Romanian rural workers – a photo essay

The sun is fierce as we drive into Maramureș. It is high summer and the heady scent of hay streams through the windows. Tall grasses and wildflowers sway in the breeze and handmade haystacks dot the fields. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but this rural idyll faces many challenges.

Woman forks hay

  • Above: A lone woman turns hay in a field. Right: Martha, 78, waits on the top of the haystack while more hay is brought. Far right: Floarea milks a cow in the pasture

Martha on top of haystack
 Floarea milks a cow in the pasture

I first visited this area in October 2019. Then I met mainly older women; most were widows who had been alone for many years. I found these women remarkable. They have overcome so many challenges: brutal government policies; the loss of close family; the privations of poverty. These experiences have shaped their souls. Standing strong against adversity, they cope with whatever life throws at them, carrying on with quiet resilience, anchored by their faith.

Inside of dilapidated house

It was these women that inspired my Joan Wakelin Bursary project to examine the values that underpin their strength and discover whether these values have carried through to younger generations. In 2021, I returned in both summer and autumn to find out.

The people of these communities share three characteristics that have been present for centuries: a strong connection with land and animals, a rich traditional culture, and a deep-rooted faith.

Valeria and Ioana

  • Left: Valeria, 88, has been widowed for 13 years, “There are no children here to attend the school.” Right: Ioana, 84, photographed in her traditional dress

Their culture survived because the communities were too small and remote for the traditions to be eradicated by Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceaușescu under communism.

The older generation of women value tradition, work, faith and family. Life is structured around the work dictated by the seasons and the events of the Romanian Orthodox calendar. Practicalities are difficult; most live in traditional wooden houses with no running water and some have no electricity. If they have children, they are probably working in western Europe.

Oil lamp
Detail from a village shrine

The women are left alone. Many receive little or no state pension and struggle to buy medicines and other essentials, but they view their difficulties within the context of much harder times, and when you meet them they are open-hearted and generous.

The middle generation of women have different challenges, the biggest being lack of employment. Hard work is ingrained in their character, but finding work to support a family is very difficult. Family takes priority in their values and providing for a family has forced them to make sacrifices. The lack of employment means that many parents leave to work in western Europe. Some take it in turns to leave, while others leave children with grandparents and some take their children with them. Many never come back.

Children in traditional dress

Taking a contract for agricultural work in western Europe is common. The work is often unofficial, with fluctuating wages and poor accommodation. They save everything they can to bring home. Some use their earnings to build new houses in their home village, but many of these houses lie empty and unfinished because there is too little employment to support a settled life here.

Irina’s blouse

The women of this generation will attend church when they are at home, and most will wear traditional dress on these occasions, but I felt that their faith was not as deep-rooted as that of their parents. The pressure to earn money and the influence of western Europe has undermined their values. They are still warm and generous women, but distanced from the old way of life; caught between the love of the area they grew up in and the need to work away to survive.

The younger generation were noticeably more influenced by western European culture. For them, attendance at church meant modern interpretations of dressing up, with sandals and nail art. Clutching their mobile phones, teenage girls gather outside the back of the church to chat, some in traditional dress, but others in jeans and T-shirts. Faith may be less important to the youngest generation, but it still permeates their values.

Tina, 13, carries her young cousin

  • Above: Tina, 13, with her young cousin Alexandra in a wild flower meadow. Below: Church is an opportunity to dress up. All women take great pride in their appearance

Girl getting ready for church

The teenagers and young women I met valued their extended family and friends, but it was difficult to see a path for their future here. Some wanted to go to university and get professional jobs within Romania; others had older sisters already working in western Europe and were likely to follow the same path.

Although values are changing between generations, the core values of this society have proved resilient. All three generations still share the characteristics that stole my heart in 2019. They are strong, resourceful women with open hearts and generous spirits. There is no easy solution to the challenges faced by these communities, and I fear that in 10 years’ time the values of those remaining will have shifted a long way from the unique culture that exists today.

Conical haystacks on misty hilltop

For those of us seeking a simpler life and aiming to live more quietly and sustainably on this planet, there is wisdom to be found here. My journey in Romania has been one of self-discovery; of unearthing values buried by the noise of our frantic world.