Saturday, November 21, 2009

Painting walls, breaking down barriers to fight Gypsy Poverty

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A village near the Hungarian border with a population of 200 and plagued by unemployment and poverty is now preparing to become a tourist attraction. No, this is not a case of disaster tourism. The village is hoping to attract tourists with its wall paintings. Anger inspiration.

“Two years ago I saw the Hungarian Guard marching in front of Sólyom’s palace on television. The total ignorance and intolerance of those people made me so furious that my anger brought me to this,” said Eszter Pásztor, initiator of the “Freszkófalu” project. Pásztor came up with the idea of a village of frescos when it occurred to her that she had seen villages in Egypt that lived from tourism.” The possibility of tourists coming to Bodvalenke is by no means absurd.

The Aggtelek cave network is less than 20km away, and not far from the village is a gothic street with a number of attractive churches. Right on the edge of the village begins a marsh with rare animal and plant types. Plans for tourist trails across the Great Plain are currently being completed.

Gypsy poverty

“When we arrived here in this ‘third world Hungary’ and were cooking in the kitchen of the office, the children from the village lined up in front of our window to watch us eating. We realised that a large number of the children were hungry, while the others were full, but completely malnourished,” Pásztor recalled. “If you really want to combat poverty, then you have to attack it from all sides,” she adds. Of the village’s 200 residents 58 per cent are Gypsies, but that percentage rockets when one looks at the population aged under 60: non-Roma make up just 8% of the village population aged under 60.

Of the whole village population there are two people with regular jobs: one in a local government office, and the other at an outpatient clinic. Two women from the village who worked in a clothing factory lost their jobs when the factory moved to Ukraine because of its lower wage costs. It is hardly surprising that the average income per month is just HUF 16,000 (EUR 59). As a result barely anyone can afford to even take the bus to the neighbouring town.

Taking advantage

The one shop in the village exploits the situation by selling goods at double the usual price.
The phenomenon of usurers is only too easy to understand against such a background. Unsurprisingly they are not at all happy about the project, which threatens to take away their customers.

Overcoming resistance

However, there were also other obstacles to overcome. “At the start, in March 2009, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t want and couldn’t start the fundraising before I had the agreement of the village. The initial reaction of most residents was: “you can’t paint on my wall’.” Then, however, some people from the village assembly remembered that a resident named János has a horse and carriage that could be used for transport while a lady named Zsusza could bake vakaró (traditional flatbread) for the guests, and that got the ball rolling.”

There is currently no infrastructure for tourists; a restaurant, guesthouse and campsite only exist in the imagination, since there was the more urgent task of improving infrastructure for residents. Several families from the village have already been able to move out of houses that were in danger of collapse or without heating, into refurbished houses in the centre of the village.

That in itself was a small social revolution, since the ethnic Hungarian population traditionally lived in the village and did not want to have any Roma in this “clean” part of the village. The children come to play and do homework in the office. On the land to the rear they even have their own children’s farm, where they take care of a rabbit, hare and two goats. The four-strong team of social workers alongside Pásztor is assisting the village residents with nutrition and visits to public offices.

The art

Painted firewalls of 10 to 25 metres in length decorate the village.

The European Cultural Workshop Foundation found the creators of these works, all of them Roma, via a nationwide competition. Why were no Hungarian artists approached? “They have their possibilities to exhibit. That’s not what this is about,” Pásztor says dryly. The project is in fact about significantly more: it is about Roma culture, which is often scorned in Hungary, being put on display. Gypsy legends feature on some of the frescos, but will remain a mystery to most visitors unless they are explained.

However a tour of the pictures opens up a unique world of imagination, for example the belief that Roma originally flew through the air like birds. As a result of a rich feast, however, wings became arms, and since then they have travelled on foot. Or that the moon and the sun were stolen by a monster and freed by two trumpet players: one carried the moon and became paler and paler until he became the man in the moon, while the other who carried the sun was burnt by it – with his dark skin he was the forebear of the Gypsies. However, current topics are also represented: the string of murders of Roma people last year is the motif of one fresco in the centre of the village.

More to do

Walking with Pásztor through Bodvalenke provides a glimpse of what lies ahead. The fountain on the village square is to be adorned with a dragon that will be painted once a year at a spring festival by village residents and guests. Through Pásztor’s explanations half-derelict barnyard becomes a guest garden with an open fireplace. A dilapidated building will become a shop for items made by villagers, such as woven baskets and pearl jewelery.

Nevertheless, talks are already in progress with surrounding towns about cooperation agreements, and with tour operators about possible offers. The hope that the village will be able to stand on its own two feet can already be seen on the faces of most of the village residents.


European Workshop Cultural Society, 1121 Budapest,Konkoly-Thege M. út 50.
Registry number: 9511
Account number:
Unicredit Bank


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