Give God a call

what a cowboy, his young wife and four children know about poverty

An extremely thin young woman, with a rather hanging pair of breasts and a gentle gaze, pulls a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolds it. It’s the teacher lady’s handwriting, photocopied for all the second-graders from the school in Drăgăești-Pământeni.

“One type A notebook, 2 lined exercise books, 2 math notebooks, glue, drawing block, brown plasticine”. The long string lengthens further with a pencil case, a pencil sharpener and a 20 centimeter ruler. Sofia reads and divides it all up using her sixth grade math. At Laie’s shop, these things cost either one, two, or five, while the auxiliaries can go up to 40 lei.

Sofia is 24 and is a mother of four, one still suckling and the others attending kindergarten and school. In poor families, education is a whim. To place your kids in school or kindergarten, one must sometimes relinquish food. The young woman’s husband, Leonte, knows this all too well. That crumpled piece of paper means five days’ work for the man.

They’re lying on the bed and the TV set is tuned to Minimax. The fire glimmers thinly in the stove. Around them, the four offsprings are having a ball: Adrian, one year and a few months old, Ionela, 4 years old, Andreea, 6 years old, Gabriela, 8 years old.

– Teacher told us to come in tomorrow with a notebook for Romanian and two for math, Gabriela shouts.

– Oh my! I only got you but one math notebook!, shudders Sofia.

– Well, I’ll be needing another one! Teacher said to bring in tomorrow one notebook for Romanian and two for math and a pencil case and a gel-based pencil. And we’ll grab the colours from Laie on tab anyway.

– Come on, sweetie, why’d you have to go around telling people we have a tab? Leonte, her father, scolds her from the other bed.

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Their house, the last one on the bystreet, is the size of a students’ shared room. In between the green walls, with badly-aligned carpets and bags of paraphernalia hanging, come together six people, one stove, a TV set and a precious PC given away by the city hall, covered with an old sheet with blue and mauve flowers on it.

Leonte’s family is one of the poorest in Drăgăești-Pământeni, Mănești commune, Dâmbovița. Leonte, a worthy man, as the neighbours describe him, is the village cowboy. He’s 42 and has fifteen cows that he herds daily, Monday through Sunday, as long as it’s warm outside. Out of the money he gets from the villagers, about 600 lei monthly, he buys food and, especially, school stuff. He also has the unemployment benefits and children’s allocations, these being their only source of income in winter time, when the cows are sleeping in the sheds.

He can’t make ends meet to build another room to the house. Firewood, food, school stuff and children’s clothing are the biggest expenses for the young family.

Ionela, the four year-old little rascal, goes to kindergarten. She, along with 48 other kids from the village, are recipients of the program „Every child in kindergarten”, managed by the OvidiuRo association, which is dedicated to families living below the poverty line. The program began in 2010 and has since helped over 3000 children from 43 rural communities.

For getting her little girl to kindergarten everyday, Sofia receives 50 lei’s worth of food stamps at the end of the month. Out of this money she’ll buy Ionela sandwiches and croissants and, sometimes, bread and cooking oil.

I spent a week with Leonte’s family to find out how poverty looks like for a cowboy, a young mother and four kids.

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The remainder of a dream

Sofia wakes up around 6 AM, with the rest of the household soon following suit. Until they get a proper wake-up, the house gets filled to the brim with other juveniles: the kids’ cousins. It’s how it is in the Roma communities: the doors to the houses, should they stand, are always open. Children wonder around unbothered, there are no fences or intimacy.

Sofia washes Gabriela’s face. She puts a pair of glittery jeans on her and a pink blouse. She combs her dark hair, waves her hair into a ponytail and arrests its rebellious strands with a blue, star-shaped paper clip.

Next up is Andreea. The child is stuffed inside a pair of red trousers, a pink shirt and a black vest. Upon putting her LED-lit shoes on, they light up and the kids get overloaded with joy.

In the middle of the house, Ionela swings around like a willow in the wind. She’s tiny and rumpled. Her eyes are barely open and there’s the remainder of a dream on her eyelids.

Leonte removes a sheet, like a magician would, revealing a computer bought through the Euro 200 program. Out of it, a manea is blaring out. The melody suddenly swallows up all the buzz of the house. Ionela pricks her ears up and starts shaking her ass on the double.

Her mother lifts her by the wing and stuffs her into a pair of grey sweatpants.

Adrian is lying on the bed. His eyes are big, the size of ripe chestnuts. He chews on a belt with considerable gusto. His father spots him and hands him a biscuit. He teases the little one. “Hey, Ionela, starting tomorrow you’re coming with me to the cows.”

In the door’s broken window a boy appears. He sticks his eyes in, then his hand through the crack, to open the door. “Oy, Gabriela, let’s go to school!” “Yeeees, we’re coming!”, the girls shout in a chorus.

With the backpack to the heart

Sofia takes her offsprings out of the house and covers the alley, heading for the main street. Out of the other houses, other kids slide down the hill, like little strands of water. Although the city hall has provided free transportation for the children within the program, school starts half an hour before kindergarten, and Sofia can’t make several trips. She walks with them. Four kilometers round-trip, twice a day.

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A group of some fifteen kids is slowly budging, laughing and being merry all the way, along the side of the road. Right next to them, buses lumber along, pairs of horses foot it with carriages attached, tractors go by raging.

After a few meters, Andreea begins to whine. “I want to buy something”. Her mother can’t hear her over all the racket around. “Me! Something!”, the child insists. “What do you want?”, Sofia asks her. “A croissant.” “Come on, I’ll get you one from the other side”.

When she reaches a store, she calls Gabriela. “Sweetie, go to Miss Lucica and tell her to give you three croissants.” The little schoolgirl wooshes there and, when she returns, the lasses jump for joy. Whilst crunching the croissant, Ionela looks at her mother and tells her it’s cold. “My girl is freezing.”

The school and kindergarten from Drăgăești-Pământeni are split by a wire fence. Upon reaching the two gates, the gang breaks up like a bag of chips and some go downhill, towards the kindergarten, while those with backpacks go up the hill.

In Andreea’s class there’s a commotion. The fresh scholars don’t have the patience to look at the cartoon that’s being projected on the wall by YouTube. They’re horsing around, running from here to there.

„It’s a transitional year”, says Adina Joița, teacher for the pupils in Zero Grade. “They still don’t know that they have to behave, they don’t know they have to listen.”

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Andreea, however, is content. Never letting go of her backpack, she embraced the back of her chair. “She’s always holding or wearing it. She got it at school, some people from the Roma Party brought a few backpacks for the poor pupils and she’s afraid someone will snag it from her.”

The little girl attended kindergarten for two years. She’s well-behaved, she knows the colours, and she’ll recite “The Lilac” poem without a hitch. The shoes she’s wearing came from her auntie Dina, her black vest used to be Gabriela’s.

Gabriela is a second grader. Her teacher, Georgiana Plavie, says she’s realistic young girl. “She’ll only talk if what she’s saying is of the utmost importance. All she does, she does by her own strength. Her mother is illiterate, as you know.” In first grade, if there was any award ceremony, Gabriela would get second prize. Last year, she went to the national Comper contest, and this year she’s due to attend the symposium “Let us not forget about Eminescu”, which is organized by the “Vasile Cârnova” school in Târgoviște.

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“Honestly, the kid would be a lot better off with better conditions and if she were assisted at home. That includes better hygiene. Sometimes, she’ll come in with her notebooks stained or her hands dirty. We also had flea infestations, I’m sorry, but her father was attentive and did what he was told”, says the teacher.

With Leonte she’s never had any issue, but Sofia has a hard time punching her way through. “She doesn’t know some things, she’s confused and scared, she always used to send Leonte at the school.” In the beginning, she condemned her, the teacher admits, but after speaking with the school’s mediator and with Leonte, she got a grasp on the issue.

“I approached her something like «come on, girl, how’s this gonna play out? », and when she perceived that I’m treating her like the younger sister, she became receptive.”

She says Gabriela could use some clothes. “Every school celebration, she suffers for not having that princess dress.” Most of the times, teachers are the ones who provide costumes for her. The uniform she wore in Grade Zero, she got from one of the teachers.

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Children of milk and chocolate

Georgiana Plavie says the program brought along many a positive change within the community. Children who attend kindergarten have a knowledge basis. “It’s particularly difficult to work on a kid who doesn’t know the colours, doesn’t even know what a pen is, can’t hold it in their hands.” Furthermore, they know how to wash their hands and become more attentive with their belongings. “If someone snags their pen or smears their notebook, it’s total sorrow for a few hours. We didn’t get that before, because they would come in straight from home and smear it themselves.”

In charge of implementing the program are a local team made up of a coordinator, a mediator, the city hall-assigned social worker and the mayor. Yearly, they conduct social enquiries and the beneficiaries are chosen out of the children of the village.

The handing out of food stamps is conditioned by the kids’ daily presence at the kindergarten. Teachers take note, and a member of the association checks in at least once a month for fair monitoring.

Within the communities included in the program “Every Child in Kindergarten”, the local administration plays a key role in facilitating children’s access to early education. Mănești city hall, for instance, ensures free transportation, renovated one of the classrooms, and this year they’re planning to buy shoes for all the children in the kindergarten.

Out of the 92 kids in the kindergarten, 48 are included in the program. Last year, when the program kicked off, numbers doubled. Initially, the other parents in the village didn’t go along with it, but teacher Marilena Gheorghe calmed them down. “I told them this: out here, some of us are milk, others are chocolate, but to me they’re all the same. Whoever isn’t content with that, there are private kindergartens, there are kindergartens in other villages, there’s one just up the hill. To each their own.”

Romania is home to the biggest number of poor people in the European Union, and those most affected by poverty are children. During a visit in Bucharest, Phillip Alston, rapporteur for the United Nations on poverty and human rights, said that kids’ access to education is crucial: “education isn’t just a fundamental right for the pupil, but also an important tool to guarantee that other rights are respected, such as the right to a workplace or to participation in public debate.”

By 2014, OvidiuRo was granted food stamp funding from various financiers or by European grants. This year, in spring, the association filed a legislative proposition by which County Councils are to support the cost of food stamps, and on October 7th, the Chamber of Deputies’ plenum voted in favour of a law through which all of Romania’s poor children- more than 110.000- will be given food stamps to attend kindergarten. These costs are to be supported by the state budget.

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“The vision at the basis of the program was that every child in Romania be given quality pre-school education.”, says Maria Gheorghiu, cofounder of OvidiuRo. Passing the law will permit that, but there are three terms for implementing it successfully. “It’s very important that the local teams (from social worker to teachers or mayor) be actively involved and assume the responsibility of supporting the children to attend kindergarten, the daily accounting for attendance be done in a rigorous manner, day in, day out, and that a steady flow of food stamps be assured, without delays or interruptions.”

Dani Sandu is an independent sociologist. He considers one of the harshest effects of poverty to be interiorized marginalization. “People who are marginalized will socialize whilst under the impression that they aren’t a part of society, and no one around them is willing or able to help them escape this marginalization”, says Sandu. “The assistance that society can provide for them is seen as a form of rent-seeking or assistentialism.

Early education hacks right through the lifeline of poverty. “Children coming from this sort of families consider themselves equal to others, which raises their hopes of success.”

On the long run, the effect is beneficial to society, as well as for the state. “The state provides the family with social and financial assistance to be used for subsistence, so it’s basically neutral, spending-wise, but the child receives an education and becomes integrated, aspects which become most profitable for the state”, says Sandu. The odds of these children becoming productive members of society swell considerably.

Youngsters don’t wants to smell like dung

The village of Drăgăești-Pământeni is stretched between the Dâmbovița river and the outskirts of a leafy-tree forest. During  the olden days, locals in the area would take up pottery. During the communists, they would work in the oil fields, at the CAP, in factories or at the steel mill in Târgoviște.

„Now, Dâmbovița has failed”, says mayor Alexandru Constantin. „Târgoviște has become a dead town. One can find work, but the wages are tiny.”

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Leonte used to work in the city for a while, doing garbage disposal. His salary was 700 lei and he would get 20 food stamps, 8 lei each. It was alright, but when the company lost the auction and went bankrupt, he returned to the cattle. He’s been a cowboy for ten years.

The thin, mustached man, with two ditches in between his eyebrows, hails from a family that always had animals as a business field. His father was a horse dealer and his mother- a cowgirl. The former died after taking a horse’s hoof to the chest and the latter ingested a stone while eating a salad, but pulled through. It was from her that Leonte stole the trade.

Leonte’s days go by strongly resembling each other. He works Monday through Sunday, April to whenever cold sets in. He wakes up at the same time as Sofica and the kids, and then he’ll stroll along the highway which cuts the village in two. He’s wearing green training trousers, a blouse which says NextGen and a sunburnt cap on his mug. A bag of grub dangles on his right hand, and a stick on his left. He uses it to, well, stick it in the cows when they become agitated or they’re sleepy and get a slow move on.

Heeei, he!, the cowboy hastens them.  Iiii! Move along, hard of hearing, are ya? Diii, sickness! Villagers give him the cattle and then retreat to their yards, doing chores. Leonte heads to the fields, herding them along.

„Leonte is really proper”, says the woman owning Joiana, a brown, white-bellied cow. „You chose him right. There’s plenty of gipsies who rakes in benefits, takes the allocation and drink them up, smokes them. Leonte occasionaly takes a sip, but he’ll work, the poor man.” In the woman’s hands, two empty buckets dangle. „He never said to people that they never paid him in due time. He understands. He’s hardly got any for his own, but what’s he gonna do?”

On the field, the first pit stop is by two water pits. The cattle drink it up voraceously, squashing flies with their tails and taking a dump. Leonte guards them, using the stick for support. He pulls out an old radio, which a grandson gave him, in which he puts an USB drive. „For everybody, this imperial melody!”, the plastic box suddenly springs into life.

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From across the hill, another group of cows join in. After them, barely, a 69 year-old man. It’s Victor, or Mr. Tore, as Leonte likes to call him. He brought cattle from another part of the village.

At first glance, Tore seems alright but, as soon as Leonte goes after the cows, he starts counting his money. “He’s bad”, he snorts. “Four kids and he can’t cope. His unemployment benefit is ten million (old Romanian Lei, n.r.), the cows rake him in about 20 and he pays me with about 2-3 million per month. He’s kinda dumb.”

As soon as Leonte turns back, he flips the coin. “Allocations went up, missy, pensions has gone up, they gave 2-300 more, but it’s little. With four kids it’s hard, real hard! Price of salami shot up 30-40 lei a kilo, do you realize that?”

“What are you gonna do with 80 thousand a month for that big girl of mine?”, Leonte also asks.

The old-timer approves. Two minutes on, Leonte goes after the cows again, leaving Tore to continue on the same note. “It’s how it is, missy, he’s bad. He can’t, it doesn’t work out for him.”

Around 11, when the sun dries the cows’ dung, cowboys hide under an oak tree. “We call it tufan. People come around here for barbecues and occasionaly leave a bottle of beer or soda. If we find them, we drink them”, Tore explains with a serious mime.

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The cows herd peacefully, the radio puts up a cheery sound: “Whenever I stand idle, it feels like I’m numb/ But with a chick in my arms, I quickly come around.”

“What, if I’m seventy, can’t I find a woman?” the old man suddenly asks. “Petre Roman got a 35-40 year-old one. Nowadays, money speaks to women, I’m telling you.”

“Oy, Romeo, you wanna get married at seventy?” Leonte laughs away.

“Yeah! So I don’t get bored.” Out of the box, Guță (a Romanian manele singer, n.r.) further encourages nea Tore: “With a femme fatale, adieu boredom.”

Leonte says the hardest time of the year is in spring, when people get their cows out of their sheds and send them to the field. “They stitches each other up, they fool around, give birth, wanna run back home to their cubs… it’s tough work for a week. After that, it’s easy-breezy, it’s like herding sheep.”

Generally speaking, it’s not hard work, but a rookie should take a few things into account. “First up, the cow shouldn’t be left to her own devices when you take her to the pasture. First, they’ll start quarreling, busting their antlers. If you can’t lure them and teach them, then that’s how the entire season’s gonna play out for you.”

Back in the day they had 50, now they’re left with just 15. “The youths don’t care much for cows no more. Youngsters don’t wants to smell like dung.”

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Come lunch time, he herds the animals into the woods. “If they’re sitting, than I get to sit and eat.” A few years back, he would get food from the villagers. Today – one of the neighbours, tomorrow another, and so on, right to the end of the month. Then, during the time Leonte worked in Târgoviște in garbage disposal, Sulfina, the women who took his place, told people that she can’t make ends meet with the food they’re providing her, and that she wants money instead. 20 lei per day instead of lunch.

He scratches the scruff of his neck: “Oh my! I forgot to bring tomatoes!” They both sit on a tree stub and pull the grub out of the bags. “We bring in what we can, like brothers, so we won’t get wacked by others”, Tore recites. Fried meat and cooked fish, cheese from a cow-owner, a piece of onion left in the woods yesterday, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

Măruță comes and goes

Leonte raised his house from clay and straws in three weeks. He used to put the cows to graze, eat a hasty lunch, grab his axe and run home to work for two hours. His brothers and brothers-in-law helped him.

Inside there’s a racket. After the kids come home from school, the slum suddenly comes alive. They all start running around like cubs around the shared courtyard. They scrape their knees, get covered in mud, and rivers of booger pour out their noses.

Sofica sits on one of the two beds, with Adrian hanging to her tit. That’s her crib. That’s where she sleeps with her suckling, Ionela and Andreea. In the other one, Leonte has to bunch up with their 8 year-old. They don’t have any cupboards or chests of drawers. They either use bags or the space beneath their beds for storage.

On a small and crooked chair now sits the mother to all the children on this street. It’s big momma-in-law, and next to her are two sisters-in-law of Sofica. They talk about Măruță.

– Hear this, girl, they say Măruță is coming over to televise Alexandra, one of them says.

– But why isn’t he coming over here, man? Here, where the poor people are, the other -asks.

– Yeah, he should come here! Alexandra’s man is gone outside the country! They have money!

– Well why don’t we give them a call, girl? Who should we call? Let’s call Măruță and tell him! Or Becali!

“Girls, calm down!” the mother-in-law laughs with a broken voice. “Give God a call. He’s the only one who can lend a hand now”.

Sofia’s mother-in-law, Leonte’s mom, is wearing all black. She used to be a cowgirl, but also made straw-brooms. “We used to eat unwashed lettuce with bread, and I swallowed a stone. They cut all my gland and chords to remove it. Since then, I’ve had this voice, I can’t shout no more.”

The kids all come inside and sit on the floor. They’re singing in chorus, something about spring.

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“I’m real proud of them”, Leonte later told me. When the association came to the village, he signed Andreea and Ionela up. With the food stamps from the kindergarten they would buy them sandwiches and soda, to begin with, then they switched to water. “They won’t allow sodas. They said water’s healthier. Ladies from the kindergarten said that.”

Now he’s got two girls in school, Gabriela and Andreea. He wants to keep it that way as long as he can, especially since Gabriela is racing along better than expected. Last year, she got second prize. This year, if she doesn’t get first prize, Leonte threatens to disinherit her. “It’s a special generation. My sister liked to learn, and the way she was, so are the kids.”

Ionela’s wailing because she wants to go to kindergarten over the weekend. They have many toys there, at home she has none.

Love at first doorstep

When he married Sofica, she was 13. Leonte had been married before. He liked her because she was like him, down on life. “Around these parts they wander around like there ain’t nothing to wander about. She was small, sad, and so was I. Dude, looks like a lady- she knows poor, she knows it all.”

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One summer night she went to the discotheque. He had two or three beers, after which he went to Sofica’s doorstep. I would talk to her, but on the low, like that. “Standing in the doorstep like that, I beg your pardon, I slept with her.”

Sofica’s older brother threatened to put him behind bars. Leonte went to the girl’s father. It’s up to you to decide. His father-in-law told him she can only cook French fries. “I was an old horse. I taught her. I showed her how to make a sarma, a meatball, a stew, a porridge, a mămăligă.”

Sofica gazes lovingly at her three daughters. She doesn’t want, under any circumstances, to have them married early.

Around 7 o’clock, when he gets home, Leonte pulss a yellow pen out of his pocket. “Look, sweety, I found you a pen”. Andreea jumps for joy. She sits on the bed, undoes her shirt and begins to thoroughly draw on her belly.

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“Well then, we gonna eat or what? ‘Cause I’m starving!”, Gabriela shouts. Sofia pulls out a wooden platter, puts it on the bed, and on it she places a plate full of fried meat. “Meat, meat, meat!”, the children all shout in a chorus. Leonte rests on the other bed. “I quench my hunger just by looking at them.” When the kids are done, he’ll start eating whatever’s left.

Evening sets in, and the air at the outskirts of the forest is rather cold. Some hungry little mutts are barking in the gypsies’ slum.

Sofia warms up the water on the stove and proceeds to wash her girls. She puts Ionela in a plastic bathtub, gives her a thorough, head-to-toe wash with Head and Shoulders and wipes her dry with a stained pink shirt. She does the same with the other two girls. She’s gonna wash Adrian tomorrow.

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Text: Lina Vdovîi
Photos: Ioana Cîrlig
Translation: Victor Bitiușcă

This story was done with the help of Asociația OvidiuRo – Scholarships for Civic Journalism, in order to inform the public about the education for the poorest children in Romania.

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