The Life of the Haholi
Oana Ivan, a 36-year-old anthropologist from the city of Cluj-Napoca, followed the Haholi in the village of St. Gheorghe, by the Danube Delta, for seven years.
Her goal was to create a documentary about the lives of this ethnic minority (descendants of the Cossacks) that are almost unknown to the rest of the country.
During the summer months, the Haholi from St. Gheorghe offer room and board to thousands of tourists. However when autumn comes, they turn inwards, refusing to return the curious gaze of outsiders.
Oana Ivan shared with PressOne the experiences she accumulated throughout the years she spent alongside the Haholi. She spoke about their efforts to keep up their traditional lifestyle despite the biggest growing challenge threatening their livelihood: fishing.
A community that closes like a water lily at dusk
Oana Ivan’s story began in 2009 when she decided to pursue a PhD in anthropology. For her research topic, she chose the lives of the Delta people.
In a period of seven years she spent a total of approximately 20 months in the home of a family from St. Gheorghe. She learned to catch fish, to cook fish and to party for three days and nights.
There, she learned to accept death and overcame a childhood trauma that left her without a father.
“And now, when I arrive in St. Gheorghe, the sensation when I get off the boat is still the same – that I’ve arrived in another world. I see the Danube flow into the Black Sea and I understand certain things lose their significance in this place.
I don’t believe life in Cluj is more superficial, nor do I try to make a comparison between the two. It’s an entirely different reality than what I know as a city dweller, used to a familiar pace.
There, the priorities in St. Gheorge are distinctive: find food, avoid freezing, prevent drowning and ensure you don’t get caught in a storm when you’re fishing.
Beside the rough living conditions, a huge problem for the fishermen in this region is poaching.”
Oana experienced all these challenges alongside the Haholi during her time spent with them.
Her greatest challenge, however, was to integrate into a community that closes itself like a water lily at dusk when all the tourist boats set off at the end of summer.
“In 2009, I spent three months in the village. When fall came, out of thousands of tourists, only I remained: 900 locals and myself. They kept asking me: «Why are you still here? Come back in the summer, when it’s warm!»
Auntie Lucia, my host during my time there, didn’t know how to introduce me. There, you’re either a tourist or a relative. She would tell people that I’m a girl. «But whose girl?» asked the people. The confusion lasted about three years until they got used to me and considered me one of their own.”
It wasn’t easy for her to spend three to four months at a time in the Danube Delta. The climate, the water, the horseflies and the early morning routine that began at 3 AM bore their weight, but she persevered.
“The pace of life there seems to be outside of time. I didn’t go on Facebook nor did I ever feel the need to. We were with the people non-stop: out in the bog, fishing or helping the women in the kitchen.
Their lifestyle is completely absorbing and I entered their world with my whole being. I spent time with people I would have probably never gone out for a drink with in my home town. I was out for beers with them, rowed through marshes with them and cooked with them. These activities helped me understand who they are.
I remember I was on this mission to be accepted and I was so focused on it, that I stopped thinking about anything else. Not even about my own problems or myself.
So one afternoon, I was watching television and I found a 1970s movie on TV called «Freshman’s Fall,» where the action takes place in Transylvania, the region in Romania where I am from.
When I heard the actors speaking with my regional accent, I immediately began to cry. It was an accent that I had buried in order to be able survive in the Delta. That’s when I realized how much I missed my home.”
Weddings last three days and nights
Oana asserts that in seven years, she learned more or less all the taboos of the St. Gheorghe citizens. For example, they don’t like being confused with the Lipoveni people, who are of Russian origin.
They call themselves Haholi because they consider themselves the descendants of the Cossack fighters who took refuge from the troops of Empress Ecaterina II after the destruction of the Zaporizhian Sich. They conquered the area surrounding the Danube Delta by the sword and established a community there in the 18th century.
The Haholi are victors in the domain of celebrating as well. A wedding in St. Gheorghe entails three days and three nights of drinking, eating, singing and swimming in the sea.
Their mother tongue is Ukrainian with words from Romanian, Turkish and Greek mixed in.
The Haholi are Orthodox Christians and belong to the ancient rite. For example, they celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January.
Oana Ivan filmed them throughout all these special moments but she never thought she would become the producer and videographer of her own documentary, or that her entire filming equipment would consist of an amateur video camera – the cheapest on the market.
“Initially, I thought that since I was there, it would be a good idea to film so that I could start a database and then eventually return with a videographer when I managed to raise some funds.
It was 2012 by the time I was able to bring someone with me, but he came as a volunteer. And when we finally got there, he didn’t understand what I was trying to create.
Since it was his first time in the Danube Delta, he was filming things that he found interesting, such as the pelicans, the water lilies and the dilapidated houses. These were the stereotypical images related to the area, so in the end we weren’t a good match.
The biggest problem, however, was that the people here were not used to having a stranger around. The volunteer came with his big camera on a tripod and the people who had become comfortable with me over the last three years said: «Oana, we let you film but we don’t want to let him film. How can we let him enter our kitchen?»
Or they would say: «There’s not enough room for him in the boat.» And so right away, I saw that they were not giving him access.”
Tourists, boats and the cows
Oana realized that she would have to finish the project alone. She defended her thesis in 2013, but she continued to visit the Delta for the sake of documenting these fascinating people. The lives of the Haholi had now become her life.
“It’s horrible, for example, to get an indigestion on Three Kings Day at 4 AM, and to have to put on a few layers of clothing before heading out into the backyard to look for the outhouse with a flashlight. The cold there is something else, it’s because the humidity levels are so high.”
Despite the bitter cold, the fishermen of St. Gheorghe begin their day extremely early. Oana reminisces about her first experience going out to fish before dawn with the local fisherman.
“At 3 AM the sound of the boats’ motor was loud and irritating, ringing out in the foggy pitch blackness.
I was exhausted and freezing and the bench that I was sitting on was wet. I kept asking myself if I had made the right choice when I decided to go out fishing.”
Over the course of the next weeks, waking up at 2 AM became part of the routine, because fishing is the primary occupation of the Haholi in St. Gheorghe.
“Over the summer, the women work up to 16 hours a day when hosting tourists. The men return from fishing early in the morning, wash their boats and then take the tourists out for rides.
If you come only in the summer, you’ll get the impression that the men here have easy lives. But if you come in spring, during Black Sea shad season, the men work three months, non-stop: they fish all night long and sleep in the boats when necessary.”
The men’s responsibilities also include the raising of livestock, particularly cattle. The animals are left alone to wander through the pastures, in semi-wilderness. This procedure is called free grazing.
“When they need their cows for something, they go out asking: «Did you happen to see that cow with those spots or that cow with horns that resemble bicycle handlebars?»
I find it incredible that there are hundreds of cows yet everyone knows who the cows belong to. «Yes, I saw it on that plot of land over there with I don’t know whose calf.»
So you go and find your cow exactly where you were told you’d find it. Then you kill it and bring it into the village. There are beef cows that can withstand heat, cold and even the stinging of horseflies, which are absolutely horrendous. The milk cows are held in the shed, but those are not very common because in the Delta the pastures aren’t great.
Since tourism has become more profitable, many Haholi families stopped growing their own produce and raising animals because they found it too time-consuming.
“Before communist times, there were either well-to-do landowners or laborers working for these landowners. What was certain was that you’d always find food to eat.
If you were a wealthy landowner, you would make money, buy fishing equipment, then pay people to fish. If you lost some of the fishing equipment in the sea during a rainstorm, you would sell cattle and buy new equipment. When you had a good catch, you would sell the fish off and buy more cattle. This was the economic cycle.
Later on, the communist regime confiscated all the fishing equipment and began investing in fish farming on a mass scale. The fishermen would receive boats and equipment and they would work on the state’s farm. Beginning in the 60s, everyone started getting their hands on cash and with that, they began renovating their homes.
After that, the Revolution came and people once again returned to the system that dominated before communism, the one that required people to invest in their own goods to make money. But in recent years, rather than banking on making money off of cattle, they’ve relied more and more on tourism,” explains Oana Ivan.
"Women manage the household"
Tourism has changed the lives of St. Gheorghe’s citizens, and not in a negative way.
“If the community has a general population of about 900, during the summer, it easily has a population of about 4,000-5,000 people. This puts pressure on the infrastructure and on the people. There is a new sense of competitiveness that has reduced the amount of social contact.
On the other hand, tourism strengthens familial bonds in the sense that the whole family needs to come together in order to please theirs guests. The father and son go out fishing and bring home the day’s catch while the mother and daughter cook for their clients.
If the majority of Romanian villages are under populated, in St. Gheorghe the women are in need of an extra hand or two during the summer season. They call upon their nieces, cousins and sisters to take time off of work and help out for a month or two. So in other words, migration is backwards here.”
In the last few years medical services have also improved. Currently in the village there is an ambulance and a pharmacy.
There are also things that are have gone downhill. Even though UNESCO has declared the Danube Delta a Biosphere Reserve, poaching is more a problem now than ever before and it greatly impacts subsistence fishermen.
“A huge issue is poaching using electric shocks. The locals told me that the poachers – who often times have some sort of illegal agreements with the authorities – come on the scene with a car battery and leave the wires in the water frying up the fish.
The fish rise to the surface of the water and all that the poachers have to do is pull them into the boat. With that, they destroy all of the surrounding area.
Moreover, the fishermen have to pay certain taxes to the government but when they go fishing in these waters, they find no fish. For this reason, they’re not making enough money to cover their living expenses. They’re affected by the fact that there is no rule of law.”
In the Delta, people are taught, generation-to-generation, to survive and make do with whatever they have. And most importantly, they learn to live tranquilly in relation with one another because violence breeds differently in such a small community.
“There, you can’t really prolong your arguments. The wheel turns much faster so you quickly realize that you need the other person and as a result, you end up avoiding conflicts.
I think that many of the relationships there wouldn’t withstand in a big city, where there are alternatives. In addition, there are strong family ties, founded on reciprocal support.
We have financial independence that extends into other aspects of our lives. There, people have a heightened dependence on one another on a financial, logistical level.
For example, women manage the household and that’s been the case for hundreds of years. This is a characteristic of fishermen communities from other parts of the world as well. Women base their activities around the fact that their husbands are gone for extended periods of time.
In their absence, they resolve all the problems, manage the finances and administer the household resources. The men don’t get involved. When they finally do return from their fishing expenditures, they’re exhausted.”
Earthenware instead of platter
Oana Ivan says that the life lessons she got out of her experience in the small fishing village in the Danube Delta have helped her confront her fears and overcome her limitations.
“I learned to accept people the way they are. I was forced to surmount my own professional boundaries and in that way, I learned to transcend my personal limitations as well. I am reconciled with myself and judge less those who are different than I.
I learned how to be more tolerant. I learned not to judge them because they listen to manele (pop music genre created by the Roma people), I don't get upset if they don't keep their promise, the way I would have done if I was in my hometown. I learned not to judge them for their political views.”
She cooked the local people traditional food from her region of Romania, dishes like gulas (beef stew) and papricas (chicken and dumpling stew). She also sang to them using her regional accent.
Her Greatest Regret
Her greatest regret is that Mr. Chirica, the fisherman who she warmly calls her friend, will never have the chance to see her documentary, titled “Lives among Waters.” He passed away a few weeks before it was finalized.
“Mr. Chirica taught me how to accept death. I used to speak to him weekly, until I received a phone call informing me that he was in the hospital. I didn’t want to go to the funeral because of my personal reservations in regards to these events.
I was in Cluj when he died and despite my own issues, I got on the first train. The fact that I went there, to be with the people instead of trying to protect myself was very powerful to me.
After many, many years, I confronted the pain of losing someone who is so dear to me. In the past, I used to suffer alone but there in that community, where the people enfolded me, it became easier to overcome the pain.
Auntie Lucia, Mr. Chirica’s widow, embodies the meaning of survivor. She’s a woman who doesn’t give up. I see my mother in her.”
Now, more than anything, Oana Ivan would like her documentary to raise alarm bells in regards to poaching in the Danube Delta. And if possible, to help address the prejudices people have against the fishermen in that area.
“Stereotypes bring about negative attitudes and a lack of tolerance. The situation in the Danube Delta is much more complex that I could have ever imaged: and the fishermen suffer because of the lack of rule of law.”