Banska Stiavnica We trudged in the snow finally in Slovakia, but the temperature was tolerable, especially for the middle fat of February, though it was easy to see that the challenges of living in some of the shelters we visited were extreme and the stories we heard of forced relocations were enraging.
Our first visit was to Bzovik, a small village of less than 1200, that I assume almost a thousand years ago at its founding was a farming community that had sprung up to service the monastery at the top of the hill where villagers could also seek protection within the walls of its fortifications when danger or invasions struck the area. We met a half-dozen pensioner women and one younger daughter-in-law, several Roma community leaders in the village, the youngish Mayor of the town, and several of the CKO community organizers in the village’s community center.
We started off in Bzovik on a high note hearing about a petition with 100 signatures, almost 10% of the population, that had been presented to Orange, the French telecommunications conglomerate, about poor telephone service. Not sure what results were garnered though, since even some of the organizers seemed surprised to learn the corporation was French. Hearing that one of the main community issues was poor drainage, reinforced my constant argument that sanitation, drainage, and loose dogs are universal community issues.
The main things we heard from the seniors concerned the fact that 8 to 10 of them had organized a yoga class and that some of them came to crafting nights the center organized. They were also very proud of their traditional choir, and after some years of organizing they had recruited some men from the village to join.
The mayor was interesting. He was conflicted with an upcoming election on the horizon and nearing the completion of his first term. He wanted his constituents to understand he was trying to organize other mayors in the region and was showing leadership, but he also easily admitted, when pressed, that he would be more effective, if there was a strong organized constituency making demands that he could also voice.
Over hill and winding snow-covered roads, we next came to a small, less than a dozen family, settlement of Roma on the outskirts of Banska Stiavnica, the old gold mining town and a UNESCO world heritage site. These were rented and squatted properties on an unpaved road near a creek in an agricultural operation with livestock. Walking on the puddled and unpaved road, the community’s woodpile was slim compared to the cold. The houses lacked plumbing and some of the well pumps produced unpotable water. Houses were sturdier than the tarpaper, corrugated metal, and wood scraps of many areas where ACORN organizes, but the spacing between the walls and the roof lines made it clear these houses were not adequate to the weather, climate change coming or not.
Surprisingly, most of the discussion with the organizers focused on a large house with several apartments, only semi-occupied, but for sale for 12000 euros, and whether that might serve as a community center for the several families and a place where Roma families, evicted elsewhere might find temporary shelter. Organizers were enthusiastic, energetic, and committed, but more focused on a program of survival and retreat, rather than change and advance. A culture of rationalized defeat, self-help, and lower expectations, masked as social services, seemed to be transferring an ethic of NGO-ism, rather than social change, winning justice or empowerment.
With some frustration and sadness, we all struggled to learn and understand.