Back in 2009 The Budapest Times travelled to Bódvalenke to meet Eszter Pásztor and see her ambitious project to raise the mainly Roma-populated village out of dire poverty. The “Fresco Village” project has transformed the remote community in the the far northeast of Hungary into a living art gallery, with huge murals painted by internationally renowned Roma artists on the sides of houses. Here Pásztor tells us of the successes and frustrations of the past three years and the challenges the project still faces.
The Budapest Times has asked me to write a thousand words about what we have been doing in Bódvalenke this last year – and I don’t know whether I can keep to the limit. Bódvalenke – the Fresco Village, where Roma painters paint beautiful murals – is a mirror on all the evils and tensions, of all the struggles, the might-have-beens and should-have-beens that afflict Hungarian society at large. It is a drop that is part of an ocean.
The poor get poorer
Our project began in summer 2009. Then the average per capita monthly income was HUF 16,000 (EUR 57) – almost entirely social transfers due to a near-total lack of employment opportunities. Since then (thanks to the need to finance the new flat-rate taxation policy) income has dropped to below HUF 10,000 (EUR 35) in nominal terms, while local inflation has been at least 50 per cent and probably more. This leaves many residents of this area at below the absolute poverty threshold established by the World Bank of two US dollars a day. Poverty was dire back in 2009; now starvation is a threat.
We in Bódvalenke are a little better off than some: so far only two families have had their electricity cut off, while in some of the neighbouring villages one rarely sees a light in the windows at night. In these villages I have begun to notice children with swollen bellies, as in Africa. This in a country that is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of the world’s wealthier nations.
Great art meets cold hearts
Since 2009 Roma artists have painted 26 magnificent murals in this village and created something absolutely unique in the world (which, incidentally, made the village world-famous, thanks to Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera, CBC, ORF, Euronews, ART and many newspapers and magazines).
Art historians have told me that at least half a dozen of these murals would be welcomed by the world’s great galleries and museums. Yet we have absolutely no infrastructure to cater for those who come to see this marvel. There is just one bathroom in the project office, yet our grant application to build an extension with rooms, toilets, showers and an HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point)-compliant kitchen was turned down after a ridiculous bureaucratic delay. And we are left crying over our inability to access European Union funding.
Our Dragon Festival (conceived as homage to Roma art in its many forms and as a feast of joy in the sharing of culture) was organised for the third time this year, and it has become a real festival with some 1,000 visitors. This was no small achievement for the men and women of Bódvalenke who fed and looked after all these people often without running water or other amenities – but they were excellent hosts.
In time for the festival we released the first CD of Bódvalenke Women’s Choir (who sang to European MPs in Brussels last year). It was produced together with Serbian multimedia artist Zoran Tairovic, who painted a few fantastic murals in Bódvalenke including perhaps the most beautiful Christ in art history. With his beautiful sophisticated music, the recording somehow speaks for all European Roma, their sorrow and joy, their will to live and the soul of mother earth in Bódvalenke.
On the second day of the Dragon Festival we organised a mini-conference with the result that now several universities, many students, professors and other people of goodwill have joined to create a network which – by creating a major database – will bring together those with practical knowledge to help the non-governmental organisations and others working primarily with people in dire poverty.
Support from everyday people
Bódvalenke attracts many kind-hearted people, such as the students organising summer art camps for the children (whose works were exhibited in Budapest’s Bálint House along with photos of the village). Students from Budapest’s MOME University of Art have devoted field trips to the betterment of the village: they are working on developing the “Bódvalenke brand” including research for possible local products (e.g. honey-and-chili bolete chips and such like). Young architects from the Hello Wood collective built a beautiful wooden structure in the shape of a dragon around the washing pond.
A Waldorf teacher has been working with the children of Bódvalenke for three years – and, it seems, her work is at last bearing fruit: the kids are doing much better at school and even the parents are beginning to understand that nothing works without learning. The highest level of education among the adults in the village – including the non-Roma mayor – is eight years of primary school. Our teenagers will do better.
Bitten by the hand that could feed them
Most of our efforts are directed at job creation. We are still hoping to get a major rabbit-breeding program under way – characteristically, the district employment centre rejected our application under the Start-Work Program: the Gypsies would eat the rabbits, they said. They disregarded the fact that ten angora rabbits placed with a family so locals could learn the arts of sheering and breeding were alive and kicking after several months… We’ll find a way.
With the help of many volunteers, however, we have managed to launch a small tailoring plant. This gave local women the difficult task of making protective clothing for welders. Our four old – some would say obsolete – industrial sewing machines keep breaking down but at least we have them. For the time being we only employ four women but if we get additional orders there is a queue for work.
Putting stereotypes to rest
We are battling against the lie that “Gypsies don’t like to work” but our experience clearly refutes this widely held prejudice. When our machines broke down again it looked like we might be late with the first delivery. The local women knew perfectly well that if they failed to perform well on this first order there might not be another one, so they worked 48 hours non-stop!
And when on the Sunday evening it turned out that they might still not be ready in time, three other women joined them – knowing that they would not get paid. They worked flat-out ironing and packaging until 5am because they wanted the tailoring plant to be a success.
There is so much more to tell – if the kind reader wants to find out more, you are welcome in Bódvalenke. I can promise that your visit will be an unforgettable experience.
– Eszter Pásztor, Bódvalenke – Fresco Village Project, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid. More info: