appropriate academic fees as well as a program fee which covers all travel in Europe, local field trips and excursions, accommodation with breakfast and some other meals, remuneration for Romani host families, and other program-related expenses. The fee is $2,575. TRU students qualify for a $500 CUEF travel bursary, which reduces the net amount to $2,075. Note, international airfare, travel insurance and immunization are not included in the program fee and must be paid for separately by each participant.

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