City: Bucharest, Romania
Village Life is an NGO that helps rural communities develop sustainably. They do this is by connecting the urban traveler, with the “old world” village life in the heart of rural Romania.
We have identified a serious local need for social and economic rural development and have tried to combine it with our personal need for simplicity and authenticity in a hectic world.
The local context
Development is unavoidable. Change will happen, the only question is how. Village Life is trying to contribute to it harmoniously. Romanian villages are among the most picturesque destinations in Europe, yet undiscovered and unspoiled by mass tourism.
Until about ten years ago, communities living here were leading almost the same life they had for hundreds of years. Each household used to be self-sustainable, living off their own land and animals. This traditional healthy lifestyle is now under threat. Small scale household centred farming finds it difficult to compete with large-scale agricultural farms.
In this context, the youth are leaving their villages en-masse, for the dream of a more comfortable life in the city or elsewhere in the EU. They choose this not because they want to be away from their homes and families, but because they get little support in continuing the dreams and aspirations of their elders.
People are happy to welcome travellers in their communities, but alone they don't know how to reach them. Here is where Village Life is acting as a facilitator, connecting the villagers and what they have to offer with the urban dwellers.
The starting point
A CEE grant gave us the opportunity to travel to villages of Southern Romania and look for the most appropriate communities to host our travelers in search of authentic experiences in unspoiled rural environments. With the help of PACT Foundation we selected an initial number of 20 villages with a high natural and cultural potential. Our field visits enabled us to meet the people of these rural communities, present our program, answer to their questions and, in the end, choose a number of 5 villages and 10 families ready and willing to integrate our target travelers in their daily lives. The collaboration with PACT gave us a head start because we started to work with coordinators and initiative groups that were already involved in activities that served their community and relationships of trust have already been built.
Engaged in NESsT (an incubator for social enterprises) competition and looking into the opportunity of turning Village Life’s tourism program into a social enterprise we conducted the first market research on the potential of community-based travel in rural Romania. Thanks to their support, we now know who are the potential travelers interested in the kind of experience we are offering, what their expectations are as well as what is the size of this new market and who are its most important actors/stakeholders. Their grant also allowed us to print necessary materials, organize small festivals and build the website.
How does it work?
We work with community leaders from villages so that, instead of being spectators to traditional activities, travellers can become active participants. This is a unique opportunity in Romania because the hosts are regular villagers, and not those who already have a tourism-related business. It's also probably the most authentic experience of the Romanian village lifestyle one could get. We help others discover areas that are seldom, if ever, advertised.
The travellers are welcomed into a regular local household, and with the help of their hosts, they can try out themselves the things that that the villagers are doing, either regularly or on special occasions. For example, they can tend the animals, they can pull the ingredients for their meal straight from the garden, they can help a shepherd for a few hours, milk the cow, make cheese, ride in the horse carriage, plough the land, participate in winemaking, learn how to paint Easter eggs or even weave traditional patterns...the list is endless.
The visitors are requested to pay tax that includes food, accommodation and the programmed activities. 75% of the revenue stays in the community, while 25% goes to the association to help it cover the travel and research costs. Governance and Participation
Our beneficiaries are active villagers with positive and, at times, uncompromising attitude. In many cases they respect the opinions and initiatives of the urban residents and are willing to take part. Both the urban and rural dwellers decide to get involved because they feel it’s a sensitive subject and it is critical for their shared values, culture and customs. For example, we have met a persevering and persistent granny living with her son and grandchildren. She denies the talks about everything being outdated/obsolete and continues to make carpets, traditional costumes and decorations, sings folklore songs and is constantly adding items to the makeshift museum located directly in her courtyard.
A memorable participant is a japanese man, that has triggered a strong emotional connection with the villagers. Despite not being able to speak any Romanian he has managed to create great memories and for a lot villagers was the first direct intercultural experience.
Contribution to the Community
- We hope to connect you, the traveller in search of truly authentic experiences with villagers happy to show off their "riches", but who don't have marketing and language abilities necessary for finding you and inviting you to their village
- We want to support and promote village traditions, both among visitors and young villagers
- Without an impact on their lifestyle or environment, we want to encourage people living in economically disadvantaged areas to get involved in educational and intercultural activities
- We want you to taste a life that's been long forgotten in our fast-paced, technology thirsty cities; and feel the energy, renewal and relaxation that come with it
- We want to protect the unique identity of the Romanian village
- We believe that the inter-cultural exchange we facilitate will eventually lead to villagers more in tune with the rest of the world. Also, the appreciation people from western countries have for natural, handmade products will help boost people's entrepreneurial spirit with healthy, tradition-inspired ideas.
- Supporting activities such as organizing English language classes for hosts enlisted in our programs will help them develop marketable skills hard to acquire in present-day rural Romania
- We'd like Village Life to expand to villages around the country, and become a known name of sustainable rural development in Romania. Thus, we hope others will follow along with ideas and projects that help the Romanian village grow without losing its identity.
- We want to create a platform on which the village coordinators are able to continue Village Life work even without our help, thus making it sustainable
Sometimes, there are fault-finding individuals that are often complaining that the traditional elements of lifestyle is dead and are dismissing the authenticity of the present that are a part of current dynamics of life. Also, some people are arguing that Village Life would be unsustainable without external sources of financing.
The attitudes and the spirit of the people varies in different parts of Romania. In Transylvania, for example, the people are more exposed to different influences and experiences, the education at home and in school is different, (there is a divide between being raised to be correct vs. being able to deal with/figue out stuff, Complaining that there is nobody one could to do things with.
Proposals for Change
The institutions should facilitate small scale actions through fiscal incentives, TV coverage, dissemination of information about their potential, adjust their programs towards small-scale social entrepreneurship in the rural areas. This way, for example, it will be easier for 3 young men from a village to start a goat farm and not get entangled with Romanian legislation that is often times complex and tricky. The National Development Programme and Network are very helpful in this respect. At the moment, by looking at the agro-development map of Romania we can see that the concentration of the biggest farms and agro-industrial complexes coincides with the poorest areas. Directing more support to small farming enterprises will make the living of the people more resilient, adaptable to changes, more connected to other people and processes.
We would like to see Village Life run as a self-sustainable initiative after 3 years with 100 participants per year and 3 days on average spent in a village by a participant. Also we are considering creating profiles for beneficiaries on the WWOOF platform.