Margita Damová has never in her life left the village of Rankovce in the Košice county. She was born as the third of 11 children to a mason’s family. She finished nine grades of primary school, but she says she’s always wanted to go to school and learn more. Today, at the age of 50, she believes she still has time to change her life.
How many girls were in the family?
Margita Damová: We were eleven children. Seven girls and four boys.
How many of you finished school?
MD: Six in all. My four brothers and two sisters.
What kind of schooling do they have? What did they study?
MD: My youngest brother is a trained auto mechanic and two others are masons. My other brother is a welder. Both sisters finished technical school.
Do they have jobs?
MD: One of my brothers lives in Czech Republic. He has a job, and one brother in Slovakia has a job.
Why didn’t you complete your studies?
MD: I was the oldest of the girls and it was necessary to help my mother, because there were younger sisters and my youngest brother. He was ill and mama often took him to the doctor, so we had to help her at home.
Wasn’t it difficult for you to stay at home and not continue your studies? Was this good for you?
MD: It was difficult. I wanted to be a hairdresser. That was my desire, but I wasn’t lucky in life. But I cut hair anyway. I cut hair for both women and men.
What did your parents encourage you to do?
MD: They wanted us to do well, to make something of ourselves. But I didn’t have a chance.
Did they care for you properly? Did you have enough to eat, to wear and everything you needed?
MD: Yes, they took care of us, and we had everything we needed. My father worked hard. Sometimes he would bring home just a single crown from his pay packet, because he paid a large alimony.
Did he have other children?
MD: He had four other children that he supported.
Did you have a difficult life then?
MD: I don’t think so. My father was good at everything.
You didn’t complete your studies. Did your mother encourage you and your sisters to stay home and to take care of the household?
MD: No, no, no. I myself wanted to help, because I saw that this was too much for her.
How did your mother tell you that you aren’t going to finish school?
MD: But my parents wanted me to go to school. They wanted this. They wanted me to study, because I liked it. And I still like it.
Then it was your decision not to go to school and to stay home to help your mother with your younger siblings?
MD: Yes, I wanted to help her. I told her that I’m not going to school anymore, but that my sisters can still go.
So you abandoned your big dream because of your family?
MD: Yes, I gave it up because of the family.
How old were you when you got married?
MD: I was 20. I had been working for a while in a hospital. I helped mother in this way, because we were building a house, so I went to work.
How did you meet your husband?
MD: I met him here at home, in the village. I was four years older than him. At first I didn’t even dream of such a thing. I was working, and he saw that I’m earning well and that I’m a fair person, and so we started going out together.
Did you love him?
MD: Not a whole lot, no, because my parents didn’t want him.
MD: He was an orphan. He was only about 10 years old when his mother died. That’s why they didn’t want him. Because he was an orphan and that I wouldn’t have a good life with him.
Were they right?
MD: Yes, they were. Now I’m sorry for it, even though we live together. He works from time to time, brings home some money... he loves our children... but I think that this is not what I want.
And what do you want?
MD: Something better. He doesn’t prevent my doing anything; I attend courses, go everywhere, and he supports me in this and my children support me too. But I’m not expecting anything good from him....
How many children do you have?
At what age did you have your first child?
MD: I had my first child at age 22. Then the second one at age 24. I have seven children, six boys and a girl.
If you could turn back the clock, would you have so many children with your husband?
MD: No. I wouldn’t want this, because we’re living in difficult times.
When you got married to him, did you think that your life would look like this?
MD: I thought that I would have a good life, because he is an orphan and that he would therefore be more polite with me. But it’s not like that. He is otherwise humane; he has only one bad trait. I’d rather not talk about this.
What kind of bad trait? Does he drink?
MD: He likes to drink. This is his bad side.
What have your children achieved? What would want for them?
MD: What would I like for my children?! Something better. A better life than they have now. So that they live the way I lived with my own mother, where I had everything I needed. But perhaps they aren’t lacking anything significant, because I give them all of the love I have in me as well as everything that I can. Just like my mother did.
Did you have the opportunity to give them a better life?
MD: No, I didn’t.
What don’t you have?
MD: What don’t I have?! I don’t have a house. I’ve longed for one my whole life.
Did you send your children to school?
MD: No. My daughter, who now goes to primary school, wanted to study. She is still only 13 years old, however. But I’ll keep repeating to her from now on: I didn’t study, and your brothers didn’t, but at least you can. She listens to me, and says that she’ll go study, that she wants to do this. She would like to go to an arts school; she hopes to get in there. She always says to me, that she’ll go to an arts school.
What are you encouraging your daughter to do?
MD: I have only one daughter and I would like her to have a better life than I’ve had.
And what about the boys?
MD: There are only three boys with me now. The others already live with their wives; three are still single.
Do you think that you were happy in your own life?
MD: Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not. I don’t feel as good as I’d like to.
When are you happy?
MD: When we go for training. There I enjoy everything. It’s then that I‘m happy. And when I have money.
When are you unhappy?
MD: I’m happy. Why not? I am.
What is happiness in your opinion?
MD: What is happiness for me?! I can’t say. Money? My children, I think. Because they are all I have. And my mother. My mother is all I have left. My father died.
How did you dress around your parents?
MD: Around my mother? Like the others, though perhaps a bit better. I bought the things I wanted.
Did you wear pants?
MD: Yes, quite modern pants. I even had them made. That’s why I had earned some money.
How did your clothing change around your husband?
MD: It was poorer at first, but now he allows me more. He has only one fault and that’s that he drinks. Not every day, but I really don’t like alcohol. I can’t stand it.
When he drinks, does he beat you or the children?
MD: No. I can’t say that. He doesn’t beat me. More like he ends up crying over us. He says that he really misses his mother. He doesn’t beat me or the children.
Who raised your husband?
MD: His stepmother. They had a wicked stepmother. I think that his badness comes from her.
Was he educated?
MD: He studied masonry for two years, but he couldn’t finish around his stepmother. He could have, and he had a chance at first. He can read and write, but he lost this opportunity to complete school. She didn’t give him money for bus fare.
When you think over your life, are you satisfied with it? Is it good the way things are?
MD: Well, I have to be satisfied with him. What else can I do?
When a person is alive, he always wants something. Don’t you expect anything from life anymore?
MD: I’m satisfied with my life. I’ve come to terms with everything. I’m not so satisfied with the fact that I live with my children. I would like a better life for the children. I’d like a house for them. Were I to win the lottery, I’d buy a house and I would do something for my mother, too. Then I’d be more satisfied.
What would you like to do for your mother?
MD: What do I know? I would like something for her.
Is she lacking something?
MD: Not really. She’s not lacking anything, because I help her with everything, though perhaps I’d be happier if she had wood for the winter.
Who lives with your mother?
MD: She lives in a house with my brother, but she has her own household. A daughter is a daughter.
Why? Is it better for the Roma when an older daughter cares for them?
MD: Yes. It’s better because a daughter-in-law won’t care for a mother-in-law the way a daughter will. She’d be sorry for it.
Yet your mother isn’t leaving her home to you but to her daughter-in-law.
MD: This doesn’t matter. I’ve come to terms with everything. I’m not envious. I don’t envy my brother this. Our father took care of us, but we didn’t obey him. We should have married better. We should have done as well as my brother.
When your daughter grows up, will you tell her to listen to you because otherwise she’ll end up like you, a person who didn’t obey her parents?
MD: Here’s what I tell her all the time: to obey me like I obeyed to my own mother.
How do you want to improve your life? What do you want to do?
MD: What do I want to do?! How would I change my own life? How can I answer this? Well, for my daughter, I want her to stay in school. This I would change. Even if I didn’t finish school, at least she can.
And if she doesn’t want to, will you force her to?
MD: No, because she longs for this. She always tells me that she’ll finish school and that she wants to study further. She wants to go to an arts school, like I said.
In your opinion, is the life of a Roma woman different than the life of a non-Roma woman?
MD: Yes, because they have better overall conditions than Roma women. But if a Roma woman becomes wiser, she can achieve anything a non-Roma woman can achieve.
Do you think that non-Roma girls obey their mothers more than Roma girls do?
MD: They obey, yes. Non-Roma women obey their mothers because they attend school and finish school and so have a better life.
You don’t have an education; you didn’t finish school, but you now attend training courses, not only in Košice or here in Rankovce but you even sometimes travel quite far. What have you seen there that is so interesting? Why do you go there?
MD: Why did I start going?! Because Kveta asked me to. She needed one more woman. She mentioned it to me and I told her that I’d go with her. I really liked it when I went for the first time. I’ve been attending for two years now. I met some other women there and we carried out two projects, so now I know how to do all these things and I want to know more.
What does your family or your children say about this?
MD: My husband is proud of the fact that I go there. He knows that I always wanted to study and learn something and that I weren’t able to. So he tells me that since I started this, I should continue with it and that he and the children support me.
You’re often away from home and the children need to be cared for. Who does this for you?
MD: My husband does. He sends our daughter to school because she’s the only one who attends school, and the three boys help him with everything. I’m teaching him to cook. He only knows how to make simple dishes, but he wants to learn to make more complicated things. He’ll be able to do it. A lot of times I’ve come home and my daughter says to me, “Mama, daddy cooks better than you do“. So he supports me in this way.
Are your husband and children proud of you?
MD: They are proud of me. My husband often goes to one non-Roma to work and he praises me there, tells him about all the things I’ve achieved, and how he would like me to use what I’ve learned somewhere. He wasn’t able do this and knows that it’s my dream, this desire to be educated, so he is proud of me.
What do other Roma say about this?
MD: What do the Roma say? You know how it is between us. Sometimes they speak well of it, other times they say bad things. Sometimes they are proud that two women from the village attend courses and sometimes they undervalue us. We, however, don’t worry about this. We’re proud of what we do. This happens in life, that others drag you down, and we assumed this would happen, because they see only the fact that we head off somewhere.
You’re familiar with the difficult life of women in Roma settlements. What needs to change to make it different? What should they be able to do themselves?
MD: What should women do? They don’t have water. Water allows you to do a lot, which is why we go out for water. Sometimes the well works, sometimes not. We really miss having running water easily at hand.
Do you think it’s good that Roma women don’t work and that they simply care for the family?
MD: No. This is not good. Better work opportunities are now beginning to open up. I myself would go to work. This wouldn’t be a problem at all, because I miss working and money is always needed.
Can you imagine yourself in politics?
MD: Why wouldn’t I? I’m a pretty wise woman about such things, about what to do in the world. I would like to get involved; every woman would.
Do you ever meet with non-Roma women?
MD: Yes, we meet. We met with some women from Greece, too. They were here to teach us. Many times women from Bratislava came. Now we go again to Bratislava.
How do non-Roma women perceive you?
MD: You mean here in Slovakia? Good. They’re proud of us, proud of the fact that they have found at least two Roma women who have sense, and even though we didn’t study in school, we know how to go forward, that this is what we want, too.
The majority of Roma say that prior to 1989 the Roma lived better. How did it change your life?
MD: How did it change... before then everyone had to work. Now most Roma are on the social benefit, but there are opportunities… even for the Roma, to work. Perhaps four people from here work regularly on contract. I would also like to find work.
Did your family live better before the Revolution or after?
MD: Perhaps it’s the same. It doesn’t matter. My brother earns quite well now. I think it doesn’t matter, before or in the present. Only that before the Revolution food was a lot cheaper; now it’s more expensive. But a person always needs to live.
Can the position and lives of Roma women be changed?
MD: They can be if Roma women want to change them. Why not? There are plenty of capable Roma women. These things can be changed.
Who in a Roma family is the so-called “head of the family“? The woman or the man?
MD: In our house both are on an equal footing. He brings home the money and I take care of the house.
You said that politics is interesting to you. How would you like to be involved, for example, as a representative or as what?
MD: This is a very difficult question, but I think probably as some kind of representative. If I were to then come home, I’d be able to tell others what’s new on the political scene. I would like this.
Is the life of women more difficult than the life of men?
MD: I think that men have a harder life, because they have to find work and travel for their wages and a woman then spends this hard-earned money. She should be a good housewife and seriously consider each crown her husband works hard to earn.
A woman doesn’t have a difficult life?
MD: She has it hard, too, because in addition to everything else, she has to work, too. She can’t just sit at home and wait for her husband. Now there is a program of activation work and volunteer work. If she’s on volunteer work, she has to do even more. They give you the sort of work there that you do more than others on activation work. Hard work.
If we come back in five years, what do you think will have changed in your life by then?
MD: I think I’ll live better than now. Indeed, even now I don’t live so badly, but perhaps this will be better when work for it.
What are you working towards? Your daughter is 13 years old now. In five years she’ll be 18. What then for her?
MD: So, marry her off early – I would not do this. I don’t want this. I want her to learn and go to work somewhere. It shouldn’t be work outdoor, but nice, indoor, because there are now more opportunities. I also worked inside a building; I was warm and did some man‘s work.
If you could say something to the members of the European Parliament about the Roma in Slovakia, what would it be?
MD: This is a pretty important question.
What should these representatives know about the Roma in Slovakia? What would you tell them about the life of the Roma?
MD: I don’t know how the Roma elsewhere in the world live, but there are poorer Roma and richer Roma. It’s all about if the Roma have equal rights like the non-Roma, because the Roma never have rights.
What would you like to change in the life of the Roma over the next five years?
MD: What would I like to change? Everything: their life, so that they didn’t live as they live, but as a person should live; so that they weren’t so poor, so that unemployment wasn’t so high. I would like the Roma to be able to live like other people.
Does your family keep any Roma traditions?
MD: I don’t think so. I don’t even know what kind of traditions are Roma traditions.
Do you speak the Romani language?
MD: Yes, I do speak Romani. It’s the language my mother taught me.
When you’re among the non-Roma what offends you or demeans you the most about their approach toward you or toward other Roma?
MD: If I’m at work it doesn’t matter what obstructs me. I do volunteer work and they call me a gypsy there. I said: there are no longer any gypsies, there are only Roma. Before then, we apparently “gypped” people, we lied, but now we’re Roma. So this offended me, so I had to tell one woman off. You’re a “gypsy” too, I said, because you “gyp” too, you lie, and you‘re a non-Roma. Now we have the right to be referred to as Roma.
Interviews with Roma women are part of a project by the Roma Press Agency and will be published in a forthcoming book.