Nearly 11 months ago the media descended upon Cartajima. Its name appeared in newspapers and on radio and TV programmes. The school in this tiny village in the Upper Genal Valley only had two remaining pupils and the mayor, Francisco Benítez, was worried that it would have to close. He therefore took the unusual step of offering a job and low-cost accommodation for families with children, to attract them to Cartajima so that the number of pupils at the school (which like Pujerra, Júzcar, Faraján, Alpandeire and Parauta is part of the Alto Genal Rural School system)would increase.
The plan worked. There are now three new families, with eight children between them (and even a grandmother) living in Cartajima, having moved there from Fuengirola, Ronda and Malaga city.
"We're hoping to arrange for two more families to come in the next few months, so there will be even more children at the school," says Francisco Benítez, who is very satisfied with the results. He received nearly 4,000 applications from all over Spain and abroad, and those who were successful are also helping to prevent Cartajima, like most other villages in the Serranía de Ronda, suffering a loss of population.
There are currently eight pupils at the school, ranging from three to 12 years old, and this has ensured that it will remain open.
"One of the families has had a baby and registered him with the school in Cartajima, and another family who already lived in the village has had another... this is the start of what we were hoping for," says the mayor.
Of the 15 newcomers to Cartajima, it is 29 year old Noelia Parra who has given birth, to her third child. Her baby, David, is now just one month old. His brother and sister are eight-year-old Isaac and five-year-old Erika. "We came here because of the job," she says. Her husband Daniel had been working in Ronda when they heard about this scheme, but his job had little security and was likely to come to an end.
This couple, who pay 200 euros a month to rent their home, moved to Cartajima in September.
"I heard about the offer on Facebook, before the story appeared in the media. My husband came to the Town Hall to enquire, and he is now employed on maintaining buildings," says Noelia. She also used to work in Ronda but had to give up her job to look after her elder son full-time because he suffers from epilepsy. She runs the Malaga Epilepsy Association (AMADE), which is still looking for premises in Ronda.
Noelia admits that it wasn't easy to adapt to life in Cartajima. "I was used to Ronda, where there are plenty of people around and something is always going on, so it was a big change, but at least Ronda isn't far away," she says. Nevertheless, for this family the move has generally been very positive and they plan to stay.
"We would like to put down roots here, but of course our situation is affected by our son's illness and the need to work," she says. "Our lives have changed for the better. My son wasn't doing very well at school before, but now he is getting good marks for everything. If we have difficulty paying the rent one month, there are facilities to help you.... life here is quieter so it is less stressful."
Noelia and Daniel also say they have been accepted by the people of Cartajima, who are lovely. "It's as if we were one big family here," says Noelia, and they are especially impressed by the mayor, who "behaves less like a mayor and more like a friend." They say they also get on well with the other families who have moved here recently.
"It has also been a sacrifice"
Iris Galeote came to Cartajima from Malaga in September, with her three children (Erika, 12, Inais, eight, and Iraia, three), her mother and her husband. They have benefited from low-cost accommodation because Iris' husband still commutes to his job in Marbella every day and she works from home as a sales representative.
Iris and her family were keen to move away from Malaga after her elder daughter was stabbed in the hand at school by another pupil. Iris says the child had been trying to stab her in the neck.
"This is more like the world we wanted our girls to grow up in. Somewhere peaceful. The school here is excellent. The balance is very good, and we have no plans to leave. We want to stay in the same house, in the same place, with the same people," says Iris, although the move has also involved some sacrifice.
"It takes my husband an hour to drive to work now, instead of ten minutes," she says, but in general the couple think it is worth it. "The people in Cartajima are very nice, and the countryside is beautiful," she explains.
Ekaterina Koziyakova and Anton Svitlichny are Russian and they lived in Fuengirola for ten years before becoming the first newcomers to Cartajima with their daughters, aged five and three. They arrived in May and as they are both professionals in the tourism sector they now run the village's Tourist Information Centre, which was closed.
"They also give Russian classes, run a padel tennis court and want to open a bar with a terrace; they're happy here," says the mayor. It was not possible for us to speak to Ekaterina and Anton about their experiences for this article, as they were on a trip to see family in Russia.