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Stuck in the mud

By January 23, 2024February 20th, 2024Blogs, Christmas Box Appeal

The van doesn’t want to climb any further, and it looks like we have now left the track and are just attempting to advance up a thick mud covered slope. Park it here. Gravity will surely help us get back down. The mud gives my boots a soft welcome. I give the van’s wheels a glance and try not to worry about the depth to which they have settled. This is going to be fun…

The Christmas box team is in Southeast Bulgaria, on the outskirts of a small village called Karageorgievo. I could get stuck just trying to pronounce that. The reason that we are here scrambles towards us through the mud into which our feet are sunk. A small crowd of dirty children and weathered adults squelches up, with expectant looks on their faces, and the wretched mud splattered everywhere. Some have comically inappropriate footwear. Some of the children have no footwear at all. It is freezing up here, and it feels colder in the wind that is whipping up the valley.

The team has been here once before, about six years ago. That day was dry and relatively warm, and as we went house to house giving out presents under a beautiful orange pink sky, I remember thinking, I bet this is deeply unpleasant when the temperature drops and the rain and snow come down. Now we can see just how grim life can be up here for the several dozen Roma families that make their homes on the exposed hillside. Going house to house today is not an option.

My friend Rich has battled upslope with his cameras, to document the chaos. My first task is to make it to the rear of the van and unload a dozen or so cases of Christmas presents, which then need to be taken up to where the crowd is now waiting. Jelio, who leads a partner organisation of ours, has intercepted the crowd and is… managing their expectations; we have enough presents for the children only. He has worked with this community for many years, and he knows the people here well. Nevertheless, giving out any sort of aid to people who live in such circumstances, in conditions like today’s, in a dignified manner is not always straightforward. And there are always some folk who get a bit carried away. If I lived in a mud-hole with only a woodstove to keep my family from freezing to death in our ramshackle hut of a home, I might be desperate too. No matter how many times I visit one of these tiny ghettos, I still wonder why I wasn’t born into a place like this, rather than the life-win of  comfortable Southern England.

I have to leave my refuge in the back of the van and take the last of the cases upslope. We have some volunteers with us – some normally sure-footed young men who only just manage to avoid making mud-angel’s as they shuttle up and down with all the other cases. By the time I make it up the slope, Christmas presents are already being given out under Jelio’s direction. He knows how many kids there are in each family and deftly ignores those folk who claim to have acquired two or three children since he last visited. But most families wait patiently, smiling in anticipation. They are so happy to get some presents for their children. They have nothing to give themselves.

The people here live in extreme poverty; very limited clothing; tiny houses that I have to duck right down to enter, and can’t quite stand up straight in; no toilets or washing facilities; just one or two outside taps to provide water for the whole place. Worse, their prospects are equally poor. Roma children are guaranteed school places by Bulgarian law. The reality here is that children from this community are so dirty and smelly that they are not allowed inside the local school. One of Jelio’s projects is the building of a washroom, toilet block and community meeting room, on a dry patch of ground not far from where we are standing. The foundations and base are in, but another 20,000BGN (about £9,500) is needed to finish the build. This community desperately needs it. The children need it if they are to get even a long-shot at something like normal Bulgarian life.

Grinning and clutching their presents, many folk are heading back to their meagre homes to escape the biting cold. The last child in the remaining crowd receives a present and Jelio declares that it is time to go. I shake the odd hand before turning downslope. By some miracle nobody slips over. The mud is reluctant to release me as I get into the van. There is moment of concern as we start to pull away, but the van pops free and off we go. As amusing as our getting stuck in would have been, I’m relieved that we don’t have to dig our way out this time. We are free to leave. As I look back over my shoulder at those who have stayed to wave us off, I reflect that for us, getting delayed here would just be a momentary inconvenience. We are not the ones truly stuck in the mud.

We spend several minutes trying to wash the mud off our boots in a roadside puddle in the village below. It’s stubborn though. A week later it’s still flaking off my boots and onto the floor of the plane which is taking me home for Christmas. My dry, warm and welcoming home.

Photos by Rich Haydon