Saturday, June 11, 2011



Kujtim Pačaku: Romani children should get their language with their mother's milk

Prizren, Kosovo,
10.6.2011 13:38, (ROMEA)

PHOTO Kujtim Pačaku (foto: Lukáš Houdek)

It was a hot May evening when we walked through the glass doors of the Rromani baxt (Roma Luck) association in Prizren. Regional melodies of Romani songs, some of which are several hundred years old, could be heard before the doors even opened. A tiny man was conducting an eight-member choir of young Romani singers. Even though it was 10 PM and the conductor of this first-ever Romani octet already had a hard day's work behind him, he was overflowing with positive energy, his eyes radiating enthusiasm. He exploded into fits of laughter at regular intervals, but as a choirmaster, he was uncompromising.

News server conducted the following interview with him about the situation of Romani culture and the Romani language in Kosovo, the social problems of Romani people there, and his life as one of Europe's first-ever Romani journalists.

My first question may be a bit awkward, but after spending a month here in Kosovo I am very interested in asking it.

What is it like to be a Romani intellectual here?

What is interesting is that here in Prizren almost all of the Romani children attend school. There are five children in my family, two brothers and three sisters, and we all completed university studies. One of my sisters graduated from the technical engineering faculty, another from the English faculty, and third from economics, my brother from chemistry and physics, and I myself am completing my doctorate in order to become an professor of voice. It was not so hard before. Before the war there were 30 Romani university graduates in Prizren alone. There are also many Romani people who graduated from technical college or who were not able to complete their university education for some reason.

Why were the conditions for the development of Romani people's education so good in Prizren?

There have always been many Romani intellectuals here. There was a great expansion of Romani people in intellectual positions around 1969, when the local Romani cultural association was founded so that Romani people could publish their poetry and Romani children could learn to dance and sing. The association conducted many activities for youth. A lot of work was done at that time. Ever since then, the position of Romani culture, the Romani language and Romani traditions has been developing so that people would not be ashamed - or even scared - to stand up and say they are Romani.

Now you are talking about the past. Is it customary to become a Romani intellectual even today?

Today it is difficult, very difficult. We have truly enormous poverty here. To become a Romani intellectual, you must first have enough money. You need to pay for your books, for clothing, for university tuition. Today one semester at college costs EUR 400, and you have to sit five exams at EUR 10 each, so you're getting close to EUR 500. Then you have to add the cost of life in Prishtina - it's not possible to commute to school every day. Romani people do not make much money. We are battling three of the greatest problems there can be here: Lack of education, poverty, and unemployment. They are all interrelated. Those are the three main factors that prevent Romani people from accessing education.

During your life you have published many books. Why do you write in Romani?

Why in Romani? Because I think in Romani! I think in Romani. I don't think in Albanian, or in Czech, or in French, or in Serbian. Ideas chase each other through my brain in Romani, and that's why I write in Romani.

Are you trying to achieve something by writing in Romani?

Definitely. Social welfare benefits are the main way Romani people are making their living here today. Poets are the ambassadors of their nation, and art and culture are weapons, but I don't write books in Romani only. I don't want to write poetry just for Romani people. I write about Romani people, and in various languages. Why? So the gadje [non-Romani people] know what I'm thinking, what I'm talking about. If I were to write only in Romani, they would not understand what Kujtim wants to say. That's why I publish my poems in Albanian, Chinese, French, German, and Italian in addition to Romani. I have them translated.

What do you want to say through your poetry?

My central themes include the issue of Romani identity in relation to the position of the Romani language, etc., love, and social problems, but I focus on Romani identity most of all. Why? So Romani people will realize the larger context that has given rise to the situation in which they find themselves today. At the same time, I want the gadje to learn about the life of Romani people, about our problems. That's why I consider it a great shame when television programs are broadcast in Romani only. That is really a great shame. For people to understand your problems, you must give them the opportunity to learn about them in their language. You can't do Romani programs that are just a bunch of music clips scraped together. Jesus Christ! It's terrible when they only play Romani music on television. It's unnecessary. The music is fine, but at the same time there is a need to broadcast information - for example, for students on how they can get stipends, etc., or lessons in the Romani language.

Have you tried to get such topics into Romani-language broadcasting?

In the 30 years that I worked as a journalist, I broadcast hundreds of live reports. I have always done my best to teach the listener something about our language, and that is why I spoke both Romani and Serbian in the broadcasts. Romani people who had not mastered the majority language could gradually acquire it, and the gadje could learn a little Romani. Naturally I did not expect people to become fluent in one another's language, but I do believe that mutual linguistic exchange courses could slowly eradicate the prejudices these groups hold about one another. It is not only the gadje who hold prejudices about Romani people, naturally the reverse applies as well. It is just as important to break down those prejudices in the Romani community.

What is the situation like for the Romani language in Kosovo today?

Prizren is a part of this country where Romani people have lived for 800 years. During that entire time they have spoken Romani. It is one of our greatest riches. We have three main dialects in Kosovo, or rather, let's say, three patois. The first is Arli, the second is Gurbeti, and the third is Bugurji.

Is the Romani language supported as a minority language by the Government of Kosovo?

Romani has not yet been officially adopted here, but there is a clause in the law that says a language may be recognized if it is traditional. As I just said, we have been living in Prizren for 800 years. Isn't that enough of a tradition for Romani to be officially adopted? We are doing our best to make that happen. My colleagues and I have designed a school curriculum for the instruction of the Romani language and submitted it to the Education Ministry. We are doing our best to introduce pre-school years where Romani children would first acquire the majority language and also adapt to the school environment, because they are not accustomed to it, it's foreign to them. Kindergarten and preschool are necessary, and after completing them the children would then transfer easily into first grade. However, our main aim is to create attractive instruction for the children, not instruction through the various methods of compulsion we see used in Albanian schools. The main points would be Romani culture, history, the Romani language, and music. We want it to be fun for them. We don't want to torture them in school. We want them to get something out of it.

Many Romani people don't speak Romani anymore in the Czech Republic. What in your view would it be necessary to do for the Romani language to continue to be spoken?

When Romani children are born, they can't be allowed to be egoists (laughs). They can't be allowed to receive only milk from their mother's breast. They must also imbibe the Romani language. Romani women cannot stop teaching the Romani language to our children. They should sing Romani songs to their children. Sure, they should also learn the majority language, but first and foremost they must learn their mother's language - Romani. It should not happen that the children grow up to say: "Forgive me, but I don't understand you. I don't speak Romani. I'm not Romani after all." Our language would die. However, in places where the language never dies, there is poetry. That infuses the language.

What do you think the strength of the Romani language is?

When my speech is heard by Romani people in France, in Spain - or in Jablonec, Liberec, Olomouc, Prague - we understand one another! Good Lord, that's brilliant! When I traveled to various meetings, for example to Bohemia, we all understood one another - even with Jarmila Balážová and Ivan Veselý there in Prague. Our language is very interesting in that regard, I would like to say it might even be immortal. Sometimes I ask myself how the Romani language could have possibly survived its peripatetic life? Many languages have already died out, but not the Romani language. On the other hand, however, in Spain they murdered many Romani people, poked out their eyes - why? Because they spoke Romani. The priests believed they were speaking the Devil's language. They murdered as many as 1 200 of them - and how many Romani people were murdered in the concentration camps? Despite that, the Romani language is still alive. Why? Because it is still spoken and sung!

Why is it important to support the culture and tradition of Romani people in Kosovo?

Culture is very important for every nation. It is a weapon. It is real wealth. If you have no culture, you are terribly poor. Our culture is ancient. We brought it with us from India. Our language, in which we find many words from Indian languages, is a testament to this. It's unbelievable.

Are the Kosovars interested in the culture and tradition of local Romani people?

Oh yes. Almost everyone knows about our culture and traditions. Everyone respects it. It's terribly important that the gadje know our culture, and the older people here in Kosovo know it. The young people maybe don't, but the elders definitely do. Romani people here in Kosovo play music in the homes of Albanians, Turks, and the other nations living here. We form a kind of multicultural bridge. It is music, or other cultural productions, that can be an effective bridge between various communities. That is its power. Romani people don't only reproduce musical compositions, they contribute to their development. They play the songs of various ethnicities, including their own, and they always add something of their own to them. That's how different variations come about. Romani people are very beneficial to local music.

You worked for years on Romani radio programming. How did that come about?

Yes, that's true. I started in 1968 and I was a pioneer of sorts among Romani moderators. It was here at Radio Prizren. I broadcast more than 1 000 programs. I started with five-minute commentaries, which over time became 15-minute shows, until it turned into a two-hour time slot. In the end we broadcast every day. During the five years leading up to the war we also had the opportunity to broadcast at night – from midnight until morning.

Did you broadcast in Romani?

Starting at midnight we broadcast in Romani. Starting at 3 AM we added other languages, because we had listeners of various nationalities.

What were your broadcasts like?

They were always live. We broadcast various things. We talked about culture, we told jokes, I read poetry. Many listeners also called the studio at night, it was a kind of interactive broadcast. During one night I would receive as many as 200 phone calls. It was really a well-loved program. The director of OSCE in Kosovo even came to the radio and asked for me once. He wanted to speak to me immediately. My colleagues were afraid I had done something wrong, but he said: "I want to see the person who is responsible for me not sleeping all night! I listened to the nighttime broadcast and suddenly it was 6 AM!"

You left your radio career though. Why?

Yes. I don't work at the radio anymore. After the war I worked for Balkan TV. Then I also worked for a private Turkish radio station, but I had a problem with the director. Maybe it was just an inter-generational conflict, I don't know. He wanted me to only play Romani music. I thanked him and told him he had to find someone else. When he asked me why (he was surprised), I did my best to explain to him how important it is to broadcast information, not just music. It's terribly important to speak publicly about politics in relation to Romani people, it's important to talk about Romani culture. So we parted ways. Why should I just play Romani music on the radio? Every Romani family has a million cassettes at home! What we don't have is information. Information about what is happening to Romani people in Kosovo.

What are you doing today since you aren't a journalist anymore?

I have my nonprofit organization Rromani baxt (Roma Luck), which I run from home. As you could see today, we have, for example, the first-ever Romani octet, performing ancient Romani songs. These are songs that were sung by Romani people in Kosovo 300, 400 years ago. Our organization is also concerned with the social problems of local Romani people, with children's education, and with other cultural activities. We have a total of 10 divisions that dedicate themselves to various sectors.

You said you are working as an adviser to the President of Kosovo. Is she open to addressing Romani problems? Does she have the will to help Romani people somehow in their desperate situation?

Of course. However, the problem is that the Council of Communities has no executive power of its own. We do not have the right to decide matters. Our role is essentially to lobby. We raise our demands with the ministries and those in leadership positions in our government, but we don't have the necessary leverage to force them to negotiate on the basis of our advice. We basically represent Romani civic associations. I must confess that we don't even have money for basic expenses. If I need to travel to a meeting in another city, I often pay the cost out of my own pocket.

Are you successful in your negotiations with state leadership?

Not even. To be sincere, I am not very enthusiastic about this. We want more. It would even be very dangerous for me to ever say I was happy with a solution - the minute I say that, they'll shut the door. They'll say to us: "You're happy. Great! Thanks and good-bye." We really do have many problems here. We cannot allow anyone to say these are yesterday's problems. These are problems for several years into the future.

What in your view is the greatest difficulty the Kosovo Roma must face?

Romani people have enormous social problems in this country. However, it must be noted that not only Romani people are suffering. All of Kosovo is very poor. About 60 % of people here are unemployed. The situation for Romani people was still bearable when their relatives were living in Western Europe. Those relatives sent them money. Now, however, there are enormous problems with their return. This year approximately 34 000 Romani people are supposed to be repatriated to Kosovo. What now? It's a mess. I agree that if Romani people have been in Germany for 20 years without working, only collecting welfare, that they should return to Kosovo. I understand that Germany does not need parasites - but why should those who are working have to return? Why should those who were born in Germany and have never known Kosovo have to return? People believe that if Kosovo backs down on this and agrees to what the other European countries ask that those countries will eventually accept Kosovo into Europe, open the borders. That's why the government says there is no problem with the returns, but what will they do when 34 000 people come here? Kosovo definitely is not prepared to receive these people. Not in the slightest! The young ones won't even know how to speak Albanian! Those Romani people are in the position of ping-pong balls. Ping here, pong there.

Kujtim Pačaku is probably known by every Romani person in Kosovo.
He is a leading personality of the Romani movement for ethnic emancipation, the organizer of an unbelievable number of cultural and social activities, and a fantastically positive person. He was born in Prizren and graduated from the musical pedagogy department of the Fine Arts Academy in Prishtina and in theater direction under Professor Faruk Begolli.
Pačaku has contributed to the creation of a dictionary between Romani and five other languages and is a world-renowned poet; his collections include Golden Bridge, Winter Song, Heavenly Bird and Our Dead Never Die. He is one of Europe's first-ever Romani journalists and worked as a radio moderator for 30 years. Kujtim Pačaku is one of the most important personalities of the movement to emancipate those of Romani ethnicity in the Balkans. To this day he actively participates in many cultural and human rights projects.

Lukáš Houdek, Zdenka Kainarová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert


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