Thirty-eight kids again on our fourth day, though not exactly the same 38 – we had discovered that four of the children who were with us on Thursday are actually registered and attending the state school (they were obvious – they knew not only about reading and writing, but also about lining up, raising your hand to answer a question, and putting your name on your work. They were probably vaccinated too given the way that child health is managed through school nurses in Kosovo – there is so much you get from registering at school). That was probably the hardest moment of Thursday – telling these four that they couldn’t come back to our classes because these classes were specially for children not yet registered at school. ‘But I can do both,’ one girl pleaded, reminding me of the Kosovo shift system which shortchanges children even if they are registered properly at school – ‘my shift at school doesn’t start till 2pm so I come here first.’ What kind of teacher are you when you say to a child under such circumstances, ‘well don’t do it again.’?
I tried to make her feel better by telling her about the summer programme we’re planning, where volunteers (we already have 8 people offering) will teach English to anyone – anyone – who wants it, over a four-week period in July and August.
And I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself of the running costs of our catch-up classes – we reckon it’s a euro per child per day, so 20 euro per child per month, 120 euro per child over the course of the 6 month project. We had another 7 new children turn up today (and these children are not registered at school – learning with us is their only chance at acquiring these precious skills) and resources are limited.
I didn’t feel any better.
If your maths is good, you’ll spot from the figures above that there must have been three other children who had been with us earlier in the week but didn’t have ticks against their names in our register on Friday. I spotted it too, and once the class had thumped their way through the farewell ‘Mir – u, mir- u PAFSHIM’ song and all the kids had gone home, I set off to find out what had become of the three absentees. I had had plans for them today – learning the letter I for example: one of those absent was Cima.
The other two were sisters. Their mum came out and I explained who I was and wondered why her daughters hadn’t been with us today. She said the older one’s shoes had ripped and she had nothing to walk to school in. I’ve promised some shoes (thank you to the village of Churchill) tomorrow and hope both girls will be with us on Monday.
And then I found my way to Cima’s house. Her grandfather answered the door. I’d met him before when we were telling families about the catch-up classes starting. Then he’d sat silently cutting his nails with a razorblade, right into the flesh of his fingers till they bled, while his wife did the talking. It had given me a bit of context for Cima’s frightened expression. Now the wife wasn’t there and he told me in monosyllables that she and Cima had gone to Pristina.
Why? I asked.
Of course, it was Friday – mosque day, when the capital’s well-heeled might be found after prayers feeling charitable. I wondered whether anyone from the Ministry of Education would have walked past Cima on the pavement with her grandma. I wondered how charitable they’d been feeling.
None of the above was exactly a candidate for ‘favourite bit of day’, but there were plenty of highlights. Here’s one: we’ve worked out a way to keep the teaching spaces clean – we’ve found a team of 4 women who will come on a rota basis, one each day after classes, to sweep and wash up. That’s 4 families getting a small income, and being offered a route to money through work, not sitting on the pavement on Fridays. Gjelane’s mum is one of the 4 women and she made the teaching spaces spotless. I got out the money and prepared the receipt we ask people to sign. Gjelane’s mum hadn’t known how to write her name when I first met her but I knew she’d been attending women’s literacy classes run by the wonderful Ferdane at the Balkans Sunflowers centre. So I was surprised when she signed my receipt with an ‘X’.
‘But you know how to write your name now,’ I encouraged her.
‘But I might get it wrong’.
She gave it a go. Painfully slowly, in uncertain capitals, she printed out her name. Gjelane was standing by and watched possessively and proudly. When her mum muddled two letters round, Gjelane chivvied her, ‘mum, that’s an E not an H’, and I felt possessive and proud in my turn. Her mum smiled and corrected herself and handed me the receipt. Her name is there, cautiously telling the world that it was she who did that work, earned that money. And Gjelane’s name is written up too, on the picture book each pupil has begun to make, displayed in our classroom. Of course Cima’s name isn’t finished yet, but there’s still Monday.
Gjelane’s story is now told in a book published as The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife; an unlikely friendship in Kosovo (Elbow Publishing, 2015) and available on Amazon