Come Over Into Macedonia, H. Allen

The Lesser Half


The food habits of all of these people are as varied as the individuals themselves. Their origins, their traditions, the type of their farming determine to a very large extent what they eat. Refugees from the Pontus region of the Black Sea insist on having meat no matter how poor they may be. In periods of good tobacco prices the inhabitants of eastern Macedonia enjoy a good diet, purchasing vegetables the year round from the peddlers who come out from the large towns. During periods of depression these one-crop farmers descend to the lowest levels of undernourishment. With the grapes, watermelons, and cantelopes, which are becoming universally grown, the summer diet is undoubtedly hygienic. In the early spring one sees peasant women scattered over the fields and roadsides busily digging up a small plant called "radikia," which is a local variety of our dandelion. A paste is sometimes made of tomatoes for winter use, but in general the canning of vegetables and fruits is practiced not at all. And so from late fall to early spring the average diet is far from what it should be.

The peasant housewife is not noted for her skill as a cook. That such is the case is seen by the fact that this weakness is the subject of much comment not only by the occasional visitor, but by the men of the village as well. One dish usually serves as the whole meal. Days may pass without hot cooked food, especially in summer. When something hot is provided it will probably consist of a few of the more common vegetables all cooked together in a great quantity of Greek olive oil. For the most part the family depends on its bread, olives, cheese, and, of course, sour pickles.

Hours of eating are altogether irregular, and there is not the distinction between the meals that we know. Children may have a piece of bread as they march off to school. Older members of the family will begin their day's work with no food. Toward the middle of the morning as they become hungry they will have what we might consider the main meal. Later in the day, around mid-afternoon, they will eat again. Very often, in certain seasons, the farmer cannot return during the day from his fields to his home in the village, so he carries with him the usual items of cold food. In some sections the whole family moves out to camp by the distant fields until the planting or the harvest is over.

One night as I slept in a village I was awakened by the familiar drum beats and the weird minor notes of a wandering gypsy band. It appeared to be early morning for the light was just breaking over the Pelles mountains that separate Northern Macedonia from Southern Bulgaria. I went to the one small window and finally saw in the breaking dawn three or four active musicians, with a few stragglers at their heels, marching through the cobblestone streets and playing vigorously on their crude home-made instruments. This seemed to me rather more than unusual. I roused my sleeping companion from his hard mat on the floor to ask what the special occasion might be. He listened a moment and then said that there must be a wedding in town.

This is the traditional manner in which a village wedding is heralded. No invitations are sent out, but in a small rural center this is entirely unnecessary, for the whole populace knows that the ceremony is to take place. At the appointed hour, which is usually mid-afternoon, we shall find them all expectantly assembled in the one church of the community.

The girl arrives with her family and friends and proceeds to one side of the church. The boy remains with his group in the opposite wing. The robed priest at the altar begins his ceremonial rites, then, still chanting, walks down to the young woman and, taking her by the hand, leads her up to the front. The young man then is brought forward. With the couple now standing together—the best man at their back, and a small boy and girl, each with a candle, before them—the priest continues with his Orthodox service. Near the end of the ritual the wedding rings, which were first exchanged at the time of the formal engagement, are handed to the priest who blesses them and places each in its turn on the third finger of the right—not the left—hand.

Adorning the head of each of the two happy people is a crown of wax flowers, the two crowns joined together by a cord. As the religious part of the ceremony draws to a close, the group participating in this holy affair forms a circle. With the two little candle-bearers leading the way, followed by the priest, then the young couple, and finally the best man bringing up the rear, they march round the altar three times. During this procedure the best man must, somehow, contrive to keep his hands on the crowns and transfer them back and forth from one head to the other. While this marching is on the assembled guests throw rice and hard candies; the former as a symbol of the prosperity which it is hoped the young couple may have, the latter as an expression of their desire for a happy and sweet married life.

The boy, if a native, is dressed in his new home-spun suit. His bride will be in the picturesque full-flowing costume which she made on her mother's home loom. Refugee couples will be dressed in cheap factory-made clothes. In this case the bride will wear white, or, if altogether too poor, a bright colored calico dress will suffice. Regardless of whatever else they may adorn themselves with on this happy occasion, each must wear a new pair of shoes.

The church service over, relatives and friends go to the groom's home where they are served with hard candies, and the cheap local liqueurs. Close relatives, however, will stay on for a meal of "mezes" and more drinks. The eating, drinking, and fun-making may, with a good start, continue on during a good part of the night. Possibly the only unhappy individual at this gay affair is the best man. He undertook, in addition to his ceremonial duties, the responsibility for most of the costs, including the fee to the priest, a fee for the use of the church, government stamps in the official book of registry, the wax crowns, candles, and new shoes for the bride.

The wedding ceremony is in reality merely the third and final act in this local love-drama. In villages the formal engagement is almost, if not quite, as important as the wedding. Although it usually takes place in the home of the girl it is a religious ceremony and is performed by the priest. Wedding rings are exchanged, and from this time on they are worn by each party; but during the ensuing period of three or four months they encircle the third finger of the left hand. Even after the engagement it is a serious break of convention for the boy and the girl to stroll out together. He may visit her home on certain occasions, but more than this is considered quite irregular. To break an engagement is a serious matter; a disgrace in fact for both parties.

The essential first step in this matrimonial affair was not a courtship, but an arrangement entered into by the parents of the two young people concerned. It was originally suggested by the father of the boy, never by the young woman's father. Nor does he approach directly the parents of the girl. This must be done through a third party, the village president, the priest, or possibly a distant relative. If the negotiating parties can reach a satisfactory agreement the engagement takes place soon after.

The boy and the girl may or may not know each other; perhaps have never seen each other if they happen to live in different villages.

Marriage occurs at a fairly early age in the rural sections of Macedonia. This may be fifteen or sixteen years for the girls, somewhat later for the boys. Young men must usually fulfill their military service before they can think of matrimony, and this brings them to the years of twenty or twenty-five. In the late nineteen twenties there was a tendency for peasants to marry off their children at a very tender age because farm land was being assigned by the Refugee Settlement Commission according to family units. A man and his wife constituted such a unit and were entitled to whatever size of holding prevailed for the region. In the mad scramble to acquire farm areas of at least a sustenance level, fathers married off their sons and their daughters as early as possible.

Marriage—then babies; and in what numbers and often with what tragic results! No accurate statistics are available to show the actual rate of infant mortality. The few studies made early in our Macedonian work are sufficient to indicate that this rate is, or was, appallingly high. Thirty-eight families in one village reported an infant mortality of eighty-nine out of one hundred and sixty-seven births. In another village fifty families reported a situation which was only slightly better; out of two hundred and fifteen births one hundred and sixty-six children remained. In still another center thirty-three families showed a mortality of fifty-six out of one hundred and fifty-eight births. Other rural sections indicated mortality rates of a similar nature. With conditions becoming more settled and the economic situation improving somewhat, child deaths have grown less frequent. But the toll resulting from ignorance, superstition, and unhealthful practices still remains as a challenge to rural workers.

Many factors account for this state of affairs. Malaria, lack of proper food, the privations which followed the war, the sufferings resulting from the later deportations—all contribute in a measure to the high rate of infant mortality. But unhygienic practices, growing out of ignorance and superstition, take more than their share of the total. Peasant women seem to be grievously lacking in the basic facts of pre-natal care, child birth, and the rearing of infants. Furthermore, their traditional manner of living as well as their extreme poverty makes it exceedingly difficult for them to follow a proper regime, even when they are so inclined. Frequently they must work in the fields to the day of delivery. Illiterate midwives, basing their medieval methods on superstition and various forms of witchery, usually attend these unfortunate women. In the patriarchal system, which still for the most part prevails, young mothers must do as their elders advise. Unless the whole family is trained, she is under the necessity of following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.

From the time the child is a day or two old it is swathed in long strips of cloth bound tightly about its body, arms, and legs. It becomes like a piece of cordwood and can be handled as such. It cannot move, but for some reason it seldom cries out. When the child does indicate any uneasiness the mother nurses it at once with no thought of hours or regularity. This form of feeding may even continue until the child is as old as two or three years. Insufficient food and the belief that continued nursing somehow prevents the arrival of another to feed, lead peasant women to follow this custom.

The bathing of babies is a variable factor. It depends upon the attitude of the parents toward this debatable question. Peasant girls wash their hair regularly at least once a week, but their bodies are considered to be somewhat less in need of such frequent attention. Old people have been known to boast that they have never removed the holy oil with which their bodies were annointed at the time of their christening. Certain it is that many do not bathe at all in winter and seldom in summer. As for infants, such a rite does not ordinarily take place more than once in two weeks and may be very much less often than this.

Some of the other practices relating to the care of small children are equally primitive. For instance, it is considered bad luck to cut the finger nails of babies before they are one year old. A male infant who resembles his father (and what man child is not thought to look like his sire) must have one of his earlobes pierced and thereafter wear an earring until he is four years old.J By this means is avoided the death of either the father or his offspring. When the navel cord of a new-born babe is cut it must be wrapped in cloth and taken to the church to be left for forty days. After this period it is sewn up in a small bag and hung from the child's neck to ward off evil spirits.

When children reach the age of two or three years they present a difficult problem to mothers who must work all day in the fields. Like their younger brothers and sisters they still need attention, but they have become sufficiently active to stray away or fall asleep by the roadside unless they are constantly guarded. Sometimes they are left at home under the care of older brothers or sisters. Very often they are taken to the fields where the   mother can watch them as she works. In some of the more primitive sections this problem is conveniently solved by giving little  tots a small dose of opium and leaving them at home to sleeps-on the floor until night.

Such was the home side of the life that I saw during my first two years of exploring the Macedonian field and initiating the beginnings of a program for peasants. I could not perceive, with my unaccustomed eyes, all of the details that were later brought out. But sufficient was noted to impress me with the importance of giving early attention to this vital aspect of the problem at hand. Just what the program for women should be was a bothersome question and my inability to answer that query to my own satisfaction delayed somewhat the addition of this phase of our work.

Because of the ever-present problem of health, particularly among women, I was urged, from many quarters, to organize a series of public health centers, or, at least, to place a trained nurse in charge of the program for women. But there appeared to be two or three objections to this common procedure. In the first place the Refugee Settlement Commission was, at that time, active along medical lines. It had rightly considered that the maintenance of health, as far as this was possible of achievement, was one of its definite responsibilities in properly resettling these people. To this end the Commission had established fifty-nine dispensaries which were scattered about over rural Macedonia. Each of these included a limited stock of the most necessary drugs, a pharmacist, and a practicing physician. A major activity was the distribution of quinine to ease the effects of the malaria which was endemic. As the doctor received a fixed stipend he was expected to treat all patients entirely without charge. However, not infrequently certain of these practitioners were able to supplement their regular salaries by adroit means, and conversations with a few of them regarding what we might attempt indicated immediate suspicion on their part and an obvious desire to keep us from entering what they considered to be their special field.

Added to this was the fact that I had observed, in several parts of Europe and Asia, health centers for underprivileged people which never seemed quite able to get beyond the curative stage. In fact, trained doctors and graduate nurses simply could not stand by and see poor, helplessly diseased people succumb to their ailments when they had the power to save them. Thus with this type of need pressing in and engulfing them from all sides they were often unable to emerge from a curative program and rise to the field of prevention. For these and other reasons it seemed to me that we might well leave to the Refugee Settlement Commission and the Ministry of Health all activities of a purely medical nature and restrict our new development—whatever it might prove to be—to fundamental problems of the home. What was left would necessarily include the promotion of health education as a definite factor in better home life; it would also give serious attention to the varied vocations which the Macedonian housewife must follow.

It appeared that my thinking was crystallizing at last. And then I heard of Martha with her agricultural degree and her training in home economics. This served to quicken my slowly growing realization that these peasant women were practical farmers in their own right as well as traditional housewives. Pate was obviously intervening to show me the way. I checked back on the problem and I saw again how needlessly poor was the diet of these people; how primitive their care of babies; how foolishly exposed to the ravages of dysentery, typhoid, and other intestinal ailments. How, in a word, their primitive home life contributed both to their poverty and their many diseases, and, finally, how this condition would continue without proper training for a most important—and still neglected—half of the rural population.

And so we sent out our call for Martha to come.

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