Spring came to Fushe Kosove today! It’s been a long bitter winter (we had snow as recently as Monday) and it’s a place where you feel the cold. Windows don’t have glass in them, shoes have holes in them, we’ve been teaching in our coats some days trying to keep warm.
But today there was a sudden hike in temperature so we basked in something in the teens, Celsius. Teaching’s going well – we’ve got some good routines going, have set expectations about learning and behaviour, and feel like we have a core of pupils. (Apart from one girl who came today but later confessed she is just visiting from another town in Kosovo, we had no new students arrive today, for the first time since we opened). Teacher Avdyl, a serious man, older than me, was humming our Freddie-Mercury-inspired ‘mir-u-, mir-u-, PAFSHIM’ song as he went through some papers at the end of the day, and at one of the changeover times between sessions, the kids meeting in the hallway had broken into a spontaneous rendition of the ‘coming to school is better than staying at home song’ which Avdyl seems to have made up with them (I know it’s made up for these kids because the final, belted-out rhyming couplet ends with my name). I haven’t yet heard a bird singing in this neighbourhood, but the sap seems to be rising.
After school I set off for some home-visits as Agron had told me about a family where there was a boy eligible for our classes and I wanted to invite him to come tomorrow. First I had to negotiate the route to Agron’s house, but the path leading there had dried, and the usual mires of mud were now just navigable dirt tracks. Walking was a pleasure, with warmth on my skin, and children whom I’ve been teaching calling out to me from the doorways of their houses. This is what it’s supposed to be like!
Shortly before Agron’s house an impromptu street tea party had started. An older man was sat in the sun on a low plastic stool talking to his neighbour. Between them, an improvised table with tiny tea glasses like inverted amber bells ringing with the carillon of their little spoons stirring in way too much sugar. My first instinct was to reach for my camera, but then I hesitated.
The guy on the plastic stool saw my hesitation and called over. ‘O, sister’ (I love this form of address. It combines something of the convent, the hospital ward and the deep South). ‘Are you for tea?’
Better than a photograph: I wasn’t just taking this picture – I could be in it, too, if I wanted to. A plastic stool was found for me, and the old man and his friend began the courtesy round of questions. How are you? Are you tired? How is your family? Husband? They moved on to asking about the teaching. ‘Are the children learning?’ I assured them that yes, they were, though I explained that some had been absent today. At that moment Kenan walked by. ‘For example…’ I started. ‘Where were you today?’
Kenan shrugged. ‘I needed to work with my dad, going through the bins.’
‘But it’s only two hours’ I heard myself pleading. ‘You can do the bins in the afternoons’. Kenan shrugged again and my teatime host stepped in.
‘If you don’t have an education, it’s like having eyes but not using them to see. You’re blind,’ he harangued Kenan. (A better line than ‘you can do the bins in the afternoons’; I saw that now). Kenan rubbed his perfectly-functioning eyes in confusion.
‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I said gently and Kenan slipped away. But his chance appearance at that moment has led me to discover a community advocate for this project. Old men sitting in the sunshine with a cup of sweet tea can profoundly influence and change their communities – particularly if they have a powerful line in metaphors.
And this is springtime – a time for new starts and forgotten plantings blooming in surprising places. If the old guy with the tiny teacup is with us, who can be against us?
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