International Romani Day – promoting pride in Early Childhood Development

- Blog | Adrian Marsh
8th April activities, Railway Fields Nature Project, London
Roma, Gypsy and Traveller children with Jamaican children and ECD practitioners, making paper wheels and painting waggons.

Romani and Traveller children, together with children from a wide variety of backgrounds in north London, create paper-plate ‘wheels’ as part of activities on the 8th April.

The activities that ‘mark’ the International Romani Day have been an opportunity to both celebrate the astonishing array of varieties of Romani and Traveller cultures in the world and to acknowledge the contributions that Romani peoples have made to broader European culture in many areas – not least music, dance and the arts but also in language, economics and technical expertise. Sophisticated metal-working techniques passed into Europe’s emerging early modern nation-states as a result of transmission from Romani iron-masters, weapon makers and goldsmiths that brought skills learned in India, Persia and Byzantium that were far in advance of those in western Europe. Horse-trading, essential in pre-machanised societies that depended upon animal transport, was another occupation that mobile Romani, Gypsy and Traveller communities specialised in, keeping the farmers (and the early modern armies) in the field. Entertainers and craftspeople for kings, popes, emperors and peasants, Romani people were an intrinsic part of early modern life from the time they first entered Europe from Asia Minor, recorded in the chronicles of Hildesheim, Paris and Stockholm (and many other cities) throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

A long way from early childhood development, you may say? Well, yes, but the point here is that there is a history or series of histories behind the Romani, Traveller, Gypsy, Rroma, Manouche, Sinti, Yenische and other communities and history is identity. With a history that is recorded, you have evidence of this identity through time and of a past that is shared with, yet distinct from, other peoples in Europe. And that is what gives people a sense of identity, of ‘pride’ in themselves – we know who we are. Self-confidence springs, in part from this and key to the achievement (in education and life) for Romani children (or challenges to this) is a damaging lack of self-confidence, self-worth and belief in one’s self as capable. So knowing something about who we are (as a group of peoples), where we are from and why we are ‘here’ (wherever ‘here’ is) has, I would strongly suggest, an impact upon these. A value even.

In order to appreciate this we, as Romani early years practitioners, have to share this history, this sense of the past and pride, with others from outside of our communities to enable them to appreciate us in the context of being a people with history, cultures, languages, knowledge and experience built up over centuries, similar to their own yet distinct to us. We can also share the sense of sorrow, pain and loss that the experiences of exclusion and persecution have left us with (and surely this is at the heart of the issues of trust and understanding between Roma and non-Roma or gadjé). We can help the process of learning and mediate the lesson, navigate the cultural sphere to lead and guide on the journey to mutual respect and appreciation.

We can, as early years practitioners do this with children from different communities (as in the picture from a project I ran a decade ago, above) to promote a positive understanding of our past and how it relates to others from differing communities and groups. In the early years, we have the opportunity to strengthen the basis of confidence and self-belief amongst young Romani children that will prove the core of their identity as youngsters and adults, as part of our work to strengthen all children’s confidence and self-value.

The means to do these things, as you can see in the photograph, are those we have at hand already – though some, it is true require some specialist providers (the Romani caravan or waggonfor example), and some will take a bit of time to research together (Romani and non-Romani practitioners, with parents too) to gather the right information to use with small children; but we have the rest – Persona dolls for stories and imaginative, therapeutic play (all play is, of course, therapeutic for children and adults in some way), paints and crayons, paper. We can decorate baskets (a very traditional Romani craft), make paper roses and flowers (another craft and occupation that I have practised, after learning from one of my aunties), paint pictures of Romani people, trailers and wagons, make flags – we have one and here it is – tell stories – Serbia Step-by-Step produced a lovely book of Romani stories in Romanës, English and Serbian that could be more widely translated, for example. We can play games and sports – here’s a Gypsy and Traveller boy’s team –

Romani Traveller 5-a-side football team in Haringey
These boys went on to win the cup!

cook food, make models of animals that are important in Romani culture – hedgehogs and horses, for instance – and generally try to tell children, through asking our parents and grandparents to share their life stories and memories with all of us on the day, a little of what it is to be Romani.

So this 8th April, let’s come together and share some of this and make Romani children feel proud of who they are, what they are and what they can be…