Famel’ija (Family)

Fameľija, f. (endaňis, m. čalado, m. reg.) family; relative, relation, kinsman; relations, relatives, kinsfolk

Fameľija is the horizontal family community which includes relatives from the husband's and the wife's side. Cousins, sometimes as distant as the second and third degree, are considered part of the fameľija; that is, the fameľija includes all of the descendants of great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. Family obligations (to provide food and sometimes a living; to provide shelter, sometimes indefinitely; to attend the funerals of anyone in the fameľija, etc.) apply more strictly to pašes fameľija (extending 3–5 generations) than to dur fameľija (more-distant relatives). The Roma fameľija basically corresponds to basic features of the Indian "parivár" (Hindi term).

In the traditional Roma family, the fameľija was the basic multifunctional community, the basic identity and identifying unit, a unit of primary belonging of each individual.

Function of the traditional Roma family among the Servika-Roma

Oda dženo mardo, so ačiľa čoro, oda mek goreder, so hino korkoro.
"Badly off is he who is poor; even worse off is he who is alone."

Family obligations came first (and, in many places, still do). They are sovereign; they are binding, because the very rights granted by the fameľija are the foundation and the protection of existence. They are real, visible, understandable and tangible, whereas many other rights (of society as a whole) are, for Roma living in their traditional way, more or less abstract. Sometimes they are as impossible to understand as social obligations; sometimes they clash with family obligations rooted in a culture thousands of years old.

A person exists through his family; his family is the proof of his identity. The traditional family provides primary socialization, upbringing, and also professional preparation for life, economic and social support, a sense of security. The family was an enormously important sanctuary in a society where outbursts of anti-Roma genocidal aggression periodically flared up.

Cultural and ethical norms were passed on by the traditional family. The family lived together in near, literally close physical contact, through which an unusual kind of non-verbal understanding, so-called "co-enesthetic" (intuitive) communication was strengthened. The family in the sense of fameľija was the basic platform of strictly applied mechanisms of social control which prevented any individual member from shaming the family. At any moment he was reminded of the irrevocable formalised cultural norms regulating how he had to behave in harmony with romipen (Roma tradition and ethics, Roma identity).

Within the family, each person had his/her place; each person knew precisely his/her status and role and knew what was permitted and what was not. And the others reminded him/her day in and day out of correct behaviour, which was anchored in verbal and non-verbal forms of the culture.

Causes for the decline of the traditional Roma family of the Servika Roma

In April 1958, the leaders of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia decided that "citizens of Gypsy origin" were not an ethnic, but rather a dying-out social group with outdated ways of living. With this decision, the then Czechoslovak Socialist Republic began a thirty-one-year (1958-1989) political program of ethnic assimilation. This meant, among other things, manipulative "dispersion of undesirable Gypsy concentrations" (decree 502/1965). This decree was one of the brutal incursions into the traditional Roma fameľija and into everything that bound the family community: cultural and ethic norms which, most importantly, regulated the responsibility of the individual members of the fameľija toward each other. The decree was thus an incursion into their system of the control mechanisms that protected their norms and into their distinctive communication network, etc.

It is true, however, that the traditional Roma family would have declined spontaneously. But, through slow natural development, there is a good chance that new mechanisms will gradually be created, which will contribute to society's learning to protect and assert basic human values, even under changed conditions. Violent interventions from outside, though, cast a whole society and each individual into confusion and insecurity, from which not everyone is able to find his way in an enlightened humane manner.

A range of negative phenomena under which the Roma community suffers is caused by two mutually dependent phenomena: on one hand, earlier all-inclusively assimilative, nowadays selectively discriminatory practices on the part of the majority of society through manipulation and ignorance; on the other hand, the decline of the Roma community whose core is the fameľija. Without a family background whose function determined not only the social existence of each individual, but also penetrated his psyche, a person feels more or less as if he were in a vacuum.

However, the ideological meaning of fameľija remains alive in the cultural awareness of Roma and, if an idea lives, there is still hope that it will shine into the helpless, disintegrated reality and brighten the way to a new possibility of integration of the individual, the family, the group and all of society.

Text based on

Hübschmannová, Milena (1996) Co napovidá o romské rodině tradiční seznamovací ceremoniál (Traditional Roma family rites for introducing marriageable boys and girls). In: Romano džaniben 96/1-2.
Hübschmannová, Milena (1996) Postavení a role některých členů tradiční romské rodiny (Position and role of some members of the traditional Roma family). In: Romano džaniben 96/1-2.
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Image The author Elena Lacková with their extended family (Slovakia)
Image Neudorf (Bgld./Austria)
Gomilica (Slovenia), 2002