Laptops preserve Romany tradition

GYPSY children in Pembrokeshire are turning to the technology of the present to preserve the traditions of the past.

Pembrokeshire has one of the largest and best-established gypsy communities in Britain. But its traditions are being lost: many children no longer speak the Romany language, and their families often live in houses, rather than caravans.

The local council has now provided gypsy children at a specialist learning centre in Pembroke with a pound;32,000 grant for laptops, digital cameras and scanners. They will use this equipment to record their family histories and traditions.

"This is the last of the true Romany generation," said Mike Isted, education ICT manager for Pembrokeshire . "The idea is that the children will use the laptops to capture a heritage that is fading rapidly."

The children will interview their parents and grandparents, recording stories of traditional gypsy life. These will be illustrated with copies of old family photos. They will also record audio-visual testimonies, so that the stories will be accessible for many of the older members of the community who are unable to read.

Though they no longer live in covered wagons and sell flowers door-to-door, many of Pembroke's gypsies retain a strong sense of identity. The town has had a designated caravan site since the 1960s, where families still live in trailers. And, while all Pembroke's gypsy children now go to school, during the holidays many families return to the traditional, itinerant life.

The family-history project, says Beverley Stephens, who runs the Pembroke-based Priory Learning Centre for gypsy children, will provide an outlet for her pupils' pride in their identity. Its immediate relevance to their lives will also, she hopes, further their interest in mainstream education. "The children are quite enthusiastic," she said. "They've done some research into old newspaper cuttings, and have been looking at archive photography. A tremendous amount of our classroom work has come from it."

Once compiled, the projects will be displayed as part of a gypsy exhibition at Scolton Manor museum, in Haverfordwest. The museum has recently acquired a traditional wagon, which it will use to take the exhibition to the region's gypsy communities.

"My granddad and granny lived a very different life to mine," said 13-year-old Kirby Jones, who attends Priory Learning Centre. "They lived in wagons covered with cloth, and had jobs selling pegs and paper flowers. I think it's important to write it all down, just to remember it."

But, he adds, his interest in his family's history will not obscure the more pressing demands of a new laptop: "When I take the computer home, I plan to look on websites and play games."

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