Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Lisa Clark
“People from the neighborhood have been asking,” Rumiana said, her voice humming cello rich and mellow, “whether you and your husband are going to buy my baby.”
“Really?” The revelation didn’t really jar me. Trafficking in babies has been a lucrative trade for some time in Eastern Europe, and here in Bulgaria specifically. An infant may cost up to $34,000, although the mothers generally end up with a pittance. I knew Rumi’s principles wouldn’t allow her to be involved in such a trade, but I understood how the ugly story might have burst forth among her neighbors and spread like spores from an overripe puffball.
“Can you meet me at the polyclinic? It’s urgent,” Rumi had said over the phone. Scared because of abdominal cramping and inactivity of her fetus, a visibly pregnant Rumi smiled weakly as I neared. I doubted she and her baby were in any actual danger, but her scrunched forehead and the slow circling hand on her belly convinced me she should talk to a doctor.
Terrazzo stairs to the fourth floor sagged wearily from thousands of footfalls. A shadow filmed the once peach-colored walls that reached down to hug floors bordered by a fat edging of ground-in dirt. Flimsy fringe mops had failed to clean dust and debris left at the base of chairs and benches, where sick people endured silent pain as they waited.
Traversing the empty corridor, we first stopped outside the door of Rumi’s gynecologist. No signs of life there. The locked office doors of one doctor after another shouted their inaccessibility. How absurd to think we’d find a doctor working on Saturday; they had better things to do with their time than to see the likes of Rumi.
“Sit down,” I insisted when we were again outside. Though the area lacked benches, a concrete planter served as a seat.
Leaving Rumi to rest, I bought a cup of cappuccino at a nearby kiosk, hoping the purchase might make the seller more responsive to my question. “Do you know of any gynecologists? There’s a pregnant woman over there,” I said, gesturing toward Rumi, “who needs help.” Even from a distance, Rumi’s baby bump made her petite form look even more malnourished. Her long black hair pulled into a low ponytail sucked in heat from the fierce midday sun.
The seller blurted the question to a second woman, who was able to supply a name and number. Another small obstacle overcome.
Had one of Rumi’s neighbors seen me with her that day and conjectured that I had a vested interest in the child she carried? Who knows? Perhaps they were merely trying to make sense of a blonde-haired blue-eyed American woman and her husband coming to the poorest section of town to spend time with a woman whose home didn’t even warrant an address.
Back in 1992, when my family and I first moved to Bulgaria, I had no inkling that my life would intersect and become entangled with Rumi’s. While living in the capital of Sofia and working for a non-profit organization, my husband and I distributed aid for orphanages, assisted with the adoption of kids who otherwise had no real future, collected funds to help pensioners pay for their heating bills, taught English, and worked to meet various other needs for the next seven or so years.
After a break of several years, we returned to Bulgaria in 2005 to continue non-profit work, though this time we changed location. In our absence, Sofia’s street noise had grown by decibels as wheezing communist-era vehicles shared the roads with late model Mercedes. The city had morphed into a noisy, dirty metropolis where transplanted young people from towns and villages scrambled to find work.
The small city of Blagoevgrad, tucked into Bulgaria’s southeast corner, offered a cleaner, quieter, slower pace of life. It also offered something we had little experience with in Sofia: close contact with Roma. Though the European Union insists that “Roma” is the politically correct term for this race, many Bulgarians prefer the epithet “Gypsies.” Because our city is so much more compact than Sofia, we regularly cross paths with members of the Roma population hoveled in the poorest neighborhoods.
Ani was one of the first Roma I had contact with. She fit the box many Bulgarians try to jam all Roma into. Thin, dirty, and poorly clad, I usually spotted her with her three sickly children, who huddled behind her in silence. Uneducated, the youngsters lacked basic knowledge: how to follow traffic signs, reading, simple math, and even the ability to identify commonplace items. An eye malady forced the eyes of one child in different directions.
Ani herself lacked the knowledge or skills for most types of work but, as with poor people everywhere, deficiencies bit into her and her family’s lives as unremittingly as bedbugs at night. Begging was one of the “jobs” Ani worked in order to survive. In a low but insistent voice, she’d stand before use, gesturing toward the kids or heavenward with clasped hands and cite various needs. We had trouble understanding many of Ani’s words; some of the Roma, though they’ve lived their entire lives in Bulgaria, primarily speak Romani. Missing teeth probably also factored into the mix. Nevertheless, we understood that she wanted help and we had trouble saying no.
One day, as I exited a store, I met Ani waiting for me with her kids in tow. As usual, she wanted money. This time, she begged because she hadn’t received a welfare check. I dug through my purse to find leva for her, though I didn’t have much money on me. I had other errands to run, so I bustled off afterwards. My husband and I, like the Roma, walk almost everywhere in our compact city. After some time, tired and ready to return home, I spotted Ani again. I approached her with a smile and asked how she was. Once again, she begged for more money. I gave what I had left, and fumed just a little as I walked away.
I was angry that she asked for more when I’d already given her money. I was angry that she didn’t seem grateful for what she had received. And I was angry at myself for my own irritation with someone who had so little when I knew I had so much. Whatever giving to someone was supposed to feel like, this wasn’t it. Ani—through no real fault of her own—made it difficult for me to respond compassionately.
Rumi was as different from Ani as velvet is from burlap. The first time I met her, she greeted me with a calm gentleness that could settle a snarling mongrel. She was also Roma and poor and struggling to take care of herself and her family, but when she opened her mouth to that smooth deep voice, intelligent, comprehensible words emerged. She welcomed me into her family’s home, a sorry little shack that offered little more than shelter from the elements.
They had suspended a small hammock from the ceiling where her young son slept, tied in to keep from falling. In a corner crouched a low table that her husband had fashioned out of scrap lumber. Though uneducated, her thoughts communicated a raw intelligence and a spirit of humility. Her face, with the dusky hue that makes the Roma so recognizable, was youthful and pretty. She’d already given birth three times by the time she reached twenty-five, yet her slim body might have made her a model in another setting.
Unlike some of the hundred or more people who shared the ghetto’s meager water supply—a pipe that sticks from a dirt bank like a chicken foot poking out of a waste pile—located a couple hundred feet above her shack, Rumi managed to keep her clothing, herself, and her children clean. “Dancho”—her husband—“fetches the water for me,” she explained.
Despite her positive characteristics, I didn’t foresee having much contact with Rumi. Trekking the two or so miles to her place from ours was like traveling to another continent: inconvenient, uncomfortable, and utterly foreign.
Then Dancho did something to distinguish himself from other Roma men. While my husband worked on a building project in the Roma quarter, Dancho was one of the very few men willing to help. Others lingered nearby only to mock the work and predict failure while Dancho hauled boards, swung a hammer, dug, and lifted.
Another thing marked Rumi and Dancho as different: in contrast to many of their neighbors, Rumi and Dancho decided not to steal. “One woman I know pestered and badgered her husband to steal so she could have gold jewelry and other nice things,” Rumi confided to us. “But the police caught him and he’s in jail and she’s left to raise her kids alone. It’s so much worse for her now.” Other women in the neighborhood stole small items like socks from sellers. “They say the sellers can afford it,” Rumi explained.
We also discovered a source of pride for Rumi when she told us, “I taught myself to read.” When her neighbors needed something read, Rumi was one of the few people they could go to for help. Knowledge in even small areas is a boon to the Roma, who sometimes miss out on government aid because they lack the skill to decipher and fill out documents.
Both Rumi and Dancho were people who could take the help they received and build a better life for themselves and their children. Because of extreme shyness and clumsiness when speaking Bulgarian, Dancho found it difficult to interact with outsiders. Rumi, however, expressed an openness—even an eagerness—to spend time together.
We began visiting her at her home on a weekly basis, discussing marriage and child-rearing and other topics she craved to learn about. During that time, Rumi’s small sons would sometimes wrestle, sometimes fight, sometimes play, and sometimes whine. When the younger one—nearly two—was hungry, he’d paw at Rumi’s shirt and try to pull it down in an effort to nurse, though she barely ate enough to maintain her own health. “He won’t eat regular food yet,” she explained. “He doesn’t like it.” Pulling a shrunken and wizened breast from her loose top, she allowed him to nurse in front of us once in order to placate him.
Before long, we decided to meet elsewhere. Not because of her active boys or the flies buzzing around the room as though celebrating a feast of fine carrion; not because plastic chairs had to be hauled in (by Rumi’s arrangement, not our demands) so that we could sit somewhere other than on the bedbug-infested bed; and not because we had to pass through dirt, rubbish, and ordure to reach her place. Two other things convinced us of a need to change our venue.
While we sat talking, uninvited neighbors would often linger by the open door or enter the house to listen to our conversation and sometimes offer their own take on the topic at hand, preventing private discussions. Though we weren’t opposed to speaking with others, we wanted to help Rumi specifically. The ideas we shared would enter the ears of Rumi’s neighbors much more willingly if they came from someone intimately acquainted with their problems, lifestyle, and needs. The person who fit that bill best was Rumi. If we could effectively help her manage life’s difficulties, then she could be not only an example, but also a teacher.
The second obstacle we faced was that, when we finished our visit with Rumi and hiked up the steep rutted path scattered with loose gravel to reach our car, someone would inevitably escort us, often pleading their case for assistance with something. Although we still worked for a non-profit organization, funds for various projects were limited. Even in the West, most people have a mental list of things they “need”. In the Roma ghetto, the mental wish list extends to far more basic items. But we know what many would undoubtedly never admit: even if someone had enough money to give to everyone in the Roma quarter, their problems wouldn’t cease. The long, bony fingers of their troubles stretch far beyond financial concerns. Lack of education, the mentality of the people, the government, the attitude of the rest of society toward Roma, and other issues trap them in the misery. As long as the ghetto exists, they’ll face dire need.
As many workers in Africa have discovered after years of sweat-filled labor and more dollars than they can count, some aid only exacerbates the problems of the people it’s intended to help. Besides fostering dependency on the generous donors who seek to alleviate suffering, simply giving to people with no expectation of them taking responsibility themselves can lead to lifelong poverty.
Additionally, many who live in poverty do so through no fault of their own. Just as we in the West had no choice in where we’d be born, who our parents are, and what our raw talents and intelligence are, so a large number of poor people live in a situation they neither chose nor created. Some of them are unwilling or unable to change their situation. Some, however, possess the ability and drive to produce much more with their lives than their circumstances dictate. An investment in the lives of such people can spill over to touch others. Those are the kinds of people we look to help.
Money we allocated to Rumi helped her meet some of her family’s needs: food items, medicine for sick kids, and a new wood stove they could use for heating, cooking, and baking—something Rumi had only dreamed of owning before. Finding Dancho regular work proved more difficult; though we were able to find him one small steady job.
Changing our venue gave Rumi a chance to talk more openly. Providing her with a listening ear also bolstered her self-image. Here were people who cared about and sought to encourage her.
“You care more about me than my own mother does,” Rumi told me. “You want to know how I am. My mother never asks how I’m doing when I talk to her.” Because she’s not fond of Dancho, Rumi’s mother doesn’t want the family to visit her. And, though Rumi has asked her mother to come and help from time to time, her mother finds excuses for not visiting.
Actually, it’s surprising Rumi has the desire to see her mother at all, given their history. Rumi’s five siblings all have different fathers and she has no idea who her own father is. “When I turned fourteen,” she revealed after we’d known her for over a year, “my mother sold me as a bride.” Rumi told the story with hardly a change in inflection. Nearly unflappable, she rarely lets her emotions steal her composure.
Though Rumi’s “husband” only once had sex with her—something we’d call rape in the U.S.—she became pregnant. “His family started mistreating me and my husband’s brother tried to force himself on me.” Rumi’s mother, apparently stricken with guilt, reclaimed Rumi and took on herself the raising of Rumi’s baby. Her mother must not have felt too bad, though; some time later, she sold Rumi again. That family used Rumi as a slave to help bring in their tobacco harvest. When they were done with her, they allowed her to return home. When Rumi discovered that her mother was going to sell her again, this time to human traffickers as a prostitute, Rumi ran away.
“Sometimes I don’t want to have sex with Dancho,” Rumi confided, “even though he’s kind and gentle with me.” I understood why.
When she and Dancho married and began a family, Rumi finally had a home with someone who loved her. Life, though, has never been easy for them. For income, Dancho collects scrap materials. Often Rumi and her children have no breakfast until Dancho returns from scavenging.
Even with outside assistance and care, life is a constant struggle for Rumi and Dancho. The children, living in unsanitary conditions and surrounded by others who pass germs to one another like World Cup soccer players pass the ball, are often sick. Being uneducated, Rumi and her neighbors can’t figure out which maladies justify a visit to the doctor and which don’t, so she runs to the hospital for even minor complaints. Health care and medicine aren’t free, so they dip into money that might otherwise be used for food, firewood, diapers, and other necessities.
When you live in abject poverty, everything becomes urgent. Small problems cascade and become overwhelming emergencies. You lack the buffer zone that adequate resources provide. Some, ignorant of the extent of the challenges the Roma face, either don’t understand or else offer solutions without considering the ramifications. “When I told one doctor that I didn’t have money, he suggested I go out and steal,” Rumi said once.
“Should I steal from you?” she asked him.
About a year ago, Rumi had an operation to remove a breast tumor. Afterwards, a doctor told her, “Because you’re taking this strong medicine, you can’t get pregnant.”
But what did that mean? That it wasn’t possible for her to become pregnant or that she shouldn’t get pregnant. She understood the former and, because she and Dancho thought they could do without condoms, Rumi became pregnant again. New problems arose like mounds of trash at the fringes of their neighborhood.
Emergency after emergency plagued them: frequent trips to the doctor, prenatal vitamins, the continued need for medicine for the family, diapers for her youngest, and dental problems that drove Dancho to yank out his own tooth with pliers.
During that time, when I asked how Rumi was doing, her response was inevitably, “So so.” (In fact, I can’t remember her ever answering that she was doing well or even OK.) Life, though perhaps never “fun” for Rumi, had become even harder.
While we spent time in the U.S. this summer, Rumi waited for her baby to arrive. When it came, she was in the hospital. On a bed. With no doctor in sight. She gave birth alone, with the help of no one. A cleaning lady found her afterwards and left to call the doctor.
We visited Rumi and Dancho at their home not long ago and saw the baby for the first time. Smudged and dirty aquamarine walls, bright not so long ago, surrounded them. One picture of them features mommy and daddy seated on the family bed, layered over with a thin carpet for protection. Baby Antoaneta lay between them, her swarthy face capped with short black fluff.
Rumi’s sad attempt at a smile revealed so much: sadness, weariness, and lack of motivation and drive.
Maybe she should have looked happier. Things went amazingly well considering the odds against a normal delivery and healthy infant. Perhaps she was suffering from post-partum depression or from lack of sleep because of the baby’s eating schedule and amplified by their continual battle with bedbugs. Maybe their financial woes, exacerbated because the doctor has forbidden Rumi to nurse her baby, are weighing on her. Or perhaps all these factors, blended together to create wide-sweeping gloom with no end in sight, had whisked away her few snippets of joy over a healthy baby.
Rumi broke down in tears recently. Dancho has been nagging her to feed the baby plain yogurt; it’s cheaper than formula. She’s been bleeding (the doctor’s solution to this problem: eat more salt and chocolate; could he possibly have been serious?), the baby has been crying at night, and Rumi hasn’t been eating well.
Sometimes I wonder whether the financial aid we’ve disbursed to Rumi and Dancho has really helped them. It would be so much better for them all if Dancho could find a full-time job that could bring in enough income so that they could live like normal people. Perhaps the money they’ve received has actually acted as a demotivating force, preventing Dancho from stepping beyond his shyness and seeking more stable work. Maybe they’ll never live a “normal” life given the overwhelming odds against it. There are no easy answers waiting to pluck from trees like ripe apples in the fall.
I’ve always admired those gritty little weeds which so tenaciously cling to life that they’re able to punch through a slab of cement and thrive. I see Rumi straining to survive in a similar way.
I hope she’ll succeed.