Slovakia: Romani studies bring understanding

Many attempts have been made to improve the situation of the Romani population in Slovakia. These inlcude providing more experts aware of the many issues specific to the Romani people, but also by changing the way non-Romani see and relate to their Romani neighbours. An interesting educational project tries to do just that by teaching Romani Studies at secondary school level.

Projects claiming to improve the position of the marginalised Romani population in Slovakia, are not new. Neither is the focus on education revolutionary. Despite this, a pilot project linking these two issues, has managed to bring something unique. The Jur Hronec secondary school is one of several schools in Slovakia that have introduced the teaching of Romani Studies to 14 to 18 year old students. The course consists of Cultural Anthropology, Romani History and of course the Romani Language itself. Introducing a University level course to secondary school children, meant that Rastislav Pivon, who teaches the course, had to go back to basics, before being able to focus on the actual contents of Romani culture.

“Just imagine. These children have no idea about culture. What is culture. Is it theater, is it art? Cutlure is basically everything that mankind does. The opposite of culture is nature. Now try to explain this to the children. We couldn’t teach them about Romani culture, without them knowing what culture really was. This forced us to first introduce the subject of Cultural Anthropolgy. It was crucial to teach them how to study other cultures, as well as how to respect difference. And I think we were able to do this.”

Mr Pivon’s course is unique within the project as the students are almost exclusively from non-Romani backgrounds, with only 3 Romani students. Stefan Sarkozy, from the Romani Public Policy Institute, thinks that this lack of Romani children in the classroom, misses some unique opportunities, but agrees that unique benefits are also to be had.

“Compared with other groups around Slovakia, perhaps the level of education is higher than if it were just Romani children in the class. It’s also a good thing that learning about Romani culture is something completely new for the non-romani children. It’s mostly the case they haven’t yet looked at the Romani issue from this point of view. They only know about it from the media, usually as something negative. On the other hand, by only having three Romani classmates, they are perhaps missing the opportunity to learn about Romani people through direct contact in class.”

The office of the Special Representative for Romani Communities has been an important driving force behind this project. But, while Mr Pivon, as a Teacher and an Academic, approaches Romani Studies as a science and emphasises the broadening of people’s horizons, the Special Representative is perhaps more interested in the course training a new generation of civil servants capable of addressing the Romani situation. Mr Sarkozy, thinks that both of these aims are important.

“I can relate to the idea of preparing the future generation capable of working with the Romani community. Personally, I think its crucial to have experts who understand the Romani community, but it’s equally important, from the point of view of developing this expertise, that Romani Studies become an everyday part of reality.”

While there may be disagreements about its aims the benefits of this projects are obvious. Apart from developing desperately needed expertise for the Public Administration´the project also takes on the more difficult task of changing how non-Romani citizens perceive and understand their Romani neighbours. Despite this, the future of this project appears to be under threat. Mr Pivon sees part of the problem to be the lack of qualified teaching staff. But, perhaps, there is also a lack of innitiative on behalf of the authorities to further develop this worthwile idea.