The ballad of the Romanian shepherd
- 14 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
Shepherds have a special place in Romania's history and in its culture, and their lifestyle has not changed much in centuries - until now. Social media has turned at least one of them into a celebrity, writes Caroline Juler.
On a dank Monday evening some weeks ago, a Romanian shepherd called Ghita left home with his sheep. He wasn't in a lorry but on foot, accompanied by several angajati, or hired men, some shaggy dogs, and seven donkeys loaded with gear. Ghita was off on his autumn transhumance, heading north for his winter pastures. It would take him six weeks.
For a country whose defining myth revolves around shepherds, Romania isn't all that keen on its pastoralists. The Ballad of the Little Sheep (Miorita) tells of a herdsman who lets himself be murdered by two rival shepherds even though one of his lambs, who has miraculously acquired the power of speech, warns him in advance. Miorita is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, another way of showing Christ's courage in turning the other cheek. It's also said to mirror the experience of the Romanian people who have endured numerous invasions, occupations and humiliations without, it is claimed, ever losing their identity.
When Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement. Long before then, they had established shortcuts over the Carpathian Mountains to seasonal grazing in what is now Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Czech Republic. Having crossed from Hungarian and Habsburg lands into Ottoman Turkey and Russia, they returned home to their more isolated communities with information, ideas and ambitions fired by the world outside.
A shepherd's CV has to offer some crucial USPs: caringness, self-reliance and dedication. He - and it's almost always a he, although in real life women did the same job - is synonymous with the kindly ideals of Christianity and for that matter Islam - but for all that, he is a humble, often solitary, sometimes rootless figure.
During Communism, certain Romanian sheep farmers did rather well. People still talk about Mr B from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceausescu's permission to buy a helicopter. Mr B's flocks were hefted over several mountains, and he argued that being able to fly would let him keep track of them more easily. His request was refused, but Poiana is famous for other reasons - many of its shepherds built luxurious mansions at a time when most people had to stand in queues to buy food and lit their homes with 40 watt bulbs. Inaccessible to big machinery, many mountain farms escaped collectivisation, and the men and women who commuted there from the less exclusive plains, spoke of "going to America".
Like farmers worldwide, Romanian flock masters enjoy a good grumble. But things have got tough for them since 1989. Once guaranteed, prices for wool have plummeted. Although there is an international market for Romanian lamb, and sheep's cheese sells well, "slow food" has not made enough of a difference to the shepherds who find it healthier - and cheaper - to walk their sheep to far away winter pastures rather than keep their animals inside.
With its origins in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, transhumance is a form of semi-nomadism. It sounds romantic but in the past, Romanian shepherds occasionally resorted to transporting their animals by train, something they could never afford to do now.
Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarica. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it's also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren't joking. When they sleep at all, it's outside, in all weathers. The hired men earn between 200 or 300 euros a month. They also receive daily meals, work clothing, and a cigarette allowance.
Romanians are generally learning more about their shepherds thanks to television.
In August this year, a well-known phone company began an advertising campaign that highlighted real people doing real jobs. One of them was Ghita.
Dressed in his cojoc and rimless pot hat (another must-have piece of shepherding rig), sitting by a campfire and dancing with sheep, Ghita Ciobanul, or Ghita the Shepherd, has taken Romania by storm. Ten days after the phone company put him on Facebook, his page had clocked more than 200,000 likes. A month later, they had doubled.
In the past, Ghita has had to move his sheep illegally, during the night. Given the hazards of crossing Romania's rapidly urbanising, motorised countryside, it's the only way. Accidents and shootings have cost him scores of sheep and many dogs. Maybe this year, thanks to his new-found celebrity, Ghita will be luckier.
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