Through the ages Roma have been known as gypsies. Now they would prefer to be called Roma. In Norway there are no more than around 500. Only a few have completed a lower secondary level education, and none have had any formal education beyond that. They now want to start learning to enable them to cope better in society.
(Tor Erik Skaar - InfoNet)
If you read the papers in Norway, you can easily get the impression that there are often big disagreements and eternal conflicts between the various family clans within the Roma people. And to a certain extent this is true enough. Gypsies, or Roma as they now prefer to be called, are a colourful and emotionally charged people. They are in a difficult situation, as they want to preserve their distinctive quality, but at the same time be part of the wider community. In other words they are facing considerable challenges. Their needs are particularly high when it comes to formal and structural education.
Roma are also called the travelling people, and are a people without a country. They generally set out on their travels every year. In recent times it has become increasingly difficult for them to do this in practice. They meet resistance and bad feeling wherever they go and in many places they are refused entry to camp sites. They generally travel in groups of 25 - 30 and everyone in these groups is closely related. When they are on the move, the group´s leader ensures that everyone receives a specific task. Responsibility for the children´s education while they are out travelling would be one such task. Often it is the same people who are given these tasks year after year and as such they act as teachers within their environment.
Travelling is a very important part of their culture. On these travels they engage in trade to earn money. They form networks and it´s how many young people meet their partners. They are also very preoccupied with religion and many of their meetings are closely connected with religious events.
There are two Roma organisations in Norway. Andreas Muller is 50 years old, and the vice-president of one of them; Norsk Romforening, the Norwegian Roma Association. We meet him at home with his wife, Marina, and his youngest daughter, Jamaica. He is friendly and obliging and is more than willing to talk about the Roma people´s relationship with learning. It seems there isn´t much to write home about:
"We have to start learning now", says Andreas. "It is difficult to be part of a modern society without being able to read and write. Many would like to get proper jobs, but it´s not easy if you can´t read or write. Like most other people, we want to be independent and have our own income. We want to own our own homes like everyone else. Not least we sorely need to know how to go about starting and running ordinary businesses in Norway. It´s really important for us to deal with this, something needs to be done urgently about the level of education in our people," he says seriously. "Most Roma nowadays receive benefits from the state. When you have lived on benefits for a while, there is always a risk of not getting out of this system. We become social slaves," says Andreas. "It can´t go on like that", he stresses.
Although they don´t have any form of education to speak of, there´s a lot they can do. When they are travelling around, they are involved in various forms of trade. For example they sell rugs and they sharpen knives and other tools. Roma women also sell their fortune telling services. They are therefore good at practical mental arithmetic. But if you give them a piece of paper and ask whether they can work out the same calculations on paper, they can´t manage it.
The skills they possess are nurtured and passed on to coming generations, as they always have been. This may be through practical examples, through songs and music, and not least through stories.
Government training scheme
The City of Oslo started a training project for adult Roma supported by state funding in October 2007. The project leader, social anthropologist Cecilie Skjerdal, is using alternative educational methods in order to get away from the previous "clientification" of this racial group. The aim is to set up an educational scheme which will help this minority create respect for their traditions and bring its people and culture to the fore in a modern context.
In other words it´s a specifically designed educational scheme. The scheme is completely voluntary and is not linked to any form of quid pro quo. The participants meet a teacher who is used to working with illiterate people or people who are functionally illiterate. The target group is primarily young people, possibly with children of their own in primary and lower secondary school education. The scheme has been developed in collaboration with the Roma´s own organisations in Norway.
A steering group under the City of Oslo´s Department of Cultural Affairs and Education is supervising the process. They also support schools which have pupils with a Roma background. The adult education project for Roma is intended to be a complementary scheme. In the long term it is hoped that if parents have basic skills it will improve the ability of children in primary and lower secondary education to achieve. The action taken by the City of Oslo demonstrates the public commitment to helping maintain the Roma culture as a minority in Norway.