By Katya Cengel, World Ark contributor
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Water buffalo have a history in rural Transylvanian villages, where they provide nutritious milk and draft power.

ASCHILEU, Romania—Ioan and Felicia Giloan, parents of nine children, had a difficult choice to make the Christmas of 2009. With no ready cash, the couple sold their only water buffalo so they could buy Christmas presents.

Luckily the following year they received a water buffalo through Heifer Romania. The gift was part of a project covering the Romanian region of Aschileu, where they live, and the nearby Hungarian village of Mera. The area is notable for its strong faith and deep poverty. Here in rural Transylvania, religious icons decorate most homes and yards. Indoor toilets and central heating are rare, and children wanting education beyond elementary school must travel to the nearest city of Cluj-Napoca.

The main room of the Giloan home in Aschileu features worn rugs and purple walls. The windows are cracked and covered with tape, and the only heat comes from a wood stove with a pipe going out of the wall. The third oldest of 10 children, Ioan stopped school in the equivalent of fourth grade to help support his family. He would like his children to finish high school, but his oldest two daughters went no further than he did. Bianca, who is 17, made it to eighth grade. But there is no high school in their village and the family doesn’t have the money to pay for her to stay in Cluj-Napoca while attending school. Bianca spent four months last summer picking mushrooms. She gave most of the $300 she earned to her mother.

“I’d like to go abroad to work because the money here is without value and the work is very, very hard,” she said.

Passing on the Gift
The Passing On the Gift ceremony featured speeches and cultural dancing.

Although Romania joined the European Union in 2007, it is still playing catch-up with its western neighbors, especially in the rural areas that account for half the country, said Heifer Romania Country Director Ovidiu Spinu.

Many do go abroad for work. Many of those who remain make their living in agriculture. Ioan is a herdsman, earning $2,500 from April to September looking after his neighbors’ cows and water buffalo. During winter, the family’s only income comes from the little that Ioan makes chopping wood and the $12 a month the state provides for each child, a benefit extended to all families. If it weren’t for the milk from their water buffalo, the family’s diet would consist mainly of the potatoes and vegetables they grow.

Water buffalo have long been a feature in Transylvanian villages, one of the few places in Europe where they have a history, Spinu said. Their advantages over cows are many: they live longer, are not so particular about what they eat and are more resistant to disease. The milk they produce is rich and low in cholesterol. They also provide draft power.

But the animals fell out of favor in the region after the fall of communism, when farmers received better subsidies from cow milk. Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007 saw more favorable subsidies and flexible quantity and quota regulations for water buffalo milk. Heifer Romania seized on the opportunity and began the water buffalo revitalization program with World Vision Romania in 2010. The program split the two deliveries of 36 water buffalo it made in 2010 and 2011 between Mera and Aschileu. Both regions have a tradition of working with water buffalo. But Mera is a Hungarian village with a different language and culture than the Aschileu region, which is primarily Romanian.

“If you are different and isolated you could hate each other,” Spinu said. “But if you are working together, if you are celebrating together, you start to respect each other.”

Farkas Doroghi is one of the few Hungarians who lives in Aschileu. Before the Heifer project the two groups did not fight, but they also did not mix, he said. A veterinarian assistant, Doroghi regularly holds informative meetings in his home on subjects relating to the care of water buffalo. When Heifer provided alfalfa seeds for the water buffalo, Doroghi taught Hungarian and Romanian recipients where to plant the alfalfa and how to use it as fodder.

“Now we have a subject in common, and I think we communicate more,” he said of the two groups.

Several Mera residents were spotted at the program’s first Pass on the Gift ceremony in Aschileu last year. The cold weather, with a mix of rain and snow, dictated mud boots and heavy sweaters for the men and headscarves for the women. Someone strung wreaths of fake red flowers around the necks of the six water buffalo calves. Schoolchildren braved the cold to receive a goody bag from the mayor. When it was all over, the recipients tied their calves to the backs of their horse-drawn carts and rode away.

Emil Ioan Olfalean and family
Emil Ioan Olfalean, his wife Marinela, and their son Emanuel received their buffalo from Heifer Romania in 2010. They passed on the gift of a calf at the ceremony.

Emil Ioan Oifalean left with one less water buffalo, having passed on his calf as a gift to another family in need. He used to work with the Hungarian residents of Mera, and he admires their skill in making sour cream and raising water buffalo, something they are more experienced at than those like himself who live in Aschileu.

“With this water buffalo thing we could say that Mera could become our big brother because they have a better tradition in water buffalo,” he said.

A familial relationship is exactly what Spinu hopes for in these villages and the other villages where Heifer is present. He believes that now that the farmers are working for themselves and not for an anonymous state, like under communism, they work harder. As their situations continue to improve, their generosity through Heifer’s Passing on the Gift practice serves as a model for other families and villages.

“So we are creating some islands,” Spinu said. “But our islands of normal life are growing and growing. And I hope one day these islands will be united in the happy world.”