When the taxi drops us in the square in Negovanovtsi village, the party is just about to begin. An eight piece brass band is playing. Textiles and intricate lace-work are hung outside the chitalishte or village hall. A table groans with local food: banitsa pastries both sweet and savoury, polenta cake, fig tart, stuffed peppers, soup, chocolate layer cake, bread. In the village square, in the shade of pine, horse-chestnut and birch trees, a group starts to dance. There are old people and young people too, all dressed in Bulgarian traditional dress: embroidered smocks, woollen hats, shoes pointed at the end. A bench is set up in the square. A sign above the bench reads, in Bulgarian, ‘Residentsia Baba’: granny residence. Later, there are speeches, and vine-leaf stuffing competitions, and more dancing, and feasting. Later still, we are told, there will be drinking: the local wine, mixed with luminous yellow lemonade that is sold as ‘lemonade for wine’, and large quantities of rakiya.
Negovanovtsi is in one of the poorest areas of Europe, just south of the Danube and close to the town of Vidin. The whole region has suffered over the previous decades from significant depopulation. But we travelled up to the village to explore a project from the wonderful Sofia-based Ideas Factory that seeks to reverse this trend.
The Baba Residence project sends urban young people on short residencies to live and work alongside elderly villagers, and to develop new, creative ways of reviving these communities. The project has worked across Bulgaria, and it has had considerable success when it comes to reviving the villages where it has worked: the release of music CDs (those grannies can sing!); the renewal of libraries and of cultural and community hubs; the recording of countless stories, folk-songs and recipes; public exhibitions of photographs and craftwork; and a strengthened sense of community amongst villagers where the project has worked. As for the young people, they return to the city with extensive knowledge of how to pick herbs and mushrooms, and most of them maintain their connections with the villagers with whom they have worked, going on to develop projects of their own.
Will first stumbled across Ideas Factory and their innovative project when researching his forthcoming Hello Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World. Part of the purpose of the trip was research towards the chapters on how reconnecting with strangers can help to address loneliness and depopulation. But we’re also very excited to be working with Ideas Factory on their EmpathEAST forum for empathy-driven social change, coming up in November. Have a look at the information here.
We’ll post more after the forum in Plovidiv. But to give you a taste of the project in Negovanovtsi, here are a few photographs and videos from the final party.
And we can’t resist sharing these videos of the band and the dancing!