The Roma communities, the biggest ethnic minority group of Slovakia were historically travellers, but in the 20th century their lifestyle became unsustainable and they were increasingly forced to settle down, however, most of their values and customs that have evolved through centuries of nomadic living have stayed the same. They place a high value on extended family, have a strong sense of community and often a lack of trust for outsiders.
Roma people also face systemic racism and segregation that starts at a very young age. It has been observed that due to these circumstances young Roma mothers tend to keep their children at home until they reach the age of 5, where they don't interact with Slovak children. As a consequence, these kids often don't develop those crucial skills needed for school.
Although the village of Spissky Hrhov in Eastern Slovakia is a great case study for successful Roma integration, low pre-school attendance is still a major problem for local educators. In our research we found that young children staying at home are less likely to have a daily routine and develop a more structured sense of time, which will give them a substantial disadvantage in school, and in the long term might affect their future lives and careers. Moreover, the research showed that many of them follow a diet based on low nutritional quality food with few vegetables and fruit (contrary to the meals they would instead have in the kindergarten).
Changing a habit that has been passed down through generations is a slow process, even in a place like Spissky Hrhov where there are plenty of social initiatives and successful collaborations between the Slovak and Roma communities. Our project aims to facilitate this transition from the temporariness of the traveling mentality into the settled life of the 21st century Roma people, wishing to ease new generations into this new lifestyle while also respecting traditions.
My Little Land is a community garden where each child born in the community gets a small plot of land with a fruit tree that is planted at the time of their birth and a raised bed where the child together with the parents can grow their own vegetable garden. The gardens can be seen as the extended self for each child, a representative within a community space that Slovak and Roma children cultivate together.
The goal is to nurture a sense of belonging and stronger connection to the environment, while educating children and parents about gardening, healthy diet and long term planning. The garden team would provide playbooks, workshops on gardening and healthy cooking and assistance for the families as well as a starter kit with seeds and a sapling for each child that will mature together with them. The project would also help kids and parents get familiar with the school environment as well as the Slovak community of the village.
Since a garden needs regular maintenance it would help the children develop a routine. In fact, by learning about the different needs of plants throughout the seasons they would gain a perspective on long term planning, together with their parents. They would also receive a calendar full of seasonal activities to help them in the process.
As the gardens grow, so would the sense of accomplishment and belonging among the Roma, and as they nurture the gardens in a community space together with Slovak families, they have the opportunity to connect by sharing gardening tips and collaborating through workshops. In doing so, we aim also to prepare the children for primary school, where they will need to share, communicate and learn together with other kids.
Over time, we hope that the project will encourage Roma people to start growing their own vegetables in their courtyard, introducing more vegetables and fruits in their diet. At the same time, we aim to build a stronger sense of ownership and a deeper connection to the local area. As the roots of the gardens deepen, so would the social fabric of the village.
The local school already has vegetable gardens for educational purposes and the village operates a popular community hotspot for children and parents. The project would build on the existing infrastructure and volunteers, who would be led by a professional gardener. The garden could become self-sustaining over time, functioning as a plant nursery as well as selling vegetables locally.
In order for the project to meet the goals we aim to achieve, it needs to be prototyped and tested with the community in Spišský Hrhov. To do so, we suggest trying the project with a small sample of families, observing and getting feedback to improve it. It is important to define key factors to measure in order to monitor the results of the project. It can then be scalable to a larger group of families and ideally even to the ones living in the localities near Spišský Hrhov.
Ella Weldon, Šárka Benešová